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Didinger: How Will We Remember Sunday?

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Watching the Eagles 34-3 beatdown of Pittsburgh, I thought back to another Eagles-Steelers game in Philadelphia. It was played in 1979. It was much closer, but it had enormous significance. It was the day Dick Vermeil's team came of age. It was a win that propelled that team to its first Super Bowl.

Sometimes one game can do that. It is a game where everything the coaches preached and the players practiced and the fans hoped for comes into focus. It is a win that takes a team from wanting to believe to truly believing.

For Vermeil's Eagles, the win over the Steelers was that game. They were 9-7 the previous year, their first winning season in a dozen years, but it ended with a 14-13 loss to Atlanta in the Wild Card round. They started the 1979 season with high hopes, but lost to Atlanta again in Week 2, 14-10, so there were questions about whether the team was really that much better.

In Week 5, the Steelers came to town. They were the defending Super Bowl champions. They were, without question, the best team in football. Indeed, they would go on to win their fourth Super Bowl that season.

They had nine future Hall of Famers on their roster - 10 if you count head coach Chuck Noll. Terry Bradshaw was having a career year. Franco Harris was on his way to another big season. John Stallworth and Lynn Swann were a pair of dynamic receivers. And, of course, they had the Steel Curtain, arguably the greatest defense of all time anchored by tackle Mean Joe Greene.

The Steelers were off to a 4-0 start with wins over New England, Houston, the St. Louis Cardinals and Baltimore Colts. They were heavy favorites over the Eagles even though Vermeil's team was 3-1 and playing at home.

All week, Vermeil talked about how much he admired the Steelers and how they built their team. They were the first Super Bowl champion to have an entirely homegrown roster. Every player on the team - from Hall of Famers to the backups - was either drafted or signed as a free agent by the Steelers.

Vermeil could only wish for such a thing. When he was hired in 1976, he inherited a team that had traded away its top draft picks for the next three years. In the '76 draft, the Eagles didn't have a pick until the fourth round. The next year, they didn't have a pick until the fifth round. In 1978, they didn't have a pick until the third round.

General manager Jim Murray liked to say: "We'll be fine in '79." That was when the Eagles finally got back into the first round and hit a home run with UCLA linebacker Jerry Robinson, but mostly Vermeil had to rely on middle- to late-round picks and free agents. He found enough of them - running back Wilbert Montgomery, defensive linemen Carl Hairston, Dennis Harrison, Charlie Johnson and Ken Clarke - to field a winning team, but how would they match up with the Steelers?

An interesting thing happened that week. Vermeil allowed the late Daily News columnist Stan Hochman to live with the coaching staff as they prepared for the game. Normally, football coaches don't allow reporters into the inner sanctum but Stan persuaded Vermeil to open the door for this one week. Vermeil agreed with two stipulations: one, Stan could not write about the specific strategy or game plan and, two, he had to keep the same hours as the coaches. Under Vermeil, the work day started at 6 AM sharp.

By the end of the week, without betraying any inside information, Stan told me he felt the Eagles were going to win the game. I wrote it off to the effects of sleep deprivation, but as it turned out, Stan was right.

Vermeil knew the Eagles couldn't win a shootout with the Steelers. He felt if they could make it a low-scoring game and not make a lot of mistakes they could keep it close into the fourth quarter and perhaps find a way to win. In the team meetings, Vermeil gave the Steelers full credit for being a great team but he kept stressing, "If we play our game ..." With each day of preparation, the players became more confident.

On Sunday, Veterans Stadium was filled like never before. It was the first time they ever announced a crowd of more than 70,000 (it was 70,352 to be exact) at the Vet. I still don't know where they put those 5,000 or so extra fans. I just know the place was packed and rocking.

It was a bruising game. Vermeil ran the ball 44 times with Montgomery getting most of the carries. The Eagles' defense forced four turnovers, including interceptions by cornerback Herm Edwards and linebacker John Bunting. Late in the game, the defense stuffed Franco Harris at the goal line and forced a fumble that Clarke recovered and the Eagles hung on to win, 17-14.

The loss didn't derail the Steelers' season. They went on to win their fourth Super Bowl that year. For them, it was one slight misstep in the journey. For the Eagles, it meant much more. It was a validation of everything Vermeil had said to them. They were a legitimate contender. They might not have the pedigree of the Steelers, but they could line up and beat them. It was the day they began to think the Super Bowl was achievable.

I'm not saying these Eagles are those Eagles. We are just three games into the Doug Pederson era compared to three-plus years into the Dick Vermeil era. And I'm not suggesting these Steelers are those Steelers. There were no Joe Greenes or Jack Lamberts at the Linc on Sunday. But you cannot underestimate the importance of a win like this for a young team such as the Eagles. Somewhere down the road, we may look back on this game and say, "That's where it started ..." Because for every winning team, it has to start somewhere.

An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author of The New Eagles Encyclopedia.

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