Rich Kotite had a simple mandate when he became head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1991—start winning playoff games. The Eagles had made the postseason under Buddy Ryan each year from 1988–90, but had failed to win a game. That ‘91 campaign was undone by an early injury to quarterback Randall Cunningham. But the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles fulfilled their basic requirement—they got back to the playoffs and did some winning when they got there.
Cunningham was one of the most electric quarterbacks in the league. He could play high-percentage, efficient football—ranking in the top six for both completion percentage and avoiding interceptions. And he still generated 7.2 yards-per-attempt, 11th in the NFL. But it was running that was the real X-factor. Cunningham’s 549 yards on the ground were third on his team and the constant threat was a looming factor in the planning of opposing defenses.
His primary target was Fred Barnett, a 26-year-old receiver who enjoyed a career in 1992, averaging over 16 yards-per-catch and making th Pro Bowl. Calvin Williams could also stretch the field as the #2 receiver. That opened things up underneath for the backs, Herschel Walker and Keith Byars to be a regular part of the passing game.
The acquisition of the 30-year-old Walker rejuvenated the running game, and Herschel went for over 1,000 yards in 1992. Heath Sherman chipped in nearly 600 yards and took on an increasingly large role as the season progressed. It was enough to overcome the loss of All-Pro tight end Keith Jackson, who went to Miami, and the Eagles finished fifth in the NFL in points scored.
Philly’s defense had a feared reputation in this era and it was because of an attacking defensive line. Reggie White, one of the best to ever play the game, had a Pro Bowl year with 14 sacks. Clyde Simmons was even better in ‘92, with a league-leading 19 sacks and making 1st-team All-NFL at defensive end. The interior was occupied by another good pass rusher in Andy Harmon and the reliable Mike Golic.
But the back seven was a little softer. There were a couple good players to be sure—linebacker Seth Joyner was another good pass rusher and corner Eric Allen was a Pro Bowler. But there were enough soft spots for the defense to end up sixth in the NFL.
Philadelphia came blazing out of the gate and won their first three games. They beat a good, playoff-bound New Orleans Saints team 15-13 to start the year, behind 112 yards from Walker. The Eagles blew out Denver, who was fresh off going to the AFC Championship Game in 1991, and they torched the lowly Phoenix Cardinals on a Sunday night in the desert. Philly went into their bye week on a high.
The rising force that was Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys awaited on the far side of the bye, with a much-anticipated Monday Night matchup in Philadelphia. The Cowboys had opened the season by dismantling the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins on MNF, and this game was for the early lead in the NFC East.
Philly and Dallas traded blows in the first half and the Eagles held a 10-7 lead at intermission, but backed by a fired-up home crowd, Philadelphia took over in the second half. Walker ran for two touchdowns. Given Herschel’s role as lynchpin in the most famous trade in NFL history—when Johnson traded him out of Dallas to Minnesota in 1989 for the boatload of draft picks that would rebuild the Cowboys—it escaped no one’s attention that Walker had outrushed Dallas’ Emmitt Smith 86-67.
But the bigger story was that the Philadelphia defensive line just dominated. They sacked Troy Aikman four times, with White getting home twice. The final was 31-7 and the Eagles were the team to beat in the NFC East.
The schedule was about to take them on the road for some tough games against playoff-bound teams though. Philly’s secondary let them down in Kansas City, allowing some big plays that dug a 24-3 hole and the game ended in a 24-17 loss. A trip to Washington was the same story, with the Redskins using big plays to get a 16-3 lead and a late rally being insufficent to avoid a 16-12 loss.
A home win over the Cardinals (an NFC East team prior to the realignment of 2002) stopped the bleeding and set up another big showdown with Dallas. This one would be in the late Sunday afternoon television window. Dallas hadn’t lost since the Monday Night showdown and was 6-1. Philly and Washington were both in hot pursuit at 5-2.
After three quarters in old Texas Stadium, the game was deadlocked 10-10. But Herschel’s revenge tour wasn’t going so well this time around. He would be held to 44 yards. Meanwhile, Emmitt Smith was gashing the Eagle run defense, gaining 163 yards. Philly was beaten up in the fourth quarter and lost 20-10. They were two games out in the NFC East.
Mediocre play continued into November. There were highs, like a 31-10 blowout of the Los Angeles Raiders, keyed by Allen’s two interceptions. There were lows, like a 27-24 loss to Green Bay in a game played at Milwaukee where the Eagles let a late lead get away to a first-year starting quarterback named Brett Favre. The fact that Reggie White would leave for Green Bay in the offseason, primarily because of his belief that Favre was a rising star, only added some posthumous insult to this loss.
As the season hit its final four weeks, Philadelphia stood at 7-5. So did Washington and Green Bay was a game back at 6-6. The playoff format of the time was three division winners and three wild-cards, but the New Orleans Saints were 9-3 and leading the wild-card pack. December would be defined by a musical chairs race, with the Eagles, Redskins and Packers chasing the last two spots and hoping not to be left standing when the music stopped.
Philadelphia hosted Minnesota, who was bound for a division title. Cunningham took matters into his own hands. He went 16/23 for 164 yards, ran for 112 more and led a 28-17 win. The Eagles almost gave it back a week later in a road game with a hideously awful Seattle Seahawks team. Philly trailed 17-10 in the fourth quarter.
Cunningham was playing well—he would throw for 365 yards—and Walker had a 100-yard game. But the offensive line was collapsed and allowed ten sacks. Cunningham was able to rally and squeeze out a 20-17 overtime win that raised the Eagle record to 9-5.
The Redskins were coming into the old Vet on the season’s penultimate Sunday. Philadelphia didn’t move the ball particularly well, but they protected Cunningham this time and avoided mistakes. Sherman ran for 96 yards and a late defensive stop preserved a 17-13 win. The Eagles were in the playoffs. They closed out the year by beating the Giants and end up at 11-5.
It was enough for the 5-seed in the NFC playoffs and a trip to New Orleans, who had gone 12-4. The Saints were another team with a track record of making the postseason, but immediately losing. This late Sunday afternoon game that would close out wild-card weekend was to see which franchise could get the monkey off its back.
Cunningham found Barnett on a 57-yard touchdown strike in the first quarter, but that was the only high point for the first part of the game. Philadelphia was in a 20-7 hole early in the third quarter. Nothing had happened that would indicate the stunning turn of events about to come.
After a field goal cut the lead to ten, Cunningham again went up top to Barnett, a 35-yard touchdown pass that made it a 20-17 game early in the fourth quarter. Sherman ran in for a TD from six yards out and Philly had the lead. The defensive line had been mostly quiet to this point, but White got a sack that produced a safety. It was 26-20 and the momentum was cascading in Philadelphia’s direction.
Sherman would rush for 105 yards and another solid drive produced a field goal and the Eagles had a two-possession lead. Allen finished off the second half dominance with an 18-yard Pick-6. It was one of four turnovers the Birds collected and sealed the 36-20 win. Philadelphia had their first playoff victory since making the Super Bowl back in 1980.
The win in New Orleans was the high point of Kotite’s tenure. The Eagles were dismantled the following week in Dallas to end the ‘92 season. Kotite missed the playoffs the next two years and was dismissed. Philadelphia would not return to the postseason until Ray Rhodes was the head coach in 1995 and 1996. But if nothing else, the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles had removed the “can’t-win-a-playoff-game” stigma from this current cast of players.