(This article was first published on January 26, 1981.)
NEW ORLEANS - Nobody expected it to happen this way. It was Bjorn Borg losing in straight sets, Sugar Ray Leonard getting knocked out in a sparring session.
Super Bowl XV stiffed the Eagles. It left them feeling ugly and unwanted.
The Eagles had taken 20 years of frustration and stuffed it down the Cowboys' throats two weeks ago; they swallowed a whole new kind of frustration last evening.
They'll have a hard time digesting a 27-10 loss to the Oakland Raiders. The numbers must be gnawing at their insides. It was a day that'll cry out for retribution with tears as salty as the ones drenching living rooms back in Philly yesterday.
The No. 1 defense in the league came snorting out of the tunnel early yesterday and three hours later it limped back in. It was hard to distinguish the burn marks from open wounds.
The Eagles weren't playing the Pittsburgh Steelers of a couple years ago. This game was supposed to be a coin toss, an arm wrestling match between two teams that claimed destiny as their coach.
Fate held both of them at arm's length and let them go at each other like two bulldogs fighting in a pit. The Raiders were the only ones growling when it was all over.
"I hated to see us go out like this," said Frank LeMaster. "I would've rather seen it be a situation where we get beat by one point or lose in the last couple minutes of a game.
"It hurt to see our defense end the season this way. I can't use the word 'embarrassed.' All I can say is we didn't play up to our capabilities. Not at all.
"I really don't have an answer either. We'll all be searching for a reason. We'll be thinking back on it and trying to find an explanation."
The Eagles got here because they generally treated every week like a street fight. They were the guy you wanted breathing at your side when you walked down a dark alley.
THERE WAS NEVER any reason to question their mood. It was always intense and nasty, but yesterday they sagged like a wet dishrag.
"We seemed fired up at the start of the game," said Ron Jaworski, "but I sensed a lack of emotion during the game and it never seemed to get stronger.
"We usually have a strong second half, a snowball emotional effect, but it just didn't swell up in the second half of this game."
The Eagles got here because their defense swallowed whole teams and spit out fragments. They got there because they rushed quarterbacks and bruised running
backs, but yesterday Jim Plunkett and Mark van Eeghen looked like they spent the afternoon at a cocktail party.
The Eagles had sacked Plunkett eight times back in their 10-7 win in November. The Raiders' equipment people had seven less turf stains to wash away when it was all over yesterday.
"We let him stand back there all day and pick us apart," said LeMaster. ''They were the same team they were last time, but we weren't anywhere near the same. It's a hard thing to explain."
Plunkett sat back and threw passes like he was dropping stones into a lake. He was 13 of 21 for 261 yards and 3 touchdowns.
THE EAGLES HAD given him one big play the last time, an 86-yard bomb to Cliff Branch, but yesterday there were enough to make into a 60-minute highlight film.
Yesterday, Plunkett found Branch again for an early touchdown after Ron Jaworski drilled his first pass into linebacker Rod Martin's chest. Plunkett found running back Kenny King a while later, and the Birds were gulping into the neon lights of the scoreboard.
The pass to King was a busted pattern, a play that summed up the Eagles' day in one tangled mass of confusion. Plunkett was scrambling, King got behind the coverage and all Herm Edwards could do was wave and chase. They play covered 80 yards, setting a Super Bowl record.
And don't think that the offense was winning its share of the dogfight. The only first-half points provided came on a 30-yard field goal by Tony Franklin.
They had blown a 40-yard touchdown pass to Rodney Parker when Harold Carmichael went in motion and broke toward the line too quickly. And when a drive late in the half died at the Raider 11-yard line, Tony Franklin had a field goal blocked by Ted Hendricks.
The Eagles were losing 14-3 at the half. It didn't look very good. But hell, the Eagles had always played the final 30 minutes of the game like the other team had been locked inside its dressing room.
It didn't happen this time, and there were as many reasons as there were people watching the game. On the opening drive of the second half, Branch rose up and grabbed a 29-yard pass away from Roynell Young near the goal line and tumbled in. It was 21-3. The Super Bowl had been yanked away in one graceful leap, but only because the Eagles had already given up some of it in several clumsy exchanges.
"I had the outside position on that one," Young explained. "I was trying to gauge where the ball was and keep a feel for Branch, too.
"He just came back and took the ball away from me. By the time I knew where he was, it was too late. I had my hand on it for a second but I just couldn't control the ball.
"I CAN'T SAY how that made me feel. Seeing him with the ball in the end zone just hurt. That's all."
It was something other than a tug-of-war at that point. The Raiders had the Super Bowl trophy in their fingers and the Eagles couldn't pull it away.
The Birds got here because Ron Jaworski spent a helluva lot of Sunday afternoons boosting them up on his shoulders, but he couldn't do it yesterday.
Jaws made it to the Pro Bowl and was the NFC Player of the Year. Neither's going to untie the knot in his stomach when he stares down at his naked ring finger today.
Lester Hayes said he was going to catch more passes than Harold Carmichael. Super Bowl hype being what it is, Lester never quite made it. But nobody bothered to ask Rod Martin. He managed to come a helluva lot closer.
Jaws was 18-for-38 for 291 yards, but he threw 3 interceptions, all to Martin. Some of his passes were dropped, others overthrown. It didn't help that the Eagles rushed for only 69 yards, or that Wilbert Montgomery got only 44 of those.
Jaworski had brush-stroked a masterpiece of a season until yesterday. The final touches were a little like throwing a can of paint at the easel.
"I'm not one to reflect on my individual performance," Jaws said. "We needed a team effort and we didn't get one today. We got behind early and played right into their hands."
THE EAGLES MANAGED to make it 21-10 when Jaworski hit Keith Krepfle for an eight-yard TD early in the fourth quarter, and you could hear the Eagles' heartbeat again.
But the Raiders ate the clock and the field with a long drive. They got two field goals from Chris Bahr, and the Eagles' Super Bowl hopes had fallen short and wide left.
"We have a great team," said Charlie Johnson, "and we shouldn't be sad about what happened today. We've had five great seasons in which we've gotten better and better. I'm proud to be standing here.
"I feel bad about it so I can imagine 26 teams must be feeling miserable. We're going to be back next year. That's for sure.
"What happened during the week didn't have anything to do with it. All the attention didn't bother us. What happened out there on the field was our load and we'll just have to carry it with us. "
"After the game," said Dick Vermeil, "we just had a short prayer session. Then I told the players how proud I was of them. I just reminded them of all the hard work we did for five years to get here."
The Eagles made it to the Super Bowl, and it had been an orgy of a season until yesterday.
They had their biggest date in 20 years and got stiffed. It hurt like hell.