The 1979 Philadelphia Eagles were coming off the franchise’s first playoff berth of the Super Bowl era. Head coach Dick Vermeil, now in his fourth year, continued the progress in ’79 as the Eagles won more games, made it back to the postseason and this time advanced.
Philadelphia was a fairly well-balanced team on both sides of the ball, but the signature player was running back Wilbert Montgomery. The shifty 25-year-old ran for over 1,500 yards and his 41 catches were tied for second on the team. Montgomery made the Pro Bowl.
Harold Carmichael, the big 6’8” receiver, was another Pro Bowler, with 52 catches for 872 yards and tight end Keith Krepfle was a steady contributor with 41 catches of his own. The quarterback was Ron Jaworski, current ESPN analyst and self-proclaimed film study expert. “Jaws” was oriented towards the big play, with a decent yards-per-attempt and 18/12 TD-INT ratio making up for a subpar completion percentage.
The offensive line was anchored by a pair of Pro Bowl tackles, Stan Walters on the left side and Jerry Sisemore on the right. On the other side of the trenches, nose tackle Charlie Johnson was the defense’s only Pro Bowler. But the Eagle D still ranked ninth in the league in points allowed, while the offense ranked 12th.
Philadelphia opened the season at home against a weak New York Giants team, and used a 23-point second quarter to build up a big lead and then hung on 23-17. The defense held the Giants to 23 rush yards.
The Eagles had lost a wild-card heartbreaker in Atlanta the previous year and the Falcons came north to old Veterans Stadium for Monday Night Football in Week 2. Jaworski played well, going 16/27 for 214 yards, hooking up nine times with Carmichael. But the running game never got going, while the Falcons were more balanced and the result was a 14-10 loss.
Montgomery got rolling again at mediocre New Orleans, rushing for 95 yards and even though Philadelphia kept bogging down in the red zone, they won 26-14. Then they won the rematch with the Giants, with 126 yards from Montgomery in a hard-fought 17-13 game.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were the defending Super Bowl champs and by January they would win their fourth in six years. They came across the state on the final day of September. The Eagles were a four-point underdog, but got another strong game from Montgomery who produced 98 yards against the Steel Curtain defense. Jaworski and Terry Bradshaw didn’t do much in the air, each throwing a couple interceptions and Philly prevailed 17-14.
Beating the Steelers was exhilarating, but three NFC East games were ahead, two with the Redskins and the St. Louis Cardinals sandwiched in between. In a home game with Washington, Montgomery got in a ground war with the Redskins’ John Riggins. Montgomery outpaced Riggins 127-115, but the real difference came with Philly fullback Leroy Harris going for 61 more yards and the Eagles won 28-7.
Montgomery kept it rolling in St. Louis (the Cardinals were in the NFC East until 2002), with 117 yards. The Eagles trailed 20-17 because of four turnovers, but a lesser-known running back, Billy Campfield took an 11-yard run in for the winning points.
The ground game and the five-game winning streak were halted the next week in old RFK Stadium, as the Redskins outrushed the Eagles 211-61. Philly again turned the ball over four times in a 17-7 loss. A third straight 4-turnover game followed in Cincinnati and this time the result was ugly—a 37-13 loss.
In a home game against a decent Cleveland team that would narrowly miss the playoffs, Montgomery ran wild, 197 yards on 30 carries. Jaworski was 16/23 for 205 yards. But…two interceptions by Jaws and two lost fumbles added up to yet another four-turnover game and another loss, this one 24-19.
Philadelphia was reeling as they went to Dallas, the two-time defending NFC champion and the standard in the NFC East. The Eagles were a ten-point underdog and fell behind 7-0. Then things finally turned back Philly’s way. Jaworski hit Carmichael for a 32-yard touchdown pass. Then Jaws found Charles Smith for a 29-yard scoring play. Montgomery tore off a 37-yard touchdown run and outrushed Dallas’ Tony Dorsett 127-53. The Eagles got a badly needed win 31-21 and had beaten each of the previous year’s Super Bowl teams.
There was a letdown the following week at home with St. Louis, who was a bad team. But the Eagles escaped 16-13 after Jaworski hit Krepfle on a 40-yard touchdown pass. And though the effort was sluggish, the fact Philadelphia was turnover-free was something to smile about. The Eagles played another clean game in a 21-10 home win over Green Bay, with Harris being the rushing hero this time, gaining 137 yards.
The calendar was turning into December and with three weeks left, Philadelphia was in the lead in the NFC East with a 9-4 record. Dallas and Washington were in pursuit at 8-5. There were two wild-card spots open, and Chicago was the only team outside the East in real contention, at 7-6.
The Eagles hosted a woeful Lions team and after messing around for a scoreless first quarter, got it turned loose. Jaws hit Carmichael on touchdown passes of 20 & 24 yards and the rout was on. The final was 44-7 and even though the Cowboys, Redskins and Bears all held serve with wins, the tiebreaker edge Philly had on Chicago meant the Eagles clinched a wild-card spot.
Dallas was now coming into Philadelphia for an early Saturday afternoon game. An Eagle victory would clinch their first NFC East title. The game was tied 10-10 at the half, after Jaworski found Montgomery on a 14-yard touchdown pass to knot it up. But the running dominance that had carried Philadelphia on that Monday Night in Dallas turned against them. Montgomery only ran for 65 yards. Jaworski was erratic, going 13/36 for 216 yards. The Eagles fell behind 24-10 and lost 24-17.
Not only did Philadelphia miss a chance to clinch the division, but they were eliminated from the NFC East title discussion. It was a three-way tie for first, but the Redskins and Cowboys were playing head-to-head in the finale and the winner would ensure a tiebreaker edge over the Eagles.
The season finale was against a good team in the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans), but the steam was out of it for Philadelphia. The same became true for the Oilers, who settled into a wild-card spot of their own based on results from earlier in the day. Philadelphia won the finale 26-21.
Dallas won the NFC East and Chicago grabbed the last wild-card. That brought the Bears to the Vet on the day before Christmas Eve.
Jaworski threw an early 17-yard touchdown pass to Carmichael, but Chicago got momentum going. Walter Payton ran for a two touchdowns, sandwiched around an Eagle field goal. The Bears kicked a field goal of their own just prior to the half and Philadelphia was in a 17-10 hole.
It was about to get worse out of the locker room when Payton took off an 84-yard run. But an illegal motion penalty called it back and the Eagles took full advantage. Jaworski got the ball back and threw another touchdown to Carmichael, this one from 29 yards and the game was tied.
The Bears drove back down the field, but defensive back Bob Howard intercepted a pass in the end zone to kill the threat. Jaworski then found Campfield and the result was a 63-yard touchdown pass and a 24-17 Philadelphia lead. The Eagle defense promptly forced another turnover, one that set up a field goal that provided some insurance at 27-17. And to seal the deal, cornerback Herm Edwards, another future ESPN analyst, intercepted a pass to sew the game up.
Las Vegas oddsmakers were looking forward to a Round Three between the Eagles and Cowboys, with both teams set as solid favorites in the NFC divisional playoffs. Philadelphia was giving (-4.5) in Tampa Bay, who was making their first playoff appearance ever. It didn’t work out that way.
On an early Saturday afternoon that started the second round, the Eagles just did not play well. They were outrushed 186-48 and dug themselves a 17-0 hole. They didn’t quit and crawled back to within 24-17, and the game ended there. It was one of two upsets in the NFC, as Dallas lost to the eventual conference champion Los Angeles Rams.
The 1979 Philadelphia Eagles still continued the progress of the Vermeil era, and they kept it going a year later—all the way to their first Super Bowl appearance.