The Philadelphia Eagles stepped out of character on Sunday and beat the unbeaten New York Giants 21-19. The Eagles went against their tendencies. They did things other teams do, and now that they have gotten a taste of it, there is no telling what heights of conformity they might reach.
These are the rules for how to win in the NFL. You balance your offense. You run, you pass, and if you do the former more than the latter, it is called ball control, and it makes your defensive players very happy, because they can sit on the bench for long stretches and drink Gatorade.
You try not to leave your defensive backs in single coverage all over the field—outside, inside, every side—because a nifty receiver will make one quick cut and turn a 10-yard reception into a 70-yarder. Hearing 60,000 fans boo is very bad for the mental stability of your defensive backs.
You use the blitz sparingly, like the exotic herb in a stew. You just don't keep sending in those linebackers and defensive backs in waves, because if the offense blocks everybody, bad things are sure to follow.
October 15, 1989
Those are the rules, and Philadelphia coach Buddy Ryan chose to ignore them. The result this season was a 2-2 record, with the 4-0 Giants coming into Veterans Stadium. "That's the way we play," Ryan has often said. "We won the division last year that way."
The Eagles got away with breaking the rules because they have the most explosive offensive player (quarterback Randall Cunningham) and defensive player (end Reggie White) in pro football, because they force a lot of turnovers and because the players seem to rise beyond themselves for Ryan. But it has been a risky way to travel. Things were different on Sunday.
Against the Giants, the Eagles ran more than they passed, a lot more. They blitzed only on occasion, and they mixed a lot of zone and combination coverages in with their normal man-to-man schemes. They gave up no deep completions, and this approach produced the big interception at the end of the game that sealed the victory.
Maybe it was the 80-yard reception Washington Redskins wide receiver Gary Clark broke against Philly's defense on Sept. 17 that changed Ryan's mind; or the 68-yarder by the San Francisco 49ers' Jerry Rice the next week; or the 70-yarder in the same game by the Niners' other wideout, John Taylor; or the 36-yard touchdown by Chicago Bears tight end James Thornton near the end of a bitter 27-13 Monday night loss on Oct. 2. Maybe it was the sight of his defense finally wearing down against the Bears—it was on the field for 73 snaps and 37½ minutes while Philly's offense was the ultimate in unbalance, 66 pass plays to 15 runs over 22½ minutes—that turned Ryan toward ball-control Sunday.
Most likely, personnel had a lot to do with the switch. Making his first start since being acquired by the Eagles a year ago was right guard Ron Solt, who had been sidelined by knee surgery last year and by a steroid suspension this season. Solt is a former All-Pro guard for the Indianapolis Colts who had cost Philadelphia a first-round draft choice in '89 and a fourth-rounder in '90. Pro Bowl offensive linemen are a rare sight in Philly. The Eagles have had only three of them in the last 28 years and none since 1982.
There was also a target to run at, the Giants' left defensive end, John Washington, who took over when Eric Dorsey broke his foot on Sept. 17. Philly's outstanding tight end, Keith Jackson, was out of the lineup with a bad back, and his place was taken by Jimmie Giles, a so-so catcher but a formidable blocker. Hmmm, Solt, Giles and veteran tackle Ron Heller, another good run blocker, all on the right side. Some possibilities there. Trouble was, the Eagles weren't running at any old team. New York entered the game with the league's third-best defense against the run.
At last Thursday's practice, Ryan was asked what he would try to do against the Giants. "Establish the run," he said. Eyes turned skyward because that is what he says every week. In the first halves of their previous games, the Eagles tried to establish the run, which is what you do so people won't call you a sissy, and then in the second halves they let Cunningham do his thing and try to win the game.
But if you looked closely in the early going Sunday, you could see little signs that things were going to be different. On the first play of the game, Keith Byars ran right for seven yards. This was the longest gain of the season for Byars, who came into the game with 15 carries for 24 yards. On the next series he had a nine-yarder, again to the right side.
Later, when the Eagles were down 16-7 in the fourth quarter, the play that got them back in the game was a 44-yard run by fullback Anthony Toney, the longest in his four-year career. It, too, came on the right side. To freeze linebacker Lawrence Taylor, the play began with a fake reverse toward the other side of the field. "We looked like a pro football team," said Ryan. "We ran the ball. We did the things we had to to win."
Running wasn't the whole story, of course, but it was a big part of it. The Eagles' numbers on the ground were 36 carries for 158 yards. The Giants hadn't allowed that many rushing yards in 19 games. Cunningham's passing stats were meager (10 completions in 24 attempts for 106 yards), but the Eagles' ratio of run to pass was unusual. Only the Miami Dolphins entered Sunday with a higher pass-to-run ratio than Philly.
Cunningham, being Cunningham, did it with his legs as well as his arm. Late in the second quarter he completed a full gainer over linebacker Gary Reasons and safety Terry Kinard (degree of difficulty: 3.5) from five yards out for Philly's first touchdown. Then, with the ball on the New York one-yard line early in the fourth quarter, he sprinted to his left, was tackled and barely reached the ball into the end zone. Touchdown, ruled the line judge. Cunningham's knee hit the ground short of the goal line, the ball was over it, and the replay official said "inconclusive." On the winning drive in the final minutes, Cunningham's seven-yard scramble set up Toney's two-yard TD run.
Cunningham ran for 44 yards but for once he didn't lead the team in rushing. That honor went to Toney, who had 68 yards on 12 carries. "Randall made some big first downs for us," Ryan said. "If not for Randall we'd lose 100-0. Hell, yes, I want him to run. He's an athlete. Fran Tarkenton ran for Minnesota. Roger Staubach kept Dallas in the playoffs by running. If I start worrying about him, that's when he'll get hurt. Everyone's playing football out there."
Philly got off to its usual slow start. The Giants put up two field goals in the first half, plus a touchdown—a 22-yard pass from backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler to linebacker Carl Banks on a fake field goal. Philly answered with a fake field goal of its own, a hopeless pop-fly pass by punter John Teltschik. It was intercepted but drew an interference penalty, setting up Cunningham's first scoring dive. The Eagles were running the ball a bit but doing little else, and the Giants had unleashed a new force, 5'7", 180-pound, rookie halfback Dave Meggett, the smallest man on their team.
Mark the name down. He had been mostly a return man, but when the Giants realized that O.J. Anderson—and the power-running game that had served them so well—was getting stuffed, they turned to the little guy, a fifth-round pick from Towson State. They used Meggett in the backfield, and they put him out on the flank, occasionally going with a five-wideout set on long-yardage downs. Meggett figured prominently in each of New York's first-half scoring drives, and he had a game-high six catches for 89 yards. But it was the way he caught the passes that was so impressive: effortlessly. He looked as if he were born to be an NFL pass catcher. "He reminds me of the Bears' Dennis Gentry," said Eagles linebacker Al Harris. "I never heard of him. I know him now."
One good sign for the Eagles was that they weren't giving up anything deep or cheap. In the second half their pass rush began to have an impact, and New York stalled. "At half-time we told them to cut back on the blitzes and let us handle it," said defensive tackle Jerome Brown.
The Giants scored on a field goal to extend their lead to 16-7 as the fourth quarter opened. The Eagles, whose three third-quarter possessions had been a trio of three downs and out, got a 45-yard return from Heath Sherman on the ensuing kickoff. The next play, Toney's 44-yarder, set up the touchdown that closed the gap to 16-14. The Giants got another field goal with 5:59 left to extend their lead to 19-14. Then Cunningham began the 81-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown.
With 2:18 to go, Philly faced one of the best two-minute quarterbacks in the business, Phil Simms. The Giants' first play turned out the lights. They lined up three receivers to the right—Odessa Turner as the inside man next to Mark Ingram, and Lionel Manuel on the outside. "They like to run picks in that situation," said Philly free safety Wes Hopkins afterward. "They send one guy to pick you off and throw to the receiver coming in back of him. They expected us to be in man coverage on that side, but we called a zone."
Turner ran the pick, trying to screen the man opposite him, nickelback William Frizzell, and Ingram ran a slant behind Turner in what should have been an open area. But Frizzell held his position, locked on Ingram, wrestled the ball away from him, and the Eagles had their win. "We were unpredictable," Frizzell said. "We were going back and forth, from zone to man, all day. They thought we were going to keep blitzing and it would be easy pickings. We concentrated; we locked on our coverages. We took away the things that had killed us in the past."
If one Eagle was happier than Frizzell, who has heard his share of boos this year, it was Solt. He had cost Philadelphia those two high draft choices, played three series and then sat out the rest of '88 with two knee operations. This year he missed 30 days after testing positive for steroids at camp.
"The Colts know what they did," said Solt. "They traded me with an injury. Right now my knees are 85 percent. I think I can play better than most people can play right now, but it's not as good as Ron Solt can do. I was an All-Pro once , and I can reach that level again. When our offensive coordinator told me in practice this week that a big part of the game plan would center around me, around running the right side, well, it meant a lot to me. After two years it's a new start. It's been a hell of a long off-season."
Said Cunningham, "You've got Solt in there. The guy's got his problems, but finally he's back. Solt and Heller work so well together. Our offensive line was the reason for the win today."
"Solt is an All-Pro coming in," said offensive coordinator Ted Plumb, "and he hasn't reached his peak. It's a comfortable feeling. There's a presence about him, a respect he commands. We don't have to devise things to trick people every week now or come up with some special plan. We can run the football right at them, and the beauty of it is that once we do it, we can do nothing but get better at it."
Sometimes it pays to conform.