Well, The Philadelphia Eagles won their October Super Bowl. They blew out the Dallas Cowboys 31-7 on Monday night, in a battle of the unbeatens that was more lavishly hyped than any of the Eagles' three playoff games in the Buddy Ryan era. The Philly defense gave up yards but not points, and when it turned up the jets a notch in the third quarter and blitzed Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman, the Eagles broke open the game. On offense, Herschel Walker kept pounding away and Randall Cunningham did his thing.
A familiar script. But just what the 66,572 fans at the Vet wanted to see. The Eagles sent 'em home happy, the fans' reward for withstanding a two-week barrage of hype that had them convinced this was the most important thing they'd seen since, gosh, the golden days of the Flyers, the Phillies, the Super Bowl of '81...you name it.
And the question is, Where do the Eagles go from here? Playoffs? Can't miss. Super Bowl? Who knows? Bad things seem to happen to the Eagles in the winter. And then what? That's the bad part. There's a sense of urgency about this team, a sense that they had better win it all this season, because if free agency arrives full bore, this team will be a prime target of the looters. "There's definitely a feeling that this could be it," says Reggie White, Philly's All-Pro defensive end, who had two sacks Monday night.
White is the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit filed on behalf of about 280 NFL players whose contracts expire on Feb. 1, 1993. They want to be declared unrestricted free agents on that date, just as former Eagle tight end Keith Jackson was set free by U.S. District Court judge David Doty's ruling on Sept. 24 (page 30). "We've got 27 contracts on this team coming up next year," White says. "You'd hope that we'd stay together, but free agency could be the worst thing to happen to this team."
Wait a minute now. Philadelphia owner Norman Braman picked up Walker and his hefty salary this summer, didn't he? And Herschel was good for 86 ball-control yards against the Cowboys plus two of his team's four rushing touchdowns. "Oh, sure, this team will go out and get players," White says, "but it won't deal with the guys who are here. Randall Cunningham's the only guy who's happy with his contract. Every other player has been dragged through the mud sometime during his contract negotiations."
O.K., that's next year, the future. Let's savor this moment, this game, in a town once again gone wacky for its Iggles.
How big was this game? Early in Philly's 30-0 romp over the Denver Broncos at the Vet on Sept. 20, the fans started chanting, "We want Dallas!" They would have to wait two weeks because the Eagles and the Cowboys, both 3-0, had a bye on Sept. 27, but that allowed for the extra week of buildup that culminated on Monday, when The Philadelphia Daily News ran a 20-page pullout section on the NFC East showdown and five of the six sections of The Philadelphia Inquirer had a front-page story on some aspect of the matchup. WIP sports radio started its pregame show at six o'clock—that was a.m., 15 hours before kickoff.
It was a big game for the Eagles, but one the Cowboys kept in perspective. Dallas had its Super Bowl in September: the Monday night opener against the NFL champion Washington Redskins, which the Cowboys won 23-10. Washington wasn't really ready to play, and all that, but for Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson it had been the focus of his preseason. And how many times can you pound the blackboard and holler "This is it!" before you're even out of October? "We're a young team, and we're coming along fine," Johnson said Monday afternoon. "Win or lose, we'll be right on track."
It's a tough place to play, the Vet. Psyched-up home team, psyched-up fans. After Denver's John Elway pulled still another last-minute win out of the hat against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, someone asked him if he had given up hope when his team was down by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. "No, when I think we've lost is when the game is over," he said, "unless we're in Philly."
There was no annihilation Monday night—just a slow process of erosion, the application of pressure to see who would crack first. Dallas could have been out of it very quickly. On the third play of the game, Aikman was intercepted by Eagle defensive back John Booty, who ran it to the Cowboy 14 and set up a touchdown. The fans got even wilder. But it was at this point that Dallas and Aikman showed their courage, driving 84 yards in eight plays on their next possession for a matching TD that left the place strangely quiet. The realization was dawning that the Cowboys weren't unbeaten for nothing.
It was also on that drive that Philly's most pivotal moment occurred, an innocuous five-yard gain by Emmitt Smith to the Eagle 25 that could have turned the game. All-Pro Seth Joyner, the Eagles' best blitzer and coverage linebacker, went down, holding his left knee. Then he was up, hobbling into the end zone, jogging back, trying to run it off. "I thought the ref would call an injury timeout, but he didn't. So I called it myself," free safety Wes Hopkins said later. "We didn't even have a defense called, and you know what that means. Six points."
"I was scared to death," defensive coordinator Bud Carson added. "I didn't know whether to pull him out or leave him in or what. I was cursing myself for not giving his backup, Kenny Rose, enough repetitions in practice. You can bet that I will from now on."
"You go to the bench and have it iced, and it stiffens and you're through," Joyner said. "I told Bud during the timeout, 'Let me stay in as long as I'm not hurting us.' "
On their next play the Cowboys got the first down, which set up their touchdown, on an 11-yard pass to tight end Jay Novacek, who beat the gimpy Joyner. Later in the first quarter Aikman found Novacek, again being covered by Joyner, for a 17-yarder, and in the second quarter Novacek beat Joyner once more, for a nine-yard completion. And that was the last yardage Joyner gave up in the game.
"We don't blitz these days," Carson said, "but I knew we had to, to shake 'em up and make things happen. Seth's our best blitzer. What do I do? Then he told me, 'The hell with it. Let me try.' "
Philly called five blitzes in the game, including four by Joyner. The Eagles came out ahead on three of those four: On the first of them, Aikman threw incomplete; then linebacker Byron Evans intercepted Aikman early in the third quarter to set up the touchdown that gave Philly a 17-7 lead; and the final blitz, on Dallas's next series, created one of the night's weirder plays, one that put the game away.
Joyner pressured Aikman into a dump-off pass to fullback Daryl Johnston, and Evans was waiting. "I read it all the way," he said. "I drilled him, and he gave it up." The loose ball was caught by Dallas guard John Gesek, who was promptly nailed by tackle Andy Harmon, and this time the fumble was recovered by Eagle linebacker William Thomas at the Philly 48. That set up Walker's second touchdown, a 16-yard run early in the fourth quarter that made the score 24-7. Party time.
So the Eagles shook things up with a big-play defense and won the turnover battle 4-1. What else is new? Well, there's Walker, who's running and reading out of his comfort zone, the deep-back position in the I formation. And the offensive line, which has been so maligned for years, is now a weighty and effective drive-blocking unit. Notable was the job the left side, tackle Ron Heller and guard Mike Schad, did on the Cowboys' new sack specialist, former 49er Charles Haley. One tackle, no assists and one quarterback pressure was Haley's total for the night.
And how about Cunningham, who came into the game as the NFL's highest-rated passer but whose stats were modest Monday night (11 for 19,124 yards, no TDs, one interception)? Well, Randall is still Randall—make the quick read and, if the pass isn't there, take off. He had seven carries, 43 yards and a touchdown. It's not a bad way to travel. Cunningham is now 8-1 versus the Cowboys; Aikman is 0-5 versus the Eagles. Dallas will get another chance against Philadelphia on Nov. 1 at Texas Stadium.
"We're human," Cowboy left guard Nate Newton said. "They beat us. They beat us handily. But they didn't kill Troy Aikman or put Emmitt Smith's fire out. The bad guys win sometimes. We just have to face it. We can't let one game ruin our season."