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Ray Didinger: Ron Jaworski's Victorious Debut Against The Bucs

Ron Jaworski had concerns going into his first start for the Eagles. It was September 1977, and Jaworski was new to Philadelphia having just joined the team in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams. The regular-season opener was approaching and Jaworski was worried.

Call it fear of the unknown. Jaworski didn't know how he would be received by the Veterans Stadium crowd. He was in the Vet once before and it was a 1975 Monday night game when the Rams drubbed the Eagles, 42-3. That was the night the fans expressed their feelings about the Eagles by tossing a giant dog bone on the field.

"They were also throwing golf balls from the upper deck onto the field," Jaworski says. "We (the Rams) were wearing our helmets on the bench because the golf balls were coming down all around us. I remember thinking, 'I'd never want to play here.'"

But thanks to a trade engineered by coach Dick Vermeil, Jaworski was the Eagles' starting quarterback and in his first regular-season game, he was facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was the first time the Eagles and Buccaneers had ever met so again there was the fear of the unknown. But there was something else.

The Buccaneers were coming off an 0-14 season in 1976, their first season in the NFL. So put yourself in Jaworski's shoes. Imagine starting your career in Philadelphia by losing to a team coming off the worst season in NFL history, a team that had never won a game and was a punch line for every late-night TV comedian.

"I thought about it," Jaworski says. "I didn't want to admit it but, yeah, I thought about it. It's football, anything can happen. I loved Dick, I loved the opportunity to start (for the Eagles) so all I could think was, 'Don't screw this up.'"

The Buccaneers were awful but it wasn't as if the Eagles were a whole lot better. They were coming off a 4-10 season, Vermeil's first in Philadelphia, and the young coach was still in the early stages of rebuilding the team after a decade of losing. Acquiring Jaworski - the Eagles traded tight end Charle Young to the Rams to acquire his rights - was a big piece of the foundation.

It was a struggle but the Eagles defeated the Buccaneers, 13-3, on a warm sunny day in South Philadelphia. The Eagles turned the ball over five times (three fumbles, two interceptions) but Jaworski threw touchdown passes to tight end Keith Krepfle (17 yards) and running back Tom Sullivan (7 yards) and the defense kept the visitors out of the end zone.

"We have a lot to work on," Vermeil said after the game, "but it feels good to win."

The game was nothing like the matchups Vermeil and John McKay, the Buccaneers' coach, had a few years earlier when Vermeil was coaching at UCLA and McKay at Southern Cal. Both men had rosters full of blue-chip players. Here they were trying to make a go of it in the NFL with a bunch of castoffs and retreads.

In 1976, McKay told reporters: "We have determined we can't win at home and we can't win on the road. We need to play at a neutral site." His most famous quote came when a reporter asked him to comment on his team's execution. McKay said, "I'm in favor of it."

But the coach wasn't cracking any jokes after the loss in Philadelphia. He felt the Buccaneers should be much further along in Year 2. They didn't show it that day at the Vet. His two-word summation of the team's performance: "Horse manure."

Tampa Bay's ineptitude helped the Eagles set a team record. The Buccaneers punted on almost every series so Larry Marshall, who starred at Bishop Egan High School in Bucks County, wound up returning nine punts which is still an Eagles single-game record.

Krepfle played the game with a cast on his broken hand and still led the team with four receptions for 77 yards. Krepfle also had a 28-yard catch-and-run that set up the score by Sullivan. Harold Carmichael had four catches for 30 yards.

Krepfle and Carmichael were among the few survivors of Vermeil's first season. When the new coach arrived in 1976, he pretty much cleared the locker room. He wanted to instill a new attitude and work ethic. Krepfle and Carmichael had the grit Vermeil was looking for and that was why he traded for Jaworski. The coach felt the man they called The Polish Rifle had it, too.

"I saw Ron play with the Rams and I knew coaches on that staff," Vermeil says. "They all spoke highly of him. I knew we needed a quarterback but I didn't want a fat head. I wanted a guy with the right attitude. Ron had that. I was tough on him but he accepted it and he got better every year."

Vermeil called the plays and for that first game - for most of that season, really - he kept his young quarterback on a short leash. Against the Buccaneers, Jaworski threw only 25 passes and completed 15 for 162 yards. Not spectacular numbers but good enough to win.

An interesting footnote to the game: The Buccaneers quarterback was Randy Hedberg, a rookie from Minot State. He completed 10 of 25 passes for 66 yards. He wound up starting four games that season and finished with a quarterback rating of 0.0. He later became a coach at North Dakota State working with the quarterbacks.

You may be familiar with one of his pupils - Carson Wentz.

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