Fickle fans blame QB Cunningham for Eagles' struggles

LEAVING THE NEST

November 11, 1990|By Kevin Mulligan | Kevin Mulligan,Special to The Sun

Philadelphia -- The Philadelphia Eagles' Oct. 15 date with the Minnesota Vikings was not your basic Monday night out at Veterans Stadium.

It was something several Eagles never will forget.

"It'll be a long time before we erase that kind of stuff from our minds," said free safety Wes Hopkins. "You want to say you've put that stuff behind you, because we're professionals, but sometimes you can't. I know I can't, and I'm not alone."

During a dramatic, but poorly played, come-from-behind, 32-24 victory by the Eagles, Philadelphia fans could not have stooped much lower.

Their main target was quarterback Randall Cunningham. With his offensive line playing matadors to the Vikings' Chris Doleman and Al Noga, Cunningham struggled early and never heard the end of it.

He was booed repeatedly, as early as 5 minutes, 11 seconds left in the first quarter, with the Eagles ahead, 9-0.

The boos turned vicious by halftime, when the Eagles trailed, 21-9, and, just 48 seconds into the third quarter, the fans got personal.

Chants of "We want Jim. We want Jim" came floating down out of the 700-level like so many well-creased paper airplanes. Within minutes, thousands had joined in.

"I thought it was pretty weak, how the fans went after him [Cunningham]," said offensive tackle Ron Heller of the calls for backup quarterback Jim McMahon. "I, for one, played one of the worst games of my life. I made it a long night for Randall on my side."

With the offense on the field, several Eagles turned and tried to urge the fans to cool it by waving their arms. Some players lowered themselves to the fans' level and returned some of the obscene gestures. Hopkins even took a few steps toward

abusive fans who were seated in the field-level box seats, before a security guard stepped in.

Several racial slurs were fired at Cunningham, who has completed 59 percent of his passes this season, ranks third in the NFL with 15 touchdown passes and is the National Football Conference's fifth-leading rusher with 482 yards. Cunningham still hasn't spoken about that Monday night.

"It's not worth talking about," he said. "The fans are going to do what they want to do. I just want to leave it alone."

"We need that 12th man out there, and we didn't have a 12th man that Monday night," said veteran linebacker Al Harris. "I would hope the fans look at everything. It's a team game. It's not just a quarterback, or running backs or defensive backs or whatever. . . What really hurts is Randall's probably having his best year he's ever had as an Eagle. He deserves better than that."

The Eagles returned to the scene of the ugliness Sunday and heard not one boo during a resounding, 48-20 defeat of the New England Patriots. Cunningham completed 15 of 24 passes for 240 yards and four touchdowns, rushed for 124 yards and another touchdown, and never has looked better.

A handful of players said this week that last Sunday's support was meaningless because the Philadelphia fans -- like the Eagles -- never were tested.

They will be tomorrow, when the Redskins visit Veterans Stadium for their second game with the Eagles. Washington took the mistake-filled Oct. 21 game at RFK Stadium, 13-7.

"We're back in a spot [at 4-4] where we can make a run into the playoffs," Hopkins said, "and it'd be great to have the home fans behind us the whole game, and knowing that we're human beings. Everything is not going to go the way you want it to go every play. But when it does, show your support, and when it doesn't, show your support, because we're all in this together."

Late in the second half against the Vikings, the Eagles scored 10 points in a 2:07 stretch to win it. By then, however, there were 25,000 empty seats. And when the remaining 40,000 supporters cheered the Eagles' comeback, the players didn't want to hear it.

Many of them faced the fans as the stadium rocked with noise, and waved their arms, saying, in effect, "Keep it to yourself. We don't want to hear it now. We needed you earlier."

Cunningham's close friend and teammate, Mike Quick, said of the abuse: "It hurts Randall more than anyone. Fans are hard around here. They expect perfection, and, when things don't go the way they want to see it, they can be pretty tough.

"The fans of Philadelphia just love to see winners, and they anticipated a lot of big things from us this year. And I can understand their being disappointed.

"But that guy gives his all. He puts everything he has into playing the game and trying to win ballgames. . . He doesn't always win them, but there's not one person up there [in stands] who can fault the guy's effort toward that goal."

Perhaps last week's rout of the Patriots helped heal the broken marriage between the Eagles and their fans.

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