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Eagles Keeping an Even Keel Despite Their High-Flying Start

October 15, 1994|BOB GLAUBER | NEWSDAY

PHILADELPHIA — Forgive Philadelphia Eagles Coach Rich Kotite for not getting overly excited about what has happened so far this year. After all, hasn't he seen this somewhere before?

While the Eagles are rolling along at 4-1 and getting ready for Sunday's important National Football Conference East showdown in Dallas, Kotite isn't talking Super Bowl just yet. In fact, the minute you ask him if he believes his team has joined the NFL elite, he abruptly reminds you of last year and the year before that.

"We got off to great starts the last two years, and look what happened," he said.

Here's what happened:

-- It is Oct. 5, 1992, and the Eagles have just beaten the Cowboys, 31-7, in a Monday night game at Veterans Stadium, improving to 4-0. Al, Dan and Frank are gushing in the ABC broadcast booth about how the Eagles are ready to earn their first Super Bowl victory.

But the team loses five of its next eight games, finishes with an 11-5 record and is blown out by the eventual Super Bowl champion Cowboys, 34-10, in the second round of the playoffs.

-- It is Oct. 3, 1993, late second quarter of the Eagles-New York Jets game at Giants Stadium. Randall Cunningham goes back to pass and is tackled as he attempts to scramble out of danger. He breaks his left leg and is lost for the season. Backup Bubby Brister stages a comeback against the Jets to improve Philadelphia to 4-0. But the Eagles lose eight of their next 12 and miss the playoffs.

That's what happened.

So don't expect the Eagles to start puffing their chests, even if they have temporarily quieted the skeptics who said they were entering a rebuilding phase and had all the earmarks of another .500 club.

"You've got to keep things in perspective, not get too high or too low," says linebacker Byron Evans, a veteran of more than a few disappointments in his eight-year career in Philadelphia. "There's a lot of football left, and a lot can happen."

But unlike the early-season success of 1992 and 1993, this year's surprising start has featured several elements that bode well for the remainder of the season. There's only one catch: They have to stay healthy.

OK, so the Eagles aren't yet in a class with Dallas. But the fact is they have improved substantially on both sides of the ball. And, perhaps more importantly, they have avoided the locker-room squabbles that tore them apart in previous years.

Offensively, the Eagles feature a terrific line with several high draft picks.

Fourth-year guard Antone Davis, a first-rounder in 1991; second-year guard Lester Holmes, a first-rounder last year, and 1994 first-round left tackle Bernard Williams form the nucleus of one of the NFL's best-blocking units.

And rookie running back Charlie Garner, a second-round pick out of Tennessee, has responded in kind with brilliant performances the last two weeks, rushing for 233 yards and two touchdowns despite playing with a hairline fracture of one of his ribs.

"The offensive line has been playing extremely well," Garner said, "and without those guys, I wouldn't be having any success."

Garner's success has been so swift and so startling that he's already being compared to former Eagles running back Wilbert Montgomery, who gained 6,538 yards from 1977-84. One radio talk show host has been so taken with Garner that he suggested the other day that the Hall of Fame should reserve a spot for the rookie runner.

OK, so some folks are prone to a little exaggeration in Philly. But the defensive improvement this season is no exaggeration, nor is it a mirage. A surprise? Absolutely, when you consider that during the last two years, star pass rushers Reggie White, Clyde Simmons and Seth Joyner all have departed as free agents.

But several new players are filling in capably. Houston Oilers free-agent defensive end William Fuller is on pace for a double-digit season of sacks, former New York Giants safety Greg Jackson and Arizona Cardinals castoff safety Mike Zordich solidify a perennially suspect secondary, and former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Bill Romanowski has filled in capably in Joyner's old spot.

And guess what? The defensive players are actually trying to foster harmony among their teammates. Really.

"I think there's a pretty good feeling on this team the way things have gone so far," Evans said. "The guys have been playing together, and they've been pulling for one another."

Whoever thought you'd be hearing something like that coming out of a locker room that for years had been one of the most contentious in football? Show up on any given day at Veterans Stadium and you might have seen Joyner pouting in one corner about the pitiful state of the offense, or Cunningham whining about Kotite's stifling game plan, or White complaining about ex-Owner Norman Braman's unwillingness to invest in upgrading the team's weight room.

Things were once so bad that offensive players feared walking into the shower room after games, worried that the defensive players would make critical remarks.

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