DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. To find out what it feels like to play pro football and to play in the Super Bowl, we reached out to former quarterback Ron Jaworski who is now a football analyst for ESPN. Jaworski spent spent 16 years in the NFL, most of them with the Philadelphia Eagles, the team he took to the Super Bowl 15 in 1981. Jaws, as he was often known, had a great passing year then but a rough time in the big game.
He was intercepted three times and the Eagles lost to the Oakland Raiders 27 to 10. Jaworski's TV duties made it hard for us to get him to a studio this time of year so we caught him by telephone in New York where he's involved in ESPN's Super Bowl coverage.
Well, Ron Jaworski, welcome the FRESH AIR. I want to talk about what it feels like to play quarterback. On a pass play, by the time you take the snap from the center, you drop back and release the ball on a throw you've got, what, three to five seconds maybe?
RON JAWORSKI: If you get five seconds, that would be absolutely fantastic. Most quarterbacks in today's NFL have to read the coverage, throw the football with velocity accurately in less than three seconds. If you hold onto the ball for more than three seconds, you're likely to get whacked. So clearly it's about processing information quickly and getting the ball out of your hand and avoid contact by defenders that want to take you down hard.
DAVIES: Now, you're reading the defense and making these split second decisions about where to try and deliver the ball at the same time as some very, very big and agile and skilled athletes...
DAVIES: ...are coming at you to try and knock you down. Let me ask a naïve question. You know, when you release the ball and you're hit by one of these big linemen, does it hurt?
JAWORSKI: Yes. Yeah. I'll be honest with you - you can ask any quarterback who plays now or ever played the game, no one likes to get hit. And it is about preservation. You know, you want to play the next play. You want to play the next game. You want to play the next season. You learn how to get hit. You contort your body in certain ways so you don't take a clean hit.
Now, it doesn't always happen that way. Sometimes you are going to take a clean shot and, you know, there are always opportunities to get injured on every play. But I think, you know, through experience and as I watch guys and, you know, the guys like Russell Wilson, a mobile quarterback that runs out of the pocket and makes play and Peyton Manning who's the antithesis of Russell Wilson plays the game from the pocket, but they both learned how to protect themselves.
A Russell Wilson will slide or get out of bounds. Peyton Manning will just move around in that pocket and avoid the rush. He's not going to beat you with his legs, he's going to beat you with his movement in the pocket. So clearly, all those hours of preparation, all those hours of study, you get in that pocket, you better be aware for anything that could happen. But most of all, you must protect yourself.
Because there are 11 angry young men trying to get after you.
DAVIES: When these guys are coming at you, clearly they want to knock you down or block your pass or hurry you. Were they trying to hurt you as well? I mean, did you feel you were getting an extra shot or they'd make sure and try and come down on you hard on your throwing shoulder?
JAWORSKI: The simplest way to win in the National Football League is to knock out the starting quarterback. You know, throughout the years history has proven if your number one quarterback goes down your chances for success become very limited. So there is no doubt that there are defenses that their intent is to knock the quarterback out of the game. It's that simple.
I've heard defensive coaches in meetings, I've heard them in pregame speeches what their motives are. And if they can get a legal clean shot on the quarterback, and I'm not saying they want to hurt him, but they certainly would like to knock them out of the game.
DAVIES: All right. So when you're dropping back and you're trying to make these complex split-second decisions as you read the defense and these guys are coming at you trying to knock you down, do you feel fear?
JAWORSKI: Yes. Yeah, you absolutely do. You know they're coming after you. And this is where all the years of training - and you actually do, Dave, develop a mental toughness as well as a physical toughness. You know, your eyes can't look down. You can't look where the rush is coming from. It's a sixth sense you develop in the pocket to move around.
Your focal point must be downfield. So you know those guys are coming after you. You know they're angry, but you still have to hang in the pocket, deliver the football. And I always tell young quarterbacks the most important part of playing the position - or maybe one of - is the presnap phase where you get a pretty good indication of what the defense is going to do.
DAVIES: Did you ever have recurring nightmares of, you know, bone crushing hits?
JAWORSKI: Fortunately, I have amnesia. I'm able to forget.
DAVIES: Good for you. The Super Bowl - it's not just another game. You were there in 1981 when you took the Eagles to the Super Bowl in New Orleans. What did you feel when you took the field?
JAWORSKI: It was kind of interesting. So I felt total euphoria. You know, as the season started our goal was to get to the Super Bowl. You know, we had short-term goals, long-term goals, and the ultimate goal was to get to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. We did that and there certainly was a sense of accomplishment being in the Super Bowl.
And it's kind of interesting because I do have my playbook from that year and in hindsight, because were such a goal-oriented team under Dick Vermeil I wish the goal would've been to win the Super Bowl.
JAWORSKI: Maybe we would've been a little more pointed in our approach. Not that we weren't prepared, not that we weren't ready, but because we were such a goal-driven team I think there was almost a feeling that after we beat Dallas or the NFC championship game on a cold, windy day in Philadelphia where the temperatures were 15 below as a wind chill factor, maybe there was a feeling that we had already accomplished our goal when we really hadn't.
So maybe subliminally there was a little bit of a letdown in Super Bowl 15. We did not play our best football.
DAVIES: Yeah. I've heard people suggest that you guys played your Super Bowl the week before because that was a big win over Dallas, certainly for anybody in Philadelphia. You had a great year that year leading the Eagles and it just wasn't your day on Super Bowl. I believe your first throw was intercepted?
JAWORSKI: Yeah. And, you know, when I talk to young quarterbacks now and they ask me about preparation for the Super Bowl, I'm very, very to the point when I tell them let the game come to you. It's the Super Bowl. It's a big game. We all know that. But treat it any way you can as a regular game. I know it's impossible but that's the way you have to try to do it. And don't try to make every play.
I felt in that game, in hindsight now, I tried too hard. I wanted to win so bad and lead our team to victory, I made mistakes. Or I didn't take the high percentage play, I took the low percentage play. You mentioned my first pass was intercepted. I had run that same play probably 50 times in the regular season. It was a very successful play.
I know I didn't throw an interception on it all season long, but you get to the Super Bowl and I tried to squeeze a throw in there that just wasn't there. So sometimes you can try too hard. So I always tell the young guys let the game come to you. Now, in the fourth quarter it may change when you have to make plays, but really, early in the game manage it well and don't make mistakes.
DAVIES: It's been more than 30 years now and does the sting wear off? Does it hurt less to have lost?
JAWORSKI: No, it hurts more. The Super Bowl loss actually hurts more now in 2014 than it did in 1981. For this reason: We only got the opportunity to play in one Super Bowl. And when you don't win it, the more it goes on, you realize how you didn't take advantage of the opportunity you had. And I say that because after the game we were certainly disappointed that we didn't beat the Oakland Raiders, but I think there was a sense within our football team, the coaching staff, and the organization that we were a young team.
It was only going to be a matter of time - in fact, the next year - we were going to be back in the Super Bowl and win it. So we felt we had that kind of team, that kind of organization, a great leader in Vermeil. We thought we'd back there many times. We never got back. That's why it stings even more now, that we had that one opportunity or I had that one opportunity and didn't take advantage of it.
DAVIES: Ron Jaworski, thanks so much for joining us.
JAWORSKI: Thanks, Dave.
DAVIES: Ron Jaworski played 16 seasons in the NFL. He's now a football analyst for ESPN. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.