The pundits who were stunned by the Philadelphia Eagles' 58-37
win last Saturday over the Detroit Lions failed to take into
account one significant part of the Eagles: coach Ray Rhodes.
One day late in the season a TV analyst asked Rhodes to smile
for the camera. "I don't smile," Rhodes informed him. "And I
don't do luncheons. And I don't like to lose football games."
What we are also learning about this fiercely driven man is that
he gets his team ready for the big games. It was Philadelphia's
20-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 10-the Eagles'
first win over the Cowboys in four years-that brought Rhodes's
team to within a game of clinching a playoff berth, and last
Saturday's win was a nearly flawless performance by a team
composed largely of bargain-basement free-agent pickups.
Rhodes played wide receiver and cornerback for the New York
Giants from 1974 to '79 and spent one season at cornerback for
the San Francisco 49ers before joining the Niner staff in '81.
After two years as the Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator,
in '92 and '93, he returned to San Francisco last season to help
build a defense that, with six new starters, finished eighth in
total defense and second against the run.
"When you talk about winning, you can only mean one thing, and
that's a championship," Rhodes said in February when he was
hired to coach Philadelphia. Those words appeared to mock him
after the Eagles lost their opener 21-6 to the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers and then sank to 1-3 after a 48-17 blowout by the
Oakland Raiders on Sept. 24. "After the Tampa Bay game I woke up
in a cold sweat," Rhodes said recently. "I had chills. I was
haunted by the fear of failure. I had nightmares after the
Raiders beat us and scored 48 unanswered points. I couldn't get
over it. Where did I go wrong? It ate at me like a cancer. It
was my lowest point in 15 years.
"The day after the Raider game I told my team, 'I don't care who
we play next, but it's going to be an alley fight. I want some
skinned knuckles. I want blood.'" Philadelphia regrouped and won
nine of its next 11.
Going into last Saturday's wild-card game Rhodes had the Eagles
in a nasty, edgy mood. Fights broke out in practice. "Pretty
testy," said left guard Guy McIntyre, a former 49er, after last
Saturday's victory. "But that's the way Ray runs his practices."
Rhodes had turned the game planning over to his assistants, and
they had come up with a terrific scheme. But it was the head
coach who put the fire in his players' bellies.