Just about everyone had cleared out of the Philadelphia Eagle locker room after a short practice last Saturday, leaving quarterback Randall Cunningham, who was being benched for Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Raiders, alone with his thoughts. "You watch what'll happen tomorrow," said Cunningham in the same upbeat way he had been talking for the past half hour. "We'll win 27-3 or 30-3, something like that. Then what will we do?"
Here it was 24 hours before Jim McMahon was to replace Cunningham in the lineup, and the heat was still being turned up on the incendiary question of who would guide the Eagle offense. But the answer, which came during and after Philly's 31-10 hammering of the Raiders at Veterans Stadium, says something promising about a team that has continually fallen short of expectations. The Eagles put up and shut up.
While building a 31-3 lead, Philadelphia held L.A. to 124 yards in the first 55 minutes. McMahon, who has made a second NFL career out of rescuing the Eagle offense when it struggles, was competent and confident, completing 12 of 24 passes for 157 yards and one touchdown. Watching from the sidelines, Cunningham was a good soldier, shaking all the requisite hands and laughing with McMahon as time expired.
Afterward, the loosest lips on the Eagles—even when guaranteed anonymity—wouldn't comment on who should play quarterback. Philly coach Rich Kotite simply reaffirmed the vow he had made in midweek, namely that despite what McMahon might accomplish against the Raiders, Cunningham would be back in the lineup a week later against the Green Bay Packers. "Period," Kotite said. "End of story."
After the Eagles got off to a 4-0 start, their offense spent a month in the gutter as the team dropped three of four games. At halftime of what would become a 20-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 1, Kotite decided to bench Cunningham for only the second time in Cunningham's eight-year career. The first benching, during a wild-card playoff two years ago, sent Cunningham sulking to the sideline, infuriated his teammates, left team owner Norman Braman outraged and cost coach Buddy Ryan his job. This time everyone reacted rationally, and the Eagles put forth an impressive effort to improve to 6-3 and remain two games behind the Cowboys in the NFC East.
"What a day this was for the mental state of this team," said Philly left guard Mike Schad after Sunday's game. "We beat Phoenix two weeks ago, 7-3, but the offense did nothing. Then we went to Dallas and did nothing, and we came back here in a big state of depression. We go from 4-0 to the point where I'm checking our shadow in the NFC East. This game was urgent, especially with the quarterback thing around here this week."
The quarterback thing. Where is it written that a coach can't sit a slumping star? Cunningham had completed five of 17 passes for 24 yards with one interception in the four quarters before he was pulled. Cunningham was so unsure of his decision making that even his vaunted athleticism couldn't save him. "He was one-hopping throws to wide-open receivers," said Kotite last Saturday. "I just want him to sit back, get his bearings and get ready for next week, because for us to go anywhere this year, we have to go with Randall."
This team has given rise to great expectations in recent years, with a core of Cunningham, Keith Byars and Keith Jackson (now with the Miami Dolphins) on offense, and Reggie White, the late Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, Andre Waters and Wes Hopkins on defense. Yet this talented group has not won a single playoff game—a crushing blow to its following. A 31-7 Monday-night massacre of the Cowboys in the fourth game of the season electrified the city, but the ensuing 1-3 performance and the quarterback switch darkened the fans' mood. The headline across the top of the front page of Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer blared, THE EAGLES' BIG GAMBLE: HOW WILL CUNNINGHAM RESPOND?
Conventional football wisdom says good quarterbacks have to fight through slumps; pulling them can bruise their confidence. In this instance Cunningham took his benching surprisingly well. He has always been one of those guys who change their stories, depending on their moods or their audiences. And though he was unpredictable from day to day when addressing the press last week, he never ripped Kotite or McMahon. "He handled it well, better than I thought he would," said Joyner. "I thought he'd be pouting like a little baby."
"I'll tell you how I've kept my confidence up," said Cunningham on Saturday, moving to a bulletin board in the locker room and pointing to the weekly NFL stats. Starting at the bottom of the NFC quarterback ratings, he called out the names one by one: "Mark Rypien; has he been benched? No. Bobby Hebert; has he been benched? No. Troy Aikman; has he been benched? No. Rich Gannon; has he been benched? No." Then he got to his name and said, "I see where I am in relation to everyone else, and then I know I'm not so horrible."
On Sunday the Philadelphia defense gave McMahon the ball in L.A. territory on the Eagles' first four possessions, and when the time came to shake free of the Raiders, the offense came through. With two minutes to go in the first half, Philly had possession at the L.A. 42. McMahon came to the huddle and said, "Just give me a little time. If I get the protection on this one, I'm going for the TD."
The play called for wide receiver Fred Barnett to break inside after about 15 yards; instead McMahon told Barnett to fake inside and run deep. Barnett went long, the pass was thrown perfectly, and the Eagles had a 17-3 lead at intermission. Los Angeles didn't make a peep the rest of the way. After the game, neither did McMahon. "If we start complaining about who's playing and who's not, it's going to divide the team," he said. "That's what we don't want."
The Eagles go on the road to play the Packers, the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers the next three weeks, so Cunningham should be able to work out his problems without hearing chants of "Bring back Mac!" Privately, he said last week that he would ask Kotite to put "more of the plays I like" in the game plan—plays that have Byars going in motion and catching balls in the flat, plays in which the tight end is the primary receiver. "Two years ago," said Cunningham, "I had a great tight end in Keith Jackson and a great receiver out of the backfield in Keith Byars. Now we're going away from that, and we're catering to the wide receivers. I'd like to go back to doing what we did in 1990."
For one Sunday, Kotite's gamble worked. Seven more Sundays are left in Philly's regular season, with five games against playoff contenders. "It'll be a long time before you see the full effects of this week," said Joyner. But the Eagles had ended a tense week with a harmonious three-touchdown victory, Cunningham had a smile on his face, and Philadelphia again looked like one of the best teams in football.