Eagles have injury at QB: bruised ego

JOHN EISENBERG

November 09, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

PHILADELPHIA -- You think you've heard everything once, right? Well, get this: A team loses three of four games, changes quarterbacks and wins by three touchdowns, but the head coach immediately announces that the other quarterback, the one who was losing, has become the starter again.

Does that make sense? Let's just put it this way: Are Philly fans known for their courtesy? No, it does not make an ounce of sense. But no one ever said the Philadelphia Eagles, the closest thing in the NFL to an episode of "Geraldo," ever make sense.

Jim McMahon led the Eagles to a 31-10 win over the Raiders yesterday on a chilly afternoon at Veterans Stadium, and coach Rich Kotite immediately announced that the famously slumping Randall Cunningham would start next week.

Ridiculous.

And absolutely the right move for Kotite to make.

It will not be popular in the locker room, where the everyman McMahon, who parties with linemen, has more pals than the elitist Cunningham. And Kotite's wife should not listen to any talk shows this week. But after kick-starting the best soap opera of the year in the NFL, Kotite made the necessary call.

See, the Eagles will never win a Super Bowl with McMahon, and they might with Cunningham. Bringing in McMahon for some relief pitching is fine, but it's really just avoiding the issue. Cunningham is the only quarterback who can carry the Eagles deep into January. They better start fixing what ails him.

It all started last week when Kotite pulled Cunningham at halftime in Dallas. McMahon got the offense going, but the Eagles still lost. Kotite said after the game that Cunningham was still the starter, then changed his mind and said the next day that McMahon would start one game "to give Randall a break."

Kotite insisted he would stick to his word even if McMahon threw for 500 yards, but Cunningham hardly seemed comforted. His is as fragile an ego as you will find attached to a million-dollar arm. Clearly, he just can't handle this benching stuff.

He was upset by a brief benching in the 1990 season's playoffs, which got Buddy Ryan fired. This past week, his comments on his situation bordered on the irrational. He said it was a good idea, a bad idea, just an OK idea and, finally, a possible portent of the apocalypse.

ZTC If you're the coach, there's only one thing to do when you hear that coming out of your best player's mouth: Get that young man back in the lineup before he spontaneously combusts.

What makes it tough, of course, is then you're basically putting Cunningham's happiness ahead of the team, which is a no-no. You're also giving up sure wins. McMahon, at 33, is immobile and doesn't throw particularly well, but he can still run a team and complete a pass. His record as a starter the past two years is 8-4. That beats the miserable Cunningham of the past month.

But in a year in which the Eagles had legitimate designs on a Super Bowl, they need to think as big as possible. It's one thing to beat the cartoon Raiders and another to win a playoff game on the road in San Francisco or Dallas. Yes, McMahon did it in his day. But he's just too limited now. He's also injury-prone. Cunningham probably would have gotten the job back even if Kotite had given it to McMahon.

The situation reduces to this basic fact: Cunningham is a singular talent who, for better or worse, represents the Eagles' only chance to win a title. It's true he has never won a playoff game, and it can't be pleasant to have to pander to him. (He was setting guidelines yesterday after being renamed the starter: "I can't get pulled again.") But there's no alternative. He's talented enough that the Eagles should just swallow and deal with him. Kotite did. Smart coaching.

Besides, does anyone really think Cunningham has suddenly just lost it? He was superb the first month of the season, quashing speculation that his knee injury a year ago had ruined him. Then he stopped scrambling, started guiding his passes and lost his confidence. "You could see it in his eyes," one teammate said last week.

Kotite thought the week off would calm him down. Who knows if it will? It may not even matter which quarterback plays; the Eagles might be too emotionally flawed, too cocky without reason, to win a title.

The only certainty is it will not be dull. You knew that yesterday when Cunningham, after explaining that he approved of the benching, was asked if he thought Kotite handled it well.

"Hmmm," he said, smiling. "Let me think about that one."

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