A year ago, he predicted his team would sweep its divisional games. It won one of them. This year, he thumbed his nose at the NFL players strike and failed to assemble a decent scab team. His replacements lost all three games. Such developments have led some observers to conclude that Philadelphia Coach Buddy Ryan is a loud-mouthed, short-sighted buffoon.
I think he is a visionary. He has built a thoroughly respectable young team that will finish at about .500 despite scab ball and a schedule about as easy on the mind as a pleasure cruise in the Persian Gulf. By paying the price of losing replacement games, he has kept his regular team united behind him. This is no small achievement.
To compete successfully in the Eastern Division of the NFC, anyone must learn to loathe America's Team. At a glance, this may seem simple: Who cannot get aroused against glistening stars on helmets, computer drafting and an arrogance as sweeping as Texas itself? But the process is actually subtle and time-consuming, a kind of graduate school for anger and emotion. In Washington, George Allen had to nurture his paranoia for years to stoke the rivalry to its most fiery pitch. In New Jersey, the Giants still haven't quite gotten it right. They have lost four of their last five games to the Cowboys.
Buddy Ryan reached the heights in all of three weeks. When Tom Landry reinserted several veteran scabs late in a 41-22 trouncing of the replacement Eagles, Ryan vowed swift retribution. For those who missed the delicious details, here is a brief recap of how he did it last Sunday.
The real Eagles were beating up the semi-genuine Cowboys, 30-20. Seconds remained in the game. The Eagles were in the traditional kneel-down formation, and quarterback Randall Cunningham was indeed kneeling down to run out the clock. Then, on third down, Cunningham genuflected meekly, got up and threw a pass into the end zone. A furious defender was called for pass interference and, on the next play, the Eagles scored a touchdown for one of the great in-your-face slam-dunks of NFL history.
"What goes around comes around," Ryan said smugly.
"Didn't this open a can of worms?" he was asked.
"The Cowboys opened it two weeks ago. We just put the lid on it for a year."
Will the lid stay on? Not likely. Beyond the pure theater of the moment -- an irate Tom Landry stalked from the Vet without shaking Ryan's hand -- the incident may have strengthened both of the teams involved. The veteran Eagles, accustomed to being the victims of bullies, may suddenly feel like they can kick sand in anybody's face. The Cowboys, torn apart by union defections during the strike, could use the massive insult as a rallying point.
This week, the Eagles have an exquisite opportunity to show whatever new swagger they have mustered. They are underdogs by 2 1/2 points in St. Louis. Technically, the Eagles look good here. They are very strong as road underdogs, and the dog has won the last five meetings between these clubs. More important, it appears that Reggie White and Jerome Brown are leading a legitimately menacing defense now. If the young Eagles are mature enough to avoid an emotional letdown after Dallas, they should win this game. Take the 2 1/2.
The angry Cowboys entertain the Giants Monday night. The defending champions may well be on their way to a winning streak that could salvage a wild-card playoff spot. But this is not a spot to lay 7 points with them. This is the biggest point spread against Dallas at home since the Cowboys' feeble beginnings as an expansion team. The Cowboys have covered the spread in their last four national TV appearances. Expect them to vent enough of last week's anger to keep this game very close.
A Midwest weather watch is in order for Tampa Bay's visit to Milwaukee to face Green Bay. And this looks like a standout situation. Tampa Bay has not won a road game outdoors since Week 6 of 1981. In the history of the franchise, the Buccaneers have never covered a point spread in below-freezing temperatures. If Milwaukee freezes, this is one of the wagers of the year. Even if it remains warm, Green Bay minus 2 1/2 is the best bet on the card.
The San Diego Chargers, both the real ones and the scabs, have been the revelation of the season. But coming off a rout of Kansas City, the Chargers appear vulnerable. The last nine times they beat the Chiefs, they lost the following week. Now, they are giving one point to Cleveland, a club that is 12-6-1 as a road underdog since 1984. Take the Browns plus 1.
The Jets burned me in RFK last week. Favored by 8 over the Colts at the Meadowlands, they'll get a chance to do it again. In all Jets home games since 1983, the underdog is 22-7-1 against the number. The road team has covered six straight times in this series. Armed with trends like this, I'm willing to back Jack Trudeau. Or Pierre Trudeau. Or Margaret. Take the Colts and 8.
The Redskins are a puzzle. Perhaps Jay Schroeder will shake off last week's rust and George Rogers will dig into the Buffalo rug with his sore toe. But against a bunch of Bills who suddenly think they can win a troubled division, I'm not laying 3 1/2. Pass.
Last week: The Eagles, who closed as a slight favorite over Dallas, rubbed it in, 37-20. The Packers, plus 5 at Detroit, blew a big lead but survived, 34-33. The Bengals, plus 2 1/2 at Pittsburgh, missed an extra point and let time run out on them before they could try a field goal: a half-point loser, 23-20. The Raiders, giving 2 1/2, disgraced the silver and black in a 35-13 loss to Seattle. The Redskins, giving 7, barely edged the Jets, 17-16.
Record for week: 2-3.
Record for season: 8-7.