Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ron Jaworski: "The Polish Rifle"

During last week's Monday Night Football game, ESPN showed a highlight from one of Ron Jaworski's appearances on MNF--not as a broadcaster, the way that most young fans know him, but as a player with the Philadelphia Eagles. "The Polish Rifle," as Jaworski was known because of his ethnic heritage and rocket arm, dropped back to pass on November 12, 1979 as Howard Cosell explained that Jaworski had been in a slump recently but was performing very well on this night, a 31-21 Eagles win over the Dallas Cowboys. As Mike Tirico and Tony Kornheiser teased Jaworski about Cosell's backhanded compliment, something that Tirico said struck me: that clip was from 28 years ago. I had never thought about it until that moment but football fans who are college-age or younger now not only don't remember Jaworski's playing days but they weren't even born during them.

I very clearly recall Jaworksi's success with the Eagles because it coincided with one of the most exciting times to be a Browns fan, the brief but memorable "Kardiac Kids" era when quarterback Brian Sipe led the team to several dramatic wins, capturing the 1980 NFL MVP along the way. The Browns seemed to be a team of destiny in 1980 but those hopes died suddenly and brutally after Sipe's late interception in a 14-12 playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders (a play call known forever to long-suffering Browns fans as "Red Right 88"). Jaworksi was the best quarterback in the NFC in 1980, leading the Eagles to Super Bowl XV, where they suffered their own heartbreak at the hands of the Silver and Black, losing 27-10 (yes, kids, the Raiders were once upon a time an excellent organization that annually produced winning teams).

The first Super Bowl that I remember--and still the most exciting ever, in my book--is Super Bowl XIII, Pittsburgh's 35-31 win over Dallas, a game that was played a few months before the old Jaworski clip that Tirico, Kornheiser and Jaworski chuckled about last week. As Tirico mentioned, that was 28 years ago. Twenty eight years prior to that takes one back before Jim Brown's career even started to when Otto Graham was annually leading the Browns to the NFL Championship Game. In 1979, that seemed like ancient history to me and as I watched the Jaworski highlight it dawned on me that to many young viewers Jaworski's playing career is every bit as ancient as Graham's was to me as a kid.

Obviously, Jaworksi was no Graham but he had a very solid career and along the way he formed the habits and outlook that shape the way that he analyzes games today. A couple weeks ago, Steve Sabol's outstanding program "NFL Films Presents" looked back at Jaworski's career, from his high school days in Lackawanna, New York to his emergence as one of the NFL's best passers to his current role as an MNF analyst.

Jaworski played for Youngstown State and he tells Sabol about a time when he and some of his college buddies went to Buffalo during a bye week to watch the Bills play against Joe Namath and the New York Jets. Jaworksi recalls thinking to himself that he could throw a ball as well as Namath did. He laughs about that with Sabol and says that whether or not he really could throw as well as Namath that he believed it at the time and it gave him confidence going forward.

Jaworksi began his career with the L.A. Rams. He only played sparingly in his first three seasons but he was the starting quarterback (12-23, 203 yards, 1 TD) as the Rams beat the St. Louis Cardinals 35-23 in a playoff game in 1975. Coach Chuck Knox did not start Jaworski the next week versus Dallas, though Jaworski did eventually play in the 37-7 loss to the Cowboys. "I think Coach Knox would have to answer that question," Jaworski replies when Sabol asks why he did not start in the NFC Championship Game. After the 1976 season, Jaworski was traded to the Eagles. Philadelphia is where Jaworski got his nickname "Jaws," a tag applied by Sixers' All-Star guard Doug Collins because, as Jaworski tells it, Collins said to him, "Your lips are always flapping. You never shut up" (ironically, both of them are now TV commentators); Philadelphia is also where Jaworski really hit his stride as quarterback, thanks to the tutelage of Coach Dick Vermeil, who was a father figure to him. Jaworski tied for third in the NFL in TD passes in his first year with the team but he also threw 21 interceptions and received the typical Philadephia greeting after each and every one of them. The fans were not convinced that Jaworski was the right man for the job but Vermeil had unwavering faith in him, as memorably displayed in two clips from the NFL Films archive. In the first one, Vermeil calls Jaworksi over to him on the sideline and tells him, "I want you to hear me when I say this: you never have to worry about me jerking you (out of the game)." The second one shows Vermeil speaking to assembled members of the media: "Guys, you might as well write this: I am not going to let the fans substitute my quarterback. They've been doing that here for years and they've never come up with a quarterback that can win for them. I've got one that can win for us." Jaworski tells Sabol, "I can't explain what a euphoric feeling it was to have the coach have that confidence in me. It really was a galvanizing moment in my career." As the saying goes, if a coach listens to the fans then he will soon be sitting next to them. Vermeil's loyalty, strength and wisdom were soon rewarded as Jaworski led the Eagles to a 12-4 record in 1980, reaching career-highs in yards (3529) and TDs (27) and earning the UPI's NFL Player of the Year award. Five years after not starting against Dallas in the NFC Championship Game, Jaworski led the Eagles to a 20-7 win over the Cowboys to earn a trip to the Super Bowl; to this day, Jaworski wears the 1980 NFC Championship ring to as a reminder of the greatest triumph of his NFL career.

Jaworski candidly admits that his goal for the 1980 season was to win the NFC Championship and that he was very happy to accomplish this but he quickly adds that this is not why the Eagles lost to the Raiders. "From my own personal standpoint, I tried too hard to make every play," Jaworski says of his performance in the Super Bowl. "I didn't let the game come to me. I tried to force things."

"Ron was such a competitor that from time to time he could be too competitive," Vermeil recalls. "'Let me at 'em, I'll get 'em, it doesn't matter what they're doing, I am going to throw this strike.'"

Jaworski is known for his perpetually sunny disposition, so it would not be completely accurate to say that he never got over this loss but it did leave a mark on him and that mark has not faded with time. "Here we are, 27 years later, and it hurts worse. It actually hurts worse," Jaworski says. Part of the reason that the pain is worse now is that in 1980 Jaworski and the Eagles expected to have more chances to win the Super Bowl. However, things quickly unraveled. First came the players' strike, which Jaworski says affected the timing and rhythm of his team more than it affected other squads; then Vermeil famously became the poster child for burnout, resigning as the Eagles Coach in 1982. Jaworksi believes that were it not for the strike and Vermeil's departure that the Eagles would have eventually won a Super Bowl.

Jaworski paid a price for his NFL success--including 32 concussions and numerous broken bones--but he displayed remarkable durability, starting 116 straight games, a record at the time for quarterbacks (Brett Favre later shattered that mark). A broken leg ended his consecutive game streak in 1986 and his Eagles career came to a stunning end after that season when the team simply released him. He later returned to the city for a preseason game as a Miami Dolphin and the crowd enthusiastically cheered him, something that writer Ray Didinger calls the city's "apology" for how much Jaworski was booed during his time there. Jaworski simply says that he appreciates the respect and that he feels that now the fans better appreciate how much toughness he showed by playing through so many injuries.

Jaworski retired after the 1989 season. Interestingly, he hardly planned on becoming a football commentator on TV. He had made some investments in real estate and golf courses but Sabol had a different idea: he wanted Jaworski to break down games for a show called "Zenith Monday Night Match-up." That eventually led to Jaworski being hired by ESPN and now, not quite two decades later, he is one of the most well known and respected football analysts.

2 comments:

Tadzio said...

Thanks for posting this. I grew up in rural PA and south Jersey, and that Superbowl the Eagles lost to the Raiders is the first I remember. Moreover, my Polish grandfather ran a meat shop in upstate New York and I still have a poster of Jaworski endorsing a Polska Kielbasa. Remembering that, I did a google search for "the Polish rifle" and found this. Your story not only indulged my nostalgia, but I learned a lot I was too young to know or understand at the time--particularly what made Vermeil such a good coach at the time.

David Friedman said...

Tadzio:

I'm glad to hear that my article brought back some good memories for you and even helped to provide some background and context about Jaworski and Vermeil.