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Cunningham: On outside looking in as Eagles move on

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

PHILADELPHIA -- This team isn't his anymore, at least not for a while, and Randall Cunningham knows it. Late Sunday afternoon, he was the calm amid the customary post-victory whirl in the Philadelphia Eagles' locker room. There were several moments after the game when it appeared that Cunningham was alone with his thoughts and his crutches. Bad wheel, fifth wheel.

We have known, of course -- ever since they took the knife to Cunningham's left knee nearly three weeks ago -- that his season was over. From the moment he went down in Green Bay, we have known that everything was going to change, and that Jim McMahon was now in charge.

We have known it. We have seen it during the games, on and off. But the picture of McMahon operating against the Pittsburgh Steelers just brought it all into focus Sunday. And the sight of Cunningham, back for his first game since the injury, back

merely to watch, just cemented the image.

He wore a black hat that said:

I'll be back!

Scrambling.

He wore a hat, and a smile, and he said a lot of the right things. But even he noticed, when he visited the locker room at halftime, "The guys were real serious . . . They made me feel right at home, but they had to concentrate on the game. I'm not their No. 1 priority."

He sat in a private box on the 400 level with the rest of the injured guys and the practice-squad players. He brought the NTC crutches that he will need for a little while. He said he would soon be back on a plane to California, doctor's orders. In a season for him that has done a complete 180-degree turn, he says the doctors won't let him come back to Philadelphia for good until his knee can bend 90 degrees.

He says he is strapped into a machine for a couple of hours every day, a machine that bends his knee for him, again and again and again. There is some swelling and some soreness, but other than that, he says he is pain-free. And when he isn't rehabbing, there are video games. There is television. "And my phone bill is higher than my mortgage," he said.

But now, he is going through what every injured NFL player goes through, only worse. There are few sadder sights in a football dressing room than a guy, out for the season, hanging around with nothing to do but think about next year.

For Cunningham, the sight is sadder still. He wasn't just a guy -- he was the guy. He was bright lights and jostling cameras, all the time, every Sunday. And now, for the rest of this year, there will be his solitary workouts, and there will be a lot more darkness than he's accustomed to. There is still his weekly television gig, but that's it. The rest of the team marches on without him, off to its best start in a decade.

"I just got tired of not being able to see the games on TV," he said, explaining his visit. "I wanted to see the players. It's one thing to talk to them on the phone -- they've called and said, 'I love you.' But I wanted to see them face to face."

He saw them, and he limped away impressed. At one point, Cunningham said that if the team keeps playing the way it is now "they might not lose another game all year." He said it, and he appeared to mean it.

He praised McMahon, the guy he described last season as a "monkey on my back." He praised coach Rich Kotite, who he said is "doing a great job under a lot of pressure." He wondered aloud why tight end Keith Jackson wasn't getting the ball more, but that was his only bit of wonderment on the day. The rest was all smiles and encouragement.

"It's not tough to watch a game," he said. "It's not the same. When you put a football uniform on, you're so intense. But when you watch it from up in the stands, it's a lot different. There's nobody in your face. It's a whole different perspective."

What he saw, what we all saw, was a team that has gone a long way toward overcoming his absence. There are a lot of people who never thought it possible -- including Bill Parcells, the guy in the television booth. But this Eagles team is functioning quite nicely, thank you, without its star quarterback.

Every once in a while, you will see McMahon heave a ball into the third row under pressure and surmise that, yeah, Cunningham might have made something out of that one. But it is happening a lot less than most people would have guessed.

With regular work in practice -- something that only the starter gets -- McMahon's accuracy has improved every week. A steadied offensive line -- along with the Steelers' decision to blitz only a couple of times all day -- gave McMahon time and an adequate pocket in which to operate. And while he doesn't have the zip on the ball that Cunningham does, he does have enough arm to get it there under most circumstances.

The result has been a more productive offense than most people imagined possible -- especially considering a total of six personnel changes from the season's anticipated starting lineup. You can nit-pick about the Eagles' production inside the opponents' 20-yard line -- two touchdowns in five attempts Sunday -- but that really is nit-picking at this point.

In Cunningham's absence, the entire team has raised its level of play. Sustaining it is another matter, of course. As we all know, the toughest part of the schedule awaits, starting Monday night at Washington's RFK Stadium. We still have miles to go yet, at least a dozen games before Cunningham will be an issue again.

After the game, teammates came by in ones and twos to shake his hand, put an arm around him, offer some encouragement. He will need it; months of rehab await. When he gets back next year, he says he will wear a brace to stabilize his knee, just in case. He says, "My speed might not be 4.4. It might be 4.6. But I'll have the same moves . . . And maybe I'll sit in the pocket more. Maybe I won't."

But that is next year. In the meantime, we don't know how it's all going to turn out. But we do know that these are not Randall Cunningham's Eagles anymore, at least not for a while. And he knows it, too.

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