Interception symbolic of a decade for Eagles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA -- The interview room fell silent when Randall Cunningham stepped to the podium.

"OK, who's going to ask it?" Cunningham finally said softly, giving a small smile.

Gallows humor, Philly style.

"What happened on the play, Randall?" someone in the back shouted.

"Just a terrible read by me," Cunningham said. "My mistake entirely."

The result was an interception that turned a possible victory into a devastating defeat for the Philadelphia Eagles yesterday, and it will go down here in the City That Booed Santa as a perfect metaphor not only for the Eagles' 1994 season, but also for the four-year reign of coach Rich Kotite, as well as the decade that Cunningham has quarterbacked the team.

A chance to accomplish something big. A chance wasted.

The Eagles were on the verge of a comeback victory over the Dallas Cowboys, no small feat. Down 21-6 early in the third quarter, they had put together two touchdown drives and pulled within 24-19. A long punt return had given them the ball on the Dallas 12-yard line, putting the go-ahead touchdown within easy reach. Cunningham had completed 10 straight passes. The Cowboys were coming apart. Veterans Stadium was going tilt. Seven minutes to play.

On third down at the 8-yard line, Cunningham knelt in the huddle and called a "19 Z-over." It was a play he had designed for use against the Cowboys, a play that called for him to throw to Herschel Walker in the left flat. It had worked four times in the first 53 minutes.

"I guess we tried it once too often," Cunningham said.

You could say that.

Cunningham looked for Walker in the flat, but the back was covered. So were the second and third options, tight end Maurice Johnson and wide receiver Calvin Williams. Feeling rushed, Cunningham forced a pass in the direction of his fourth and final option, halfback James Joseph, who was in the right flat and not at all open.

Cowboys safety Darren Woodson saw the pass coming, stepped easily in front of Joseph and intercepted. He took off down the sideline, avoided Cunningham's lunge near midfield and ran the rest of the way to the end zone, completing a 94-yard return for a touchdown.

The stadium went silent, as though someone had pressed a mute button. Thousands of fans just got up and left, even though there was time for a comeback. They'd seen enough.

"We went from the highest high, thinking we were going to win, straight to the lowest low," Eagles center David Alexander said after the Cowboys' 31-19 victory. "I can't think of a harder way to lose."

Cunningham stuck his hands in a black Eagles jacket, hunched up his shoulders and took the blame.

"Put it all on me," he said. "It's no one else's fault. We could have won, and I made a terrible play. I should have just thrown the ball away. We would have had to settle for a field goal, but that would have been better than what happened. I cost us the game. It's tough to take. It's going to bother me for a while. But I'll get used to it."

All of the Eagles should be used to losing by now, having lost four straight after a 7-2 start that had them challenging the Cowboys in the NFC East. Now, even if they do make the playoffs, Kotite probably will be fired and Cunningham might be allowed to go elsewhere.

Kotite is a creditable coach and Cunningham has had a luminous career, but there has always been a loss in the end, always someone going 94 yards the other way. Always something to reconcile. And the team's aggressive new owner, Jeffrey Lurie, didn't pay $185 million to watch his quarterback's skills slowly decline or hear his coach explain that it's a good sign that the team was in the game until the final six minutes.

The Kotite issue was Topic A in town all week leading up to yesterday's kickoff. One radio talk show host asked his listeners to honk their horns at 8 one morning if they wanted Jimmy Johnson to replace Kotite. Thousands of horns honked. Yesterday, there was a huge banner hung at midfield reading, "Surrender Richie." Kotite said he expected the crowd to be "hostile."

Part of the problem has been inflated expectations. The Eagles were never going to challenge the Cowboys or 49ers after losing a handful of defensive stars to free agency, but their fast start, particularly an inexplicable battering of the 49ers, gave the city hope. So, after four straight losses, everyone is mad. And with a fan/owner such as Lurie in charge, you know changes will ensue. Johnny Oates can tell Kotite all about it.

Beating the Cowboys could have renewed Kotite's credibility, silenced the debate and very possibly assured his future here. The Eagles had a chance to score a benchmark win. They out-gained the Cowboys by more than 100 yards, and outplayed them throughout the second half. But one interception took care of their little dreams.

"It's amazing how everything can hinge on one play," Kotite said.

He was talking about one game, one defeat. But he might as well have been talking about the future of the franchise.

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