Eagles put doubts, Saints to rest with 15-13 win Cunningham, Walker lead inspired effort

September 07, 1992|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA BTC — PHILADELPHIA -- Starting yet another season with high expectations, the Philadelphia Eagles began yesterday's opener like a drama with plenty of subplots:

Would the Eagles be able to recover from the off-season death of All-Pro defensive tackle Jerome Brown? Would Herschel Walker finally live up to the high expectations that he, in six previous NFL seasons, had yet to fulfill? And could quarterback Randall Cunningham recover from major knee surgery that forced him to miss practically all of last season?

One game will not provide the answers, but the Eagles, playinon the emotion of a stirring pre-game tribute to Brown, got solid performances from their defense, Walker and Cunningham in beating the New Orleans Saints, 15-13, before 63,513 at Veterans Stadium.

The defense was nearly perfect, limiting the Saints to onrushing first down for the game. Walker, used mostly as a single back in a two-tight-end formation, had 26 carries for 114 yards -- ++ becoming the first 100-yard rusher for Philadelphia since Heath Sherman ran for 124 yards against the Washington Redskins on Nov. 12, 1990. And Cunningham, although guilty of three fumbles, looked like his old self in completing 18 of 25 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns.

"We did very well against a team which I felt, coming out opreseason, was the best in the NFL," said Eagles coach Ron Kotite. "And Randall Cunningham, for that guy to come back and do what he did -- we're going to get back to where we were a couple of years ago."

Not exactly. Not with the loss of Brown, a two-time Pro Bowstarter and one of the team's most intense players, who died in a car accident in June in his hometown of Brooksville, Fla. In a pre-game tribute, in which Brown's jersey No. 99 was retired, many of the Eagles fought back tears as -- with Michael Jackson's "Gone Too Soon" playing in the background -- Brown's images were flashed on the stadium's large video screen.

"You never quite know how something like that will affect a team, because I've never gone through it," Kotite said. "With the players, you had the feeling that [the tribute] was going to be something that was going to be very positive for us."

It was. Cunningham was his old scrambling self on the first drivand completed all three of his passes. Walker was impressive, gaining 32 yards on one run and catching a 2-yard scoring pass. The only fault on the drive was the missed extra-point by Roger Ruzek (he missed both for the day), but the Eagles looked solid in taking a 6-0 lead.

"My adrenalin was flowing, and I tried to calm myself down. Thtribute to Jerome calmed me down," said Cunningham, who gained 19 of his 22 rushing yards on the drive. "I felt good and tried to be patient. We ran the system the way Richie wanted it run."

The offensive series also seemed to fire up the defense, which shut the Saints down on three plays on the first series. By halftime, the Saints had three first downs and could manage just two field goals by Morten Andersen to tie the game at 6.

Philadelphia was in good position to score another touchdown just before the half with first-and-goal on the New Orleans 2, but three incomplete passes left the Eagles settling for an 18-yard field goal by Ruzek and a 9-6 halftime lead.

The Eagles increased their lead to 15-6 on the first play of thfourth quarter, when Cunningham hit Fred Barnett on a 20-yard touchdown pass. That was all the scoring necessary, as the defense hung tough, yielding only a 10-yard touchdown pass from Bobby Hebert to Wesley Carroll that capped an 80-yard scoring drive with 3:14 left.

"We got beat in all three phases of the game: offense, defensand the kicking game," said New Orleans coach Jim Mora.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Walker, who joined the teaas a free agent in the off-season after a bitter two full seasons in Minnesota. Walker was mediocre during the preseason -- leading to more doubters in Philadelphia.

"I've done this before, so it's no big deal for me," Walker said. "knew that I could still run, that I was still strong. I never question myself."

And, despite the three fumbles, no one can questioCunningham, who completed 72 percent of his passes (his career completion percentage is 54.5 percent).

"He's going to get better and better and better," Kotite said of Cunningham. "The man made some big plays. The audible to [Barnett] on the touchdown, he did that on his own."

Cunningham, who complained of being "a little rusty," said thonly disturbing aspect of his game were the fumbles and his tentativeness running the ball.

Cunningham may not have to worry about running the ball iWalker maintains his good play for the season.

For one game, the defense came through. And its members wildraw inspiration from an empty locker next to Reggie White that, save for a framed jersey, is exactly the same as Brown left it.

"He would just want us to go out and play hard," said linebacker Seth Joyner, wearing a "99, This Season's For You" hat. "We played defense like the way we played it last year. I know he's somewhere smiling."

NFL Week 1

Eagles 15 ... Saints 13

Colts 14 ... Browns 3

Bears 27 ... Lions 24

Bills 40 ... Rams 7

Vikings 23 ... Packers 20 (OT)

Falcons 20 ... Jets 17

Steelers 29 ... Oilers 24

Bengals 21 ... Seahawks 3

Chiefs 24 ... Chargers 10

Buccaneers 23 ... Cardinals 7

49ers 31 ... Giants 14

Broncos 17 ... Raiders 13

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