Philadelphia? A tough sports town? Listen, if you were a sports fan there now, you would feel a little hacked off too. In the '90s alone, the city has seen a potential World Series title blown by a relief pitcher nicknamed Wild Thing, the 76ers go from mediocre to lousy, and the once-great Flyers take five years to return to the NHL playoffs this season. And the Eagles?
After the 1992 season Norman Braman, Philadelphia's penurious owner at the time, allowed one of the best defenses in NFL history to fall victim to free agency and then sold the team in 1994 to Hollywood movie producer Jeffrey Lurie for $185 million, the most ever paid at that point for a sports franchise. Lurie and the Eagles' fans immediately embarked on a honeymoon. Lurie was walking down the street one afternoon when a city bus jerked to a stop. The driver shambled down the steps and walked toward Lurie until he got close enough to swallow him in a bear hug and exclaim, "Jeff Lurie! Jeff Lurie! You're the best thing that ever happened to the Philadelphia Eagles! Thank you for saving our team!"
Yeah, well. Philly being Philly, the grace period lasted for all of four months. Lurie's rookie year included a controversial pay cut for six players four days before the season opener, a contract flap with now-departed coach Rich Kotite, a late-season benching of quarterback Randall Cunningham and the departure of five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Eric Allen, who left with his mouth blazing about management's callousness.
But now, after an off-season of bold retooling, the Eagles' new regime is generating runaway optimism again. The Feb. 2 hiring of San Francisco 49er defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes as head coach and Lurie's willingness to spend money have made the Eagles one of the eye-catching off-season stories in the NFL. If a few more things go right—notably, linebacker Byron Evans's comeback from a broken leg and Cunningham's rebound from an inconsistent, sometimes petulant performance in 1994—Philadelphia could threaten the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East crown.
That hardly seemed possible five months ago. The '94 Eagles began 7-2 and checked out with an 0-7 death spiral. The slump coincided with Kotite's public attempt to troll for a contract extension after a stunning 40-8 rout of the 49ers at Candlestick Park last Oct. 2. Kotite was fired at season's end, but Lurie was lampooned in Philadelphia during his zigzagging, 39-day search for a replacement. Former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson said no, and Lurie's negotiations with onetime Eagle coach Dick Vermeil, who remains an icon in Philly, ended bitterly. Lurie interviewed eight candidates before talking with Rhodes, who was also wanted by the St. Louis Rams.
Rhodes has moved with stunning decisiveness since taking over. He announced that Cunningham was his quarterback—though Lurie plans to let Cunningham, who will be beginning the final year of his contract, complete the season before reopening talks. The Eagles aggressively worked last month's draft, trading up from the 12th pick to the seventh to grab coveted Boston College defensive end Mike Mamula. They then improved their position in the second round to select Notre Dame All-America cornerback Bobby Taylor. All told, the Eagles swung deals around seven of their nine picks.
Further, in stark contrast to the team under Braman, Lurie's Eagles have made shrewd use of the free-agent market. They have upgraded in nearly every area, starting with their brand-new backfield of former New England Patriot fullback Kevin Turner and former San Francisco halfback Ricky Watters, Philadelphia's biggest coup to date. As a result, Herschel Walker, the Eagles '94 offensive MVP, was released at his request.
Philadelphia's 1995 record will depend on how quickly Rhodes can pull everything together. This is his first head-coaching job at any level, but he has promised Eagle fans, "We will win championships here." He leaves no doubt who is in charge. When told shortly after taking the job that Cunningham once said that he's ill-suited for the controlled, 49er-style passing game that Rhodes is installing, Rhodes snorted and said, "This is what we're going to do. It may be fashionable in Philly to say, 'This may not be this player's style.' That ain't fashionable with me."
Rhodes often makes these kinds of pronunciamentos. At first blush he can come across like a drill sergeant. He hates excuses, loathes answering his office telephone and talks about "getting the job done, at all costs" or bringing in some "mercenaries" who can. He has mastered an inscrutable facial expression that stays unchanged whether he's telling a joke or threatening—in all seriousness—to "gnaw on little Bobby Taylor's ass every minute that boy's here." That is, if Taylor lives down to his predraft rap as a guy who dislikes contact.
Talk to the 44-year-old Rhodes a little longer and it becomes clear he is no martinet. He takes the time to get to know people. However, as the five Super Bowl rings earned as a coach with the 49ers attest, he also knows what it takes to win in the NFL. The all-important ingredient is hard work.