New Orleans — Imagine, if you will, a pro football championship game without Pittsburgh or Dallas, without Terry Bradshaw or Roger Stauback, without the Steel Curtain or "America's Team."
Next, imagine the sport's winningest pro team during the past 20 years facing one of its worst losers. Then picture the perennial winner as this year's Cinderella club and the revamped loser as the slight favorite. If things still don't seem cockeyed enough, imagine a castoff quarterback, a barefoot kicker, a rebellious owner, a 6 ft. 8 in. wide receiver, and a goo-covered defensive back as principals in the National Football League's grandest drama.
What, finally, do you have?
The answer would seem to be a cinematic retake of "Semi-Tough" or "Heaven Can Wait." Actually, the above conditions describe Super Bowl XV, to be played Sunday at 6 P.m. (Eastern standard time) in this city's Superdome.
On paper, the big game has perhaps never offered a more intriguing match-up than this one between the Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders. The excitement they produce may or may not equal the pregame hullabaloo, but it has a chance. Besides pitting two fascinating teams, this year's test pairs two evenly matched ones as well.
They met once late in the regular season at Philadelphia, with the Eagles winning, 10-7.
"Both teams are sledgehammers," says radio commentator Hank Stram, who twice coached in the Super Bowl with Kansas City (one win, one loss). "Both rely on defense and a running game and have high tenacity levels, Oakland especially. The Raiders know how to win. They've pulled games out of the hat so often, it's what they expect of themselves."
Despite its past success, however, not even the team's black-jerseyed magic was expected to help much this year. The Raiders were coming off their first losing season since 1964, looked shaky in almost every department, and faced an adjustment period under quarterback Dan Pastorini, obtained in a headlinemaking swap that sent QB Ken Stabler to Houston. To complicate matters further, Al Davis, the club's managing general partner and a noted black sheep, had attempted to move the franchise to Los Angeles but been blocked by the league in a stormy and still unsettled showdown.
But the Raiders surprised by going 11-5 to earn a playoff berth, then beat Houston, Cleveland, and San Diego on successive weekends to become only the second wild-card team ever to reach the Super Bowl (Dallas did it in 1976, but then lost to Pittsburgh).
Recycled quarterback Jim Plunkett, who stepped in when Pastorini broke his leg in the fifth game, and Lester Hayes, the NFL's interception leader and stickum king, have been the big heroes. Oakland also has received full value on several players who didn't fit elsewhere or were considered washed up. Mix in experienced hands like offensive lineman Gene Upshaw, speedy wide receiver Cliff Branch, long-distance punter Ray Guy, and other members of the 1977 Super Bowl champions, and the Raiders once again found the winning chemistry . . . as well as some big breaks.
Cleveland, Mike Davis intercepted a much-debated pass in the last minutes that prevented the Browns from trying a go-ahead field goal. Then in the American Conference championship game at San Diego, Raymond Chester opened the scoring by catching a deflected pass intended for Kenny King.
Despite not having played on artificial turf in their last three games, the silver-helmeted Raiders are confident. They pack more big- game experience and realize that only two teams -- the New York Jets in 1969 and Pittsburgh in 1975 -- have made successful Super Bow debuts. That has to give the Eagles pause.
Ugly ducklings of the league for many years, they've only recently shed that image under Coach Dick Vermeil. There's no sense of too fast, too soon, though. The Eagles, after all, have paid their playoff dues, falling short the last two seasons after their first back-to- back winning campaigns since 1959-60.
Philadelphia, like Oakland, fields as physical team, one that resembles the Steeler's first Super Bowl contingent, which was long on defensive muscle and intimidation but less awesome offensively. After allowing fewer points than any other NFL unit during a 12-4 regular season, the Eagle defense threw a second-half shutout at Minnesota, then limited the high-scoring Cowboys to seven points in the National Conference championship game.
There is a genuine feeling of togetherness among the Eagles -- the kind of "We Are Fam-i-lee" spirit that carried Pittsburgh to its World Series triumph last year. And if there are prima donnas on the roster, they're lying low on what amounts to a No-Name team. Oh, there are a couple of players like towering receiver Harold Carmichael and shoeles kicker Tony Franklin you may have heard of. But on the whole, even star running back Wilbert Montgomery and quarterback Ron Jaworski tend to blend into the crowd.
If anybody leads the recognition derby it's Vermeil, the former UCLA mentor who has the Midas touch when it comes to detecting and developing talent. Given little in the way of early-round draft choices to build with when he arrived in 1976, the young coach pieced together a contender in crazy-quilt fashion, signing a number of players released by other clubs -- a strategy also used successfully by the Raiders.
Vermeil, last season's NFL Coach of the Year, is far better known than Tom Flores, the quiet Oakland mentor, who gets swallowed up in owner Davis's long shadow.
Davis, who headed the old American Football League before pro football's merger, has been on bad terms with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle ever since, defying his authority on several occasions, including the current legal battle over his proposed franchise shift.
One gets the impression that al and his Raiders would like to show up Rozelle and the NFL Establishment. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has no chip on its shoulder, only a strong yearning to prove the Eagles are no joke anymore, just the champs.