Two years ago Ray Rhodes exploded on the Philadelphia football
scene like a bolt of lightning. With his uncommon blend of
passion and compassion, the first-year head coach lifted a
formerly listless team into the playoffs, where it crushed
Detroit before losing to the eventual-champion Cowboys. Rhodes's
efforts won him coach of the year honors.
By his second season, though, his approach had begun to wear
thin. On Nov. 3 of last year, Philadelphia was riding high at
7-2 and coming off an emotionally charged victory over the
Cowboys in Dallas. Then things began to unravel, as the Eagles
dropped three straight, to Buffalo, Washington and Arizona. They
rebounded to defeat the Giants but then, in a nationally
televised Thursday-nighter, were outhustled, outhit and
thoroughly humiliated, 37-10, by an injury-wracked Colts club.
On the plane home from Indianapolis, Rhodes became furious when
he spied some players laughing and chatting. He told a Philly
writer he might quit--and who knows what would have happened the
following week if his team had not staged a desperate
second-half rally to prevent an embarrassing loss to the pitiful
Jets? The Eagles lurched into the playoffs, where they were shut
out by the 49ers in the opening round.
After the season, Rhodes took a long look at the situation. What
he saw was a team with the talent to get to the postseason but
not to win there.
The quarterback situation is uncertain: Ty Detmer, this year's
appointed starter, and Rodney Peete, last year's opening-day No.
1, both run hot and cold. Ricky Watters, Rhodes's money back,
hollers about not getting enough action but wore down badly over
the course of the season for the second straight year. The top
wideout, Irving Fryar, had a terrific 1996, but he'll be 35 this
season and may not be able to maintain such a high level much
longer. Philly hasn't sent an offensive lineman to the Pro Bowl
since 1982, though this year's unit will be the best in
years--especially if 1996 first-rounder Jermane Mayberry, who
was slowed last year after suffering pneumonia in training camp,
is healthy, as expected.
The Eagles are fairly solid on the other side of the ball,
despite the departure of Pro Bowl end William Fuller, who went
to San Diego as a free agent. The defense will get a huge lift
if tackle Andy Harmon, a sack master who also excels at stuffing
the run, returns to his previous form after missing most of 1996
because of knee surgery.
The most serious issue surrounding the team, though, is Rhodes's
coaching method. "The high emotion of the Dallas game, the tough
games we'd played before that, all of it took its toll," Rhodes
says. "Looking back, you realize there comes a time to lighten
up. You've got to freshen your team during the week. Maybe there
was too much hitting in practice, too many hours on the field.
We ended up a tired football team. As a coach, I've got to look
O.K., let's assume he solves that part of the equation. Let's
assume the team's attitude is fine, and that practices will be
less draining. Is there enough material here to push this club
to the next level? Has Philly made the additions necessary?
The Eagles certainly didn't stand pat; as usual, they went for
the big score in free agency--which is possible if, as is the
case with Philly, a team doesn't have big bucks tied up in a
quarterback. This year's package of newcomers includes kicker
Chris Boniol, who missed just five field goals in the past two
seasons with the Cowboys; former Browns-Ravens center Steve
Everitt, who replaces free-agent departure Raleigh McKenzie; and
weakside linebacker Darrin Smith (late of Dallas), a great
open-field player who's moving to the strong side, which may or
may not suit his talents.
The Eagles said they'd draft a raw defensive lineman in the
first round and bring him along slowly, but everyone's eyes
popped when they picked 6'7", 269-pound end Jon Harris of
Virginia, rated as low as 16th among defensive ends by the
handicappers. Can Harris be another Fuller? Certainly not right
Philly's second-round choice, Washington State linebacker James
Darling, caused head-scratching too--and then worse. On May 6 in
Pullman, Wash., Darling, who has been projected as a possible
starter in the middle, was arrested for burglary and assault. A
trial date was scheduled for July 8.
And Rhodes thought last season was difficult. --P.Z.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER A lighter coaching touch may prevent Watters's Eagles from fading in '97. [Ricky Watters in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Record: 10-6 (second in NFC East)
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 117.6 (9) 234.1 (4) 351.7 (4)
DEFENSE 98.9 (10) 186.2 (6) 285.1 (5)
Has there been any personnel move in the NFL this decade worse
than the Eagles' decision to waive Cris Carter six days before
the start of the 1990 season? Since leaving Philadelphia, Carter
has 578 receptions, second most in the '90s behind Jerry Rice's
704. The Eagles' leading receiver since Carter left was Fred
Barnett (308 catches), who left for the Dolphins as a free agent
after the '95 season.
Most Receptions after Leaving an NFL Team
First team Rec. New team(s) Rec.
Charlie Joiner Oilers (1969-72) 82 Bengals (1972-75),
Chargers (1976-86) 668
Don Maynard Giants (1958) 5 Titans-Jets (1960-72),
Cardinals (1973) 628
Charlie Joiner Bengals (1972-75) 82 Chargers (1976-86) 586
Cris Carter Eagles (1987-89) 89 Vikings (1990-96) 578
Drew Hill Rams (1979-82,'84) 60 Oilers (1985-91),
Falcons (1992-93) 574
PLAYER TO WATCH
Ricky Watters won't like this, but the Eagles have a 5'11",
220-pound rookie named Duce Staley who's expected to take some
of the veteran's carries this year--his catches too, since
Staley is a converted wideout. The third-rounder ran up the
biggest rushing numbers at South Carolina since Harold Green's
of almost a decade earlier. "When I worked him out, he shocked
me," running backs coach Ted Williams says. "Ray Rhodes told me
to go find the guy I want to coach. This is the guy." But the
best thing about the youngster may be his humility. "I want to
play," says Staley, who once recorded 302 all-purpose yards
against Tennessee. "But if I don't play right away, I can deal
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Ray Rhodes
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Ty Detmer 56[*] 401 att. 238 comp. 59.4% 2,911yds.
15 TDs 13 int. 80.8 rtg.
RB Ricky Watters 10[*] 353 att. 1,411 yds. 4.0 avg.
51 rec. 444 yds. 8.7 avg. 13 TDs
FB Kevin Turner 317[*] 18att. 39 yds. 2.2 avg.
43 rec. 409 yds. 9.5 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Irving Fryar 36[*] 88 rec. 1,195 yds. 11 TDs
WR Chris T. Jones 78[*] 70 rec. 859 yds. 5 TDs
WR Michael Timpson[A] 160[*] 62 rec. 802 yds. 0 TDs
TE Jason Dunn 158[*] 15 rec. 332 yds. 2 TDs
PK Chris Boniol[A] 66[*] 24/25 XPs 32/36 FGs 120 pts.
KR Duce Staley (R)[A] 334[*] 7 ret. 16.4 avg. 0 TDs
PR Derrick Witherspoon 241[*] 53 ret. 24.0 avg. 2 TDs
LT Jermane Mayberry 6'4" 325 lbs. 3 games 1 start
LG Joe Panos 6'2" 293 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Steve Everitt[A] 6'5" 290 lbs. 8 games 7 starts
RG Mike Zandofsky[A] 6'2" 308 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
RT Richard Cooper 6'5" 290 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Jon Harris (R)[A] 52 tackles 3 sacks
LT Andy Harmon 3 tackles 1 sack
RT Rhett Hall 38 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
RE Mike Mamula 52 tackles 8 sacks
OLB Darrin Smith[A] 81 tackles 1 sack
MLB James Darling(R)[A] 136 tackles 0 int.
OLB William Thomas 71 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
CB Troy Vincent 52 tackles 3 int.
SS Mike Zordich 96 tackles 4 int.
FS Brian Dawkins 74 tackles 3 int.
CB Bobby Taylor 62 tackles 3 int.
P Tom Hutton 73 punts 42.6 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)