Buddy Ryan and the Philadelphia Eagles have been here before.
"Here" is 4-4 at the halfway mark of the NFL season. Ryan's Eagles reach a crossroads tonight at 9 (Channel 13) when they play the Washington Redskins (5-3) in a critical NFC East game at Veterans Stadium.
Twice before in Ryan's five seasons the Eagles hit the halfway point at 4-4. The first time, in the strike-marred 1987 season, they finished 7-8. In 1988, they recovered from their midseason mediocrity to finish 10-6 and gain a playoff berth.
This year, amid grand expectations, the Eagles lost at home to lowly Phoenix and Indianapolis and had to win three of their last four just to reach .500. They have remaining road games in Atlanta, Buffalo and Miami, and must play the unbeaten New York Giants once more.
"The other 4-4 [seasons] I thought we'd probably be 4-4," Ryan said. "This one, I thought we'd be 8-0, but it didn't work out that way. This is the best football team we've had since I've been here, but the wins and losses don't show it."
That's why tonight's game means so much to Ryan, who is in the final year of his contract.
It won't be easy. The Redskins have won four of the last five games against the Eagles, including a 13-7 verdict last month in Washington. For the fourth straight game, the Skins will throw a different quarterback at Ryan, though. This time it's Jeff Rutledge, whose second-half heroics in Detroit last week earned him the starting job over Stan Humphries (three touchdown passes, nine interceptions in five starts).
Although Ryan's defense ranks eighth in the NFL, the Eagles clearly are down a notch from last year. After leading the league in takeaways with 56 last season, they are on a pace to collect 28 this year. A year ago they had 62 sacks. This year they've got 23 halfway through.
On offense, the Eagles start two rookie wide receivers, Calvin Williams of Dunbar and Fred Barnett, who have four touchdown catches apiece. Williams is averaging 18.3 yards on 19 catches. The Eagles are 4-0 when he has caught a touchdown pass.