Ryan-less team buddies up to new head coach


August 25, 1991|By Jack McCaffery | Jack McCaffery,Special to The Sun

Philadelphia -- One hundred minutes into his first full practice as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Rich Kotite blew his whistle.

He called it a morning.

He called it an era.

The practice was short but organized. Brief but deliberate. Purposeful and every bit as businesslike as owner Norman Braman had mandated last winter, when he called for a change in coaches and for a change in attitudes.

The five-year Buddy Ryan era ended poetically enough in an unsightly 20-6 playoff loss to the Washington Redskins at Veterans Stadium, during which Ryan temporarily benched quarterback Randall Cunningham in favor of Jim McMahon. The panic and confusion -- whether real or just a figment concocted in the owner's suite -- came to symbolize five years of bad penalties, bad reputations and excruciatingly painful playoff losses for the team's loyal paying customers.

Ryan, his contract up, was gone before the end of the week -- but not before Cunningham could make a not-too-subtle public endorsement of Kotite, the offensive coordinator. Ryan was fired, Kotite hired, all within hours. Cunningham was blamed. Cunningham was credited. Braman, the owner, was just relieved.

Braman had grown weary of the "Monday Night Football" crew tub-thumping the Eagles as the NFL's reincarnation of Philadelphia's famed and feared Broad Street Bullies, the hockey Flyers of the mid-1970s. He cringed when former Eagle Luis Zendejas said he was the victim of a bounty, allegedly placed by Ryan for whichever Eagle could knock him out of a game in Dallas. He bristled when some Eagles mentioned the Redskins would leave that playoff game in body bags.

Thus, a new coach. Thus, a new era.

Thus, a fresh challenge for Cunningham, the man Sports Illustrated once featured in a cover story as the Ultimate Weapon, perhaps the only Ultimate Weapon never to have won a postseason game.

Cunningham was criticized by some of his teammates last year and into the off-season, for what had seemed to become a me-first attitude. In a 30-23 loss at Buffalo, Cunningham made a signature-model play, ducking out of an end-zone rush by Bruce Smith and throwing the ball, across his body, 58 yards off the wrong foot to Fred Barnett, who raced the final half-a-field for a 95-yard touchdown. The Eagles lost that game, but afterward Cunningham grinned and admitted, "Sometimes, I amaze myself."

Later, after the playoff loss, the third in as many years, Cunningham tended to dwell on his personal embarrassment for the benching, not just the loss and the elimination. Nor did many of his teammates soon forget the time he -- with Ryan's blessing -- led a small group of Eagles out of Veterans Stadium at halftime of a preseason game, the gossip columnists insisting that it was to attend a North Jersey birthday party for singer Whitney Houston.

Now, Cunningham says all that is behind him, all the criticism, even some immaturity.

"It's history," he said last week, sitting in front of his locker, before practice. "Just like the dinosaurs. It's not going to come back. I don't even think about it anymore. It comes up every day. But it's forgotten."

Though the Eagles, almost to a man, genuinely seemed to love Ryan, Cunningham is convinced, as is Braman, that Kotite will have a settling influence to a team that had been nearing turmoil. One of Kotite's first decisions was to reject an offer to be host of a call-in radio program, a tool Ryan used to agitate opponents, to insult some of his players, to entertain the masses with a trademark combination of Irish charm and Southern sass.

"That's not my style," Kotite said. "I'm not in show business. I'm in coaching."

Later, Kotite instructed the Eagles to resume wearing white football shoes and to abandon the black ones, the ones that made them seem like mavericks.

Braman has made his wishes clear: fewer bad penalties, much less bad publicity.

"I think, really, the penalties have been overemphasized," Cunningham said. "I think the discipline factor may have been basically in the way certain players were treated. I guess we lost our discipline, some of us. And it's not going to be like that this year. And if he does, I'm sure someone is going to ask him why it's being done like that.

"So that's one of the things we are emphasizing as players, that everybody is treated equally."

Does that mean there were favorites played under Buddy Ryan -- and not just at nearby Garden State Park, where the former coach sometimes raced his thoroughbred horses?

"I'm not going to say anything like that," Cunningham said. "Only you guys form the opinions in the newspapers. I'm not going to say who was treated favorably. Because there may not have been anyone treated favorably. But that can only stir up problems among our teammates.

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