In game of big plays, Eagles make biggest. Cunningham pass at :04 beats Redskins, 34-31

September 20, 1993|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- Randall Cunningham can't wear his "Let Me Be Me" cap on the sidelines, but he's getting the message across.

Cunningham was his old, freewheeling self yesterday, as he threw three touchdown passes -- including a 10-yarder to Calvin Williams with four seconds left -- to give the Philadelphia Eagles a 34-31 victory over the Washington Redskins before 65,435 screaming fans at Veterans Stadium.

The NFL doesn't get much better than this. The teams traded big plays in a back-and-forth thriller -- Reggie Brooks --ed 85 yards for a touchdown for the Redskins and Williams went 80 yards with a touchdown pass for the Eagles -- and it came down to one big play at the end.

Before Cunningham headed out for the winning drive that ended with the final big play, Eagles head coach Rich Kotite said he told his

quarterback: "You're just like a surgeon, just go and cut them up like you know how to cut them up."

This season, Kotite had turned the offense over to assistant coach Zeke Bratkowski -- and thus turned Cunningham loose.

"Zeke allows me to be me," said Cunningham, whose cap reflecting those sentiments was banned by the NFL during preseason because of league rules against wearing messages. "If I fail, I'll be the first one to say I fail, but I refuse to fail."

It was a devastating loss for the Redskins, who go into the bye week with a 1-2 record under new coach Richie Petitbon.

The Redskins are fortunate they don't change coaches often. They started 0-5 in Joe Gibbs' first year in 1981.

They went in worried about quarterback Cary Conklin, who made his first NFL start, and their makeshift offensive line, which was missing Jim Lachey, Mark Schlereth and Moe Elewonibi.

But the line -- bolstered by veterans Joe Jacoby and Jeff Bostic -- allowed Conklin to be sacked only twice, and he played well enough to win, passing for three touchdowns. The problem was that Cunningham trumped their defense.

Redskins cornerback Darrell Green, who intercepted two passes, said: "This is a real down time right now."

Although the Redskins have to dig themselves out of a hole, Green said: "It's not 13 games into the season. It's only three games into the season. I don't think that really kills us as much as just the moment kills us. . . . Regardless [of what happens] nine weeks from now, I'm talking about today. Today is the thing that's hurting."

The Redskins have played two of their past five regular-season games here, and both came down to the last play in the same end zone -- and both times the Eagles made it. On Dec. 20, Eric Allen batted away Mark Rypien's pass aimed at Gary Clark in the end zone to preserve a 17-13 victory.

This time, the Eagles put together the winning drive. Kotite said: "I was doing a lot of praying at the end. What a way to finish a game."

Redskins defensive lineman Jason Buck said: "It goes down as one of the great games in the Redskin-Eagle rivalry."

After the Eagles fell behind 31-24 on Brooks' 85-yard touchdown burst with 8:02 left, Cunningham directed two scoring drives, including the 83-yard, 10-play drive in the final 1:54.

Cunningham had 409 yards of total offense, passing for 360 yards and running for 49 in five carries.

"This is the game where I got my respect back, definitely from the team and coaches and maybe from you guys," Cunningham told reporters.

It helped wipe out the frustration of the past two years for Cunningham, who was lost for the 1991 season after the opener with a knee injury and suffered through two horrid games in Dallas last year. He was benched in a 20-10 regular-season loss there and passed for only 160 yards in a 34-10 playoff loss to the Cowboys.

Over the years, the Redskins have contained Cunningham fairly well, beating him eight times in 13 games. But Petitbon said last week that playing against him is like tiptoeing through a minefield. The Eagles quarterback exploded yesterday, and it was reminiscent of the time he beat the Redskins, 42-37, in 1989.

Keith Jackson caught three touchdown passes in that game, and Baltimore native Williams became the first Eagle to do it since, as he pulled in eight catches for 181 yards, including his 80-yard touchdown burst.

The Redskins twice appeared to take control in the second half. They went ahead 21-10 early in the third quarter and 31-24 midway through the fourth quarter.

After the Redskins went ahead 21-10, Allen intercepted Conklin's pass intended for Earnest Byner and ran it 29 yards for a touchdown to close the gap to 21-17.

Conklin, facing a rush from Clyde Simmons, said he never should have tried to complete it.

"I've got to throw it away or pull it down and take the sack," he said.

Conklin kept his poise and put together a 64-yard drive that resulted in a 38-yard field goal by Chip Lohmiller that boosted the Washington lead to 24-17.

Cunningham came back to direct an 80-yard drive that he capped with a 9-yard pass to Williams that tied it at 24-24.

On the next play from scrimmage, Brooks bolted for the touchdown that made it 31-24.

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