After watching his team lose in the first round of the playoffs the past three years, after sensing his star quarterback had been humiliated and after seeing promises go unfulfilled, Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman fired Buddy Ryan as the team's coach yesterday, as almost everyone expected he would. Braman then named offensive coordinator Rich Kotite as Ryan's replacement.

Ryan, not surprisingly, went out defending himself, his record and his brief but controversial benching of Randall Cunningham in the 20-6 playoff loss to the Redskins Saturday, the game that broke Ryan's back.

Asked if he was surprised he'd been fired, Ryan said: "I was because I've been fired before but usually it's for losing. I've never been fired for winning."

But Ryan was a loser when it mattered most: in the playoffs, where his teams were 0-3. His Eagles lost to the Bears in the first round in 1988, at home to the Rams in 1989 and at home to the Redskins last week. "It is time to stop being a bridesmaid and become a bride," Braman said.

The most disappointing of the three losses came Saturday, when Ryan benched Cunningham without prior notice. Cunningham, the most explosive offensive player in the league, said he was "insulted" to be pulled in favor of Jim McMahon, who had thrown only nine passes all year and hadn't warmed up Saturday before going in. Braman said he thought Ryan had "embarrassed" Cunningham, who was out for one third-quarter series.

"Everybody made a big deal of me putting McMahon in there," Ryan said. "It's all bull. I was just trying to win the game. They said it was an emotional decision. That's bull. I was just trying to win."

Ryan did a lot of winning in the regular season the past three years. Upon leaving the Super Bowl-champion Bears, whose "46" defense he built, Ryan inherited a 7-9 Eagles team that hadn't made the playoffs since 1981. In his first season in Philadelphia (1986) Ryan made Cunningham the starter and revamped the defense. The Eagles went on to win the NFC East in 1988. They earned wild-card spots the following two years.

The Eagles won 31 games the past three years and had a 43-35-1 record in Ryan's five seasons. "Just look at the one we took over," Ryan said. "When we went to Tampa {for a minicamp}, that was the worst team I ever saw. I think we did a great job turning it around.

"If you know somebody who needs a coach that can win, let me know," Ryan said at his farewell news conference. "I believe that I can take a team to the Super Bowl. I've been to three of them {as an assistant} with three different teams."

Braman said during an afternoon news conference that he'd talked to Kotite and defensive assistant Jeff Fisher about taking over the top job. "We didn't want to start from scratch," Braman said. "Basically, we wanted someone familiar with the players and the system."

Braman said he didn't want his news conference to turn into "a Buddy Ryan bashing situation.

"This obviously is not an easy decision to make," he said. "Buddy Ryan has done a good job with this football team. I feel, however, that in order for the Philadelphia Eagles to ascend to the next plateau, a change in coaching is necessary."

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Kotite, the New York Jets' offensive coordinator for five years before Ryan hired him last year. "This is an outstanding football team. To give an assistant a chance to be a head coach means a lot. It's kind of overwhelming."

Braman said the hiring of Kotite "should alleviate the concern of the players," alluding to their near-unanimous support for Ryan.

If Pro Bowl tight end Keith Jackson's comments are any indication, that may not be the case. Jackson called the firing "stupid" and charged that Braman doesn't understand football. He said he and most of his teammates would prefer going with Ryan to staying with the Eagles.

"It's going to be hard. We're going to have problems," defensive tackle Jerome Brown said. "I'm not saying anything against any future head coach, but we'd do things for Buddy that we wouldn't do for another coach. I'd sell my body for Buddy."

In Ryan's eight seasons with Chicago, his defenses were ranked in the NFL's top 10 six times. The Bears set an NFL record with 72 sacks in 1984 and carried him off the field after beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. Still, when Ryan left Chicago, Coach Mike Ditka was more than happy to hold open the door.

Basically, Ryan wore out his welcome again. Occasionally, Ryan would refer to Braman as "the guy in France," because Braman vacationed there. The owner was open about his dislike of Ryan's style and the coach's penchant for taking so much of the credit for rebuilding the team.

Through Sunday, Ryan insisted he felt he would be rehired. But by Monday morning, even he could see the writing on the wall.

Braman "didn't feel like we could go to the next step," Ryan said. "I said, 'It's your football team and you can do whatever you want to.' I believe I can take a team to the Super Bowl. . . . But it's no big deal. Now I'm looking for a job."