Buddy Ryan arrived in Philadelphia as the new head coach in 1986 with much fanfare. Ryan was the defensive coordinator for the 1985 Chicago Bears, one of the great defenses of all time. In three short years, Ryan turned a struggling franchise into a playoff team as the 1988 Philadelphia Eagles captured the NFC East.
The Eagles had not made the playoffs or had a winning season since 1981, and in Ryan’s first year, they struggled to a 5-10-1 record. But the progress was evident in 1987 when they improved to 7-8 (the season was only 15 games due to a players’ strike). But it wasn’t the defense that keyed Ryan’s first playoff team as a head coach—it was an offense that ranked 5th in the NFL in points scored.
Randall Cunningham was 25-years-old and a dynamic talent, who could both throw from the pocket and run. He made the Pro Bowl, throwing for over 3,800 yards and finishing with a TD/INT ratio of 24-16. To give that latter figure some context, the ratio for league MVP Boomer Esiason was 28/14. Cunningham was playing at a very high level.
The quarterback’s favorite target was rookie tight end Keith Jackson, who caught 81 passes for 869 yards and made first-team All-Pro. There was a 23-year-old receiver named Cris Carter who would eventually make the Hall of Fame, although the bulk of his career was with the Minnesota Vikings. Keith Byars and Anthony Toney were the running backs, though neither reached 600 yards
Reggie White keyed the defense, and the future Hall of Fame tackle recorded 18 sacks. He was the only Pro Bowl player on the league’s 14th-ranked defense, but the young talent was on the way. Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons on the defensive front, Seth Joyner at outside linebacker and Eric Allen at corner would form the core of a defense that would soon become one of the league’s most feared.
Philadelphia opened the season at Tampa Bay. Cunningham rifled a 37-yard touchdown pass to Mike Quick to set an early tone and the Eagles blasted a bad Buccaneers team 41-14. Philly played well at home against the Cincinnati Bengals the next week, outrushing the future AFC champs 190-78, including 85 from Cunningham. But Esiason threw for 363 yards, four touchdowns and the Eagles lost 28-24
The Washington Redskins were the NFC East’s pre-eminent team of the 1980s and had won the Super Bowl in 1987. Philadelphia went to old RFK Stadium for Week 3 and surrendered 150 yards on the ground in a 17-10 loss. Another defeat followed, 23-21 at Minnesota on a late field goal. The Eagles were now down to 1-3.
What’s more, the schedule didn’t get easier. Over the next three weeks, the Eagles would face AFC playoff teams in the Houston Oilers and Cleveland Browns, sandwiched around a game with the Bill Parcells-era New York Giants.
Philly did get a break in that the Oilers came to Philadelphia with a backup quarterback, Cody Carlson playing for an injured Warren Moon. The Eagles still fell behind 16-0, but then Cunningham threw two touchdown passes in the second quarter, ran for another in the third, survived 19 penalties and won 32-23.
The home date with the Giants was on Monday Night and Cunningham lit up the prime-time stage. He finished 31/41 for 369 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. And with the Eagles holding a 17-13 lead in the fourth quarter, Cunningham hit Carter with an 80-yard touchdown strike to seal the game.
Another break with opposing quarterbacks came when Philadelphia did not have to face Browns’ QB Bernie Kosar, out with an injury. But the Eagles didn’t capitalize. Cunningham played poorly, the defense gave up 100 yards rushing to Kevin Mack and the result was a 19-3 loss.
Philadelphia then missed another chance when they played two consecutive bad teams at home, the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons. They Eagles only got one win, against the Cowboys and they had to rally for that one. Trailing 23-10, Toney caught one TD pass and ran for another to lead the 24-23 escape. They weren’t as lucky with the Falcons, giving up a late 49-yard touchdown pass in a 27-24 defeat.
The playoffs seemed a long way away, with a 4-5 record and the red-hot Los Angeles Rams coming to town at 7-2. The Rams and Eagles would eventually converge, and the paths of both teams started to change on this day in the old Vet. Cunningham threw for 323 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The defense intercepted LA quarterback Jim Everett four times. The Eagles led 27-10 and held on to win 30-24. And then they started to roll.
Philadelphia had a gut-check win at a subpar Pittsburgh Steelers team, falling behind 10-0 early and trailing 26-24 late before Cunningham led a drive for a short field goal that won the game. The Eagles were now 6-5 and along with the Redskins were one game back of the Giants and the surprising Phoenix Cardinals in a packed NFC East race.
Ryan took his team to New York to face the Giants, and a bizarre ending took place. The game itself was strange enough, played in a downpour and the Eagles were trailing 17-10 in the fourth quarter. Cunningham was driving the team for the tying score when Jackson caught a pass and fumbled it into the end zone. Carter recovered and the game was tied.
Overtime was even stranger. Philly got in the position for the winning field goal, but the kick was blocked. Simmons scooped up the ball and ran it in for the winning touchdown. It wasn’t quite as improbable as the “Miracle In The Meadowlands” game won by the 1978 Philadelphia Eagles. But it was pretty weird, and like ’78, the win keyed a playoff trip.
Philadelphia then took out the Cardinals 31-21 in a home win, and the Eagles and Giants were tied for first at 8-5. The Cards were a game back, while the Redskins had faded. But Washington still had championship pride and they came to Philadelphia the next week and seemed to derail the Eagle Express, scoring 10 fourth-quarter points and rallying to beat Philly 20-19.
The Eagles went west and dominated the Cardinals on the ground, with a 141-46 in rush yardage to win 23-17. But a game back in the division race, and the wild-card not likely to be a possibility, the Birds looked out of luck
Fate intervened one more time. The Giants lost the season finale to the New York Jets on a late touchdown pass. Meanwhile, Philadelphia was in Dallas taking care of business. Cunningham went 20/38 for 232 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Free safety Wes Hopkins picked off a couple passes. The Eagles won 23-7 and got the word that the win made them champions of the NFC East.
There was no more appropriate place for Ryan’s first playoff game as head coach then to be at Soldier Field against the Chicago Bears. It ended up being a strange weather day. Fog made television viewing of the game almost impossible and the Eagles kept bogging down in the red zone. They lost 20-12.
The playoff loss couldn’t dull the good feeling the NFC East title brought though. The Eagles would continue to get better defensively and over the next two years produced teams that were probably better than in 1988.
But I say “probably”, because the Giants also got better and the Redskins returned to form. The Eagles got into the playoffs as a wild-card two more times under Ryan, but never won a postseason game. Ryan’s successor, Rich Kotite never won the NFC East, though he did get a playoff win in 1992. But as the Cowboys became revitalized under Jimmy Johnson, and Reggie White left town for Green Bay, the Philadelphia Moment seemed to pass by quickly. That didn’t seem likely at the end of 1988.