How Ron Jaworski Helped Change the Way We Watch Football

Thirty-five years after leading the Eagles to their first Super Bowl, Ron Jaworski is a popular football show host and at peace with his legacy (though he’d really like to have that one throw to Wilbert back).

Jaws goes over the X’s and O’s in his office at NFL Films. Photograph by Jared Castaldi

Jaws goes over the X’s and O’s in his office at NFL Films. Photograph by Jared Castaldi

Outside of Canton, there may be no greater shrine to the legacy of professional football than the headquarters of NFL Films, hidden away on a nearly invisible road in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. The entrance to the house that Ed and Steve Sabol built is lined with archival photographs, game-worn helmets and, in the lobby alone, 71 gleaming Emmy statues, with scores more scattered throughout the winding halls. It’s a Tuesday during the season, and as usual, Ron Jaworski sits at his desk on the second floor. In sharp contrast to the glitz elsewhere, the walls of Jaworski’s lair are adorned with only a few relics from his playing days — snapshots, a locker nameplate, a couple pigskins on a shelf. There are five other guys in here, most hunched over computer screens, logging game film or unearthing obscure stats. It feels sort of like a locker room, with furniture from IKEA. For Jaworski — the first quarterback to lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl, 35 years ago — that’s just fine. He’s a married father of three who settled in South Jersey when he joined the Birds and never left. But this is his natural habitat.

Dressed down in jeans, a purple fleece and loafers with no socks, the 64-year-old leans back in his chair, watching coaching film of every offensive play of the Eagles’ win over the New Orleans Saints two days earlier. “I could complete passes against them,” he says, knocking the Saints’ defense while explaining how Sam Bradford beat a cover-three scheme on one particular play. “I love this shit.”

Jaws, as everyone still calls him, is prepping for his ESPN show, NFL Matchup, which airs early Saturday and Sunday mornings and is filmed here on Fridays. It’s revered by pros and X’s-and-O’s junkies, and not for the casual fan. Jaworski has a clicker in his right hand, and he uses it to toggle the action back and forth. Sometimes he’ll shine a laser pointer on the screen to pick out specific players. He focuses on a bad decision by tight end Zach Ertz: “You take it right up the hash, and then the ball will either take you inside or outside. He should have kept this right here and caught it at 19 yards.” Later, he’ll text Arizona Cardinals veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald with a question about a specific route he ran in a different game. The All-Pro texts him back in minutes — a sign of the esteem Jaworski is held in across the league. “I don’t want this to be interpreted the wrong way,” Jaworski tells me later, when I admit I got lost in all the talk of slant-and-scrapes, seals and base blocking. “This is a complex, sophisticated game. I’d never go that in-depth on-air. If I brought in Joe Sixpack and talked this way, he wouldn’t last 10 minutes.”

On television, Jaworski is animated, with a breathless delivery and a jovial, jolly rapport with his co-anchors. He’s not faking the fun he’s having. Off-camera, he’s the same upbeat guy, just with the volume turned down a few notches. Here at NFL Films, respect is hard-earned, and Jaws has it, thanks to both his bona fides as a former elite player and the way he talks to people about football like they’re equals, despite the chunky NFC championship ring on his right hand. What few people outside of the game, and this building, recognize is how Jaworski has helped change the way we, and the rest of the world, see the sport he loves.

AFTER A BRIEF BREAK for lunch in the NFL Films cafeteria — where, of course, all of the talk is about sports — Jaworski is back upstairs, watching more film and planning the Matchup show with his office-mate, senior producer and renowned football guru Greg Cosell, nephew of Howard. In comes an email from filmmaker and Havertown native Mike Tollin, who just finished a rough cut of his new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on former Eagles owner Leonard Tose. Jaworski cues it up and invites everyone in the room to gather around his monitor. The film is only 15 minutes long, but it offers a rich look at pro football in Jaworski’s playing heyday, the mid-’70s through the ’80s. Tollin uses an NFL Films classic to set up the 1981 Super Bowl: “In just five years,” intones John Facenda, “the Eagles have gone from patsy to powerhouse.” Then comes a game clip of the Polish Rifle tossing an interception in the biggest game of his life.

“Fuck,” Jaworski says with a laugh. “Now I have to watch this again. That was the only bad throw I made in the game. Had Wilbert [Montgomery] in the flat, and I missed it.” Jaworski loves the way the Tose film turned out, though he wishes he could rewrite the ending to that 1980-’81 season. “If we won the Super Bowl, we’d still be partying. Our post-game parties were legendary! We’d go to Bookbinder’s when it was the spot.” He holds his hands wide, like a fisherman recalling the catch of the day: “Lobster tails as big as this!”

Jaworski admits it took some convincing for him to come to Philadelphia in 1977. After growing up outside of Buffalo in a blue-collar family and working at the Ryerson Steel mill as a teen, he wasn’t soft. But he’d played against the Eagles once as a member of the Los Angeles Rams, in a Monday-night game at the Vet that ended in a 42-3 humiliation for the home team. Jaworski recalls dodging golf balls thrown from the stands and wearing his helmet on the sidelines for protection. When coach Dick Vermeil recruited him to be the cornerstone of his new offense in Philly, the team hadn’t had a winning season in 11 years. Jaworski thought: Do I really want to go to that town?

Vermeil was persuasive, and Jaworski arrived to find a football culture that was broken, defined by men who saw defeat as inevitable. The quarterback’s attitude was every bit as important as his arm. “I prefer to see the glass 100 percent full,” he says. “That’s just how I am.”

That 1980 season was magic for the Eagles — NFC champions and advancing to the Super Bowl by beating the hated (and dynastic) Dallas Cowboys. But ’80 wasn’t just special for the Birds; it was the only year when all four major sports teams in a single city reached the championship at once. Among the few photos on Jaworski’s wall is a shot from the Art Museum steps: He stands with Julius Erving, Tug McGraw and Pete Peters as the city glows behind them. “It’s been 35 years, and I’ll never forget it,” he says. “The town was sports-crazy. And I’m a sports whack job — I was a season ticket holder for the Sixers, I loved the Flyers, I’d watch the Phillies game after practice. Doug Collins lived behind me in Voorhees, Mike Schmidt was around the corner, [Vince] Papale was down the street, Garry Maddox was down the corner, Dave Schultz was one street over. We were all buddies. We were at Kaminski’s Friday night. It was like one big group. It was really special.”

Yet Eagles fans with long memories know why Super Bowl XV is the only game film in his career that Jaworski hasn’t watched in full. The Oakland Raiders jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, and Jaworski began pressing. The clip in the Tose documentary showed linebacker Rod Martin with his first of three picks, a tally that still stands as a Super Bowl record. “I’d seen that play 30 times, 50 times that year. I’m getting pissed off now!” Jaworski says, laughing not quite in full. “Why did I do that? I’ll take this to my grave — if you talk to Jim Plunkett, Matt Millen and those guys, we were the better team. But we didn’t play our best football that day.” Jaworski has been to plenty of championships since then as a spectator, and when players ask for his advice, he’s blunt: “Don’t try to win the game by yourself. Don’t try too hard. I did.”

What still stings three and a half decades later is a feeling of unfinished business. After that loss, Jaworski was certain the Eagles would reach the mountaintop again. They made it back to the playoffs the next season, but the player strike in 1982 was the beginning of the end — Vermeil left the following year, Norman Braman bought the team, and a new losing streak had begun. Jaworski’s final year under Buddy Ryan was marked by a finger injury and the beginning of the Randall Cunningham era. “I loved Randall,” Jaworski says, despite the contrast between his folksy charm and Cunningham’s “Let me be me” rock-star aura. “He needed a guy like me, a mentor who could talk to him. Buddy thought the antithesis of that. Buddy was arguably the best defensive coordinator of all time. He was not a good head coach.”

Jaworski was released in 1987 and spent a couple seasons in Miami and Kansas City before hanging up his cleats in 1990. A job in the media felt like a natural fit, as he’d hosted radio shows here and in California. What he didn’t anticipate was becoming a part of the league’s history and its future.

FRESH OUT OF the game and looking for his next career, Jaworski was invited by Steve Sabol to join NFL Matchup, a show Sabol created with Greg Cosell in 1984. At that time, the league didn’t allow access to its coaches’ tapes, with their “all-22” views of every player on the field. So Sabol had his cameramen shoot wide, and along with host Chris Berman, they gave viewers a more technical look at the sport. Not long after Jaworski joined the Matchup crew in 1990, Sabol’s team was given access to the coaching tapes, and Jaworski became the first former player to translate those insights on television. For those who cared to look closely, a new gridiron narrative emerged. What was thought of by outsiders as a smashmouth game was now seen as a chess match, or a full-contact ballet.

Everything from John Madden’s telestrations to Jon Gruden’s quarterback-camp specials to the countless blogs that can now purchase “all-22” tapes from the league owe a debt to Matchup and to Jaworski. “We branded it,” Cosell says of the show he and Sabol created. “Jaws took it and made it his own. Jaws would never say a player stinks. He never talks about anyone like that. But the expression is, ‘The eye in the sky doesn’t lie.’ When you see it on tape, you know. And Jaws engenders respect from people because he does it the right way.”

Jaworski had a five-season run in the late aughts as an analyst on Monday Night Football, and you can see him on a number of ESPN shows and hear him on the radio. But Matchup is where he’s most at home. In the episode that airs the Sunday after my visit, Jaworski takes a deep dive into that Larry Fitzgerald pass play we watched. With the aid of video-game-style graphics, he diagrams and explains the cover-three defense, the “three-level stretch high-low” route Fitzgerald ran, and how the wideout manipulated a safety into a bad decision, resulting in a big gain. “Twenty years ago,” Jaworski tells me, “people didn’t want to hear about coaching tape and X’s and O’s. Now they can’t get enough of it.”

In the time since his playing days ended, Jaworski has enjoyed more success than your typical retired NFL athlete. He credits that to his upbringing and a statistic he heard as a rookie — the average career in pro football lasts three and a half years. So Jaws made himself into an entrepreneur, with a slew of business ventures (including a hot-tub franchise, Ron Jaworski’s Nature Tubs, in the early ’80s). Since then, he has built a mini-empire of golf courses in the Philadelphia area, makes the rounds on the motivational speaking circuit, and is principal owner of the Philadelphia Soul team that won the arena-league title in 2008. What made that victory much sweeter for Jaworski was the setting — New Orleans, site of the 1981 Super Bowl. “We walked by the Superdome,” he tells me, “and I said, ‘We gotta win this game. I’ve gotta get one championship here.’ None of that meant anything to anybody but me.”

“Was that closure?” I ask.

“No,” Jaworski says, firmly and with no hesitation. “The further I move out from the Super Bowl loss, the harder it is, because you only had the one opportunity to do it.”

JAWORSKI CALLS HIMSELF the “Johnny Appleseed of football,” and while he laughs when he says it, he’s really not kidding. In 2012, at La Famiglia in Old City with one of his Soul partners, Martin E. Judge, the quarterback had a brainstorm fueled by rich pasta and a couple beers — Let’s bring football to China! About four months later, there’s Jaws at the negotiating table of a grand conference room in Tiananmen Square, shaking hands with the Chinese secretary general. The China American Football League is scheduled to launch its inaugural season there next fall, with plans in the works for arena games in Mexico. “It was surreal,” says Jaworski, who expects to add a few trips to China to his already packed schedule. Proselytizing for the game and carrying the good word across the globe to the People’s Republic was, he says, “one of the great moments of my life.”

That’s Jaworski. Whatever ghosts still haunt him after the Lombardi Trophy slipped from his grasp, he shoos them away with a smile or a joke. He’d rather get back to breaking down film, or hit the links or spend time with his two grandkids — who call him “GrandJaws,” which is at once the most hilarious and ridiculous and endearing thing he reveals during our day at NFL Films. As for his legacy, he swears he doesn’t think about it. Donovan McNabb is the greatest Eagles quarterback in his eyes, without debate. Yet for all of McNabb’s dominance in the record books, it’s Jaworski who seems to connect the most with both football lifers and fans, more for his attitude than his stats. “I enjoy people and enjoy being around them,” he says. “I don’t worry about how they’re going to perceive me. I believe if I treat people with respect and dignity, it’ll come back to me. Will they say you’re the greatest Eagles quarterback ever? The best ESPN analyst? I really don’t worry about it that much. I do my job. Pour everything I’ve got into it. And I’m always happy when I’m done.”

Published as “The Tao of Jaws” in the December 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.