Philadelphia -- A lot of people thought the Philadelphia Eagles' 1991 season was buried underneath quarterback Randall Cunningham when he went down and out for the season on the Eagles' first play of the second quarter in Game 1.
They laughed when he was replaced by often-injured veteran Jim McMahon. And they snickered when the Eagles signed old Roy Green to fill in for Calvin Williams at wide receiver in Game 4.
As if the Eagles didn't have enough problems.
They already had a new, unproven coach in Rich Kotite and a new but recycled defensive coordinator in Bud Carson. And a bunch of big mouths who seemed to spend too much time battling the front office. (Jerome Brown, Andre Waters, Keith Jackson and Jerome Brown again).
"They had us dead, buried and were showing no respect," said Eagles running back Keith Byars. "It was like a sick joke. But, now, we're the ones who are delivering the punch line. We're the ones going around saying, 'Gotcha.' "
The Eagles (3-1) are off to their best start in 10 years and can gain a share of first place in the NFC East with a win over the Washington Redskins (4-0) at 9 p.m. tomorrow in RFK Stadium.
The Eagles' formula of success, one that led the team to the playoffs the past three seasons, hasn't changed much. Philadelphia's defense, led by tackles Brown, Mike Pitts and Mike Golic and ends Reggie White and Clyde Simmons, is allowing only 210.3 yards per game, best in the NFL.
Another key has been McMahon.
The 10-year veteran has completed 64 percent of his passes, with only three interceptions. He hasn't caused any distractions, such as when he wore those rebellious headbands during the Chicago Bears' Super Bowl year.
And, believe it or not, McMahon has stayed healthy.
No hairline fractures. No shoulder injuries. No knee surgery. No hamstring pulls.
"I thought he was an arrogant jerk when he played for Chicago," Eagles offensive tackle Ron Heller, an eight-year veteran, said of McMahon, who does only post-game interviews. "Gee, I was disappointed to find out that he was a nice guy."
McMahon can still throw, too. He never has had an overly strong arm, but has thrown for 923 yards and four touchdowns this season. McMahon also has helped the Eagles develop a ball-control offense, compared with the big-play approach under Cunningham.
Cunningham, despite being one of the NFL's most gifted players, was an offensive lineman's nightmare. His scrambling fouled up assignments. McMahon is a drop-back quarterback. And he can't run.
"When Randall scrambled, he saved us. Jim stays in the pocket," said Heller. "Jim makes quick decisions, gets rid of the ball quick. We've got some good athletes in the offensive line, and we're improving all the time."
McMahon also has gotten more people into the offense, using more short passes than Cunningham. Wide receiver Fred Barnett has 21 catches for 303 yards, and Byars has 18 for 251. Tight end Keith Jackson, Cunningham's main weapon, has eight for 62, and Green, the 12th-year veteran from the Phoenix Cardinals, has caught six for 114 yards.
Despite averaging 240.8 passing to 74.5 rushing yards, the Eagles have controlled the ball an average of 36 minutes, 13 seconds a game.
"The Eagles and Randall Cunningham had become synonymous," said Byars. "It's like he was a one-man team. But I never saw Randall drop back, pass protect, catch the ball, run down the sideline and score a touchdown all by himself. Randall knew we had other weapons."
Byars also notices another difference at quarterback.
Byars said: "Randall led more by example. He didn't talk much in the huddle. Jim's very vocal, a rah-rah type who'll get in your face. We like that. The transition has been smooth."
So has the transition on defense. Carson came to the Eagles after being fired as Cleveland Browns head coach. Carson was known as a defensive genuis, but so was former Eagles coach Buddy Ryan, whom Kotite replaced Jan. 8.
"There is no difference," Brown, smiling, said of Carson's defense. "Some of the guys are just saying that because they didn't like Buddy."
Actually, there have been two major changes. Carson has the front four shooting in gaps and trying to confuse the offensive linemen. In Ryan's scheme, gaps were reserved for blitzing linebackers from that famed "46" pressure defense. Carson wants to create havoc.
"Bud gives you a little more freedom to be creative, to play with your instincts," said Golic. "Ryan wanted to pressure the quarterback, beat him up with eight people if necessary. We're basically taking care of business with four pass rushers."
Simmons is second in the league in sacks with 6 1/2 , including 4 1/2 against the Dallas Cowboys. Brown is third with 4 1/2 , and White has four.
Last week, the Steelers frequently kept a tight end and running back in to pass block the Eagles.
"That means we've got seven people covering three or four," Simmons said. "I'll take those odds."
The pass rush has put the Eagles into more zone coverage