Cowboys are ready for ailing Eagles, payback time


The Philadelphia Eagles are reeling from heightened expectation and spotty execution, and now it's time to pay up:

* For quarterback Randall Cunningham's year of forced inactivity.

* For the tragic loss of defensive tackle Jerome Brown.

* For the free-agency loss of tight end Keith Jackson.

* For the loss of injured tackles Ron Heller and Antone Davis from an offensive line that wasn't all that stable to start with.

* And for a 31-7 rout of the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 5 in a Monday-night game the Philadelphia media trumpeted at Super Bowl decibels.

The Cowboys (6-1) are ready to collect on their own IOU Sunday, when the injury-riddled Eagles (5-2) travel to Texas Stadium for the rematch. Moments after the Cowboys beat the Los Angeles Raiders, 28-13, Sunday, tight end Alfredo Roberts set the tone for the week. In the Dallas locker room, he pulled out a T-shirt that read, "It's Payback Time -- Pound Philly."

The Eagles have dominated the Cowboys in recent years, winning nine of the past 10 meetings, including four in a row in Texas. But these aren't even the same Eagles who drilled Dallas some three weeks ago.

Philadelphia's defense finally has had to deal with the on-the-field loss of Brown, who died in an off-season car crash. Without Brown, the Eagles still have the best run defense in football, but they have no pass rush up the middle. Coupled with Reggie White's quiet, four-sack season at defensive end, it leaves the Eagles' suspect secondary more vulnerable than usual.

But the Eagles' biggest concern may be an offense that scored just seven points against a Phoenix Cardinals defense that was giving up 28 a game. Jackson's departure has taken away a deep threat down the middle in the passing game and allows opposing teams to double cover wide-outs Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams. Injuries to Heller (foot) and Davis (knee) have Cunningham running for his life. He's been sacked 16 times in the past three games.

Then there is Cunningham himself. After missing most of last season because of major knee surgery, the seven-year veteran has regressed into the erratic patterns of his early career.

Against the Cardinals, he missed receivers, made bad reads and appeared tentative while completing nine of 20 passes for 121 yards and an interception.

TTC Cunningham started the season in a flurry, throwing for eight touchdowns and no interceptions in his first three games. In the past four, he's thrown four touchdown passes and five interceptions.

Not surprisingly, the grumbling has started. Guard Mike Schad said in a TV interview that Cunningham was not being patient, that he was looking to run and, therefore, making it tougher to block for him.

Coach Rich Kotite chastised Schad ("The way I look at it, if they can see receivers open, then they ain't doing their job") but seconded the idea that Cunningham has become tentative and unsure of himself. Kotite attributes it to Cunningham's forced absence.

"I think the more he plays, the more he sees, the more he becomes an anticipatory thrower, that will work itself out," Kotite said. "Sometimes he hangs in there too long. Sometimes he takes off too soon. I just think the consistency isn't there yet, but I think it's going to improve. The guy's working too hard for it not to improve."

Paying his respects

Unlike the Eagles, who talked about going unbeaten when they started 4-0, the Cowboys appear to be taking their success with a dose of humility. Even though Dallas leads the NFC East by a game, coach Jimmy Johnson made an interesting concession to the Washington Redskins this week.

"I don't see us having elevated to the Redskins' level," Johnson said. "They've played at that Super Bowl level for a long period of time. Our winning started only a year ago.

"I think we've established ourselves as a good team. Some people might wonder how good."

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