Whenever the Washington Redskins get ready to play the Philadelphia Eagles, Skins defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon puts the same message on the bulletin board: "Randall Cunningham is the greatest scrambler ever to play this game." He reminded his players again last week. "This time he put it up in extra big letters," said Tim Johnson, the left defensive tackle.
The Eagles are normally a heavy enough load for the Redskins, but last Saturday's game was special. For the first time, the teams were meeting in the postseason, in an NFC wild-card playoff. Then there were the memories of Washington's shattering loss to Philly eight weeks earlier, when two Skins quarterbacks were knocked out of action and seven other Washington players were injured. Last week coach Joe Gibbs told his Redskins, "Our staff has never worked harder preparing for a game."
And that preparation paid off. The Eagles had lived by the miracle play this year, but the Age of Miracles ended on a cold, cloudy afternoon at Veterans Stadium with a 20-6 loss to the Redskins. There was no remarkable Cunningham scramble ending in a touchdown pass deep downfield, no volleyball between the wide receivers (you tip, I tip, you catch, TD), no sack-fumble-score stuff from the defense—none of the wild plays that helped get Philly into the playoffs for the third straight year.
What the 65,287 fans at the Vet saw instead was a collection of things that weren't supposed to happen. The Skins' offensive line, battered and banged up, held Philadelphia's mighty pass rush to no sacks. "We just sort of swelled up," said left guard Raleigh McKenzie after the game. The Washington front four also exerted tremendous pressure on Cunningham—he was sacked five times—and most of the time when the Redskins blitzed a linebacker, Cunningham had to run for his life. Along the way, there was the rare sight of Cunningham being benched (he was back after one series) and the emergence in the first half of a new TV hero, George Sladky, an instant-replay official.
January 14, 1991
On Tuesday, four days before the teams met, Gibbs sat in his office and studied his charts and talked about the Eagles, whom he knows as well as any opposing coach in the NFL knows them. His record against Philly since Buddy Ryan took over as the Eagles' coach in 1986 was 7-3. In his 10th season as Washington's coach, Gibbs's postseason record was 11-3, and he had lost only one opening playoff game out of five. This is the time of year when Gibbs is at his best. He knows how to bring the Redskins to a peak when the playoffs start. However, there was one disturbing note: that disastrous last meeting with the Eagles. No one knew what kind of effect that game would have on Gibbs's team.
In midseason, the blah part of a 10-6 regular season for Washington, the Skins had spotted the Detroit Lions a 35-14 lead before rallying to win 41-38 in overtime. The man responsible for the victory was 33-year-old quarterback Jeff Rutledge, the perennial backup, who had come off the bench to relieve Stan Humphries, who was in because No. 1 quarterback Mark Rypien was on injured reserve with a sprained left knee. So in one of the worst decisions of his career, Gibbs decided to start Rutledge the following week against the Eagles—at the Vet, in a Monday nighter. Raw meat to the lions.
Philadelphia knocked Rutledge out of the game, and then did the same to Humphries. Washington ended the game with a halfback, Brian Mitchell, taking the snaps. After the 28-14 Philadelphia victory, lots of ugly quotes came out of the Eagle locker room about ambulances and body bags. The Washington offensive linemen kept their mouths shut—and they waited.
Now as the Skins approached the wildcard playoff, Gibbs was talking about the talent-laden Eagles, who have thrived on emotion, freak plays and all the intangibles that have made Buddyball so beloved in Philly. "Everything was wrong that night against them," he said. "We were out of sync, and when they get going on you, it's tough. When you talk about the Eagles, you talk about a collection of fantastic athletes on both sides of the ball, guys capable of taking over the game with their athletic ability, defensive linemen who can kill you if you let them. We're different. We have to be consistent. We have to be hitting on all cylinders, and if not, we're going to be beaten."
The Skins were patched up on both the offensive and defensive lines, but so were the Eagles, who may have been worse off. While the Philadelphia guards, Ron Solt and Mike Schad, would start, they were hobbling. Center David Alexander was out with a knee injury. Defensive right tackle Jerome Brown—whose quick penetrations had been crucial in stopping Washington's favorite running play, the counter trey, in the teams' last meeting—had a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, and his arm was dangling uselessly at his side.
Last Friday night Ryan was having a drink in his hotel suite with his pal John Mazur, the former New England Patriot coach, and a couple of other friends when there was a knock on the door. It was Jerome Brown. "Look, I've got to play in this game," said Brown.
"You can't raise your arm," Ryan told him. "The doc says no way."
"They can strap my arm to my side," Brown said. "They can shoot it so I won't feel anything. I'm not going to miss this one."
"We'll see," Ryan said.
Brown didn't start, but he played about half the game, bull-rushing with one functional shoulder and arm. He even forced a fumble. It was that kind of game.
The Eagles knew their biggest challenge would be moving the ball on a Petit-bon defense that, more often than not, had had their number. This season Philadelphia had a new offensive coordinator. Rich Kotite, from the Joe Walton Jets, who had given the offense more complexity, more formations. His plan was to run a lot of no-huddle, hurry-up plays to keep Washington's nickel package off the field. Philadelphia particularly wanted to see as little as possible of linebacker Monte Coleman, a superior athlete whose role would be that of Cunningham's spy, the guy who would track Cunningham on his scrambles. The Eagles also hoped to spring their most effective runner, fullback Heath Sherman, for big gains to the outside by aiming their wideouts, Calvin Williams and Fred Barnett, a terrific pair of blockers, at the Redskins' safeties and letting Sherman deal with the corner-backs himself.
Nothing worked. The Skins stuffed the running game. Philadelphia's line couldn't control Washington's front four, particularly Johnson (two sacks), a pass-rush specialist who came from the Pittsburgh Steelers in the preseason in exchange for a fourth-round draft choice. This group exerted so much pressure on Cunningham that the Redskins' linebackers were able to devote themselves to a pass-coverage scheme that worked so well the Eagles' leading receiver, slotback Keith Byars, caught only one ball (for eight yards) before the game got out of Philadelphia's reach in the fourth period.
Cunningham was under too much pressure to get anything going to his wideouts, who are deep threats, not control receivers. The short stuff goes to Byars and to tight end Keith Jackson, who was the Eagles' only potent weapon on Saturday (five catches for 116 yards). One completion for nine yards was the total production of the wideout corps.
Philly didn't figure on the exceptional progress that Washington's rookie linebacker, Andre Collins, a second-round draft pick out of Penn State, had made. Collins, who can run a 4.5 40, was on the field most of the day, in both base and nickel situations, stopping the run, knocking the ball loose in zone coverage, playing the spy role on Cunningham and occasionally blitzing. He was the unchartable element.
Offensively, the Redskins couldn't run much on the Eagles—they had first-and-goal from the six and from the two and had to settle for field goals both times—but their front wall controlled the Philly rush. "After the last game against them we just said, 'Never again.' " said Washington right guard Mark Schlereth afterward. "It was a pride thing."
The only way the Eagles could generate pressure on Rypien was when they blitzed safety Wes Hopkins. When they came with their outside linebackers, Rypien simply dumped the ball to tailback Earnest Byner (seven catches, 77 yards) in the vacated area, and the coverage was late picking him up. That was the pattern in the second quarter, when the Skins, leading 7-6, moved the ball from the 50 to the Philadelphia 17 on two dump-offs to Byner. Then they tried another one. This time Byner rambled to the six, where cornerback Ben Smith made the tackle, and the ball popped free. Smith picked it up and was off and running—94 yards for a score, according to referee Gene Barth.
Poor Byner. When he was with Cleveland, his fumble at the Denver three cost the Browns the 1987 AFC championship, and last week Ryan predicted that Byner would cough up the ball against the Eagles. But wait. Sladky was reviewing the play in the replay booth. Had the fumble been caused by contact with the ground, which would mean no fumble? George Sladky, four years in the replay booth and before that a respected Big Ten and Southwest Conference official. George Sladky, once a halfback for the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, "a journeyman halfback," he says. George Sladky reversed the call, and Washington retained possession at the six. Eagle fans were screaming.
In the press box Art McNally, the NFL's supervisor of officials, was smiling. It was a gutsy call, the correct call.
"You going to have an armed guard to take him to his car?" someone asked McNally.
"No one knows what he looks like," said McNally.
The Skins got a field goal. It was a 10-point call. How big in the overall context of what followed? No one can say for sure, but 10 points in playoff competition is plenty big.
In the third quarter the Washington defense took over. Cunningham was overmatched. He had been sacked twice in the first half when the Eagles got close to the goal line (two field goals), but now they weren't even getting close. Cunningham was having trouble with his reads. He had little time to throw. So with 2:29 remaining in the period and the score 13-6, Ryan brought in 31-year-old Jim McMahon, who had thrown only nine passes all year.
"I was getting ready to go in," Cunningham said later, "and they just said, 'Jim's in.' I said, 'Thanks for letting me know.' It's kind of insulting when I sit and think about it, but that's football. It's tough to get anything going when you don't have any time back there."
"I don't think I embarrassed anyone," said Ryan, who's now 0-3 in postseason play. "I was embarrassed by the way we played. I've seen Jim McMahon do things before. I've seen him pull things out. You have to try and win any way you can."
When Petitbon saw McMahon take the field, his response was automatic. He pushed the blitz button. The baying hounds attacked in waves, and McMahon's contribution was three incomplete passes.
"Very nasty of you to do such a thing to a respected veteran," someone said to Petitbon afterward.
"Nobody said you played this game in short pants," he said.
The game was essentially over. The Skins iced it with a TD on their next possession, and the fourth quarter was devoted to Cunningham dumping the ball to his backs, which served only to make his stats look respectable. He ended up completing 15 of 29 throws for 205 yards, but running backs caught nine of the passes. Kotite's offense on this day—dink and dump with nothing much happening downfield—bore a striking resemblance to the 4-12 Jets' offense of 1989.
So what had Petitbon done? How had he stymied what had been such an exciting offense? "Mix up the coverage, give 'em different looks," he droned afterward, smiling because he knew and we knew that he wasn't going to tell us much of anything. Petitbon, a former Pro Bowl defensive back who has been in charge of the Skins' defense since 1981, has been over the course too many times for that. Washington cornerback Darrell Green said the key was the rush; it was so good that the defensive backs could clamp on their guys tightly and quickly. Defensive end Markus Koch said the coverage was so good that Cunningham had to wait in the pocket—and then the rush got to him. Mutual admiration.
Now the Skins must go against the San Francisco 49ers, with Joe Montana and that underrated defense. It won't be easy. The Niners have won four of their last five meetings with Washington, including a 26-13 victory in September, in which Montana & Co. ran up 487 yards. But this is playoff football, and the unpredictable has been known to happen. Just ask Randall Cunningham.