Ryan wilts under glare of spotlight

Ken Rosenthal

October 01, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

WASHINGTON -- Talk about a cruel world: Pat Ryan spent 12 years trying to become a prime-time quarterback, but when his big moment finally came last night, he was helpless and hopeless, overmatched and unprepared.

Ryan, 36, didn't even play in the NFL last season, but here he was on "Monday Night Football," substituting for the Philadelphia Eagles, in deafening RFK Stadium, against a team that might never allow a point at home.

A month ago, he had filed his retirement papers and was waiting for his severance check from the league. But the Eagles reached him on a golf course in Tennessee after losing Randall Cunningham, and just like that, he was back in the NFL.

He might want to reconsider his decision in the aftermath of the Eagles' 23-0 loss to the Washington Redskins. Ryan replaced the injured Jim McMahon at the start of the second quarter, then completed nearly as many passes to the Redskins (three) as to the Eagles (four).

By the end of the night, the Eagles had turned to their fourth quarterback in five games, the immortal Brad Goebel. Ryan connected on only four of 14 attempts, for a grand total of 24 yards. The amazing thing is, he'll probably be the starter at Tampa Bay next week.

To whom else can the Eagles turn? Cunningham, their spectacular All-Pro, is out for the season after undergoing surgery on his left knee. McMahon, the architect of their surprising 3-1 start, is likely to miss several weeks after spraining his right knee.

Coach Rich Kotite indicated the Eagles will add another quarterback this week, but it's doubtful Ryan will lose his job right away. Goebel, 23, was injured most of his senior year at Baylor, and did not even get drafted. Surely he can't do any worse than Ryan, who has only 19 career starts. But Kotite probably won't take that chance.

Perhaps it's fitting that all this is happening to the Eagles, a team that delights in knocking out opposing quarterbacks, as the Redskins recall from the infamous "Body Bag" game. But it's difficult not to sympathize with Ryan, who never imagined he'd be in the middle of such a mess.

For years he was the backup to a mediocre quarterback (Ken O'Brien) on a losing team (the New York Jets). He got cut by Cleveland in training camp last season, and began work as a housing contractor. "I wasn't waiting for a phone call," he said. "I was finished with football."

But Kotite had other ideas after Cunningham went down in Week 1. He knew Ryan from serving five years as the Jets' offensive coordinator. The Eagles actually worked out three other quarterbacks -- Turk Schonert, David Archer and Scott Campbell. Faced with that modest competition, Ryan got the job.

The Eagles' decision might not have seemed critical at the time, but McMahon hasn't started more than 11 games in a season since 1983. It seemed inevitable he would break down; why, the hot rumor before last night's game was that he had spent the day in the hospital with a 104-degree fever.

McMahon, 32, dismissed the rumor -- "[Redskins announcer] Sonny Jurgenson told me before the game," he said. "That was the first I heard about it." Little did he know he'd wind up in a hospital anyway, for a Magnetic Resonance Imaging test that will determine the extent of his knee problem today.

The injury occurred as McMahon scrambled out of the pocket on a third-and-five play near the end of the first quarter. He raced out of bounds untouched, but short of a first down. At that point the game was scoreless. The Eagles had 46 yards of total offense. They would finish with just 89.

"As soon as I took off, my knee just gave out," McMahon recalled. "I didn't get hit. I started running and boom, there it went. I don't know what to say. Randall got hurt in the pocket. I got hurt running. I don't know what's going on."

Actually, what's going on is fairly typical: Quarterbacks get hurt every year. But the Eagles' predicament comes at a time when the league's two most highly regarded backups -- Jeff Hostetler and Steve Young -- are struggling at 2-3. McMahon was this season's success story. And now he's out.

That leaves poor Ryan, who simply doesn't belong. True, five of his eight series last night started inside the Eagles' 16. But with the Redskins leading 10-0 early in the third quarter, Wes Hopkins recovered a Mark Rypien fumble on the Washington 10. A touchdown there, and the Eagles are back in it.

No chance. Heath Sherman ran 1 yard, then Ryan dropped back to pass, his feet moving frantically. Keith Byars was open in the end zone, but Ryan threw instead to Kenny Jackson, under heavy coverage by Darrell Green. Terrible decision. Nifty interception.

That was the game. Afterward Ryan wanted badly out of RFK, but he couldn't escape. The first wave of reporters arrived, and he patiently answered their questions. Then the second wave approached, and he seemed reluctant to go on. He was frustrated, exasperated, devastated.

"I doesn't make me think again [about returning to the NFL]," Ryan said. "I'm a little upset with myself at the moment. But I've been in this situation before. You have your bad days. I know I can do better than I did tonight. Hell, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't even come back."

The reporters nodded in sympathy.

No one dared suggest he had the right idea.

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