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Fallen Eagles

In the wake of the Eagles' 16-13 loss to the Giants on Sunday, Philadelphia's sixth straight defeat after a 7-2 start, two points must be made:

1) First-year Eagle owner Jeffrey Lurie gambled and lost big when Fox commentator and former Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson spurned his offer last week to coach and control the club's football operations. But should Lurie be taken to task for not-so-secretly wooing Johnson during the season? No. Lurie realized very early on that he wanted someone who is more of a leader and a football architect than is Rich Kotite, Philly's coach the last four seasons. So he aggressively pursued the man who was both the best coach and the premier football mind available. Philadelphians ought to appreciate Lurie for his spunk, not question him for undermining Kotite, who never was going to last under Lurie anyway.

2) The Eagles' 40-8 win over the 49ers on Oct. 2 was a mirage. Philadelphia was never that good. Injuries to rookie phenom Charlie Garner left the Eagles shaky at running back, there was a lack of depth on defense—especially after middle linebacker Byron Evans was lost for the season with leg injuries in November—and quarterback Randall Cunningham clearly suffered an off year.

Lurie would love to hire Bill Walsh to run his club, but the former 49er boss, who quit as Stanford coach last month, is not about to budge from the West Coast. The best option for Lurie now would be to lure former Eagle coach Dick Vermeil away from his broadcasting duties at ABC and appoint him general manager while bringing in a defensive wizard like Viking coordinator Tony Dungy to coach and direct the recruiting of free agents. If that fails, Lurie's close advisers are urging him to take a look at Steeler defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Although offensive coordinators Mike Shanahan of San Francisco and Paul Hackett of Kansas City—both disciples of the West Coast passing game—are strong candidates to replace Kotite, the precision-pass attack is more problematic in the tundra of the northeast after Thanksgiving.

"This season happened to make us stronger for the future," Eagle wideout Fred Barnett said after his team blew a 13-3 second-half lead on Sunday. Barnett may be right. The Eagle collapse proved that this team must be torn down and rebuilt—from top to bottom.

A Question of Balance

You heard time and again from owners and other prophets of doom that unrestricted free agency would spell the end of competitive balance in the NFL. Well, it didn't happen this year, the first of true free agency. With one week left in the regular season, 51% of the games have been decided by seven points or less; if that figure holds through this weekend, it would be the highest percentage since 1938. Further, 16 teams are still in the playoff hunt, the second highest total in league history at this juncture.

No one is more pleased about this turn of events than NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, the former Raider guard who was instrumental in forging the collective bargaining agreement with the owners that combined free agency with a salary cap. Says Upshaw, "This system has done more for competitive balance and for fairness than anything this league's ever done. It wasn't fair for some guy to play behind me for 16 years with the Raiders, just as it wouldn't have been fair for Scott Mitchell to sit behind Dan Marino his whole career. Players are getting movement, and they're getting their fair share of the money." Mitchell, who was Marino's understudy in Miami for three years, signed a three-year, $11.1 million deal with the Lions last March.

It's risky to make sweeping pronouncements about the virtues of free agency after one season. But unfettered player movement should enable bad teams to improve more quickly, and the resulting competitive balance will produce fewer meaningless games in December. In addition, the off-season roster shifts have spawned a lively hot-stove league for fans who used to have little to chew on, other than the college draft in April and a handful of trades, from February until camps opened in July.

The Envelope, Please

Stats of the Year

•Since Houston defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan punched offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride a year ago, the Oilers have lost Ryan to Arizona, quarterback Warren Moon to the Vikings in a bad trade, Gilbride and coach Jack Pardee to firings, and 14 of 15 games.

•In the final 40 minutes of his team's 26-20 overtime win over the Vikings on Nov. 13, Patriot quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw on 62 of 68 plays, excluding kicks.

•Barry Sanders of the Lions, who will almost certainly be the NFL's leading rusher this season, also figures to lead the league in number of carries with lost yards; with one game left, he had 51 such carries.

•Third-year Bengal coach David Shula has a career record of 2-0 in Seattle, 8-37 everywhere else.

•Falcon wideout Andre Rison was late for 19 team meetings in 1994.

•Steeler Gary Anderson missed as many field goals (three) in a 21-3 win over the Raiders on Nov. 27 as he had missed in his previous 28 games.

Quotes of the Year

•"I hope I'm around the game as a coach for a long time. If that doesn't happen, then I hope the game is banned in the United States."—Buc coach Sam Wyche, on rumors of his firing.

•"The first one, I tried to run with the ball before I caught it. Then things just cornballed."—Steeler receiver Yancey Thigpen, after dropping three passes on Dec. 11 against Philadelphia.

Comeback Players of the Year

•AFC: Cleveland linebacker Pepper Johnson. Cut by the Giants before the 1993 season and signed by the Browns, Johnson was anointed Cleveland's defensive quarterback by coach Bill Belichick, and he responded by leading the NFL's stingiest scoring defense both in tackles and in locker-room presence.

•NFC: New Orleans quarterback Jim Everett. Unloaded on the Saints in exchange for a seventh-round pick last March, Everett resurrected a floundering career with a season in which he will surpass 3,500 passing yards.

Free Agents of the Year

•AFC: Cleveland safety Bennie Thompson. A bottom-end guy (1994 salary: $202,500), Thompson was a top-end producer, tied for second in the conference in special teams tackles.

•NFC: Atlanta wide receiver Terance Mathis. Used sparingly for four years with the Jets, Mathis signed with the Falcons as the perfect quick receiver for the run-and-shoot. More than 100 catches later, he is the NFL's catch of the year.

Misdirection Play of the Year
Following the Giants' 13-10 win in Houston on Monday night, Nov. 21, one of the buses carrying the team to the airport was stuck in traffic. Coach Dan Reeves, who hadn't eaten in nine hours, saw a McDonald's up ahead off an exit ramp and decided to leave the bus with four Giant staffers for some burgers. At McDonald's, Reeves saw that the bus was moving again, and he rushed up the highway embankment to catch it—but he was too late. Reeves ran back to McDonald's, where he and his group found a cab and headed for the airport. The bus, though, headed back to McDonald's, looking for Reeves and Co. As a result the Giants did not arrive at Newark Airport until 7 a.m. "Boys," Reeves told his team, "this is probably the worst play I've ever called."



A fumble by Jeff Sydner (85) led to the Giants' winning field goal and a sixth straight Philadelphia loss.