Eagles hope meeting will unite divided team

March 31, 1991|By Ray Didinger | Ray Didinger,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Tomorrow, the Philadelphia Eagles will hold their first and perhaps most important meeting of the 1991 season.

It will be a players-only affair convened on the eve of spring minicamp, the first attempt to heal a team that has become, in the words of veteran safety Wes Hopkins, a kind of "back-stabbing soap opera."

A recent series of Philadelphia Daily News interviews with Eagles players, coaches and members of the front office depicts an organization still deeply divided in the wake of coach Buddy Ryan's dismissal and defensive lineman Reggie White's public criticism of quarterback Randall Cunningham.

Most of the players contend the cracks in the team's foundation are more serious and widespread than previously thought, and that new coach Rich Kotite faces a significant challenge pulling the fractured clubhouse together again.

"Things haven't been too good around here for a while, but now they're on the verge of being out of control," said halfback Keith Byars, who has served as the voice of reason in the Eagles' clubhouse the past five seasons.

"When we have this meeting, some guys had better check their egos at the door, because if they don't they're liable to get hurt. A lot of stuff that's been building up is going to come out that night."

Some of the problems raised by those interviewed included:

* A growing resentment among certain Eagles toward Cunningham, who, they feel, has put his personal agenda (statistics, stardom, etc.) ahead of the team.

* A split on the squad that Ryan helped to create with his pampering of certain players and his disdainful treatment of others. Ryan's inconsistency led to divisions within the club that remain in his absence.

* A general lack of discipline that Ryan did little or nothing to correct. Players relate a training-camp incident in which defensive tackle Jerome Brown went after Kotite, then an assistant coach, and Ryan looked on, smiling.

* An absence of quality leadership in the clubhouse. Said one player: "We have a bunch of guys who talk, but it's trash, no substance."

"It was very disappointing to me, as a rookie, to see what was going on," said defensive back Ben Smith, last year's No. 1 draft pick. "There was more whispering and gossiping in this locker room than I ever saw in high school or college. I thought these players would be more professional than that."

Added Byars, looking ahead to tomorrow's closed-door meeting and the week of two-a-day drills to follow: "It's too bad so much of this [bickering] has gotten out in the press, but we have to talk it out. I don't think things are so bad that we can't resolve it among ourselves, but some [players] will have to change and everybody will have to let some [past] stuff go. The guys who can't do that, we're better off without them, no matter who they are.

"My hope is this will bring us closer together and make us stronger. Look at Buffalo this past season. They had all kinds of [internal] problems, but they worked them out and pulled together. Look where they wound up -- the Super Bowl.

L "We can do the same thing," Byars said. "It's all up to us."

*

The perception among most fans is that this Eagles team began crumbling in the wake of Ryan's dismissal, with his loyal defensive troops (led by White) blaming Cunningham for the coach's ouster.

Cunningham said he was insulted by Ryan's decision to replace him with Jim McMahon, albeit briefly, in the NFC wild-card loss to Washington. Several players felt Cunningham's remark gave owner Norman Braman the perfect opening to dispatch Ryan and promote Kotite.

There are two flaws in that theory:

1. It is a safe bet that Braman already had made up his mind regarding Ryan at that point. Cunningham could have embraced the head coach at midfield after the Washington game and it probably wouldn't have made any difference.

2. The team was in splinters long before that, divided along lines that Ryan himself helped to draw.

"There were actually three groups within the team last season," said one veteran defensive player, who asked to remain anonymous.

"One group was Buddy's favorites, the guys who could do and say anything they wanted. Jerome was in that group, Reggie, Keith [Jackson, the tight end]. Randall was in that circle, too, most of the time. They were the ones who were always defending Buddy.

"The second group was the guys who had been jilted by Buddy for whatever reason, and they were willing to do anything to get back into that other [favored] group. They were quick to take Buddy's side, too, for that reason.

"The third group was made up of the guys who couldn't believe all the chickenbleep that was going on and didn't like it but knew enough to keep their mouths shut and play.

"What's happening now is, with Buddy leaving, some guys in the first group are turning on each other -- specifically Reggie and Randall. That's creating waves that weren't there before . . . and because it's two big names, it's all becoming public."

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