PHILADELPHIA -- Earnest Byner had run and received for 126 yards and, thanks to instant replay, escaped another infamous fumble. But he was too battered to run off the field. So he hopped like an insane pogo stick, holding his index finger high above his head and laughing up into the faces of the Philadelphia Eagles' fans.
Jeff Bostic was in even better spirits. He'd anchored a Washington Redskins line that had given Mark Rypien time to throw two touchdown passes and play all day without a sack. So the senior Hog couldn't resist. Eight weeks ago, as he hit that same tunnel in Veterans Stadium, the crowd had yelled, "Losers, losers!" Then, on a night when the Redskins had been beaten by two touchdowns and seen nine men hurt, that sounded like an understatement. So as he sprinted off the field after this 20-6 Washington wild-card upset, the gleeful Bostic led a mock cheer.
"Yeeaaa, Eagles," he snorted.
Other Redskins weren't so polite in front of the remnants of the crowd. Ron Middleton selected an old Italian salute. A. J. Johnson just stood in front of the quiet, grouchy assemblage and waved both arms as though orchestrating an ovation. What's wrong, folks? Nothin' to say?
The Eagles and their followers were left both silent and perplexed as the Redskins handled Philadelphia just as convincingly as they themselves were whipped in November. What happened?
Perhaps the moral is that you have to be a better football team than the Eagles, with a better coach than Buddy Ryan, to get away with talking trash about the Redskins.
The Eagles, with a weak offensive line, mediocre running backs, novice wide receivers, a suspect defensive backfield and a coach prone to emotional decisions, are not ready yet to imitate the NCAA's Miami Hurricanes. Brave words and bodily threats work better if you don't have so many weaknesses to conceal.
The Redskins know their limits. The Eagles, who spent the week looking ahead to a possible meeting with the 49ers, apparently don't. That's probably why the Redskins not only won, but dominated. In a game in which they needed every edge, the Eagles bragged themselves out of every advantage. Instead of having the home field on their side, the Eagles gave the Redskins so much fire in the belly that the visitors at times motioned to the crowd to yell louder.
"We were humiliated here. They enjoyed their victory. Now we'll enjoy ours," said assistant head coach Richie Petitbon, whose defense, for the fourth consecutive meeting, nullified Randall Cunningham. Asked if he thought the Eagles' big-mouth style was very dangerous, Petitbon answered, "Yes, I think so."
In victory, the Redskins underlined the Eagles' tactical mistake by refusing to comment afterward in any way on Philadelphia. They mocked the Eagles with silence.
"That's the rule for today," said Bostic.
The Redskins did a remarkable job of surviving what the Eagles do best and exposing what they do worst. In that sense, they offered future foes a clinic on how to cope with the gifted but erratic Eagles.
In the face of the blitz, Rypien dumped the ball seven times to Byner in the flat for 77 yards. "Flat hot," the Redskins call it. Byner wasn't open by yards, but by time zones.
By pounding inside the tackles with 32 running back carries for 94 yards, the Redskins set up their deep play-action passes and their Rypien rollouts to the right, away from the great Reggie White. Play action was the heart of a 68-yard Redskins scoring drive in the second quarter as the Eagles froze in their tracks on three straight plays as Rypien completed passes of 28, 23 and 16 yards. After another play-action fake, Ricky Sanders dropped what should have been a 52-yard touchdown pass from Rypien. The other Washington touchdown came on a rollout pass to Gary Clark.
Most of all, the Redskins' offense understood that its job was not to lose the game with turnovers. Rypien's only interception -- on a bomb -- had the same effect as a 38-yard punt. As if to prove the point, the only damaging Redskins turnover, a Gerald Riggs fumble, led immediately to an Eagles field goal.
On defense, the Redskins once again thrived on one theory: If you prevent Cunningham from scrambling right or left -- if you keep him in the pocket or force him to run straight upfield -- you can hold the Eagles' offense to almost nothing. It's worked for four games in a row now with Philly averaging less than 275 yards total offense and less than 10 points a game in that span.
Of course, Petitbon said, "Nobody can contain that man. Playing Cunningham is like walking through a minefield."
Nonetheless, the Redskins seem to know which mines are duds. Washington linebackers held 81-catch receiver Keith Byars to two little receptions. Washington cornerbacks Darrell Green and Martin Mayhew caught as many of Cunningham's passes (one) as wideouts Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams.
In the end, the Redskins' control of Cunningham was so complete that Ryan made a desperate and foolish move, yanking his franchise quarterback in favor of immobile old Jim McMahon. For not only was McMahon's oh-for-three-and-punt series feeble, but it should damage relations between Ryan and Cunningham. That is, if Ryan is rehired.
Ryan called it "changing pitchers." The Redskins called it a shock and a boost to their morale. And Cunningam, who threw 30 touchdown passes this season, was steamed.
"I didn't find out until Jim was out on the field. It was kind of strange to be pulled," said Cunningham. "It was insulting."
Most of this game was about harder Redskins hitting and better Redskins thinking. Yet one play might have reversed all that. If the play itself had not been reversed by replay.
Three years ago, Byner committed the most infamous fumble in Cleveland Browns history, sealing an American Conference championship game defeat by leaving the ball behind just as he was about to go into the end zone with the last-minute tying score.
This week, Ryan had the bad taste to call the hard-working, universally respected, 1,200-yard running back a fumbler. Ryan even speculated that Byner might fumble three times this week. "When I heard that," said Byner after the game, "I just went in and prayed for Buddy. I said, 'Forgive him for all the swords he's throwing at his children.' "
It was Byner, however, who was doing the fast praying after he dropped the ball at the Eagles 6 in the second quarter. He watched, helmet off, on one knee, as Ben Smith completed what might have been an 94-yard return for a 13-7 Philadelphia lead.
Byner didn't know what replay would show: "You never really know." Not when you've been knocked upside down and land headfirst.
As it proved, the replay view was simple and conclusive. Fumble caused by the ground after contact. Therefore, no fumble. The big reversal came over the loudspeaker like a huge voice from the sky. It may not have been the answer to a prayer, but to many it felt distinctly like justice.