Whenever the Washington Redskins get ready to play the Philadelphia Eagles, Skins defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon puts the same message on the bulletin board: "Randall Cunningham is the greatest scrambler ever to play this game." He reminded his players again last week. "This time he put it up in extra big letters," said Tim Johnson, the left defensive tackle.
The Eagles are normally a heavy enough load for the Redskins, but last Saturday's game was special. For the first time, the teams were meeting in the postseason, in an NFC wild-card playoff. Then there were the memories of Washington's shattering loss to Philly eight weeks earlier, when two Skins quarterbacks were knocked out of action and seven other Washington players were injured. Last week coach Joe Gibbs told his Redskins, "Our staff has never worked harder preparing for a game."
And that preparation paid off. The Eagles had lived by the miracle play this year, but the Age of Miracles ended on a cold, cloudy afternoon at Veterans Stadium with a 20-6 loss to the Redskins. There was no remarkable Cunningham scramble ending in a touchdown pass deep downfield, no volleyball between the wide receivers (you tip, I tip, you catch, TD), no sack-fumble-score stuff from the defense—none of the wild plays that helped get Philly into the playoffs for the third straight year.
What the 65,287 fans at the Vet saw instead was a collection of things that weren't supposed to happen. The Skins' offensive line, battered and banged up, held Philadelphia's mighty pass rush to no sacks. "We just sort of swelled up," said left guard Raleigh McKenzie after the game. The Washington front four also exerted tremendous pressure on Cunningham—he was sacked five times—and most of the time when the Redskins blitzed a linebacker, Cunningham had to run for his life. Along the way, there was the rare sight of Cunningham being benched (he was back after one series) and the emergence in the first half of a new TV hero, George Sladky, an instant-replay official.
On Tuesday, four days before the teams met, Gibbs sat in his office and studied his charts and talked about the Eagles, whom he knows as well as any opposing coach in the NFL knows them. His record against Philly since Buddy Ryan took over as the Eagles' coach in 1986 was 7-3. In his 10th season as Washington's coach, Gibbs's postseason record was 11-3, and he had lost only one opening playoff game out of five. This is the time of year when Gibbs is at his best. He knows how to bring the Redskins to a peak when the playoffs start. However, there was one disturbing note: that disastrous last meeting with the Eagles. No one knew what kind of effect that game would have on Gibbs's team.
In midseason, the blah part of a 10-6 regular season for Washington, the Skins had spotted the Detroit Lions a 35-14 lead before rallying to win 41-38 in overtime. The man responsible for the victory was 33-year-old quarterback Jeff Rutledge, the perennial backup, who had come off the bench to relieve Stan Humphries, who was in because No. 1 quarterback Mark Rypien was on injured reserve with a sprained left knee. So in one of the worst decisions of his career, Gibbs decided to start Rutledge the following week against the Eagles—at the Vet, in a Monday nighter. Raw meat to the lions.
Philadelphia knocked Rutledge out of the game, and then did the same to Humphries. Washington ended the game with a halfback, Brian Mitchell, taking the snaps. After the 28-14 Philadelphia victory, lots of ugly quotes came out of the Eagle locker room about ambulances and body bags. The Washington offensive linemen kept their mouths shut—and they waited.
Now as the Skins approached the wildcard playoff, Gibbs was talking about the talent-laden Eagles, who have thrived on emotion, freak plays and all the intangibles that have made Buddyball so beloved in Philly. "Everything was wrong that night against them," he said. "We were out of sync, and when they get going on you, it's tough. When you talk about the Eagles, you talk about a collection of fantastic athletes on both sides of the ball, guys capable of taking over the game with their athletic ability, defensive linemen who can kill you if you let them. We're different. We have to be consistent. We have to be hitting on all cylinders, and if not, we're going to be beaten."
The Skins were patched up on both the offensive and defensive lines, but so were the Eagles, who may have been worse off. While the Philadelphia guards, Ron Solt and Mike Schad, would start, they were hobbling. Center David Alexander was out with a knee injury. Defensive right tackle Jerome Brown—whose quick penetrations had been crucial in stopping Washington's favorite running play, the counter trey, in the teams' last meeting—had a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, and his arm was dangling uselessly at his side.
Last Friday night Ryan was having a drink in his hotel suite with his pal John Mazur, the former New England Patriot coach, and a couple of other friends when there was a knock on the door. It was Jerome Brown. "Look, I've got to play in this game," said Brown.