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Blunder of the Season
This was the Eagles' quarterback situation entering Sunday's game in Tampa: The starter, making his NFL debut in this role, would be rookie Brad Goebel, who had thrown 13 passes as a senior at Baylor; the backup would be Pat Ryan, who had gone 94 weeks between snaps in a game before playing—and losing 23-0—the previous week at Washington; and the emergency reserve would be punter Jeff Feagles, who hadn't played quarterback since being a backup at Gerad High in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1983.
What a travesty. Can you imagine the 49ers losing Joe Montana and Steve Young and then settling for Ryan? Or the Giants losing Jeff Hostetler and Phil Simms and then giving the ball to Goebel? The Eagles lost any chance they had of reaching the Super Bowl when Randall Cunningham went down for the season with a knee injury in the season opener, and they blew a shot at making any noise in the playoffs when the front office botched the search for a backup to Jim McMahon, who had become the starter.
There are few times in a season when a coach or front office can influence a team's performance with a player acquisition. This was one of those times, and the Eagles screwed up. Don't blame the players for Philly's 14-13 loss to previously winless Tampa Bay. Don't even blame Goebel, who completed only nine of 20 passes for 62 yards and was intercepted twice. Blame coach Rich Kotite and the suits upstairs.
What could the Eagles have done differently after Cunningham went down, and again after the inevitable loss of the injury-prone McMahon on Sept. 30 (he's out three to four weeks with a strained ligament in his right knee)? They could have signed free agents Chuck Long, Turk Schonert or Anthony Dilweg, or they could have traded for the Rams' Mike Pagel, the Falcons' Billy Joe Tolliver or the Chargers' Bob Gagliano. Is a win in October worth a fourth-round draft pick, the usual compensation for a borderline backup quarterback? Sure it is. Philadelphia could have beaten the Bucs with an experienced warm body calling signals. Games sometimes are won and lost on days other than Sunday.
"We talked about a lot of guys—Kelly Stouffer, Jack Trudeau, Gale Gilbert, Stan Humphries, Scott Secules, all those guys—but the feeling was that none would be the answer," Eagle general manager Harry Gamble said Monday. "We honestly didn't see that much of a difference between the guys on the street and the backups. If in fact it doesn't work out, it's not because of any slipshod management on our part."
Tampa Bay, one of the most inept teams in recent history, turned the ball over five times in the span of 14 second-half plays and still won, because the Eagles could do nothing offensively. Philly running back Heath Sherman tied a club record with 35 carries, but they went for only 89 yards. The Eagles built a 13-0 lead in the third quarter thanks to an end-zone fumble recovery by linebacker Seth Joyner and two field goals, one of which was set up by another fumble recovery and the other by a pass-interference call.
In the fourth quarter, Philly ran 12 offensive plays, 11 of them rushes by Sherman. Six gained two yards or less. Two touchdown passes in the final 4:19 by Chris Chandler rescued the Bucs and sent the Eagles home with a 3-3 record.
After the game, the Philly defensive players sniped at their offensive counterparts. "They're asking the defense to shut the other team out and score, too," said cornerback Eric Allen. Added Joyner, "That's asking a little too much. You can't run the ball three times and expect the defense to keep holding them. You have to put the ball in the damn end zone to win in this league."
It didn't have to be this way. But the Eagles slept through their most important decision of the year, and now it's costing them.