BUDDY RYAN was a picture of indecision in the fourth quarter Sunday afternoon with his Philadelphia Eagles nursing a 23-17 lead over the Indianapolis Colts.
The Colts had just been flagged for an illegal receiver downfield. Referee Jim Tunney wanted defensive captain Reggie White to make a choice. Push the Colts back to their 9 for second-and-19, or let the incompletion stand for third-and-10? Reggie hopped up and down like an overgrown child waiting for Buddy to decide. Buddy just stood there, thinking, thinking.
Eventually, Ryan took the penalty and gave the Colts an extra play. Ninety-one yards later, the Colts were celebrating an improbable 24-23 victory and the ashen-faced Ryan walked off his home field to a stinging chorus of boos. He made the wrong call. Again.
The walls are crashing down around Ryan this week, the result of a 1-3 start and losses to two of the NFL's weakest teams -- the Cardinals and Colts. At least one of those walls was the one he constructed, the one between himself and management. Ever since the strike year of 1987 Ryan has been building that wall. That was when Ryan made it plain he wanted no part of the strike players the front office gave him. His loyalties clearly were with his striking players.
This summer he tossed a few more bricks on the pile when he positioned himself dangerously close to holdout Keith Jackson. He supplied subtle pressure on the front office to bring Jackson in, suggesting that the All-Pro tight end was the best athlete on the team -- ahead of Randall Cunningham and White, no less. It did not go down well. And then, when Jackson finally came in, Keith charged management with a conspiracy to oust Buddy.
But who needs a conspiracy to fire a coach who openly taunts the front office, who promised a Super Bowl and who now finds his team in complete disarray?
On the Colts' game-winning drive Sunday, Ryan elected to use a three-man pass rush against quarterback Jack Trudeau instead of his famed 4-6. Trudeau wasn't touched. At midfield, the Eagles went back to the 4-6. Trudeau still wasn't touched. Down the field the Colts went, slicing and dicing what supposedly is one of the best defenses in the league. "I guess they thought that [a three-man rush] was enough to stop us," Trudeau said. Ryan admitted later he should have rushed more at Trudeau.
The Eagles did not particularly look like a smart team against the Colts, either. Twice, offensive linemen were penalized for unnecessary roughness. Stupid penalties, flagrant penalties.
It was an inexplicable loss for the Eagles, who are off this week before hosting Minnesota in a Monday night game. "I can't believe this is happening to us," said veteran linebacker Al Harris. "It blows me away. I'm totally baffled by it."
He's not the only one.
* THEY'RE BACK: The newest threat to end Denver's reign in the AFC is the Los Angeles Raiders, who bounced the Bears 24-10 in the battle of 3-0 teams. They did it without three defensive starters, including end Howie Long. And they did it with quarterback Jay Schroeder playing perhaps his best game in recent memory, passing for 178 yards and setting up the first Raiders touchdown with a 59-yarder to Willie Gault.
Schroeder has quieted the Bobby Hebert trade rumors with his steady but unspectacular play. "He's closer to errorless football," said Al Locasale, the Raiders' executive assistant under Al Davis. "He has thrown only one interception in four games. He has good reads, he gets rid of the football faster. He seems to have a better perspective."
Perhaps the biggest reason the Raiders are unbeaten is their defense, which has given up just two touchdowns. Are they Super Bowl contenders?
"We're 12 games away from saying that," Locasale advised. "We've got to contend with the Bills in Buffalo this week. But we're 4-0 and the four times we've done that before, we've gone to the playoffs."
* TWO-MINUTE DRILL: Look for Cleveland to fire coach Bud Carson before the year's out. Carson has lost control of the team and is regularly outcoached . . . A week after a Steelers fan was kicked in the head and beaten by Raiders fans at the L.A. Coliseum, more violence erupted at the Raiders-Bears game. There were 34 arrests on charges of disturbing the peace and alcohol-related offenses, and 88 fans were ejected. The Coliseum beefed up its security and wanted to send out a message. The rowdy fans didn't seem to get it, though.
The Vikings are 1-3 and all three losses have been by three points . . . After all the controversy over Lawrence Taylor's hamstring pull, the Giants' All-Pro linebacker played the entire game against Dallas . . . Tampa Bay's 3-1 start is its best since going 5-0 in 1979.
John Elway says there is no need to panic,that his snakebitten Denver Broncos,2-2,simply have to stop making mistakes. "We've got two,three,four plays a game that are absolutely killing us.Once we eliminated them,we'll be fine."