The words Pelted Randall Cunningham like so many hailstones, but he just sat there and listened. It was early April, three months after the Philadelphia Eagles had ended a third straight season with a first-game playoff loss, and the players were gathered in a Veterans Stadium meeting room, presumably to heal wounds left from the 1990 postseason. But Cunningham, the Eagles' quarterback, was being cut apart by his teammates all over again.
Cunningham knew of the players' anger because in the previous weeks the local papers had been full of anonymous quotes from teammates. He had been instrumental in getting coach Buddy Ryan fired with his nonsupportive comments after the crushing 20-6 playoff loss to the Washington Redskins, teammates said. He had been a selfish player throughout the season, teammates said. And he had isolated himself in his $1.4 million mansion with the quarter-million-dollar backyard, in Moorestown, N.J., not sharing his good fortune with the guys he sweat and bled with, teammates said.
When it came his turn to talk at the April meeting, Cunningham's lip quivered. "I love every one of the guys in this room," he said. "I don't think I have an ego problem. There's nothing more important to me in the world than football."
That was the last day of bloodletting for the Eagles. While everything wasn't coming up roses last week as they completed a voluntary minicamp in preparation for Monday's opening of coach Rich Kotite's first training camp, the Eagles at least appeared to be less divided than they were six months ago. "A lot of mending has been done," says linebacker Seth Joyner, who in February described the team as having been torn limb from limb. "But has the surgery been successful? We'll have to wait and see. If we win 10, 11 games, and we win a playoff game or two, then you can say the surgery worked."
July 21, 1991
Entering the 1990 playoffs, only three NFL teams had won more regular-season games over the previous three years than the 31 that Philadelphia had won, and Cunningham was coming off an MVP-caliber season. However, late in the third quarter of the Washington game, with the Eagles trailing 13-6, Ryan pulled an ineffective Cunningham for one series and inserted Jim McMahon, who had thrown only nine passes all season. McMahon made three feeble pass attempts, and a shaken Cunningham returned to the game on Philly's next possession. But he failed to rally his team.
Afterward, Cunningham said the benching insulted him, and when writers asked if he wanted to see the embattled Ryan return as the Eagles' coach, he said, "Of course. Buddy's a good coach." Then, without being prompted, Cunningham added, "I mean, Kotite's a great coach."
Now, understand that this was a vehemently pro-Buddy team, and a segment of players already thought Cunningham was too full of himself. Three days later, Philadelphia owner Norman Braman fired Ryan and replaced him with offensive coordinator Kotite. So the resentment among the players boiled over, until defensive captain Reggie White, who was among the players most upset by Ryan's firing and who held Cunningham partially accountable for it, scheduled that April meeting during minicamp.
Here's how the Cunningham-related resentment has played out:
•On the coaching change: "It's so farfetched [to believe that] Randall had anything to do with it," Braman said last week. "Right after the Washington game, I'd decided we had to make a change. And [Eagle president] Harry Gamble told me to think about it, to make sure it was what I wanted to do."
Cunningham claims his postgame remark was merely an attempt to emphasize his respect for Kotite, and he did go on to say that the Eagles were better off with Ryan and Kotite together. The defensive players seem to have taken to Kotite and new defensive coordinator Bud Carson. One day last week, White lay down after completing five of eight scheduled wind sprints. Ryan might have let him lie there. Kotite went over, gave him a playful kick, and White, chuckling, got up and ran the last three sprints.
•On Cunningham's me-me-me image: "I think the problem was bigger than people realize," Joyner says. "Forty-five guys count on him to be a leader, and he has to be a positive force. Last year, I think people saw negative things coming from him." For example, against the Buffalo Bills, the acrobatic Cunningham evaded a sack by Bruce Smith in the end zone and threw a 95-yard touchdown pass. Although the Eagles lost, Cunningham was quoted in the next day's papers as saying, "Sometimes I do amaze myself."
Some of the criticism of Cunningham is pettiness. When a player as dynamic and engaging as Cunningham shines, he's going to be smothered by the media, and his teammates have to accept that. But both sides might heed the example of the 1990 AFC champion Bills. After his teammates had accused him in '89 of being selfish, Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly spent last season being the league's MHP—Most Humble Player.
•On his big house: Cunningham says all his teammates have an open invitation to lift in his weight room and train on the 70-by 55-yard grass practice field that is his backyard. In Cunningham's mind, if you build it, they will come. The reality is, if you build it—and then invite them nicely to their faces—they might come. "I think sometimes you have to reach out to players a little more," says Cunningham pal and Eagle running back Keith Byars. "I think Randall's going to do that this year."
His teammates' resentment hurt him so deeply that after the April meeting, he considered walking away from the final five years of his seven-year, $17.9 million contract. "I seriously thought about quitting football," says Cunningham. "I'm not kidding. There was so much negative stuff I'd never planned for, and I thought, How can I get all this negative off me? I was at the breaking point. But the more I thought about it, I said, 'I'm not a quitter. I won't quit on this.' "
Cunningham, 28, has accepted his teammates' criticism and insists that what happened in the off-season won't negatively affect the '91 season. "Time will tell if he'll make the change," says Joyner. "I can sense a difference in him; he's more sociable, spending time with his teammates more. The thing is, will it hold up?"
Good question. It's July, and not much is known about the '91 Eagles. But remember, Ryan's influence made this an emotionally volatile team, and when the Eagles opened camp, many key guys, including Joyner, were among the 20 players missing because of contract disputes. One of the holdouts, defensive tackle Jerome Brown, had one sack last year, and he's asking to become the highest-paid defensive lineman in the league. While these things tend to get solved, rekindling team harmony is another matter. Cunningham is finding that out right now.