IT IS NFL draft week and this is an Eagles story that plops Jerry Robinson's name into the first sentence.
If you don't know where we're headed, please turn to the features section. You don't belong here.
In Philadelphia, some names or phrases serve as shorthand for sore subjects, no explanation required. Joe Carter. Leon Stickle. Chico Ruiz stole home. Moses Malone traded to the Bullets. Von "5 for 1" Hayes.
Every NFL draft week, "Jerry Robinson" invariably goes at the end of the sentence that starts, "The Eagles haven't taken a linebacker in the first round since 1979, when they chose . . . "
Everyone knows this, bemoans this, laments this.
Except this one guy out in Santa Rosa, Calif., who had no idea.
"When you said that, I'm like, 'Wow! I didn't know that! OK,' " Jerry Robinson said recently, after a reporter explained the purpose of his call. "There's been some great ballplayers played there. That's kinda cool. I'll take that."
Cool? From the view of the championship-starved fan base, not so much, Jerry.
The biggest reason the 2011 Eagles shockingly missed the playoffs was turnovers. The second-biggest reason might have been linebacking, where they proved woefully undermanned. Nobody who started a game at linebacker for the Birds last season was drafted higher than the fourth round. By the end of the season, the starters were Jamar Chaney (seventh round, 2010) in the middle, flanked by sixth-round rookie Brian Rolle and Akeem Jordan, an undrafted free agent from 2007. Head coach Andy Reid eventually acknowledged he "goofed" in assessing how critical top-notch linebacking might be to playing effective defense behind the new wide-nine front.
A couple months ago, it seemed very possible the "since Jerry Robinson" sentence could be retired this year. Many mock drafts forecast the Eagles taking Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly with the 15th overall pick. But then the Birds traded with Houston for a veteran inside linebacker, DeMeco Ryans, and right around the same time, Kuechly started moving up the mocks. Now it seems the Eagles might have to trade into the top 10 to get Kuechly, and it isn't clear they feel they need to do that. If they stay at 15, a linebacker isn't impossible to envision, but also isn't real likely.
So, Jerry, your claim to draft-week fame might be safe.
This is a different draft and a different league than the one Robinson entered as the 21st overall pick in 1979, but some things haven't changed. Then-Eagles coach Dick Vermeil recalls that the Birds, who thanks to a series of trades hadn't had a first-rounder since 1973 (yes, really), didn't feel an aching need at linebacker. They had Bill Bergey, John Bunting, Reggie Wilkes and Frank LeMaster to play in their 3-4. But Vermeil had recruited Robinson to UCLA, converted him from a receiver to a linebacker, knew the kind of person Robinson was and the impact he could have.
As Vermeil remembers it, there were a couple of guys who would have plugged bigger needs, whom the Eagles would have taken had they been there at 21. Those guys were gone when the Eagles' turn came around.
"It was not a tough decision to make . . . It was not a gamble, because we knew so much about him," Vermeil said last week. And then, as now, NFL teams tried to stick to this rule: "He was at that time, on our board, the best-quality athlete," Vermeil said.
It might have helped if Robinson had known this. He was fretting through what he recalls as "a very stressful day" in the Los Angeles office of agents Marvin Demoff and Leigh Steinberg. There wasn't nearly as much media attention given the draft back then, but since Robinson was a surefire first-rounder from the hometown school, an LA TV station was there to document his reaction.
"It was a long day for me, because I had spoken to the New Orleans Saints, went down to New Orleans and worked out. I was told I was going to be drafted by them, the 11th pick in the first round," Robinson said. "Back in my day, there was no 'dah-nah-nah, dah-nah-nah' - there was no ESPN. There was no trip to New York City for all the guys, getting dressed up in a $2,000 suit and having your hair all done, with your mom and your girlfriend and whatever. They announced it on the radio.
"So I'm sitting there listening to the radio with [the LA TV reporter], Marvin Demoff and Leigh Steinberg. The phone rings, it's the Saints. 'If you're here [at 11], we've got ya.' Then, on the radio: 'New Orleans Saints have chosen kicker Russell Erxleben, out of Texas.' I went, 'Uh-oh. All right, OK. That was a disappointment.' Now I don't know what's happening."
The next call was from the then-Los Angeles Rams, Robinson recalled. They held the 19th pick. "The Rams were like, 'My God, if you're still here, we'll pick you.' So I'm sitting there and I'm excited - 'I can actually stay in LA and play for the Rams!' Radio's on, 'Los Angeles Rams choose George Andrews, a linebacker out of Nebraska.' I said, 'WHAT THE [BLEEP]?!!' - I know you can't print this - WHAT THE [BLEEP] IS THIS (BLEEP)?!!"
The Eagles were picking just two slots later. Ex-UCLA head coach Vermeil was their coach, and former UCLA receivers coach Carl Peterson and ex-UCLA defensive coordinator Lynn Stiles also served on the Birds' staff. All had been involved in recruiting Robinson out of high school for the Bruins. But Robinson said he wasn't thinking about any of that at the time.
"Your mind goes - I can't tell you where my mind went," Robinson said. "I don't really remember thinking about much. I just remember how sad and disappointed I was . . . It was a major blow."
Robinson said he was really ticked that not only did his local team pass him up, but the Rams did so to take another linebacker. (Andrews retired in 1985 because of knee injuries, having started 58 games; Robinson made the 1981 Pro Bowl for the Eagles and ultimately weathered 13 NFL seasons, starting 147 games, getting back to LA with the Raiders, for whom he played from 1985-91.)
Then Vermeil called.
"He was so excited, I could hear it in his voice," Robinson said. "I got excited, too. Now you're talking about somebody who knows me, knows my family, and is willing to take a linebacker in the first round even though they didn't need a linebacker . . . It wasn't about the position, it was about the athlete . . . That was one of the highlights of my whole athletic life."
Robinson retains vivid memories of his first trip to Philadelphia. He says the limo chauffeur's name was John, who picked him up and took him to Veterans Stadium, as cameras rolled.
"I knew we were probably headed in a direction where the Eagles hadn't been in a long time," Robinson said. "I knew from UCLA that we were going to work harder than anybody, that we were going to cover details better than anybody, that whatever athletic ability you had, even the last ounce was going to be brought out."
Vermeil had spent the draft at the Vet, in a meeting room with coaches and staffers. Then as now, the Birds were connected to New York and NFL draft headquarters by a phone line, manned on the New York end by team video director Mike Dougherty, who will make the journey again Thursday.
Vermeil said he didn't find it remarkable that the Eagles haven't taken a linebacker in the first round in 33 years. Impact linebackers, particularly for 4-3 teams like the Eagles of the Andy Reid era, often can be found after the first round. The New York Giants, who have won two of the last five Super Bowls, last took a linebacker in the first round when they tapped Carl Banks third overall in 1984.
Vermeil said he thinks it's easy to miss on a standout college linebacker, who might not be able to dominate the NFL game the way he did against lesser athletes.
"It's a risky draft pick, with a first-round pick. Everything they're asked to do physically and mentally in college, it's magnified in the pros," Vermeil said. "It's so much more sophisticated a game. It's hard to get the direct carryover in performance."
Vermeil said the best linebacker he was around during his most recent NFL stint, 1997-2005, with the Rams and Chiefs, was London Fletcher, who recently signed another contract with the Redskins as he neared his 37th birthday. Fletcher arrived at Rams training camp as an undrafted free agent in 1998. Maybe the Eagles' problem isn't so much that they haven't taken linebackers in the first round, as it is that they haven't taken the right linebackers later.
"Playing linebacker is an attitude thing," said Robinson, whose selection might be questioned if he were drafted today, since he played at a svelte 6-2, 218. "If you don't make the play, it's nobody's fault but yours."
Robinson and Vermeil still see one another in Northern California, where both were born and still have homes. Robinson devotes part of his time to talking to community groups, particularly kids, about his life, which includes a 1987 conviction for driving under the influence of drugs, and a subsequent rehab stint.
"Everybody makes mistakes. You start to receive a little notoriety . . . everything you do makes the news," said Robinson, who added that he like to tell youngsters "how important it is to protect your name, your family's name, your image, the school you might be at - those types of things.
"Kids will listen to athletes tell them the same exact thing their mom and dad have been telling them for years. I have stories to tell; I share the story of my life."
For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.