There have been some really heartbreaking playoff losses by the Eagles over the years. The 2009 NFC Championship Game against the Cardinals, the 2004 Super Bowl, the Fog Bowl, etc. But their loss to the Falcons in the 1978 wild card game (The first wild card game in NFL history) ranks right up there with all of the above. The loss came about as a result of circumstances almost as strange as that thick fog that descended on Chicago 10 years later.
Temple grad Nick Mike-Mayer was the Eagles kicker in 1978. Mike-Mayer had been perfectly serviceable through the first 11 games of the season, but went down with a rib injury in Week 12 and was done for the season. So Dick Vermeil brought in 2nd year man Mike Michel out of Stanford. Michel was really a punter, but he had done some placekicking in college, so Vermeil hired him to do both. It was a disastrous decision. He missed PATs in his first two games as kicker, he once completely whiffed a punt in a game against the Redskins, and Vermeil started to go for it rather than kick field goals. And yet, despite the fact that he showed no confidence in Michel, he kept him on the team.
On Christmas Eve, 1978, the Eagles and Falcons met in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. The Eagles dominated the game early, with Harold Carmichael hauling in a 13-yard scoring strike from Ron Jaworski. Michel missed the PAT, however, and the score remained 6-0 until the 3rd quarter, when the Eagles put together a drive that ended with Wilbert Montgomery scoring from the 1-yard line. The kick was good, and the Eagles carried a 13-0 lead into the 4th quarter. The missed extra point looked pretty harmless, especially when the Birds went deep into Falcons territory in the 4th quarter. But a fumble at the Falcon 15 midway through the 4th shifted the momentum.
Falcons QB Steve Bartkowski orchestrated a 7 play, 85 yard scoring drive through the cold rain, and the Falcons cut it to 13-7 with just over 5 minutes remaining. After stopping the Eagles , the Falcons struck quickly, with Bartkowski hitting receiver Wallace Francis on a 37-yard scoring strike with 1:39 left to play. The extra point was good, and the Falcons took a 14-13 lead.
But the Eagles weren’t done. Jaws led them all the way down the field, and with 13 seconds left, they had the ball on the Falcons 16. Out came Michel, with a chance to go from goat to hero. This from the Morning Call:
If you were watching the game on TV, you heard CBS announcer Jack Buck declare “It’s good!” with gusto.
(Merrill) Reese was almost influenced by that enthusiasm.
“He and Hank Stram were in the booth right next to us and, when I heard Jack, I almost called it good, too,” Reese said. “But I froze. I couldn’t get anything out. Which proved fortunate because the officials waved it wide right. I learned a valuable lesson that day, never call a kick, call the official.”
Reese will never forget what he witnessed next.
“I remember there were Eagle players lying all over the field like they were battle dead,” Reese said. “And I remember the cold drizzle.”
As far as the quiet plane ride home?
“Vermeil wound up walking to the back of the plane and putting his arms around a disconsolate Michel,” Reese said. “He said, “Mike, it’s not your fault. We asked you to do something you weren’t brought here to do and I appreciate your effort.’ Then he cut him the following spring. The team drafted Tony Franklin to do the placekicking and brought in Max Runager to punt.”
Mike Michel never played another game in the NFL. Mike-Mayer was traded to Buffalo where he would kick for the next 4 years. Tony Franklin would kick field goals for the Eagles from 1979-1983, when he was traded to the Patriots, for whom he would kick the winning FG in the famous snowplow game.