Buddy Ryan was feeling the pressure in Philadelphia. Since arriving as head coach in 1986, the renowned defensive guru had turned a struggling team into a steady playoff contender. But the Eagles had not advanced deep into the postseason under Ryan. Between the desire of the fan base for more and Ryan’s prickly personality, it added up to a hot seat. The 1990 Philadelphia Eagles proved to be the last ride for Ryan in Philadelphia.
The defense got the headlines in Philadelphia, thanks to a ferocious defensive front. Reggie White, the future Hall of Fame defensive tackle was at the peak of his career. Jerome Brown was a 1st-team All-Pro. Future ESPN radio personality Mike Golic manned the middle. Seth Joyner and Clyde Simmons could both bring pressure off the edge. Opposing quarterbacks had reason to be nervous.
But not as nervous as Philadelphia’s own quarterback, Randall Cunningham, could make opposing defenses. A gifted athlete with a rifle arm, Cunningham finished with a 30-13 TD/INT ratio, averaged 7.5 yards-per-attempt and also led the Eagles in rushing with 942 yards.
There were some decent supporting pieces, notably Keith Jackson, the 1st-team All-NFL tight end. Keith Byars caught 81 balls out of the backfield. But Cunningham was the reason the Eagles could let Cris Carter walk to Minnesota and still finish as the third-best scoring offense in the league. The more heralded defense finished 12th .
Philadelphia did not respond well to the must-win pressure early in the season. Losses to fellow NFC East contenders in the New York Giants and Washington Redskins were disappointing, both caused by an offensive line that couldn’t protect Cunningham. Losses to non-contenders in the Phoenix Cardinals and Indianpolis Colts were simply aggravating. The Eagles were 2-4 and in an early hole.
Their backs to the wall, Philly ripped off five straight wins. The most famous was a Monday Night beatdown of Washington in Veterans Stadium. The Eagles dominated the ground game, winning rush yards 165-50 and they scored three third-quarter touchdowns to break open a tie game.
But what makes this game stand the test of time in history is that the Birds knocked out two Redskins quarterbacks and nine players overall, making this “The Bodybag Game”. It gave the Eagles new life…and the Redskins a grudge to nurture.
The biggest win though came on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The Giants came to the Vet with a 10-0 record. They went home the victims of a 31-13 thrashing. Cunningham played efficient football, going 17/31 for 229 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. The defense forced his counterpart, Phil Simms, into an erratic game and also shut down the New York ground game. The Eagles weren’t going to catch the Giants in the NFC East, but Philly’s playoff prospects had brightened considerably.
Tough losses to AFC contenders in the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins followed. In a visit to Buffalo, Philadelphia dug themselves a 24-0 hole, as the defense gave up two long touchdown passes to Jim Kelly. Cunningham led a furious rally, keyed by a 95-yard touchdown pass to Fred Barnett and the lead was cut to 24-23, but fell just short in a 30-23 final.
Philadelphia went to Miami for a Sunday Night date. The Eagles dominated the ground game, rushing for 257 yards, with both Cunningham and Thomas Sanders leading the way. They led 20-10 in the fourth quarter. But the defense again failed against a top quarterback. Dan Marino rallied the Dolphins into a tie and then won 23-20 in overtime.
In the playoff format of 1990-2001, each conference had three divisions and there were three wild-card spots. Even at 7-6, Philadelphia still held down the second wild-card spot and the schedule ahead was soft. The Eagles easily won home games over mediocre teams from Green Bay and Dallas. When Washington lost in Indianapolis, Philadelphia vaulted into the top wild-card spot. They sealed it and the accompanying home playoff game with a win at Phoenix (the Cardinals were an NFC East rival prior to 2002).
A rematch of The Bodybag Game opened Wild-Card Weekend on Saturday afternoon with Eagles-Redskins. On a dank day, nothing went right for the Eagles in the first half. With a 1st-and-goal on the 2-yard line, pass protection broke down, Cunningham was sacked and they had to settle for a field goal. A 96-yard fumble return for a touchdown was nullified by instant replay and the Redskins were able to kick a field goal.
Philadelphia might have led 17-3 at the half instead of trailing 10-6. It didn’t get better in the second half. Ryan, grasping at straws, benched Cunningham for Jim McMahon. The gambit predictably failed and the Eagles lost 20-6.
Ryan was fired and offensive coordinator Rich Kotite elevated. The result was more the same with Kotie and after him, Ray Rhodes. They won games, made the playoffs and never made it past the second round. The franchise still awaits its first Super Bowl title.