They gathered on the sidelines, these Philadelphia Eagles who had just pulled off one of the most remarkable wins in their club's history. They formed a tight group and chanted, "Bud-dee! Bud-dee! Bud-dee!" They were letting their coach, Buddy Ryan, know what they thought of him after their 42-37 victory over the Washington Redskins Sunday in one of the wildest games RFK Stadium had ever seen.
They were mocking the Skins fans, who had started the Bud-dee! chant back in the first quarter, when Washington was ahead 20-0 and things looked hopeless for Philadelphia. The fans had let the Eagles hear the chant twice more in the fourth quarter, when Philadelphia looked dead for sure. Now the Eagles cheered for their coach, and they carried him off the field. This was not Hickory High but the good old NFL, where guys make a million dollars and are supposed to be above that kind of thing.
Roll back the clock to January 1986. As the Chicago Bears were putting the finishing touches on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, Chicago's defensive players gathered around team president Mike McCaskey on the sidelines. They begged him to pay their coordinator, Buddy Ryan, whatever he wanted to keep him from going to the Eagles. The night before, they had torn up the meeting room when Ryan had said his goodbyes.
So what is it about this guy that turns normal people into wild-eyed fanatics? Simply this: He gets his players believing that, as a team, they're rougher, nastier and better than any other on the face of the earth. He came into Washington, a place where he hadn't won in three shots as a head coach, and told anyone who cared to listen that his guys were going to kick some butts. He said, "I hope it's 100 degrees out there, so we'll make those fat s.o.b.'s sweat. We'll beat 'em in the fourth quarter because we're in better shape than they are."
September 24, 1989
And that's pretty much what happened—though the temperature was only 75°. Late in the game the Eagles came on while the Redskins defense became wobble-legged. Indeed, Washington's final two possessions ended with Philadelphia's forcing fumbles. Eagle free safety Wes Hopkins returned the first of these 77 yards on a bizarre play in the final minute to set up the winning score, which came on quarterback Randall Cunningham's fifth touchdown pass of the afternoon. The Eagles have scored a lot of points in winning their first two games (in their season opener, they beat the Seattle Seahawks 31-7), and they have given up a lot, and that could be the pattern for the rest of the season. But they have that look of people on a mission.
Every weakness Philly had coming into the season was dramatically displayed on Sunday: no running attack (65 yards), shaky protection for Cunningham (he was sacked four times) and a gambling defense that leaves itself open to the big play (three of Washington's TDs covered more than 40 yards). On the other hand, Cunningham, who became the highest-paid player in NFL history on Sunday morning when he signed a five-year contract extension that will pay him approximately $17 million between 1991 and '95, is the best quarterback in the NFL right now. He was relentless, scrambling to buy time, reading everything, picking up secondary receivers. He had a huge day, completing a team-record 34 passes in 46 attempts for 447 yards and those five touchdowns. As for the throw-caution-to-the-wind defense, it picked up 115 yards worth of returns on two fumbles and forced six turnovers. This victory showed that, under Ryan, anything is possible.
"George Patton, Woody Hayes—Buddy's from the same school," said strong safety Todd Bell.
"If Buddy told me to jump off a bridge," said defensive tackle Jerome Brown, "well, I wouldn't do it, but I'd think about it."
Brown missed the team flight to Miami for Philadelphia's final exhibition game. Did he get fined? Hell, no. First Ryan was going to bench him, but then he checked the pregame temperature—it was in the 90's—and told his defensive coordinator, Jeff Fisher, to "make that big s.o.b. play the whole game."
"Yeah, I was dying," says the 295-pound Brown, "but so were lots of other guys."
Ron Baker, who played guard for the Eagles for nine years and is now retired, recalls the time he missed a block and let in a rusher who sacked Cunningham. When Baker went to the sidelines he figured he was going to be blistered. Instead, Ryan put his arm around him and said, "That's a block you'll make nine times out of 10. Now you owe me nine."
Four Eagle veterans left an exhibition game in Philadelphia this year at half-time. They had permission from Ryan to go to New Jersey to attend a birthday party for singer Whitney Houston. "What's the big deal?" says Ryan. "It was important to those guys. That's the girl who sings One Moment in Time. Hell of a song."
All-Pro defensive end Reggie White held out for 31 days during training camp before coming to terms on a four-year, $6.09 million contract. "If it wasn't for Buddy, I would have definitely played out my option and gone somewhere else," says White.
A personality cult can take a team only so far in the NFL. But every so often a coach comes along who seems to get his players doing what no one thought possible. Vince Lombardi whipped the Green Bay Packers into a mighty machine. When he left, they collapsed. George Allen had a bunch of overaged rejects playing out of their minds in Washington. When he was fired, the Skins' fortunes declined—until Joe Gibbs arrived. It's too early to put Ryan, with one division championship in three years, in such fast company, but he has his players believing in miracles.
First play of Sunday's game: Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien hooked up with wide receiver Gary Clark on an 80-yard touchdown pass. Second Washington play: Running back Gerald Riggs bolted 41 yards for a score to put the Redskins ahead 14-0. "Bud-dee! Bud-dee! Bud-dee!," chanted the fans, just as they had done in 1986, when Ryan first came to RFK Stadium as coach of the Eagles and lost 41-14. Last week Ryan said that yes, he had heard the chant from the Washington fans; no, he didn't like it; and, yes, he would make those fans eat that word this time.
First more humiliation: A short pass from Rypien to Earnest Byner for a touchdown following cornerback Brian Davis's interception gave Washington a 20-0 lead in the first quarter. By half-time the Eagles had been able to narrow the gap only slightly, to 30-14.
Philadelphia got off a 92-yard, 12-play scoring drive early in the third quarter, and for the first time the Washington fans started quieting down. The Redskins defense began to fade. The only way it could get pressure on Cunningham was by blitzing, and that isn't Washington's style. On the previous Monday night the New York Giants had manhandled the Skins in the fourth quarter en route to a 27-24 victory. Hot night, tough game, short work week. You had to wonder about how much zip the Redskins had left in their legs.
Their offensive legs turned out to be fine. On their next possession Rypien completed a 47-yard pass to Clark, who broke a short inside pattern against cornerback Eric Allen. Allen was in an impossible coverage—Herb Adderley or Night Train Lane couldn't have handled it. The Eagles had gambled by rushing seven men. That left Allen to cover Clark all over the field. "I saw some of their schemes on film," said Rypien the day before the game. "They really gamble and put their cornerbacks on an island. They make them do impossible things."
It's the Ryan system, though. You take big chances, you get big results, good and bad. Three plays later, with Washington on the Philadelphia 20, Rypien got the big rush again. This time it produced a sack and a fumble, which safety Andre Waters returned 16 yards. The net loss for Washington was 38 yards. Seven plays later Philly scored to make the score 30-28. Then, with 3:06 remaining, the Redskins made it 37-28 when Rypien connected with wide receiver Art Monk, who went 43 yards down the left sideline. On that play Philadelphia again went with a big blitz, leaving defensive back Eric Everett to cover Monk all by his lonesome.
But it was Washington's defense that was really on the ropes now. While Cunningham was driving the Eagles down to the two, the Skins' tackling was sloppy, just as it had been against New York. Their coverage was soft. But time was running out on Philadelphia. On third-and-goal the Eagles pulled off the first of two memorable plays. Both wideouts, Cris Carter and Mike Quick, wound up in the same part of the end zone, which isn't supposed to happen. Cunningham lobbed the ball, Carter had a good shot at it in the middle of a mob, but Quick stole it from him for the score.
On Washington's next possession, Riggs, who set a Redskins single-game rushing record with 221 yards, broke a 58-yarder down to the Philadelphia 22. The Skins led 37-35, and the clock showed 1:35. Three plays later Riggs was bumped by center Raleigh McKenzie and fumbled on the 19.
Al Harris, a linebacker who played for Ryan in Chicago, picked up the ball and tried to run. As Jim Lachey, Washington's left tackle, was dragging him down, Harris shoved the ball at Hopkins, who took off down the left sideline. Hopkins went 77 yards before being tackled at the four. "I heard Wes and Todd Bell yelling, 'Give it up, Big Al, give it up,' " said Harris. "So I loosened up on the ball, and Wes had it."
The Skins complained bitterly that Harris's lateral had been forward. They thought the whistle had blown and that the ball should have been dead at that point. The replay official studied the tape and said the play stood. When Cunningham found tight end Keith Jackson in the end zone, 52 seconds were showing on the clock, time enough for a few Redskins plays. But on the first one Brown sacked Rypien, who fumbled, and White fell on the ball.
How far can the Eagles go? They'll find out soon enough. Their next three foes are the 49ers, Bears and Giants. For their part, the winless Redskins must deal with a flagging defense that has given up a total of 34 points and 266 yards in two fourth quarters. Maybe Ryan was right; maybe the Eagles were just in better shape. Maybe Ryan is right about a lot of things.