PHILADELPHIA, OCT. 16 -- The cramped space surrounding the locker of Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters was even more dense. He was encircled by reporters who wanted to know why Waters hit Minnesota quarterback Rich Gannon so low on Monday night, near the area where knees and careers are lost.

He responded in a tone that seems to be popular with the rest of his teammates: a defensive one.

"Why is everyone picking on me?" he asked. "There are other defensive backs in the league that may hit people low. You guys don't question them." Waters then received some boisterous backing from nearby locker buddies, one being defensive back William Frizzell, who challenged reporters to put on some pads, step outside and proceed with a tackling drill.

He was angry when no one took him up on the offer.

The scene with Waters easily could be a metaphor for the team's overall state of mind. The Eagles have been pushed into a cramped space, barely enough room to move, and have adopted a dangerous and defensive posture. The Washington Redskins will get a firsthand look at Coach Buddy Ryan's team on Sunday at RFK Stadium.

Many thought this team would be a Super Bowl contender. Instead, they are 2-3, mad at themselves, the media and fans. They are mad at everyone, and as offensive tackle Ron Heller said the Eagles "don't trust anyone but themselves."

Nothing has alleviated the attitude, not even an eight-point win over the Vikings. In fact, that game may have been one of the ugliest for the Eagles this season. The 66,000 fans at Veterans Stadium -- the alleged hometown fans -- were vicious.

True, the game was pro football's equivalent of the Bad News Bears, with 9 fumbles, 4 interceptions and 19 penalties for 159 yards, but fans booed the Eagles even when they were ahead, 9-7. If they didn't make a first down -- boos. There was a sign in view of television cameras that read: "A National Disgrace." And in the third quarter when Randall Cunningham threw his fourth pass just short of the receiver's hands, there were shouts, "We want Jim, we want Jim."

Jim, as in backup quarterback Jim McMahon.

Players, coaches and management said they have never seen Eagles fans as ornery as they were on Monday night.

"They were pretty nasty, weren't they," said tight end Keith Jackson.

"Nobody likes to be booed like that by their own fans," running back Keith Byars said.

"I don't know why people were yelling that," Ryan said at his news conference on Tuesday, referring to the call for McMahon. "Randall was the only plus we had. They're asking for Jim. . . . I would have put Jim in if he could run or block."

The source of all the anxiety, of course, is the play of the Eagles, who have deviated from their usual style.

They haven't gone to their wideouts with much continuity; before last night no receiver had more than one touchdown catch. Reggie White (seven sacks) has been their pass rush, and before the victory over the Vikings no linebacker had a sack all season.

The Eagles hit the lowest point Sept. 30, when they lost to the little respected Indianapolis Colts, 24-23, giving the Eagles a 1-3 record. After that game owner Norman Braman didn't visit the team locker room, something he has done regularly for years.

It turned out that Braman was discussing Ryan's future with team president Harry Gamble. According to people who talked to the owner, Braman wanted to fire Ryan, in the last year of his contract. Gamble convinced Braman to wait. The following day Braman publicly said he would make a decision about Ryan's fate at the end of the season "no matter what."

"Buddy is doing a good job here," White said. "I have complete confidence in him and I think most of the team does too. We all know that in order for him to keep his job, we have to win for him."

And that's just it: The Eagles have traditionally played better when their backs are pinned flat to the turf. It has happened before. Three of Ryan's four teams have started out 1-3, and one of them, the 1988 version, won nine of its last 12 and won the NFC East.

Historically, the Eagles love being hated. They feel much more comfortable in that role, which is what still makes them such a threat.

"This team is crazy," Waters said. "If we were 7-0 and everything was quiet we wouldn't know how to react."

"We do play a lot better when we're fenced in," White said. "On {Monday} night we had everything against us, even our own fans, and that's why I think we won. We pulled that one out from within ourselves.

"Yeah, we may talk some trash but the Vikings game we had to have action. Everybody realized that talk is cheap and it was time to go out and do something."

Said Heller: "The wagons are still circled. It's just us, that's all. You think you're playing for this city -- and you are to a certain extent -- but the only ones that are going to be with us is us."

It was then that Frizzell began to pick up his rhetoric. "Why don't you guys just leave us alone?" he asked. "But no, we're the team everybody loves to hate. Why? Because we talk {trash} and back it up."

Backing it up at 2-3?

"Yeah. We do, and you'll get to see firsthand on Sunday in Washington."