It’s the greatest Eagles “What if...?” of my lifetime.
When Randall Cunningham and the Birds took the field in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers back in 1991, they did so coming off of three straight first-round postseason losses. Buddy Ryan was out as head coach, replaced by Rich Kotite, and Bud Carson was the new defensive coordinator. The team was still absolutely loaded with talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball, and they had Cunningham, the PFWA NFL Most Valuable Player Award winner from the year before.
Cunningham absolutely owned the league in 1990. He rushed for 942 yards, third-most ever for a QB, threw for 3466 yards, a career-high 30 TDs and 13 INTs for a 91.6 passer rating that was 5th-best in the NFL. They had a solid WR duo in Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams, a great pass catcher out of the backfield in Keith Byars, and one of the best tight ends in football in Keith Jackson.
Defensively, they had Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, Byron Evans, Eric Allen and sadly, the final season of defensive tackle Jerome Brown, who would die the following summer in a car accident. There were weaknesses on the team, to be sure. Their offensive line was often bad-to-awful (Cunningham led the league in sacks five times in his career) and they couldn’t run the ball much, but otherwise, this was a team that had a great shot of not only making the playoffs again, but finally winning a postseason game and perhaps getting to the Super Bowl.
Of course, we all know what happened on that first Sunday of the season in sunny Wisconsin, when defensive lineman Bryce Paup lunged at Cunningham’s knee in the second quarter of an eventual 20-3 Eagles victory and tore his ACL, a blow that knocked him out for the rest of the season. At that moment, the season appeared over just as it was getting started. Sure, they had an effective back-up in Jim McMahon, who played well when he was physically able to, but at this point in his career, he was being held together with packing tape and bailing wire, able to start only 11 games, himself.
What followed was a clown car full of third string and fourth-rate signal callers that were among the worst the team has ever put on the field. Jeff Kemp, Brad Goebel, and Pat Ryan tried but just couldn’t do it, and despite finishing with a 10-6 record, a late-season loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the penultimate week of the season at home sealed their fate.
But what if Randall hadn’t gotten hurt? What if he had managed to avoid that catastrophic injury and stay in the game? How good would the Eagles have been in 1991, and could they have gone all the way to the Super Bowl?
It’s important to remember that the 1991 Eagles defense was perhaps the greatest in the history of the NFL. Football Outsiders say so, anyway.
The 1991 Eagles completely lap the field in terms of defensive DVOA. Only the 2002 Bucs had a better pass defense, and only the 2000 Ravens had a better run defense, and the Eagles were much more balanced than either of those teams.
It’s crazy to imagine how few points the Eagles might have given up if they were playing with a halfway-decent offense instead of losing Randall Cunningham to a torn ACL in the first game of the season. The Eagles were stuck depending on an over-the-hill Jim McMahonfor 11 starts, plus Jeff Kemp for two and Brad Goebel for two. McMahon actually wasn’t half bad ... but the other two quarterbacks were awful, especially Goebel who had no touchdowns with six interceptions. And the running game was dreadful, with 3.1 yards per carry as a team.
Still, the Eagles were fifth in the league in points allowed, and first in yards allowed by nearly 400 yards – and the team that was second in yards allowed is also on that top-ten defenses list, the 1991 New Orleans Saints. The Eagles allowed 3.9 yards per play, where no other team allowed fewer than 4.5. As bad as their running game was, their run defense was even better, allowing 3.0 yards per carry. Three-fourths of the starting defensive line was All-Pro (Reggie White, Jerome Brown, and Clyde Simmons). Linebacker Seth Joyner and cornerback Eric Allen made the Pro Bowl as well.
Football Outsiders does a great job illustrating just how incredible the Eagles’ defense was that year, but it doesn’t say how good the Eagles would have been if Cunningham had stayed healthy. In 1992, Cunningham ran for 549 yards and threw for 2775 with 19 TDs and 11 INTs, not nearly as good as his ‘90 season, so if we assume he would have been somewhere in between those two seasons, we can reasonably say he would have thrown for about 3000 yards, rushed for about 700, thrown 25 TDs and had around 8 INTs in ‘91.
With that in mind, and understanding that Cunningham was known to have some strange let-down games from time to time, let’s look at the games the Eagles lost with his back-ups and the back-ups to the back-up and the back-up to the back-up to the back-ups during the season.
Week 2 - Cardinals 26 Eagles 10: McMahon struggled and had to leave the game due to an injury and the team is clearly flat for the home opener knowing Randall is on the shelf for the season. While I don’t think you can just chalk this up as a victory, given the 16-point differential, it would have been a different vibe for that home opener at the Vet with a healthy Cunningham leading the offense.
Week 5 - Redskins 23 Eagles 0: Washington would go 14-2 in 1991 and is generally considered one of the greatest teams of all time. There may have been nothing the Birds could have done here in RFK, but with Pat Ryan’ 4-for-14, 24 yard and 3 INT performance, they were doomed. McMahon got in six passing attempts in between injuries and Goebel was 1-for-2 for six yards in this farce. The Eagles offense had just four first downs the entire game, which seems almost impossible to do. Even with Cunningham, they probably don’t win this game.
Week 6 - Bucanneers 14 Eagles 13: The Eagles were up 13-0 thanks to two Roger Ruzek field goals and a defensive touchdown by Seth Joyner. But two late touchdowns by Tampa in the 4th quarter and a 9-for-20, 62-yard performance by Goebel sealed the Eagles’ fate here. This was a truly awful football game and would have been an easy win with Cunningham.
Week 7 - Saints 13 Eagles 6: The two teams combined for 21 first downs, Goebel led all QBs (Eagles and Saints) with 106 yards passing (although his 4 INTs negated that otherwise phenomenal day), and the Birds’ offense turned it over a staggering six times. At home, this is absolutely another game the Eagles would have won with Randall.
Week 9 - 49ers 23 Eagles 7: The Eagles actually had more first downs than San Francisco in this game (16-14), but committed another five turnovers in their fourth straight loss. The Niners only had 222 yards of total offense and Steve Young was held to a meager 96 passing yards. Again, it’s hard to say for sure if the Eagles would have won this game with Cunningham under center, but you’ve got to like their chances if they cut down on the turnovers and stop giving San Francisco short fields.
Week 16 - Cowboys 25 Eagles 13: Based solely on the play of their defense and a couple miraculous performances by McMahon, when he was able to suit up, the Eagles entered the second-to-last week of the season with a 9-5 record. The Cowboys came to the Vet with a 9-5 record as well, but the Eagles were at a serious disadvantage. Not only was Cunningham not available, but McMahon was also unable to play, so the Eagles went with Kemp. The Eagles kept it close until the final minutes, but a late Dallas touchdown turned a 15-13 Cowboys lead into a 22-13 deficit. Dallas would add another field goal for the final score, as Kemp went 18-for-37 for 150 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. No doubt in my mind, if Cunningham is in this game, they beat the Cowboys, who managed only 11 first downs to the Eagles’ 16.
So if we’re being conservative, there’s at least three wins the Eagles probably would have gotten had Cunningham not been injured: Week 6 against Tampa, Week 7 against New Orleans and Week 16 against the Cowboys. That would have turned a 10-6 record into a 13-3 record. If they had been able to take advantage of their defense’s performance against the Niners and/or, we’re looking at a 14-2 mark.
Now, perhaps there is a game or two in which McMahon played really well and Cunningham would have struggled. Perhaps the final game of the season in which the Eagles beat 14-1 Washington would have resulted in a loss if the Redskins had played their starters and had something to play for against an Eagles team with a better record. It’s hard to say anything for sure.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say the Eagles go 13-3 with this defense and a healthy Cunningham and finish one game behind Washington in the standings. In the wild card round, Philadelphia would have hosted Chicago at Veterans Stadium. In ‘91, Dallas beat the Bears 17-13, with QB Jim Harbaugh, who threw 15 TDs and 16 INTs on the season with a 73.7 rating, calling the shots for Chicago. You’ve got to like the Eagles’ chances of a home win over Harbaugh and the overmatched 11-5 Bears.
After that, they would have traveled to Detroit to take on Barry Sanders and the Lions, who went 12-4 and won the NFC Central that year. Based off their points differential, Detroit’s expected won-loss record should have been been 9-7, so to say they overachieved is an understatement. They had two starting QBs that year, Erik Kramer and future Eagle Rodney Peete, both of whom started eight games in ‘91. Sanders was the star of that team, having rushed for 1,548 yards that season, but we all know how the Eagles defense ate up running games that season, and they undoubtedly would have keyed in on stopping him. In 1991, Detroit beat Dallas in the divisional round but got destroyed by Washington in the NFC Championship Game 41-10.
So if we assume the 1991 Gang Green defense could have beaten a mediocre Jim Harbaugh in the wild card round at home, then gone into Detroit to beat Kramer and the Lions in the divisional round, and we assume Washington would have handled their business against the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round, just as they did in ‘91, then the Eagles would have traveled to Washington for the NFC Championship Game and a trip to the Super Bowl against the eventual AFC champion Buffalo Bills.
I can’t sit here and say the Eagles would have beaten Washington on the road. Football Outsiders has this ‘91 Washington team rated as the highest DVOA team in NFL history. From the Outsiders piece referenced earlier:
A lot of the best teams in NFL history got a little extra boost by picking on an easy schedule, but not Washington. They had an average schedule, and a harder-than-average schedule of opposing defenses. One reason for that: 1991 was not only the year of the best overall team in DVOA history. It was also the year of the best defense in DVOA history, which showed up on Washington’s schedule twice: the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles...
...Statistician Eddie Epstein wrote a book a few years ago called Dominance, about the best teams in NFL history. He chose the 1991 Redskins as the second-best team ever, behind only the 1985 Bears.
Can you imagine this game? Can you imagine a 13-3 Eagles team taking on a 14-2 Washington team for a trip to the Super Bowl? Can you imagine what Rich Kotite’s reputation would have been if he had managed to pull this off? And what about the Bills? What if they had played the Eagles instead of Washington? What if they had played anyone else instead of Washington? Would they have won one of those four Super Bowls in a row they lost?
I’m mad that we were robbed of a season in which perhaps the greatest defense in NFL history had to sit home during the playoffs while scrubs like Atlanta and Detroit got to play bonus football. And for sure, Cunningham’s legacy in Philadelphia is forever changed if he’s able to play in the Super Bowl, a game in which he never did get a chance to suit up.
Great, now I’m mad again.