PHILADELPHIA, JAN. 5 -- At his news conference following Philadelphia's 20-6 NFC wild-card playoff loss to the Washington Redskins today, Eagles Coach Buddy Ryan said he plans to live a normal football life next week. He will have the usual 11 a.m. team meeting and then go over Plan B free agency with his coaching staff.
Yet the reality is that possibly by Monday -- but more likely within two weeks -- Ryan could no longer be the Eagles coach. Since his team has been eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for three straight years, and since he made the biggest coaching blunder of the season by removing Pro Bowl quarterback Randall Cunningham in the third quarter, owner Norman Braman may have no choice but to fire Ryan.
Cunningham, as well as some Eagles players, were extremely critical of their coach for taking their star out of the game -- even if it was only for three plays. Cunningham said he wasn't told he was coming out, but when he saw backup Jim McMahon running onto the field he "knew something was wrong."
He called his removal "insulting."
"I didn't think I was going to get pulled out," said Cunningham, who had his best year as a pro, but was having a sub-par day. "I don't know what Buddy was doing, what he was thinking."
This year, Cunningham threw for more than 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns. He also was only 58 yards shy of becoming the first quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards.
Said guard Mike Schad: "Hell, Randall shouldn't have left the game. That's not fair. He's been our bread and butter all year long. It didn't make any sense to do it.
"I got dismayed as much as he did. I think a lot of guys on offense were wondering what the hell Buddy was doing. Guys were coming in and out of the game. Instead of coming off your block you worry about who is going to be replaced next. That's seriously depressing."
"I have an opinion about it," Braman said, "but I have a rule where I don't discuss coaching decisions. I especially don't want to start doing that now."
Braman would not comment directly about Ryan's status, saying he has not yet made a decision and will "soon evaluate the situation."
But before being circled by two dozen reporters, Braman told one reporter: "This was the toughest loss to swallow. Everyone is disappointed today. I know I am very disappointed. . . . I don't know how long you wait for success. We're young -- much younger than the Redskins -- but we can't keep saying that and blaming everything on youth and injuries. I don't know how long myself and others can wait. A lot of people are tired of waiting."
When asked if he thought he had been patient enough with Ryan, who's in the last year of his contract, Braman said: "That's a tough one to answer. But I think I've been very patient."
For his part, Ryan stood fast and took questions about the possibility of losing his job. When he took control for the 1986 season, he said he would have the Eagles in the Super Bowl in five years. This game ended his fifth year. There was no such bravado today, as Ryan said the loss to the Redskins "couldn't do anything but set us back."
When asked if he is optimistic about a contract extension, Ryan said: "I am. You're not?
"This was disappointing because I thought we had to win a playoff game," said Ryan, a former defensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears. " . . . You know I want to stay with this team. I built it. Why would I want someone else to come in here" and take all the credit?
But moves, such as taking Cunningham out of the game, have made even his players question Ryan's coaching strategy.
While Cunningham was playing one of his worst games of the season -- he completed 15 of 29 passes for 205 yards and one interception -- it was still a shock when the decision was made. After all, the Eagles' offensive line played poorly, allowing Cunningham little room to maneuver, resulting in five sacks. The Redskins have sacked Cunningham 15 times in three games this year.
With no warning -- not even McMahon warming up -- Cunningham was removed with 2:20 left in the third quarter. McMahon had thrown only nine passes this season.
McMahon didn't fare any better against the Redskins' pressure, throwing three straight incompletions. On the following Eagles series Cunningham returned and finished the game.
"It was kind of insulting when you think about it," said Cunningham, usually one of Ryan's biggest boosters. "But that's football. But it was very unusual to me. I never thought it would happen to me in a playoff game because I wasn't hurt. I have to be a man about it. I have to realize that it's Buddy's decision.
"I don't know what else to say. I guess a lot of people were wondering. The only thing I didn't understand is that Jim is not as mobile as me. How was he going to do it?"
Ryan defended his decision by saying that he wanted to create a change of pace, since the Eagles' offense had been stuffed most of the afternoon.
"I thought a different pitcher would help," Ryan said. "I thought maybe I should give Jim a chance. Things weren't working worth a damn. . . . But it didn't really make a difference."
Braman simply added: "The Eagles have a lot of thinking to do. We have to decide where we go from here."
EAGLES 1-12 ON THIRD-DOWN PLAYS
1.....3-2....P23...Cunningham 66 pass to Keith Jackson, first down
......3-9....W10...Cunningham sacked by Coleman, 10-yard loss
1.....3-7....P38...Cunningham pass incomplete, intended for Byars
2.....3-4.....W5...Cunningham pass incomplete, half-the-distance holding penalty called against Mayhew, first down
......3-3.....W3...Cunningham sacked by Mann, eight-yard loss
2.....3-18...P38...Cunningham pass incomplete, intended for Williams
3.....3-1....P29...Sherman carries for no gain, tackled by Gouveia
3.....3-9.....P7...Toney carries up middle for one yard, tackled by Collins
3.....3-10...P18...McMahon pass incomplete, intended for Barnett
4.....3-5....P25...Cunningham pass incomplete, intended for Barnett
4.....3-20...W43...Cunningham carries for 12 yards, tackled by Coleman
4.....3-13...P45...Cunningham pass incomplete, intended for Sanders