Watching the Dallas Cowboys breeze to a methodical 30-11 victory
over the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC divisional playoff
matchup on Sunday, you had to wonder: Is this the same Cowboy
team that seemed so seriously flawed before the game?
Quarterback Troy Aikman had been playing on two wobbly legs.
Star running back Emmitt Smith appeared to have lost his punch
late in the season. The Dallas defense was soft in the gut. The
offensive line, to its eternal shame, could not bang out half a
yard on fourth down--not once but twice--in a 20-17 loss to these
same Eagles on Dec. 10. Cornerback Deion Sanders hadn't done
much except make pizza commercials with the Cowboy owner.
And the enemy was Philadelphia, a gang of roughnecks who had
smacked it to Dallas in their last meeting, a snarling team
coached by dynamo Ray Rhodes, who this season had squeezed every
last drop of energy out of his troops. Last Friday, Cowboy coach
Barry Switzer listed the things that caused him the most worry.
"I worry about the Eagles' running north and south against our
front because we're not a great physical defense--we're more
lateral," he said. "I worry about [defensive end] Charles
Haley's being out, recovering from back surgery, because he had
10 1/2 sacks and our next best guy had 5 1/2."
All worries were put to rest very early on Sunday. The return of
defensive tackle Russell Maryland and middle linebacker Robert
Jones to the lineup firmed up the north-and-south center of the
defense, which had five sacks and held Philly to 74 yards
rushing. Aikman was a precise 17 for 24 for 253 yards and a
touchdown. Smith ran for 99 yards in little more than three
quarters' work. Even Sanders got into the act on offense, with a
21-yard touchdown run on an end around, reversing his field
once, picking his way through traffic and finally high stepping
into the end zone.
A nice, functional win, all right, but let's remember that since
reaching Super Bowl level three years ago, Dallas has made a
habit of coming up big in playoff openers. Quick now: What team
did the Cowboys beat on the way to the last three NFC
Championship Games against the 49ers? The answer is the Green
Bay Packers (twice, 1994 and '95) and Philadelphia (1993). All
of these games were totally forgettable, containing as little
drama as Sunday's did.
The last play of the first quarter was the biggest of the game
for the Eagles, even though Dallas was leading only 3-0 at the
time. The play also added a nasty footnote to the Philadelphia
story, marking as it did the certain end of quarterback Randall
Cunningham's career with the Eagles.
Philly had gone three-and-out on its first three possessions but
finally got something going, moving 31 yards to third-and-four
on the Dallas 12. Quarterback Rodney Peete scrambled to his
right, turned upfield, drove for the first down and ran smack
into Cowboy safety Darren Woodson.
Now perhaps a more mobile quarterback--a Steve Young, for
instance--would have gone into his repertoire of moves. At 225
pounds, however, Peete has a lot of heart but not much agility.
He chose the overland route. The result was like watching a guy
run into a tree. His effort earned him three yards and a
concussion. The Eagles settled for a tying field goal, Peete was
taken to the locker room, and Cunningham was put in control of
the team's postseason destiny. That was all she wrote because
Cunningham was ill-prepared for any kind of game action.
Before Philadelphia's wild-card game with the Detroit Lions on
Dec. 30, Cunningham's wife, Felicity, was due to give birth to
the couple's first child, in Las Vegas. Cunningham made it very
clear to the Eagle coaching staff that he would be with her for
the delivery, game or no game. His decision didn't sit well with
his teammates. The undercurrent that you heard in the
Philadelphia locker room was that Cunningham was deliberately
sticking it to the club for having benched him after the first
month of the season.
On the Tuesday before the game against Dallas, the phone call
finally came that the baby was on its way. The next day
Cunningham flew to Vegas, and last Thursday son Randall was
born. On Friday, Cunningham rejoined the Eagles, arriving after
practice. He hadn't taken his game plan with him to Vegas.
Cunningham took part in the Saturday walk-through, and that was
the extent of his preparation. Forget it.
"All the guys are furious," says former Eagle guard Brian
Baldinger, who now does radio and TV work in Philadelphia. "A
couple of guys on the team had babies this year and none of them
pulled anything like that. You saw what he looked
like--everything thrown off the back foot, no rhythm, no nothing.
He didn't give his team a chance."
Cunningham underthrew and overthrew his receivers. With 5:43 to
go and the score 30-3, he finally dressed up his stats with a
long scoring drive, but until then he had been 7 for 21 for 98
yards. "Randall was definitely swimming upstream," said Aikman.
The Eagles, with blanket coverage, sometimes three defenders, on
wideout Michael Irvin, held the five-time Pro Bowl receiver to
one catch, a fourth-quarter nine-yard touchdown. "What that did
was set up everyone else," said Aikman afterward. "I told
Michael, 'The reason you got only one catch is that you're one
of the best receivers in the league,' if you can follow that."
Irvin was in good spirits about all the attention he had
received. "You realize what it's all about and what goes into
winning a game," he said. "But drawing that crowd did get a
little frustrating at times. Once I yelled over to Ray Rhodes
and said, 'Hey, Ray, a little man-to-man, just one time, what do
you say?' Rhodes shook his head and yelled, 'No! No!'
"I know Green Bay will have something cooked up special for me.
It doesn't matter as long as we spread it around."
On Sunday there was more than enough for everybody.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Brock Marion (31) helped make sure Reggie Johnson and other Eagles kept missing connections.