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.

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