Buddy Ryan looked like he had the Philadelphia Eagles coming around after a breakthrough NFC East title in 1988. They spent much of the following season looking ready to keep building on that success before some late disappointment ended the season and proved to be a harbinger of things to come. Here are the highlights of the 1989 Philadelphia Eagles season…
*The success of the Eagles was built around a ferocious defensive front four, keyed by future Hall of Fame tackle Reggie White. A 1st-team All-Pro, White finished with 11 sacks and he had plenty of help. Jerome Brown recorded ten more sacks from the other tackle spot. Clyde Simmons was on the edge and rang up 15 ½ sacks. And in the defensive backfield, Eric Allen was a 1st-team All-Pro himself and picked off eight passes. Ryan was renowned as a defensive genius for his work as coordinator with the 1985 Chicago Bears and the ‘89 Eagles were a part of that legacy.
*Randall Cunningham enjoyed a Pro Bowl year at quarterback. A respectable passer, Cunningham separated himself with his legs and he led the Eagles in rushing. Although in a way that underscored the problems with the Philly offensive line, which lacked any Pro Bowl talent .And neither Anthony Toney nor Keith Byars ran for so much as 600 yards on the season.
*What Cunningham did have, in addition to his unmatched mobility was a balanced corps of receivers. Keith Jackson was the best tight end in the league. Cris Carter found his ultimate Hall of Fame greatness in Minnesota, but his final year in Philly this season was still a productive one. Byars caught 68 balls out of the backfield. The offense wasn’t great, but at 13th in the league it was more than enough when coupled with Ryan’s defense.
*Against a difficult September schedule, Philadelphia was a little slow out of the gate. They lost a Week 3 home game to eventual Super Bowl champ San Francisco after leading 28-17 in the second half. The Eagle defense fell under a flurry a fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Joe Montana. They played poorly the following Monday Night in Chicago, a grudge game for Ryan against his old boss Mike Ditka.
*What saved the opening of the Philadelphia season was a bizarre game in Washington. After falling behind 20-0 and 30-14, an Eagles rally looked poised to come up just short. They were down 37-35 and the Redskins were killing the clock, when running back Gerald Riggs fumbled. Philadelphia’s Wes Hopkins raced to the Washington 4-yard line, where the Eagles scored the winning touchdown. This win, combined with a 31-7 blowout of mediocre Seattle in the season-opener kept Philadelphia at 2-2 after the first month.
* A big home win over Bill Parcells’ New York Giants keyed an October surge. Trailing 19-14, Cunningham scored the game-winning touchdown. The record book says it a one-yard run. In reality, New York looked ready to swarm Cunningham at the three-yard line before he stretched his 6’4” frame out and got the ball over the goal line.
*Another late drive delivered a big win at eventual AFC champ Denver. Byars’ 1-yard touchdown run sealed a 28-24 run, an appropriate finish to a game where the rushing attack saved the Eagles. Byars’ ran for 93 yards and Philly outrushed John Elway’s Broncos 215-104 to win this late Sunday afternoon showcase game. In between this win and the aforementioned Giants’ win, Philadelphia tacked on wins over the Cardinals and Raiders and were soaring at 6-2.
*Two bad stumbles followed, a 20-17 loss in San Diego and a 10-3 home loss to Washington. The Chargers were a bad team and while the Redskins were a consistent contender in the Joe Gibbs era and went 10-6 in 1989, this game came right on the heels of Washington playing one of its worst games of the decade, a home loss to a Dallas team that would win only once all year.
*It was time for another surge. The Eagles edged the playoff-bound Minnesota Vikings 10-9 at home, thanks to the defense collecting five turnovers and the Vikes missing an extra point. An even bigger win came in the Meadowlands against the Giants. Simmons came up with a 60-yard Pick-6 against Phil Simms. It was the showcase play of a game where the Philly front four was locked in—they sacked Simms five times, shut down the run and won the football game 24-17.
*Immediately surrounding the Giants’ game was two matchups with Dallas. Philadelphia took care of business both times and they entered the season’s final two weeks tied atop the NFC East with New York—and owning the head-to-head tiebreaker. The #2 seed in the NFC playoffs, behind San Francisco was squarely in their grasp.
*Officially, a Monday Night road loss against a decent, but not great New Orleans team cost the Eagles the division title and relegated them to the wild-card round. Unofficially, it was probably a bigger blow to have to lost the game with San Diego in early November and Philly was unable to make up for that one. They closed out the season with an easy home win over the Cardinals to lock up a playoff spot, but the damage was done.
*The last stumble came on New Year’s Eve in front of the home fans. In a cold rain, the Eagles were simply outmuscled by the Los Angeles Rams. Philly gave up 124 yards on the ground to Greg Bell, fell behind 14-0 early and ultimately lost 21-7. It was a bitter way to end a season that had so much promise as late as December.
*That playoff loss set the stage for Ryan’s undoing. The Eagles were able to return to postseason play in 1990, but yet another home loss—this one to the Redskins—got the head coach fired. Rich Kotite replaced him and he was followed by Ray Rhodes. Philadelphia continued to consistently reach the playoffs under both, into the late 1990s. But they never reached the NFC Championship Game, much less the Super Bowl, until Andy Reid came to town. And this proud franchise with as passionate a fan base as there is anywhere, waited until 2017 for their first Super Bowl title.