In splashing to a 31-21 win over the Phoenix Cardinals in soggy Philadelphia on Sunday, the Eagles proved at least one of three things:
?That the Eagles are the best team in the NFC East, because their 8-5 record ties them for first place with the New York Giants, whom they have defeated twice this season. Nobody outside the immediate Eagle family really believes that, of course, but facts are facts. Philly coach Buddy Ryan even admits, "We have only about 25 good players." That leaves him, he figures, 10 to 15 short. This team is not the '78 Steelers.
?That the old axiom, You win with defense, is nonsense. The Eagles rank last in the NFL against the pass and last in total yardage allowed. They give up 365 yards per game; Phoenix got 369. Philadelphia has some fine defensive players—notably All-Pro end Reggie White and second-year tackle Jerome Brown—but the unit seems to be playing without a mission. It's not slow or hurt, just zestless. After Sunday's game, Ryan mocked his defensive linemen—with the exception of end Clyde Simmons—for being so out of shape that they were "sucking up air."
Not that the offensive line is much better, having allowed a league-leading 52 sacks. Against Phoenix, running back Keith Byars was Philly's leading rusher, with 42 yards. That speaks volumes about the line's run-blocking prowess.
?That the Eagles are the luckiest team in the NFL. Indeed, on Sunday, Philadelphia could easily have been behind 34-7 at the half instead of only 14-7. A 41-yard touchdown pass from the Cardinals' Cliff Stoudt to Roy Green was nullified by a holding penalty, and Phoenix blew another sure TD when fullback Earl Ferrell fumbled on first-and-goal at the Philly three. What's more, the Cardinals missed field goal attempts of 26 and 44 yards.
And consider this: Philadelphia has played Houston when the Oilers were without Warren Moon, Cleveland when the Browns were missing Bernie Kosar (but lost anyway), and the Cardinals when they didn't have Neil Lomax, who was out with a knee injury. And this: A fortnight ago Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor blocked an Eagle field goal try in overtime, but Simmons grabbed the ball and rambled 15 yards for the winning score.
What the Eagles do have for real is Randall Cunningham at quarterback. Justice will be served if he is named the league's MVP, for all he has done is carry Philadelphia—with precious little help—to more wins than it has had since 1981. He ranks second in the NFL in passing yardage (3,236), behind Dan Marino, and is among the conference's top 15 ground gainers, with 501 yards. That's far and away the highest total among the league's quarterbacks.
On Sunday he completed 17 of 35 passes for 214 yards, which, given the conditions, were pretty good numbers. More important, though, at precisely the right moment he stepped up and won the game. That's nothing new. Philadelphia has won four games this year in the final two minutes of play or in OT.
The key moment against the Cardinals came in the third quarter with the Eagles behind 14-10. The Philadelphia offense had struggled all day—Cunningham had completed only 10 of 27 throws for a paltry 90 yards—and the defense was playing down to its usual standard. Cunningham faced third-and-eight, not to mention wind and rain, on his own 48. He dodged his tormentors and somehow got the ball into the hands of wide-out Ron Johnson, who found a seam in the middle of the field for a 40-yard gain. Two plays later Cunningham passed eight yards to wideout Cris Carter to put Philadelphia in front 17-14.
What Cunningham's performance underscored was a sudden and unlikely coming together of quarterback and head coach. Ryan was born in rural Oklahoma, joined the Army when he was 16 and loves defense more than life. His tart tongue spares no one, and quarterbacks are known for believing that they require a tender approach. "That's a bunch of crap," says Ryan.