Coach Buddy Ryan talked a mighty big game this summer. He was another freedom fighter come to town, saying, in no uncertain terms, that his Philadelphia Eagles would win the NFC East and all eight games against division teams.
By mid-November, you half expected Ryan's likeness to be unveiled across the street from Veterans Stadium, alongside the arms-raised statue of Rocky Balboa: the Italian Stallion and the Ornery Oklahoman.
But lo and behold, even after Ryan has sandblasted former coach Marion Campbell's 7-9 team of 1985, the Eagles are 3-7, with a distinct chance of finishing 4-12 or 5-11. They have lost all five games against NFC East teams.
Once ballyhooed, Ryan at times is loudly booed by a town that likes a man who speaks his mind so long as he backs it up.
"The dynasty I took over wasn't a damn dynasty," Ryan, the former overseer of the Chicago Bears' Super Bowl defense, said this week. "It had to be rebuilt." Don't ask him about the Bears, because all he'll say, in between puffs on his pipe, is, "I wish I had their schedule."
Ryan, 52, said he does not regret one thing he has said this season. But winning all eight intradivision games? The Eagles' veteran quarterback, Ron Jaworski, said: "That's probably the only mistake Buddy has made here, being outspoken on how we would do." But Ryan said, "If I don't believe that, who will? I don't want to take the year off."
Then again, sometimes you have to take a step backward before you make a leap forward. Nearly two-thirds of the 1986 Eagles are in their third NFL season or fewer. "A redirectoring," is what linebacker Garry Cobb calls it.
Although it's true that numerous Eagles' veterans Ryan sent packing this season are starting elsewhere--linebackers Reggie Wilkes and Joel Williams in Atlanta, safety Ray Ellis and linebacker Anthony Griggs in Cleveland, running back Earnest Jackson in Pittsburgh--Ryan stands firm: "Yeah, but I don't think they are playing very well."
Ryan also said, "Forrest Gregg about a month ago said he wished he'd had the guts to do the things at Green Bay that I've done here. And now he's having to do it three years into his program."
Ryan's defense, his Franken-steinian "46," has been improving by the week, holding opponents to 17 points or fewer six times in 10 games. Four times the Eagles lost by three points, and in three of those games the formerly reliable Paul McFadden missed field goals from 42 yards or closer. McFadden missed only 5 of 30 field-goal tries last season, but has missed 5 of 16 already this season.
It's likely, though, Ryan would prefer to wear a blindfold when his offense has the ball. When the Eagles lost, 17-14, to the New York Giants at the Vet Sunday, only three players started on offense who had started the season opener against the Washington Redskins (linemen Leonard Mitchell and Ron Baker and wide receiver Mike Quick). Ryan's offensive line, which included three rookies Sunday, has yielded 53 sacks and, with six games left in the season, might break the league-record yield of 70.
Against Dallas, the Eagles' offense was beaten for 10 sacks. Against Atlanta, it fumbled seven times. Against the Giants, it failed to score on its first 11 possessions. So poor is the running game that the backup quarterback, Randall Cunningham, is within 22 yards of being the team's leading rusher.
Jaworski, 35, is lost for the season after suffering a torn tendon in the pinky on his throwing hand Sunday. He will be replaced by the scrambler Cunningham, who often is better running than he is throwing. Imagine this: Cunningham has thrown 59 passes this season and been sacked 27 times. It's the most remarkable ratio in town since the Philadelphia Phillies' Steve Carlton claimed 27 of his team's 59 victories in 1972.
"If I am going to be the quarterback of the future," said Cunningham, 23, "I better get started now."
The Eagles' roster has been a veritable bus terminal this season. Stop by, have coffee, give up a quarterback sack, head for Sheboygan at noon. Twelve rookies are among the 45.
"It's just an unstable situation here right now," Quick said. "You can't expect so much when things are so unstable. I've seen a lot of guys leave here who I felt could help the team."