The lack of practice showed against the Cardinals, as McMahon threw three interceptions and was generally ragged in completing 10 of 25 passes for 162 yards. Yet Philly coach Rich Kotite, whose team led 20-7 in the first quarter, never considered sending in a substitute for McMahon, and all he could talk about after the game was McMahon's second TD pass, a 29-yarder to Keith Jackson in the third quarter that put Philadelphia ahead 27-14. "An audible," said Kotite. "Thank god for Jim McMahon."
The Eagles, to a man, are thankful for him, even though some have a hard time admitting it. Running back Keith Byars hated the idea of McMahon's coming to Philly. "I had built-in notions about him," Byars says. "To me, he was this punk rock-type quarterback, wild and crazy, who didn't take his job too seriously. He was the type of person I didn't particularly care to be around." About a week after McMahon arrived, Byars forced himself to walk up to McMahon and extend his hand and apologize. "I told him I had seen the error of my ways," says Byars. "He just looked at me."
McMahon's rogue image became more far-reaching than he could have imagined when he started wearing headbands with things like rozelle printed on them in the mid-1980s. "Everything I knew about him I hated," says Heller. "When I found out we were getting him here, even though I thought it would hurt the team, I was still anxious for him to come so I could hate him to his face. So the first thing he does is introduce himself and say he remembers me from my days with Tampa Bay. Now, who remembers an offensive lineman? It turned out to be so disappointing, finding out he was this normal down-to-earth guy."
McMahon can still infuriate some of football's self-righteous; he can still blaspheme when he puts his mind to it. In a rare interview recently he said that game film and team meetings are overrated except as an opportunity to catch up on sleep. "It's not brain surgery," he said. "It's not really that hard of a game." But his teammates, now that they know him as a bowling-dominoes-golf buddy and even a neighbor—"You should see him pushing the baby stroller down the street," says Heller—are no longer possible to infuriate. Right now, McMahon may be the most beloved guy on the Eagles.
It's not just because he's such a team guy, either. Yes, he's a member of the Eagles' Monday night bowling league (last year's MVP, in fact), and yes, he's a democratic domino fiend, as likely to pair up with some rookie free agent as with any veteran. This is a guy who, more than anything, can inspire a team to win. And the Eagles realize it now.
They're amazed at his ability to play hurt. Veteran wide receiver Roy Green points to the game against the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 27, when McMahon went to the sideline after reinjuring his knee and then wobbled back in when backup Jeff Kemp was knocked out. "To see him come limping back onto the field and move the ball club is something I've never seen before," says Green, a 13-year veteran. "His pain threshold is something like I've never seen in the NFL. The fact that he put it on the line like that, when he really didn't have to, that makes other guys want to do good for him."
Heller uses the game against Cleveland, a come-from-behind 32-30 victory, to illustrate McMahon's will to win. McMahon had tried getting a shot of novocaine two days early, on the Friday before the game, but when he overdid it in practice later that day the elbow swelled badly. He couldn't even bend it. On Sunday morning, a worried Heller awoke and asked McMahon if he could play. "No way," said McMahon. Heller says McMahon was especially disappointed because he felt he could have picked the Browns apart. "But he was lying there just moaning," Heller says. "He couldn't even put up his ponytail!" But by noon that day, after his arm had been massaged for three hours to reduce the swelling around the elbow, McMahon was out on the field throwing spirals. He passed for 341 yards and three touchdowns and brought the Eagles back from a 23-0 deficit.
McMahon's future could become as curious as his past, especially if Davis's poultice keeps him relatively intact. At Philadelphia he has signed one-year contracts (the latest at a reported $500,000 with dozens of incentive bonuses, like an extra $15,000 per start, that could bring his salary to $1.5 million), which make him available as a free agent at the end of each season. It's not like McMahon never put his money where his mouth was; he expects to succeed, and expects to be paid when he does. But McMahon could be much more desirable around the league after this season. What then?
He talks dreamily at first: "My kids have been in three different schools in the last three years. And they're tired of seeing me come home too beat up, not able to hold them until Thursday each week. They want me to retire." Then he talks realistically: "But I'm too damn young to retire. I'm just 32." O.K., then, will he be back in Philadelphia next year? "I would hope so. I like this team. More than anything, I want to be on a winner. Like I said, that's why I came here."
The way he talks about winning, it makes you think. Is that what holds Jim McMahon together? Is it Davis's poultice? Or is it winning?