Backup QB Leads Eagles to Win Over Belichick Coached Team

When he played for the Chicago Bears, Jim McMahon was known as a brash loudmouth diva. But when he went to the Eagles in 1990, he made almost a complete turnaround. Suffering through a multitude of injuries, he instead got a rep for being tough as nails. And nowhere did he show that grittiness more than just over 20 years ago in a game against the Bill Belichick coached Cleveland Browns. The Eagles, who had lost starting QB Randall Cunningham in the first game of the season, came into the game 4-5, and McMahon had severe elbow problems that rendered him doubtful for the game.

McMahon had tried getting a shot of novocaine two days early, on the Friday before the game, but when he overdid it in practice later that day the elbow swelled badly. He couldn’t even bend it. On Sunday morning, a worried Heller awoke and asked McMahon if he could play. “No way,” said McMahon. Heller says McMahon was especially disappointed because he felt he could have picked the Browns apart. “But he was lying there just moaning,” Heller says. “He couldn’t even put up his ponytail!” But by noon that day, after his arm had been massaged for three hours to reduce the swelling around the elbow, McMahon was out on the field throwing spirals. 

When the Browns, led by Bernie Kosar and a 39-year old rookie coach named Bill Belichick, went up 23-0 early in the 2nd quarter at old Municipal Stadium, it looked like the Eagles were done. But McMahon refused to quit. A touchdown pass to Keith Jackson, followed by a 70 yard strike to Fred Barnett, and the Birds cut the lead to 9. Bernie Kosar then led the Browns down the field, and the Browns tacked on another TD to take an incredible 30-17 lead at the half. The Eagles defense, ranked #1 in the NFL at the time, had been humiliated in the first half. But defensive coordinator Bud Carson made adjustments at halftime, and the D stormed the field in the 2nd half with something to prove. They completely shut down Kosar in the 2nd half, and held Kevin Mack to a mere 23 yards rushing for the game. Roger Ruzek field goals got the Eagles within striking distance, and with 5 minutes left in the game, McMahon hit Calvin Williams with a 5-yard strike. The Eagles took the lead 32-30, and that would be the final score. McMahon, whose elbow had been massaged, drained, salved, and injected with novacaine before the game, threw for 341 yards and 3 TDs in the win.

The Eagles, after starting the season 3-5, finished with 7 wins in their last 8 games (the only loss was with McMahon on the sidelines with an injury.) Sadly, that wasn’t enough to make the playoffs. The next year McMahon returned to the bench, then bounced around the league until 1996, when he backed up a young Brett Favre in Green Bay, then retired.

The Fog Bowl

The Eagles take on the Bears tonight, and while there have been plenty of great games between these two teams, the one that certainly sticks out is the Fog Bowl. It was New Year’s Eve, 1988, exactly a year before their next playoff loss. But this was the more memorable loss. The Eagles had started that season much as they started this one, with a win over a bad team and then 3 close losses. But they had rebounded to go 9-3 for the rest of the season, and they came into the playoffs hot, having won 6 of their last 7 games.

The game started on a sunny day in Chicago, but with two minutes left to go the fog rolled in, and the NFL had a decision to make. With visibility at near zero, should the game have been continued? This from a 1989 Sports Illustrated article:

The underlying reason that the game wasn’t suspended, of course, was TV. The idea of the network rearranging its programming schedule was just too awful to consider. As it happened, most of the people on the field agreed. Neither coach wanted the game suspended. “The fog didn’t beat us, the Bears did,” said Philly coach Buddy Ryan. The players didn’t want it stopped, either, although Cunningham said his occasional long passes were pure guesswork. “He put ’em up there, and the good Lord took them into the fog,” said Chicago quarterback Mike Tomczak, who admitted that his visibility was “no more than 20 yards.”

Down 17-9 at the half, Cunningham had to play catch-up against a Chicago defense that played zone in the first half and then shifted to man-to-man, crowding the short receivers and taking its chances with anything deep into the fog. Cunningham did complete one deep fogger, a 65-yarder to tight end Keith Jackson. “Then I looked for him again,” said Cunningham, “and he’d completely disappeared.

Of course, it was continued, and turnovers and penalties inside the red zone killed an Eagles team that clearly outplayed the Bears, but just couldn’t get the ball in the end zone. Cunningham threw for 407 yards, but also threw 3 interceptions. The Bears came away with a 20-12 victory in a game that may have changed the entire future of the Eagles.

Talking about the Fog Bowl in 2009, Cunningham said, “That was terrible. I really believe that we should have went to the Super Bowl that year under Buddy Ryan. Great athletes, great mentality. I think if we could have won that game, that would have been the difference in my career. I probably would have retired an Eagle.”