Last time out we talked about the "Gang Green" defense. That is the part of the team we think of first, but the offense also had some star players and great moments. Now let's talk about some of the offensive stars from that era.
First up, obviously, is Randall Cunningham. Sports Illustrated once dubbed him "The Ultimate Weapon." That is the perfect description. He could beat you with his arms or legs. Cunningham made things happen in a way the NFL hadn't seen before. Fran Tarkenton was a great two-way quarterback, but he didn't have the dynamic athletic ability that Cunningham did.
Cunningham led the Eagles in rushing four consecutive years and had more than 500 yards on the ground in a couple of other seasons. Think about those numbers. That's pretty incredible for a quarterback. Cunningham drove defenders crazy when he took off running. He had the speed to run away from them, but he was also extremely elusive. Tackling him was never an easy task. He averaged 6.4 yards per run and had 35 career touchdowns on the ground.
He also had a rocket arm. He could wind up and launch a pass 60 yards downfield with ease. I don't think some people realize what a good passer he was. Cunningham threw 30 touchdown passes in 1990. He had three consecutive years with more than 3,400 passing yards. Those are really impressive numbers.
Cunningham peaked in 1990 when he was voted the NFL Player of the Year. The team led the NFC in scoring and rushing and it finally appeared that the offense had caught up to the level of the defense. The future looked great.
To quote the great movie Stripes, "And then depression set in."
Cunningham was injured early in the 1991 season opener and missed the rest of the year. He came back for 1992, but had a highly inconsistent season. He was benched for a start at midseason and that ruined his relationship with coach Rich Kotite. Cunningham spent his final three seasons in Philadelphia battling injuries and coaches. The NFL's "Ultimate Weapon" was benched for Bubby Brister one year and Rodney Peete the next. Ouch.
The reason coaches had such troubles with Cunningham is that he never let his work ethic match his talent. Early in his career he made plays just on sheer talent. That is the case with a lot of guys who have great physical skills. Donovan McNabb was that way. After about four or five years in the league a guy should start to play like an experienced quarterback and not just a physical talent. McNabb made that transition. So did the late Steve McNair and Brett Favre. Cunningham never did.
The biggest problem is that Cunningham came into the league under the dysfunctional coaching of Buddy Ryan and developed bad habits because of that. You can only imagine what might have happened if a highly structured offensive coach like Andy Reid or Mike Shanahan developed Cunningham from day one in his career. The sky would have been the limit.
Instead we'll have to settle for some breathtaking moments. Probably Cunningham's two greatest highlights are his 95-yard touchdown pass to Fred Barnett against the Buffalo Bills and his short touchdown pass against the Giants when he shrugged off the hit of a linebacker and then fired the ball into the end zone. Those are two of the most amazing plays in the history of the NFL, but they don't erase the frustration of early playoff exits and underachieving.
Cunningham never had a great running back to help him carry the load. That played a large part in the quarterback feeling like all the pressure was on his shoulders. However, he did have a unique weapon in the backfield in the person of Keith Byars. Eagles fans had hoped Byars would prove to be a great power back when Ryan drafted him early in 1986. That never happened.
Byars ran for a career-high 577 yards as a rookie. That stat should tell you he didn't have a standard career. Byars proved to be an awkward fit as a pure runner. He was just a bit too stiff for the NFL. The coaches did find out that he could be a good fullback and role player. Byars' best season came in 1988 when he ran for 517 yards and six touchdowns while catching 72 passes, including four touchdowns.
Byars really stood out as a receiver. He had great hands. He could handle the standard stuff like a screen pass or a swing pass, but also was comfortable catching intermediate throws. The Eagles used him creatively because of this. In 1992, coaches actually played him mainly at tight end. Byars caught 610 passes in his career.
He was a solid blocker, whether at running back, fullback or tight end. Byars was tough, strong and physical. He was very deadly on broken plays. NFL Films has shown his legendary block of Giants linebacker Pepper Johnson over and over and over, but I never tire of seeing it. Johnson was chasing Cunningham when Byars peeled back and caught him off guard. Byars got under Johnson and violently sent him flying. Beautiful. Interestingly, Johnson and Byars were roommates at Ohio State.
Byars wasn't the only gifted pass catcher on those Eagles teams. Keith Jackson was a great tight end. He made the Pro Bowl in his first three years in the league. That's pretty special. Jackson had terrific hands and was a gifted athlete. He could catch a short pass and turn it into a big play or he could stretch the defense with his ability to get downfield.
Jackson only played four seasons as an Eagle. He was one of the first true free agents in the history of the NFL and left for Miami prior to the 1992 season. In his time as an Eagle Jackson caught 242 passes and scored 20 touchdowns. In contrast, L.J. Smith spent six years here and didn't post numbers that good.
Wide receiver Cris Carter began his career as an Eagle, but didn't become a stud receiver until he got to Minnesota. Carter caught 89 passes in three seasons in Philadelphia. That is an okay number, but Carter matched or topped that total in a single season six different times during his Vikings career. The big difference is that Carter got clean and sober when the Eagles let him go. We never got to see him completely focused on football.
Carter's talent showed up in his time as an Eagle. He caught 19 touchdowns in those three seasons. He was deadly on the fade pass. Unfortunately he wasn't developing as a player because of drugs and alcohol. Ryan decided that something had to be done. Getting rid of Carter wasn't easy, but Ryan's move saved Carter's career and proved to be a life-changing event.
Let's hope Carter gets elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the next year or two. He had the best hands of any receiver I've ever seen and put up huge numbers.
The Eagles did develop a pair of very good receivers. Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams both entered the league in 1990.
Barnett, dubbed "Arkansas Fred" by Ryan, became a fan favorite pretty early. He had excellent speed and made some terrific downfield catches. I can't picture Barnett catching short passes. I always think of him hauling in a pass down the sideline with a defender a step behind him. Barnett caught 308 passes as an Eagle and averaged 15 yards per reception. Williams wasn't as much of a big-play guy, but he was more than just a possession receiver. He actually had more career touchdown catches than Barnett, 35 compared to 32. My favorite Williams memory is him catching a slant against Washington and just flying up the middle of the field for an 80-yard touchdown.
The group I've avoided talking about up to this point is the offensive line. That was the biggest sore spot in the "Gang Green" era.
Earlier I mentioned the failure to develop a good running back. Well, that can be hard to do when there isn't good blocking. Tackle Ron Heller and center David Alexander were probably the two best blockers of that era.
Ryan and Kotite made all kinds of personnel moves in an attempt to fix the line, but nothing really worked. They weren't able to develop a cohesive, talented line. That caught up to us every year when the postseason rolled around. You don't win in the playoffs if you can't block.
There were four playoff losses in that era. The Eagles scored a total of 35 points in those losses. The lone win was a Wild Card game at New Orleans. The team scored 36 points that day (although nine came on defense).