PHILADELPHIA -- Tomorrow, the Philadelphia Eagles will hold their first and perhaps most important meeting of the 1991 season.
It will be a players-only affair convened on the eve of spring minicamp, the first attempt to heal a team that has become, in the words of veteran safety Wes Hopkins, a kind of "back-stabbing soap opera."
A recent series of Philadelphia Daily News interviews with Eagles players, coaches and members of the front office depicts an organization still deeply divided in the wake of coach Buddy Ryan's dismissal and defensive lineman Reggie White's public criticism of quarterback Randall Cunningham.
Most of the players contend the cracks in the team's foundation are more serious and widespread than previously thought, and that new coach Rich Kotite faces a significant challenge pulling the fractured clubhouse together again.
"Things haven't been too good around here for a while, but now they're on the verge of being out of control," said halfback Keith Byars, who has served as the voice of reason in the Eagles' clubhouse the past five seasons.
"When we have this meeting, some guys had better check their egos at the door, because if they don't they're liable to get hurt. A lot of stuff that's been building up is going to come out that night."
Some of the problems raised by those interviewed included:
* A growing resentment among certain Eagles toward Cunningham, who, they feel, has put his personal agenda (statistics, stardom, etc.) ahead of the team.
* A split on the squad that Ryan helped to create with his pampering of certain players and his disdainful treatment of others. Ryan's inconsistency led to divisions within the club that remain in his absence.
* A general lack of discipline that Ryan did little or nothing to correct. Players relate a training-camp incident in which defensive tackle Jerome Brown went after Kotite, then an assistant coach, and Ryan looked on, smiling.
* An absence of quality leadership in the clubhouse. Said one player: "We have a bunch of guys who talk, but it's trash, no substance."
"It was very disappointing to me, as a rookie, to see what was going on," said defensive back Ben Smith, last year's No. 1 draft pick. "There was more whispering and gossiping in this locker room than I ever saw in high school or college. I thought these players would be more professional than that."
Added Byars, looking ahead to tomorrow's closed-door meeting and the week of two-a-day drills to follow: "It's too bad so much of this [bickering] has gotten out in the press, but we have to talk it out. I don't think things are so bad that we can't resolve it among ourselves, but some [players] will have to change and everybody will have to let some [past] stuff go. The guys who can't do that, we're better off without them, no matter who they are.
"My hope is this will bring us closer together and make us stronger. Look at Buffalo this past season. They had all kinds of [internal] problems, but they worked them out and pulled together. Look where they wound up -- the Super Bowl.
L "We can do the same thing," Byars said. "It's all up to us."
The perception among most fans is that this Eagles team began crumbling in the wake of Ryan's dismissal, with his loyal defensive troops (led by White) blaming Cunningham for the coach's ouster.
Cunningham said he was insulted by Ryan's decision to replace him with Jim McMahon, albeit briefly, in the NFC wild-card loss to Washington. Several players felt Cunningham's remark gave owner Norman Braman the perfect opening to dispatch Ryan and promote Kotite.
There are two flaws in that theory:
1. It is a safe bet that Braman already had made up his mind regarding Ryan at that point. Cunningham could have embraced the head coach at midfield after the Washington game and it probably wouldn't have made any difference.
2. The team was in splinters long before that, divided along lines that Ryan himself helped to draw.
"There were actually three groups within the team last season," said one veteran defensive player, who asked to remain anonymous.
"One group was Buddy's favorites, the guys who could do and say anything they wanted. Jerome was in that group, Reggie, Keith [Jackson, the tight end]. Randall was in that circle, too, most of the time. They were the ones who were always defending Buddy.
"The second group was the guys who had been jilted by Buddy for whatever reason, and they were willing to do anything to get back into that other [favored] group. They were quick to take Buddy's side, too, for that reason.
"The third group was made up of the guys who couldn't believe all the chickenbleep that was going on and didn't like it but knew enough to keep their mouths shut and play.
"What's happening now is, with Buddy leaving, some guys in the first group are turning on each other -- specifically Reggie and Randall. That's creating waves that weren't there before . . . and because it's two big names, it's all becoming public."
This player said he was in all three groups at various times in his Eagles career. Last summer, he found himself in the third group, and that's where he stayed throughout the turbulent 10-6 regular season.
By the end, he said, he had plenty of company.
"There were a lot of guys who were fed up with how things were going," he said. "There were too many players getting away with things, taking shortcuts. Buddy let it go on. I was just amazed we were able to win as many games as we did that way."
"We were supposed to run sprints after every practice, but Buddy's boys [group one, in other words] would usually take off early," a veteran offensive player said.
"[Ryan] used to say he was excusing them because they were nicked [hurt], but we'd go in the locker room and they'd be sitting around eating chicken from [wide receiver] Kenny Jackson's deli. They weren't taking treatment or doing their workout in the pool. They'd be laughing at us.
"We'd come in and one of 'em would say, 'How many 40s did you run today? Ten? Whoa, I'll bet it was cold out there.' Guys like Jerome thought it was a big joke, but it created a helluva lot of resentment among the [players] who were busting their butts every day."
Several players interviewed cited two incidents that made it seem as if the situation was getting out of hand. As one player put it: "We realized Buddy had created a damn Frankenstein monster."
The first was the flare-up at training camp in which Brown, the 6-foot-2, 300-pound defensive tackle, went after Kotite, then offensive coordinator, during practice.
According to several witnesses, Brown was cursing out someone on the offense after a particular play when Kotite told him to shut up and get back to his own huddle.
Brown exploded and charged Kotite, flailing his arms and screaming profanities.
"It took three guys to hold Jerome back," one offensive player said. "He still kept fighting to get at Rich. This was right in the middle of practice, with the whole team and a couple hundred fans watching.
"We were all waiting for Buddy to step in and tell Jerome to back off . . . but he didn't. He just stood off to one side, twirling his whistle and smiling. I looked at the [player] next to me and we both shook our heads.
"I knew right then we were in trouble, because it meant things were only going to get worse. We had no discipline as a team. That's why we always hurt ourselves with stupid penalties and [missed] assignments. Too many things were allowed to slide."
Kotite said he didn't think much about the incident. He talked to Brown later and then forgot it. The fact that Ryan stood idly by, Kotite said, didn't bother him one way or the other.
"I'm my own man, I don't ask anybody to help me finish [a fight]," said Kotite, once heavyweight boxing champion at the University of Miami.
That might be so, but several players saw the outburst differently.
"It was a bad scene," one offensive starter said. "If another [less favored] player had done what Jerome did, Buddy would have found a way to make an example of him. . . . But because it was Jerome, Buddy just laughed and said, 'That's Jerome.' "
Sticking point No. 2 came after the Eagles' 30-23 loss in Buffalo Dec. 2. That was the game in which Cunningham unfurled the season's most spectacular play by spinning away from two pass rushers in the end zone and throwing a 95-yard touchdown pass to rookie wideout Fred Barnett.
A great play, but the bottom line was the Eagles still lost and their record fell to a disappointing 7-5.
All in all, it hardly was a time for celebration.
After the game, however, Cunningham was almost jaunty as he recounted his touchdown pass for the media.
Reporter: "Do you ever amaze yourself?"
Cunningham (smiling): "Yes, sometimes I do amaze myself with the things I do."
Several teammates looked on, muttering.
The next day, according to the players, Ryan opened the team meeting by saying: "Randall, I don't know what they're paying you, but whatever it is, it's not enough.' " Ryan repeated the comment at his afternoon press conference.
"That didn't go over well at all," one defensive player said. "We were looking at each other and thinking, 'Wait a minute. Didn't we lose yesterday? Doesn't anybody give a bleep about that?' "
The final straw came the night before the playoff game Jan. 4. Cunningham stood up in the team meeting and, according to other players, recited his statistical accomplishments for the year.
There actually are two versions of this: One has Cunningham talking about how many touchdown passes he had thrown (30) and how many yards he had gained rushing (942) simply to feed his own ego.
The other version, offered by Cunningham and supported by several teammates, is that the quarterback recited some personal statistics, but then added: "None of this will mean anything if we don't beat Washington tomorrow."
In other words, Cunningham was trying to make a valid point about the team and its unfinished mission. The fact that so many of his teammates didn't hear that last part is an indication that they probably had tuned out the quarterback by then.
Anyway, after the loss to Washington and Ryan's dismissal, Cunningham became a convenient target for his teammates' pain and frustration. It might not have been fair, but that's the way it turned out.
"Some [players] felt Randall was responsible [for Ryan's firing], but I didn't," a veteran defensive player said. "I think the decision was made [by Braman] long before that. So I think Randall has taken some shots he probably didn't deserve.
"But I agree he has to think more of the team and less about himself. If he did that, I think he'd be a more effective leader. When I think about the great quarterbacks I've seen -- Dan Marino, Joe Montana, [Joe] Theismann -- what stands out is their leadership on the field.
"Randall has all the talent in the world, but he doesn't possess that same leadership because the [team] doesn't respond to him that way. Maybe getting all this out in the open will make some guys see things more clearly. Then it's up to them [to change].
"I'm not usually an advocate of team meetings, but one is definitely needed here. . . . If we carry this back-stabbing into the season, we're not going anywhere. I say, 'OK, let's work it out and play ball.' "
Leadership, or lack of it, was a topic raised by several players in interviews. Most felt the Eagles were a team without a steadying presence in the locker room last season.
Ryan had thinned the ranks of leader types by releasing a host of veterans and replacing them with younger players.
Reserve quarterback Matt Cavanaugh was a respected voice in the clubhouse, but Ryan cut him last season in favor of McMahon, who worked so hard at maintaining a low profile that he was almost invisible.
Hopkins is a veteran with leadership traits, but Ryan jerked him in and out of the lineup so much that Hopkins never could take charge of the secondary.
Mike Quick is universally respected and admired, but the veteran receiver spent most of the last two seasons on the injured list and out of the mainstream.
Cunningham is a superb player, but he doesn't have the personality to be a great leader. White tries desperately to be a leader, but he isn't successful, either.
Said one teammate: "Reggie's solution for every problem is to call a team meeting. He'd have six [meetings] a week if he could.
"The trouble is, Reggie isn't a particularly hard worker. He's a great player, but he doesn't exactly push himself in practice, and the other [players] see that.
"So when Reggie calls a meeting and says, 'Guys, we've got to work harder at practice,' it doesn't have much impact because he's not working any harder than anybody else."
On the surface, the Eagles appeared to be a reasonably happy, cohesive bunch last season.
Byars organized a weekly bowling league, with most of the players gathering Monday nights to bowl and hang out together. It looked good on TV, and as a result, people read a lot of things into it that simply weren't there.
Most players say they went because they felt it was something they were supposed to do. As one player said, "Buddy liked to brag on it [to the media]." But just because Cunningham and McMahon bowled together didn't mean they became better co-workers.
One environment (bowling, beer, a few laughs) had nothing to do with the other (football, competition, incentive clauses, etc.).
Credit Byars with a nice try, but the problems within the team last season were too real and too deep to solve with a weekly boys' night out.
Asked to describe last year's Eagles team in a word or a phrase, Ben Smith thought a moment, then said: "Envious."
"I guess it's like this in other places, too," Smith said. "I'd run into other [rookies] and they'd say, 'Man, you won't believe what goes on between [players] on my team.' They'd tell stories that sounded just like here.
"But with our team, I think it got worse as the season went along. Every time I turned around, it seemed like somebody was pointing a finger at somebody else."
"Things deteriorated last year, and I don't know if I can [cite] a specific moment and say, 'This is when it started,' " said Al Roberts, the special-teams coach under Ryan for the last three seasons. (He joined the New York Jets in the same capacity last month.)
"I'd describe it as an accumulation of punches, one after another, that first knocked us off balance and finally wore us down. It started with Keith [Jackson] holding out and missing the first two games. Then we let Phoenix and Indianapolis come from behind to beat us at home. Even when we started to win, we were never really settled.
"It's hard to describe, but I think we [the coaches] all felt it. In '89, we'd walk into the room after a players meeting and the air would be charged. There was no question, they were emotionally ready.
"Last year, we'd come in the room after one of those meetings and it would seem like things were worse than before. You could feel the tension in the air. I heard [words] exchanged in the locker room and on the sidelines and I thought it was just the
usual give and take, but it kept up.
"It seemed like half the guys were really into [the program] and half the guys weren't and there was friction between those groups."