Eagles missed the playoffs, but hit the right notes for Kotite

A SEASON LOST AND FOUND

December 22, 1991|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Correspondent

Philadelphia -- Rich Kotite swivels animatedly in the chair behind his desk, wearing a navy-blue "CBS Sports" baseball cap and chewing on a thick cigar. The coach of the Philadelphia Eagles is talking about what has been gained, not what was lost, in a 9-6 season that will conclude with today's 4 p.m. visit by the Washington Redskins.

He is upbeat, almost glowing. His is definitely not a hot seat.

"I'm not going to let the disappointment of missing the playoffs in any way deter from the accomplishment this football team has made," he says.

"Now, the job isn't over yet; we've got Washington on Sunday. But this team here, I'm very proud of them, the way they played. They played with a lot of class, they've played within the rules, and they played very hard. I'm proud of the image they're projecting this year."

The nightmare of his quarterback-roulette season is fresh in his mind, but the sting of missing the playoffs does not weigh heavily on Kotite. After three straight postseason berths, the Eagles have been reduced to also-rans. They play today only for the pride of a 10-win season.

Yet, Kotite, 49, can smile about his first NFL season as head coach. He has earned the right. The owner, Norman Braman, loves him for cleaning up the Eagles' trash-talking image. The team's president, Harry Gamble, loves him for bringing the team through a lot of adversity.

The scenario unfolding in Philadelphia today is incongruous to last season's tumultuous finish. A year ago, the Eagles went 10-6 with Randall Cunningham at quarterback. This year, they have a shot at 10-6 with a quarterback-by-committee offense. A year ago, Buddy Ryan was fired for three straight playoff losses. This year, Kotite is hailed as Coach of the Year by his bosses for contending until the final week.

*

It all started with Bryce Paup. He is the Green Bay Packers bTC linebacker who rammed into Cunningham's left leg in the season opener and sent the Eagles reeling into the free-agent quarterback market. Cunningham, the league's Most Valuable Player last season, was out for the year after undergoing knee surgery.

The Eagles turned the offense over to veteran Jim McMahon. Then they went shopping for a backup. Kotite, a former offensive coordinator with the New York Jets, chose Pat Ryan, a former Jet, over David Archer, who eventually was signed by the Eagles as well.

If Kotite made a mistake this season, that was it. Ryan hadn't played in two years, and McMahon, at 32, is almost as brittle as he is charismatic. It was a virtual impossibility that McMahon could last the entire season. He didn't: In Week 5, he sprained a knee scrambling for the sideline at Washington. With Ryan and rookie Brad Goebel splitting time, the Eagles' offense did not score a touchdown for 14 quarters.

Their frustration peaked with a 14-13 loss to the then-winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Defensive stars Jerome Brown and Seth Joyner were seething afterward about the Eagles' conservative offense.

Kotite knows the Eagles blew their playoff bid in rainswept Tampa, but he defends the signing of Ryan.

"He was the No. 1 guy from the standpoint of his arm, his footwork, and certainly what he had going for him, along with that, was his knowledge of the system," he said. "But he wasn't signed for the knowledge of the system."

Braman seems to exonerate Kotite on this matter.

"Maybe it was the wrong decision," the owner said, "but I don't think so. Richie knew Ryan, Ryan knew the system. Whoever would have dreamt that would happen to us?"

Battling knee and elbow injuries, McMahon came back to launch a six-game winning streak that put the Eagles into contention. But when his season ended with the fracture dislocation of four ribs two weeks ago, the Eagles turned to Jeff Kemp, their fifth starting quarterback. Kemp, who pulled out games against the Houston Oilers and New York Giants in relief, lost as a starter to the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday. The Eagles' playoff bid officially ended the next night when the New Orleans Saints won.

*

Counting Archer, the Eagles have had six quarterbacks under contract this season, and own the rights to a seventh, former Miami ace Craig Erickson. Gamble said the Eagles will try to sign Erickson, whose pro career is on hold because of nerve damage in his leg, before the next draft.

The logjam at quarterback will be slow in breaking. The Eagles say Cunningham is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation, and if he can make it back, the job is his. McMahon has a clause in his contract that says he must be made available in Plan B free agency. But Braman insists that McMahon will be back.

"Jim's heart is as big as the Grand Canyon," Braman said. "I just don't think he's capable of playing a full season the way we asked him."

Braman is even more upbeat, more glowing than his coach about the prospects of next season.

"This team needs very little to bring us to the point of being a genuine Super Bowl contender," he said.

Kotite was looking ahead, too, when he said: "You gain a lot out of this. You gain maturity, you gain focus, you gain a new sense of the word team. I think if there's a silver lining here and we get some people back next year, they're going to remember what they've done under some limited circumstances at times. So I think this is going to serve them in the future."

Eagles quarterback effiency

Quarterback..Games..Starts..Record..TDs.. ..Int..Rating

Cunningham.. ..1.. .. 1.. .. 1-0.. ..0.. .. .0.. ..46.9

McMahon.. .. .12.. ..11.. .. 8-3.. .12.. .. 11.. ..80.3

Ryan.. .. .. ..4.. .. 0.. .. 0-0.. ..0.. .. .4.. ..10.3

Goebel.. .. .. 4.. .. 2.. .. 0-2.. ..0.. .. .6.. ..27.0

Kemp.. .. .. ..6.. .. 1.. .. 0-1.. ..3.. .. .4.. ..57.3

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