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Original Issue

A Flying Start

With a healthy Randall Cunningham and a recharged Herschel Walker, the Philadelphia Eagles helped launch the season by beating the New Orleans Saints

You, too, can win cash and valuable prizes if you can just name the minor marketing detail that was left out of the Great Randall Cunningham Comeback Party on Sunday at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. Was it...

•Randall's personal line of T-shirts, the ones with his picture on them? Nope. They were stacked, folded and ready for the after-comeback rush.

•Randall's personal line of hats, the ones that said HE'S BACK SCRAMBLING, a reference to his pronouncement "I'll be back scrambling" after the Green Bay Packers blew out his left knee in the first game last season? Nope. The hats were blocked and ready.

•The hype? Nah. For the past year, all anybody in Philadelphia has wanted to talk about is Randall. You don't take the scariest quarterback out of the NFL for a year in his prime and not get curious about what he'll be like when he comes back.

•Randall's deal to write a book about the comeback year? Nope. Signed and ready.

•Randall's own candy bar, the Randall Bar, the one in which the caramel and peanuts are "scrambled" and on which there is a special place for Randall to put his autograph if you ever meet him and your mouth isn't too stuck together with caramel and peanuts for you to ask him for it? Nope. The shelves were loaded.

•The scaring pressure to perform? Nope. Even the Philadelphia Eagles' minister/conscience/soul, defensive end Reggie White, put the capital-O Onus on Randall and his team. "If we don't win it all this year," said White, "we never will."

No, everything was shined, polished, primed, gassed up, priced, gleaming and double ready for Randall's comeback.

Except Randall.

In his long-awaited debut against the vaunted New Orleans Saints, Cunningham came up about 30 gallons of Rustoleum short. He nearly forgot to get his ankles taped, lost three fumbles (is it too late to call the candy bar Butterfinger?), couldn't decide whether to run or pass, got sacked six times, missed wide-open receivers (including one in the end zone from two yards away), hit only one down-field pass (for 20 yards and a touchdown), second-guessed himself and generally gasped and smoked like a '92 Jaguar running on five '63 Valiant spark plugs. "I guess I was about 70 or 80 percent," he said, generously.

Luckily the Eagles had an emergency backup comeback—Herschel Walker's.

Walker, the forgotten millionaire, rose from the ashes of the worst trade in the history of the NFL—Herschel for most of downtown Minneapolis—and went through the Saints' defense like a Roto-Rooter. He ran for 114 yards, caught a touchdown pass, kept some pressure off Cunningham and helped the Eagles to a 15-13 victory in his Philadelphia debut.

"Ah, this is no big deal," said Walker from atop his famously abbreviated neck. "I've done this before." True, Walker gained 173 yards in his first game as the Dallas Cowboys' starting tailback in 1987 and 148 yards in his Minnesota Viking debut in '89, but those teams expected it. Nobody in Philadelphia expected much. In fact most Philadelphians had written Walker off as a $2.7 million bench weight. His longest gain of the exhibition season had been nine yards, though he had taken miles of crap from fans and teammates. They all wanted to know how a guy who was cut by the Vikings could get $1.1 million a year—and, if he could, how they might arrange to get dumped by Minnesota. And they wanted to know how a man who had almost single-handedly brought down the Vikings at age 29 could help the Eagles at 30.

Eagle defensive back Wes Hopkins told the Philadelphia Daily News during the exhibition season, "The objections I had, watching the Vikings play, I'd see one play when he looked great, the next play where he'd take a couple of steps and fall down instead of helping protect his quarterback. Things like that."

But against the Saints, Walker protected his quarterback by simply taking the pigskin off his hands. "Time for me to turn it up a notch," Walker told Cunningham before the game. "This is the real deal now." And Walker looked like a real steal. He became the first Eagle to run for more than 100 yards on opening day since 1934—which, it is believed, even predates Jim McMahon.

Lord, the back of Walker's jersey streaking down-field must have looked sweet to Cunningham. Especially since he had the small problem of having nobody to throw to.

Pro Bowl tight end Keith Jackson was still holding out, no matter what you may have heard. Somebody pulled a fast one on Philadelphia's all-sports station, WIP, last Friday by calling in, pretending to be Jackson's agent, Gary Wichard, and "revealing" that Jackson was in Philly and all but signed by the Eagles. Truth was, Jackson was home last weekend at a family reunion in Little Rock, Ark., where he caught 44 passes for 22 touchdowns and three extra helpings of ribs.

Without Jackson the Eagles had to put halfback Keith Byars at tight end, a job he relished like a paper cut. "I'm no cure," Byars said with a shrug. "I'm just an aspirin." Plus the Eagles' two wideouts, Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams, had been mere rookies the last time Cunningham started a game at the Vet. Besides, Cunningham's best friend on the team and his favorite receiver, Kenny Jackson, had been waived by the Eagles the week before. To top it all off, because of a groin injury, Cunningham had thrown a whopping total of 22 passes—all in exhibition games—since his knee was blown out.

This team was one un-jolly green question mark. Sure, Playboy had picked the Eagles to be the Super Bowl champions, but nobody else with a full set of staples had.

Worse, did anybody really know how the Eagles' defense would be after the death in a car wreck in June of the team's leader and best lineman, tackle Jerome Brown? A half hour before the game the team retired Brown's number, 99, and said goodbye to him in a Gospel-tinged remembrance that had tears welling in the eyes of many Eagles, including Byars and Cunningham.

It's funny, but in the end it may have been the very player the Eagles feared they would miss most who won the game for them. Brown's memorial so inspired the team that Cunningham and the offense left the locker room and scored on their first drive. Cunningham even scrambled 10 yards for a first down, and on the following play Walker ripped off a 32-yard section of carpet. Then the defense came out and practically shoved the football down the Saints' throats—three downs and a punt. "I've been in football a long time," said Eagle center David Alexander, "but that's the most emotion I've ever seen in a football team coming out onto the field."

Philadelphia's defense never came down from that moment. At one point in the second half the Eagles kept the Saints from a first down on four straight possessions. For the entire day the Saints got one rushing first down—and they had the No. 1 time-of-possession offense in the league last season. "It's like they knew the plays," said the Saints' flummoxed quarterback, Bobby Hebert. Nah. Alexander had a better explanation. "Our defense," he said. "Those are the 11 meanest sons of bitches in the NFL."

Somehow the Saints stayed in the game, mostly because the Eagles' offense either sputtered or left footballs lying around in dangerous places. Here's a sputter: With the score tied 6-6 in the second quarter, Cunningham had a first-and-goal at the Saints' two. But somehow he missed Heath Sherman, achingly open in the end zone, by five yards. Three plays later the Eagles settled for a field goal from the one (no easy feat for kicker Roger Ruzek, who would miss both extra points he tried) and a 9-6 lead.

And here's a football lying around: At the New Orleans 13 in the third quarter, Walker coughed one up to kill a drive.

Luckily Eagle receiver Barnett did something he wasn't supposed to do on the first play of the fourth quarter. Instead of running a 10-yard hitch, he ran a 20-yard fade. Cunningham threw it up and got lucky when Saint cornerback Toi Cook jumped a good one-Mississippi too early. The Eagles had a 15-6 lead.

Then another football was left lying around: Cunningham dropped it on the Saints' 26 about 3½ minutes into the fourth quarter, when an Eagle touchdown would have blown the game open, and the Saints gladly picked it up. Cunningham was definitely not his 1990 self. Said Eagle guard Mike Schad, "Instead of just exploding out and running with it, it seems like Randall was going, 'Well...let's...see.... Maybe...I' it,' and that's when they'd get to him." Byars could see it too: "Look, he's going to have to play his way through some things. I mean, he saw the '91 season go down the drain in one play. You could see him thinking, in the back of his mind, It could all go down the drain in one play again."

That didn't happen, though the game nearly did a Drano. Hebert finally had enough time in the pocket to turn his helmet facing forward, find wideout Quinn Early and hit him with a bomb that set up the 10-yard touchdown route to Wesley Carroll. The Saints made the point after (yes!), and it was 15-13 with 3:20 left.

New Orleans would have gotten the ball back with about two minutes to go had it not been for a dubious pass-interference call on Reggie Jones. "I wasn't even looking for a flag after that play," said the Eagles' Barnett, and he was the intended receiver. That gave the Eagles a first down and the win.

O.K., Cunningham wasn't all that bad. When he decided to cut loose and run, he looked good. Besides, who needs to worry when you have the best defense in the NFL and a 300-pound guardian angel riding shotgun?



Barnett pulled down Cunningham's heave for a fourth-quarter TD.



For Philadelphia fans, Cunningham's passing wasn't anything to jump up and down about; Walker's running, on the other hand, was.



White and his teammates were inspired by memories of Brown.



The Saints went marching in on Williams (89) after a reception in the second quarter.



Seth Joyner (59) and White were up in arms after laying Hebert out on the carpet.