Eagles try different flight route

October 10, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

PHILADELPHIA -- A sign at Veterans Stadium said, "NFL Warning: Birds Are For Real." Maybe the reference was to the Atlanta Falcons. It couldn't have been to the Philadelphia Eagles.

How was this game close?

With a minute left in the first half, the Eagles had outgained the Redskins, 223 yards to 26. The Redskins had three first downs -- one by a penalty. Heath Shuler, their rookie quarterback, had completed two of nine passes for 20 yards.

This was to be the night the Eagles emerged as the leading threat to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC, the night they showed a national television audience that their 40-8 victory over San Francisco last week was no fluke.

Now what do you believe?

The Eagles needed a fourth-quarter comeback to defeat the Redskins, 21-17. They nearly got beat by a team that is 1-5, a team that relies on kick returns to generate offense, a team that last night produced an unlikely hero named Tydus Winans.

A Redskins victory would have stamped this game as the dawning of the Shuler Era, a turning point in team history. Instead, it will be remembered as a night Shuler showed substantial progress, and fell just short of a stunning upset.

Shuler, making his second NFL start, did his best imitation of John Elway on the Redskins' final drive, but was intercepted on the 3-yard line by the Eagles' Greg Jackson with 40 seconds left.

The Redskins began their drive on their 8, but Shuler swiftly marched them to the Eagles' 33, completing a 22-yard pass to Henry Ellard, an 18-yard pass to Desmond Howard and scrambling 10 yards for another first down.

His final pass was intended for Howard. Maybe he should have gone to Winans. A year ago, Winans was catching passes from Trent Dilfer at Fresno State. Last night, the third-round draft pick had touchdown receptions of 27 and 41 yards.

His first touchdown came with five seconds remaining in the first half, after the Redskins took over on their own 20 with a minute left. Shuler should approach every drive this way. He marched the Redskins 80 yards in five plays to pull within 7-6 at halftime.

Shuler completed only 10 of 27 passes for 186 yards, but showed enough poise to make you want to see more. The Redskins gave him little help -- without their leading rusher, Reggie Brooks, they managed only 55 yards on the ground.

Owner Jack Kent Cooke keeps claiming the Redskins will go 9-7, but they'll need to finish 8-2 to fulfill that prediction. Baltimore can take heart: Cooke is so delusional, maybe he intends to move to Laurel, Miss., not Maryland.

Whatever, the Eagles are the bigger mystery. They're 4-1 heading to Dallas, with first place in the NFC East at stake. The Cowboys also are 4-1, but they've won their last two games by a combined 72-10 -- including a hammering of the Redskins at RFK Stadium.

Who knows what to make of the Eagles? Quarterback Randall Cunningham had been sacked only three times in his previous three games, and thrown only one interception all season. Last night, he was sacked three times and intercepted twice by a defense ranked 21st in the NFL.

The Eagles finished with 431 yards to the Redskins' 226, 26 first downs to the Redskins' 12. They converted 14 of 21 third downs, zTC the Redskins only one of 10. But somehow, Randall Cunningham and Co. won this game by only four points.

To become a Super Bowl contender, the Eagles must improve their special teams. They allowed kick returns of 68, 43 and 46 yards last night. The Redskins wound up in field-goal range each time, but managed only three points from those possessions.

Surely, Brian Mitchell was not unknown to the Eagles, but he had 135 return yards last night, giving him 976 for the season. He remains on pace to break the record for single-season return yards set by San Diego's Lionel James (2,535) in 1985.

The Eagles had better wake up, and quickly. Under Rich Kotite, they're 19-6 with Cunningham as their quarterback, 14-14 in other games. These days, Cunningham is healthy and frisky. He threw two touchdown passes last night, and dove six yards through the air for another.

This is a sound, balanced team. Charlie Garner last night became the first rookie in team history to rush for 100 yards in back-to-back games. And the defense remains surprisingly strong despite the losses of Jerome Brown, Reggie White, Clyde Simmons and Seth Joyner the past three years.

Next week is Dallas.

Next week will tell everything.

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