The city of Philadelphia is a great sports town in general and they love their Eagles in particular. But the franchise fell on very hard times after winning the NFL title in 1960, six years prior to the advent of the Super Bowl.
Philadelphia had just two winning seasons between 1961-77. The organization hired Dick Vermeil away from UCLA prior to the 1976 season, and Vermeil had gone 4-10 and 5-9 in his first two years. Enough came together in Year 3 for the 1978 Philadelphia Eagles to become the first playoff team produced by the franchise in the Super Bowl era.
The season started with a tough home loss to a good Los Angeles Rams team that had been strong throughout the decade and would reach the NFC Championship Game in 1978. The Eagles led 14-13 after a punt return for a touchdown by Wally Henry in the fourth quarter, only to lose on a late field goal. When Philly dropped a not-as-close-as-it-sounds 35-30 decision to the Washington Redskins in Week 2, the Philadelphia Faithful could be forgiven if they were thinking “Here we go again.”
But this was where the turnaround started. A trip to lowly New Orleans produced a 17-3 win and some momentum. Then the Eagles completely shut down the Miami Dolphins, a playoff team in their own right and won 17-9. It was a simple formula—run the ball and play great defense that won this game and would be the hallmark of Philadelphia’s best moments in 1978.
The Eagle offense only ranked 18th in the NFL. Ron Jaworski had not really come into his own as a passer, and even at his peak the future ESPN analyst known to the nation as “Jaws” was never spectacular. What Philadelphia did was a shifty running back named Wilbert Montgomery, a second-year player and first-time starter who rushed for over 1,200 yards.
Montgomery’s backfield mate was fullback Mike Hogan, a tough runner who provided a solid complementary threat. Harold Carmichael, the big 6’8” receiver, had over 1,000 yards receiving.
The defense was not overwhelmingly talented—linebacker Bill Bergey was the only Pro Bowler—but they were effective, ranking fifth in the league in points allowed. Herm Edwards was a young corner and picked off seven passes. Free safety John Sanders had five picks. Collectively, they came together as a unit and made the Eagles a tough team to beat.
Philadelphia split two road games against AFC teams, beating a bad Baltimore Colts team and losing to a good New England Patriots squad. Then it was time for the rematch with the Redskins, who were riding high at 6-0.
Sanders set the tone early with an interception off of Redskins quarterback Joe Theisman that was returned 19 yards for a touchdown. The game was sloppy—four turnovers for the Eagles, but that wasn’t as many as the Redskins’ six. Montgomery broke a 10-10 tie in the fourth quarter with a 12-yard touchdown run and Philadelphia had what was the biggest win of the Vermeil Era to date.
Washington would fade and the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys would eventually catch fire and repeat in the NFC East. The Cowboys beat the Eagles 14-7 down in Dallas. That loss was no big deal, but Philadelphia’s inability to bounce back was—in a home game with the lowly St. Louis Cardinals, Jaworski threw three interceptions, the Birds lost two fumbles and the defense couldn’t bail them out in a 16-10 loss.
Philadelphia was now down to 4-5. There was still time—the NFL had expanded to a 16-game regular season for 1978, so there were two extra weeks for a team to recover. And along with that expansion, the league added a team to the playoffs. Instead of one wild-card advancing directly to the divisional round, there would be two, and the first ever “wild-card game” would take place on Christmas Eve in both the NFC and AFC. It was enough to give the Eagles some hope, where they would have realistically been none a year earlier.
The Eagles overcame more adversity with Montgomery out and two adequate opponents, the Green Bay Packers and New York Jets up next. The running game suffered, but the defense delivered when they were needed most, producing wins of 10-3 and 17-9 and getting the Eagles back over .500.
It still looked like the playoff dream would come to an end on November 19 in the Meadowlands. A bad New York Giants team had a 17-12 lead and was running out the clock. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.
Today’s generation of sports fans know Herm Edwards as an ESPN analyst and as the man who went ballistic in a press conference proclaiming “You play to win the game!” when he was head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. For those of us over 40-years-old or so, we knew Edwards as the man who was in the ultimate right place at the right time.
The Giants didn’t need to run another play, but they still had quarterback Joe Pisarcik hand off to Larry Csonka. The exchange was mishandled. Edwards was somehow in the backfield and he scooped the ball up and took it in for a touchdown. The Eagles had a stunning win.
New York’s stupidity in running the play and incompetence in executing it was rightfully the primary story. But don’t overlook the fact that because Edwards never stopped competing, he was in the backfield, and was able to return the ball for a touchdown—no small factor, considering a field goal did the Eagles no good.
Philadelphia then beat St. Louis 14-10, winning a tough game because they played clean football and won the turnover battle 3-zip. With a record of 8-5, the playoffs were now in their sights. But the schedule turned against them.
A road trip to Minnesota to play a future playoff team in the Vikings ended in a 28-27 loss, as the defense could not stop veteran quarterback Fran Tarkenton from throwing for 289 yards. And even having the Cowboys at home in Week 15 didn’t help, as Dallas won 31-13.
Now the Eagles needed some help. They were 8-7 and tied with the Redskins for second place, but Washington had the tiebreaker advantage. And both NFC East teams needed the Packers, at 8-6-1 to lose.
Philadelphia took care of its business, appropriately enough against the Giants. Montgomery ran for two early touchdowns and 130 yards on the game. Hogan had a 100-yard day of his own. The defense held New York to 48 yards rushing and the 20-3 win was never in doubt.
Washington lost to the Chicago Bears 14-10, so all of Philadelphia had reason to pay attention in the late afternoon, as the Packers were in the Los Angeles. The Rams easily handled the Packers 31-14 and at long last, the Eagles were in the playoffs.
The playoff run didn’t last long, and it ended in heartbreaking fashion. Philadelphia let a 13-0 lead slip on the road against the Atlanta Falcons and lost 14-13, thanks to both a missed extra point and a missed field goal late in the game. But at least the great sports fans of Philly got to experience playoff football for the first time in the Super Bowl era, in 1978. And two years later, they would arrive in the Super Bowl itself.