Eagles see future, and it is their past


January 11, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

IRVING, Texas -- All you needed to know about yesterday's playoff game between the Cowboys and Eagles, and the direction in which the teams are headed, was summed up in the large nutshell that was Erik Williams blocking Reggie White when the Cowboys had the ball.

The Eagles had no better player in uniform than White, one of the best defensive linemen of his generation. Yet his best, which was as fine as ever, was not nearly enough to give the Cowboys trouble. In Williams, a 325-pound rolling boulder who grew up in ++ Philly, the Cowboys had someone just as strong. Just as tough. Just as capable.

And seven years younger.

Such was the larger lesson of the Cowboys' startlingly easy, 34-10 win, which put them into the NFC championship game next weekend and carried the unmistakable markings of two teams headed in opposite directions.

The Cowboys are rising, with a bullet. They're the youngest team in the league, with room to improve, yet they're already in a championship game. And the Eagles, well, when you get hammered in the playoffs by a younger team from your own division, it's clearly time to try some different players and a new approach. The old approach just isn't going to cut it.

Think about it: While the Eagles have spent the past five years trying and failing to jump from pretender to contender, the Cowboys have hit a 1-15 bottom, regrouped and now passed the Eagles and made that very jump. Yesterday's win was the Cowboys' third in four games against the Eagles, after eight straight losses.

"A lot of us didn't want to admit that they were a good team," Reggie White said. "I know I didn't. But now we have to give them the respect. I'm shocked, I really am, that they could beat us this badly. Not in a million years did I think it could happen."

But the Cowboys did. It's their day now. Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson was so confident that during the week he spoke to a groundskeeper about simulating the muddy field at Candlestick Park, so the Cowboys could better prepare for the conference title game.

"I thought all along that we were the better team [than Philadelphia]," Johnson said. "I told the players that if they took care of business on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, really the deal was done."

Cocky? You haven't heard the best yet. Asked if it was a turning point when the Cowboys recovered a fumble and kicked a field goal at the end of the first half, extending an 11-point lead to 14, Johnson shook his head, no. "We already had enough points to win," he said.

Big talk, but he was right. Randall Cunningham was over his head against a harrying Cowboys defense, dropping his postseason record to 1-4. After this latest bust, the Eagles need to think hard about whether Cunningham, though immensely talented, has the substance to take them to a Super Bowl. Is he too erratic? Too fragile mentally? The answer just might be yes.

Of course, the same can be said for the Eagles' entire nucleus of players, which has been together since the mid-'80s. The defense is declining. The offense has never been anything but inconsistent. There has been speculation that White and others will leave by free agency, tired of the bad endings, but the truth is the Eagles probably need to chase off some players even if they don't want to leave.

"In any case," Cunningham said, "I don't think things will ever be the same here again."

White, their main man, is most prominent among those reportedly interested in taking his shoulder pads elsewhere. He is 31 and wants a shot at a Super Bowl, and, as Magic Johnson might say, he knows where the winning is.

It was right across the line from him yesterday. Could there be a more perfect metaphor than Erik Williams, who grew up emulating White as a high school defensive end in Philly? He went on to little Central State in Ohio, but the Cowboys found him, and now they have a 24-year-old who can handle White without help. Yes, the same White who used to abuse a Cowboys triple-team. (White had a sack and seven tackles yesterday, but caused little harm.) The Cowboys checkmated the Eagles' best. Ballgame over.

"It was just me and him, no double-teaming or anything," Williams said, "and he made some plays because he's such a terrific player, but, in all, I think I played a good game. In fact, I know I did. Reggie came up to me afterward and shook my hand. He told me I'm going to be a great player in this league."

Just like the Cowboys are going to be a great team, if they aren't already. While the Eagles just fade to black.

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