PHILADELPHIA -- A hearty cheer went up from the crowd late in the second quarter of the Philadelphia Eagles' 23-21 loss to the Phoenix Cardinals yesterday when quarterback Randall Cunningham trotted out on the field to try for a first down.
The Eagles had scored two flashy touchdowns quickly against the lowly Cardinals at Veterans Stadium. The game was looking like the rout it was supposed to be. When the Eagles' third impressive drive stalled, bringing up fourth-and-two at the Cardinals' 37-yard line, the decision to go for it was jaunty -- it had coach Buddy Ryan's cocky signature.
Cunningham took the snap and rolled right, looking downfield for running back Heath Sherman. But before the quarterback could set to throw, the Cardinals' swift outside linebacker, Ken Harvey, smothered him for a 7-yard loss.
Cardinals ball and, as it turned out, Cardinals game.
The stunned looks on the faces of Eagles players in the locker room after the loss told the story. When Phoenix's Al Del Greco kicked a 42-yard field goal with 25 seconds to play, one of the powers of the NFC East had just been beaten by a team no one considers to be even in the running, a team that lost its opener last week without scoring a point. The Eagles are 0-2, and on Sunday in Los Angeles, they'll face the Rams, the team that embarrassed them in a first-round playoff game last season.
A noticeably subdued Ryan complimented the play of the Cardinals, particularly quarterback Timm Rosenbach and rookie running back Johnny Johnson, who gained 88 yards rushing and scored a touchdown. Ryan said the loss put his team in a psychological hole early in a season of high expectations.
"We've come out of them before, you know, but it's not the easy way to do business," he said. "We've got a good football team; we've just got to prove it. We've got to get things going and go for the jugular."
As for the decision to go for a first down, up by 14 points in the second quarter, Ryan defended it.
"I felt we were too far out to kick a field goal and too close in to punt, so let's go for it and see what we can do," he said. "I don't think that had an effect on the outcome all that much, even though they did go on down and score. To me, that wasn't a bad decision. We'd do it again if we had to in that position."
Despite completing 71 percent of his passes for 252 yards -- more than twice as many as Rosenbach -- and throwing two touchdown passes, Cunningham again faced post-game microphones in defeat.
"I don't like losing, I don't care who it's against," Cunningham said. "It's still early in the season, so nobody on the team is panicking right now. I hope we don't get to the point where we start losing our confidence. If we have anything, it's confidence."
Asked about the decision to go for a first down on the play in the second quarter, Cunningham said: "I don't make the calls."
Rookie free safety Ben Smith, the Eagles' first-round draft pick, contributed the first interception of his pro career in the first quarter, making a diving steal of an underthrown pass. But again he was called for a costly pass-interference penalty.
"It's a judgment call, I don't know," Smith said. "It's just real disappointing. We're supposed to be a Super Bowl team, and now nobody knows where we're going."
The Eagles' first touchdown drive featured a 40-yard flea-flicker from Cunningham to Calvin Williams, who starred at Purdue and Baltimore's Dunbar High. A 34-yarder to rookie Martin Hargrove on the next play put the Eagles ahead. Cunningham added a 1-yard run later in the quarter to make it 14-0.
After the ill-fated fourth-and-two situation and the sudden turn in the game's momentum, the Cardinals came back with emotion.
Johnson stepped through a big hole up the middle and, making two quick zigzag cuts, sprinted to the right and into the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown without even being touched by an Eagles defender.
Thompson's 1-yard run in the third quarter tied the game. The Eagles came back late in the quarter on Cunningham's 2-yard pass to Sherman.
Trailing, 21-14, the Cardinals took over in the fourth quarter. Rosenbach, scrambling and passing, drove his team 72 yards in 13 plays, setting up the first of three fourth-quarter field goals by Del Greco. The first was a 25-yarder. The second came after a pass by Cunningham was deflected by defensive tackle Dick Chapura and then picked off by Taylor. Rosenbach moved his team 19 yards to set up the 50-yarder.
It looked as though the Eagles were still going to squeak away with a victory, however, when punter Jeff Feagles boomed a clutch 60-yard punt to put the Cardinals in a deep hole -- their 17-yard line. But two plays later, Smith's pass interference moved the Cardinals to their 44-yard line. A run by Rosenbach added 13 yards, and a pass moved the ball 9. Johnson then carried the ball four times, picking up 8 yards and setting up Del Greco's 42-yard winner.