Where's Irsay when the Eagles need him?

JOHN EISENBERG

January 06, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

PHILADELPIA — PHILADELPHIA -- Let's talk bad football coaching. Not just everyday, pedestrian bad. We're talking grab-some-bum-out-of-the-stands-and-he-c ould-do-better bad. We're talking my-sweet-bluehaired-grandmother-knows-be tter-and-she- 4watches-old-movies-instead-of-football bad. We're talking get-the-resume-ready bad.

I'm normally loath to second-guess coaches and managers. Knee-jerkers second-guess. My theory is that decisions are always a lot harder when you're the one who has to make them. But then along comes a decision that is so stunning in its absence of thought that you can't help wondering, "Who's in charge here? Bart Simpson?"

This is how bad the situation was yesterday at Veterans Stadium: It was so bad that it cried out for Bob Irsay. It doesn't get any worse than that, sports fans. If Irsay had owned the Philadelphia Eagles, and if he had telephoned the sidelines from his box late in the third quarter and (brrrup) fired Buddy Ryan on the spot, it would have been appropriate.

Not just because, as the game wore on, Ryan increasingly resembled an amateur next to the Redskins' Joe Gibbs. Not just because Ryan's team was veering unsteadily toward its third straight playoff loss. Not just because Ryan's offense once again appeared to be making up the plays in the huddle.

Even that collection of sporting sins paled next to Ryan's decision to pull Randall Cunningham out of the game late in the third quarter. Without telling Cunningham. That's the beautiful part. Ryan didn't just yank the one player who could save the game for him. He broke Cunningham's spirit by keeping the benching a secret until the next series began and -- surprise -- backup Jim McMahon ran onto the field.

I'm sure poorer decisions have been made. Someone sank his life's savings into eight-tracks. Someone thought it wouldn't be a big deal to bug that one itty-bitty office at the Watergate. Someone thought "Ishtar" was worth $40 million. Ryan was smarter than that. But not much.

Imagine. Seventeen minutes were left, and the Eagles were down only a touchdown to the Redskins in their first-round NFL playoff. One miracle away from a tie. For Cunningham, that's a no-brainer. It's a surprise if he doesn't come through. He's been good for at least a miracle a week this year. What a season he has had.

He has flown through the air, thrown balls 70 yards, jumped over tall buildings, saved the otherwise-mediocre Eagles by himself countless times with his peerless, one-man run-and-shoot. Along with Joe Montana, he's the comeback kid of the NFL. Seven points? Don't make him laugh.

Ryan let McMahon play only one series, three incompletions and out, but by the time Cunningham was back, the game was over. Not only had the seven-point deficit doubled, but also, perhaps most importantly, the Eagles had gone flatter than the field emotionally.

Cunningham is their leader, their lifeline, their stature. Their shoulders sagged when he came out. It was such an incomprehensible decision that they lost any semblance of an edge. They knew they had no chance with McMahon, that the decision crossed the line from idiosyncrasy to b-a-d, that Ryan was panicking. They -- and the entire crowd, which went silent -- knew it was on to next season. It didn't have to be so.

Ryan's explanation? "I was just trying to get something going, use a different pitcher," he said. "Things weren't going too good out there, if you hadn't noticed. I thought I'd try a change of pace, shake things up."

Shake things up. Take out a quarterback who has passed for 3,400 yards and 30 touchdowns and run for almost 1,000 yards. Try an immobile, gimp-shouldered, washed-up quarterback who has attempted nine passes all season. You were far from alone if you stared at your television and said (all together now): "Who's in charge here, Bart Simpson?" McMahon was perfect, by the way. Three attempts, three near-interceptions.

Cunningham barely contained himself afterward. He managed to say some of the right things, that he was a grown man and he could take it, that he respected Ryan, that he has to live with the coach's gruff, odd ways. But he was furious. Humiliated. Ready to mutiny. You didn't have to look closely or listen hard. You could tell the benching had ruined him for the day, ruining with him the Eagles' only hope.

"I don't even think Jim was warming up," he said.

"I don't know what Buddy was trying to do," he said.

"It's kind of an insult, when I think about it," he said.

Even lamer was offensive coordinator Rich Kotite's explanation,

that it was "just like" the way the Eagles had rotated some offensive linemen "trying to get things done." Good answer. We are to believe that benching a guard is the same as benching the comeback kid? Remind me not to listen the next time a coach tells me that football is a complicated game.

One post-game theory being passed around was that Cunningham and Kotite had argued after the previous series, and that this was punishment. Another was that Cunningham appeared discouraged and Ryan thought he needed a jump-start. Here is the theory I prefer: Ryan just blew his circuits.

His job was possibly on the line and his team was staggering around on the field, and, in the moment of crisis, he made the same mistake that a drunk in the upper deck might: He closed his eyes and blamed the quarterback. And his players stood there slack-jawed and said, "What the hell is this?" And just like that, their season was over.

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