Though the 1988 Philadelphia Eagles “only” won an NFC East title after a 10-6 finish, they were such a special group of players with an even more dynamic head coach in Buddy Ryan that they captured mine and everyone else’s hearts in the “City of Brotherly Love.”
Ryan’s unit was an eclectic group that featured a rare collection of young superstars ready to explode on the NFL scene and hungry veterans, like WR Mike “Quick-Six” Quick (29) and DB Roynell Young, who had endured the tough underachieving Marion Campbell years that bridged the time between former Super Bowl head coach Dick Vermeil and the charismatic Ryan.
No one knew what this team had when they came together in West Chester, Pa for training camp in 1988, but what they did have was Ryan who made them into a “Band of Brothers.”
When James “Buddy” Ryan first came to the Philadelphia Eagles in early 1986 just off a Super Bowl championship in 1985 with the Chicago Bears, he brought his vaunted “46-Defense” and an attitude as big as the city of Philadelphia.
The short stumpy head coach with the bulldog type face professed when accepting the head coaching position from Eagles owner Norman Braman, “You now have a winner in town.”
Ryan, who had won with the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings earlier in his career before joining the Bears, made it abundantly clear that he was not going to take a backseat to anyone in the tough NFC East (Past Champions Cowboys, Giants and Redskins along with the tough Cardinals).
Ryan did not care who you were, he would take you on including people within the Eagles organization like the more demure Braman and some of the Eagles’ veterans remaining from Campbell’s 7-9 underachieving squad from 1985.
Ryan knew he had some talent left on the team he was inheriting in players like Cunningham, White, and hard-hitting safety Wes Hopkins, but he also knew there were some leftover players that either needed to shape up or ship out.
Old Buddy needing to make an example of someone set his sights on former Eagles first round pick running back Michael Haddix, who had been miscast years ago as a possible franchise back.
Ryan using psychology rode Haddix and other leftover underachievers, like running back Earnest Jackson in practice and through the media. Of Earnest Jackson the spry coach said, “He is the only back I know that needs 1,000 carries to get 1,000 yards in a season.”
And of Haddix, Ryan said the overweight running back looked like a “Reject Guard” from NFL rival league the USFL at the start of training camp. Ryan’s poking and prodding slowly started to change the culture around the Eagles and despite losing records in 1986 (finished 5-10-1) and 1987 (finished 7-8 in a strike shortened season), there were signs that this young team was ready for a good run in 1988.
The 1987 season was a tough one for the Eagles as they finished with a two-game winning streak and beat the eventual champion Washington Redskins 31-27 in Week Eight, but they missed out on the playoffs.
Many point to their missed playoff berth directly to Ryan, who decided he wanted no parts of “Scab Games” as NFL owners locked players out and played three games with replacement players (Weeks Three, Four, and Five).
The blue collar Ryan sided with the players and almost refused to field a team for the games. Ryan’s act played out very well in the pro-Union team of Philadelphia, where teamsters picketed with the players and blocked the entrances to Veterans Stadium.
But he and his scouting staff were left very short when they were selecting their replacement players.
Ryan acted like the games didn’t really count in the “real” NFL standings as he compiled a less than stellar group led by players like quarterback Guido Merkens and linebacker Freddie Smalls. Ryan’s approach was in direct contrast to the way veteran Super Bowl winning coaches Bill Walsh (SF 49ers) and Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys) viewed the strike games.
The 'Niners went 3-0 using a well-stocked roster and the Cowboys went 2-1 using many veterans that had crossed the picket line.
The 1987 Eagles replacement team went 0-3 and were outscored 92 to 35 points including an embarrassing 35-3 home loss to the Bears and a we-will-not-forget 41-22 loss to the Cowboys. The Eagles never recovered from the early three-game hole left by the strike players as the “real” players came back to a 1-4 record.
However led by Ryan and quarterback Randall Cunningham (breakout season with 2786 passing yards and 505 rushing yards) the Birds fought back winning six of their last ten games to finish with a 7-8 record in a shortened season including a 37-20 revenge home drubbing of the Cowboys .
Ryan and his young Birds clearly had momentum going into the 1998 season from their 7-5 record with their regular players.
The Eagles had another strong draft in 1988 bringing in future Pro Bowl players TE Keith Jackson (First Rd – Oklahoma) and CB Eric Allen (Second Rd – Arizona State) in the first two rounds to go with emerging young players RB Keith Byars, QB Randall Cunningham, DT Jerome Brown, DE Reggie White and others.
However behind the scenes, the business side of owner Norman Braman began to rear it’s ugly head as he wanted his team to get to the playoffs, placing Ryan on a very hotseat.
Braman believed that he had already endured two years of Ryan’s smug behavior (not shaking hands after games, talking too much in the media, bragging, etc) and that 1988 was a win or else season.
You would have never known Ryan had any doubts or fears entering the 1988 season as he continually talked of how his defense led by NFL leading defensive lineman Reggie White was better than his 1985 Bears unit that won it all.
Some thought Ryan was flapping his gums again, but he was right as his defense in 1987 had an NFL-high 57 sacks including White almost setting an NFL Record with 21 sacks in just 12 games.
Ryan had playmakers everywhere on his prized defense especially in their front four with White, young stud defensive tackle Jerome Brown, stay-at-home defensive tackle Mike Golic, and emerging sacker Clyde Simmons.
The front four allowed the rest of the unit (LB Seth Joyner, CB Eric Allen, FS Wes Hopkins, SS Andre Waters and others) to play with reckless abandon that forced the game-changing turnovers that Ryan so dearly loved.
Offensively the 1988 Eagles were perceived to be a one-man show as quarterback Randall Cunningham had emerged from former Super Bowl quarterback Ron Jaworski’s shadow to become, as Sports Illustrated dubbed him, “The NFL’s Ultimate Weapon.”
Ryan never really was an offensive guy, but he knew No. 12 was going to always pull off something great to give his team a chance to win. As great as Cunningham was at improvising and surviving behind a patchwork offensive line, there were some other talented players with him on the Eagles offense during the 1988 season.
Besides Cunningham, the Eagles offense was built around former Ohio State running back Keith Byars, who was the first player that Ryan drafted in 1986 NFL Draft.
The big former second place Heisman finisher was no longer the move the pile runner he was in college due to a foot injury in his senior season, but he was a versatile back who could block and catch with any back in the league.
Byars was complimented by Anthony Toney, known for his willingness to attempt to block Superman Giants’ linebacker Lawrence Taylor and Junior Tautalatasi a hard working special teams type player.
The receiving core was the Eagles strength in 1988 as Cunningham had an embarrassment of players with hands. Marion Campbell leftover Mike Quick was one the few Pro Bowl players left when Ryan took over and despite some creaky knees continued to be one of Cunningham’s favorite targets.
At the time the Birds didn’t know it, but they also had a future hall or fame type receiver in young developing receiver Cris Carter.
The former Ohio State star had joined the Eagles in the 1987 Supplemental Draft after being kicked out of college for dealings with an agent and despite battling little known of the field demons, he really developed a nose for the end zone.
The crown jewel added to the Birds offense in 1988 was first round selection rookie tight end Keith Jackson. The loquacious All-American tight end didn’t catch a lot of passes at run oriented Oklahoma, but when he did there was always a big play like in the 1986 Orange Bowl where he led the Sooners over Penn State.
After Jackson held out for a portion of training camp, Ryan himself got on a plane and worked out the deal to bring the future 1988 NFC Rookie of the Year to Philadelphia. Even with all of these superstar players on offense on third downs Cunningham invariably looked for the player he called “Trash” as in Greg “Trashman” Garrity.
The gritty receiver, who helped Penn State to a National Championship in the 1982 Sugar Bowl, had hands of glue that allowed him to snare any pass high or low for first downs and the occasional touchdown.
Their special teams had questions marks everywhere though the Eagles had a solid young punter in John Teltschik. Their return game was unspectacular and Ryan changed kickers like underwear going through three kickers in the 1988 season.
The excitement and expectations fueled by a strong ending of the 1987 season and Ryan’s swagger led everyone to believe that the Eagles could contend in 1988 season despite a murder’s row schedule.
The Birds had to face the world champion Redskins and playoff tested Giants twice in the NFC East plus they had to face teams from the NFC West and AFC Central.
The season opened with a strong 41-14 win over the rebuilding Buccaneers in Tampa Bay as the Eagles’ defense forced five turnovers including two interceptions by safety Terry Hoage one of which he returned for a 36-yard touchdown.
The game was such a laugher that Cunningham after throwing touchdowns to Quick and Keith Jackson took the majority of the afternoon off as veteran backup Matt Cavanaugh finished the game.
As high as the Eagles were in Week One, they were soon brought down by three straight losses (28-24 to the Bengals in their home opener, 17-10 against the Redskins at RFK Stadium, and a heartbreaking 23-21 road defeat to the Vikings).
The defeat in the Metrodome in Minneapolis was exceptionally painful as the Eagles lost a see-saw game with the Vikings moving the ball against their attacking defense in last minutes that led to a Chuck Nelson game-winning field goal.
At the quarter pole of the 1988 season, the Eagles were not even close to equaling their expected heights at 1-3. The second quarter of their season would tell a huge story as they would face a lineup of Houston, NY Giants, Cleveland Browns, and Dallas Cowboys.
Three of the games were at home and the Eagles needed the faithful Veterans’ Stadium crowd including the 700 Level crazies to pull them through this tough stretch. The Houston game showed what a weapon the Eagles had in quarterback Randall Cunningham.
The former UNLV standout had impressive numbers of 24-38, 289 yards, and two touchdowns with an additional 59 yards rushing and one touchdown in a 32-23 win.
The next week was Ryan’s and the Eagles chance to make a statement as they hosted the New York Giants on Monday Night Football in the Vet. The country was watching and Cunningham was not going to let them down.
Cunningham passed his way into the hearts of the nation throwing for 369 yards and three touchdowns including an 80-yard strike to emerging touchdown threat Cris Carter.
No. 12 was spectacular throughout the game, but on Tuesday morning highlight packages and water coolers everywhere were abuzz about the play Cunningham made in the first half of the game.
Inside the Giants’ five-yard line Cunningham rolled to his right looking for someone to come open in the end zone, before anyone emerged hard-charging Giants linebacker Carl Banks laid a hit on the lower legs of the elastic passer which most likely should have knocked him to the ground.
However, Cunningham with his legs flying backwards kept the ball and placed his left hand on the ground then popped up to hit veteran TE Jimmie Giles in the corner of the end zone with a four-yard pass.
After Cunningham’s phenomenal play and soundly defeating the NFC East leading Giants 24-13 on national television, everyone thought the 3-3 Eagles were now legitimate contenders.
However like any young inconsistent team, the 1988 Philadelphia Eagles stumbled the next week losing 19-3 on the road to the Cleveland Browns as they only could produce 114 yards passing and allowed nine sacks. The loss to the Browns was soon forgotten as the next week was “Dallas Week” in Philadelphia.
Nothing ever gets Eagles fans more pumped than taking a shot at the hated Dallas Cowboys and their robotic head coach at the time, Tom Landry.
With the spunky Ryan fanning the fire all week to defeat the Cow-girls, the home fans were not disappointed as the Eagles stormed back from deficits of 20-0 and 23-10 to win 24-23 over their hated divisional foes.
The star of the game again was Cunningham who threw for 298 yards and 2 touchdowns while hitting eight different receivers. However the inconsistent ways of the young team continued to plague the Eagles as they followed another big win with a flat loss as the Falcons beat them 27-24 in Veterans’ Stadium.
In the game, the Eagles rolled up 424 total yards but they had three turnovers and they could have had more as four fumbles hit the ground (only lost one). With their season fading a little and looking up at the Redskins and Giants in the standings, the 4-5 1988 Philadelphia Eagles stood at a crossroads.
Either save their season and head coach’s job or start getting ready to rebuild much sooner than they expected.
Led by Cunningham and a defense that was getting a reputation around the NFL as one of the hungriest units, the Birds responded rattling off four straight wins over the LA Rams (30-24), Steelers (27-26 road win), NY Giants (23-17 road win), and Cardinals (31-21).
The Eagles rolled toward the home stretch of the 1988 season at 8-5 and everyone started to wonder if they could make the playoffs for the first time since 1981 when Dick Vermeil’s former Super Bowl team was still together.
However in the crucial 14th week of the season, the Eagles had the misfortune of not stepping on the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins’ throat when they had the chance.
The Eagles up 19-7 at one point let the ‘Skins comeback for a 20-19 victory in front of a stunned Veterans’ Stadium crowd.
Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien who had been quiet all game (3 INTs) was replaced by Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams and the wily veteran led them back with the game basically ending on a 44-yard Chip Lohmiller game-winning kick.
With two weeks left in the season, the Eagles trailed the NY Giants by one game so at 8-6 everyone’s thoughts in Philly surrounded a wildcard berth. First the Eagles headed to the desert for their always tough contest with the dangerous Phoenix Cardinals.
With many Eagles fans filling Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium, the Birds especially ASU homeboy Eric Allen felt right at home.
After busting out to a 20-0 lead, the Eagles had to hold on for a close 23-17 victory as their defense provided three turnovers and four sacks against tough veteran quarterback Neil Lomax.
Standout players in the game were Reggie White (2 sacks) and multi-purpose running back Keith Byars (86 yards rushing including a career long 52-yard run and five catches for 54 yards).
A playoff berth could be attained if the Eagles defeated the reeling Dallas Cowboys in Texas Stadium and if they got some help in the NFC, but there was also the outside chance of the Birds winning the NFC East if they took care of business in Big D and the NY Giants lost to the NY Jets in “The Battle for New York City."
After the Eagles spotted the Cowboys a seven-point lead, the Birds dismantled the Cowboys 23-7 as they scored 23 unanswered points in what turned out to be Hall of Fame head coach Tom Landry’s last game in the NFL.
Cunningham threw two touchdowns, one each to Mike Quick and Rookie of the Year candidate Keith Jackson plus defensive superstar Reggie White had another two sack performance.
Typical of the Eagles in my favorite season, the next result was truly unexpected. With a glut of teams at 10-6 or better including the Bears (12-4), Vikings (11-5), Eagles (10-6), Rams (10-6), Niners (10-6), Giants (10-6), and Saints (10-6) there was no guarantee that the Eagles would even make the playoffs without going into all the convoluted NFL tiebreakers.
The Eagles knew they had a chance and winning over the Cowboys was the first step, but they needed help. A lifeline came the Eagles way late on Sunday afternoon when the Jets after trailing the Giants for pieces of a topsy-turvy game mounted a comeback behind quarterback Ken O’Brien.
Late in the fourth quarter O’Brien hit receiver Al Toon with a 5-yard touchdown pass lifting the Jets to a 27-21 come-from-behind victory and knocking the Giants out of the playoffs.
If you can believe it, in the days before NFL Network live updates, most the Eagles players had no idea that they had made the playoffs and won the NFC East until local Philadelphia television stations informed them as they were leaving the Texas Stadium field.
I can still remember the glee in Reggie White’s face as he heard about the Eagles good fortune as he yelled, “The Eagles are NFC East Champs, Praise the Lord.”
The 1988 Philadelphia Eagles were indeed the NFC East Champs and they had finally lived up to the hype that their loudmouth coach had created.
The Giants at 10-6 were improbably left out of the playoff dance as the Eagles of all crazy things got to sit back on Wild-Card Weekend and watch football as they had a two-week bye into the divisional round.
However the Eagles didn’t rest on their laurels as many of the players decided it was time for the Birds to announce their presence with authority.
The majority of the team including Jerome Brown, Reggie White, Randal Cunningham, Andre Waters, Wes Hopkins, Mike Quick and others got together to record a song and music video called “Buddy’s Watching You” in the vain of the 1985 Bears’ Super Bowl Shuffle song.
The proceeds went to charity, but I am sure the song never won a Grammy with lines like, “Randall Cunningham Quarterback.. You can try to catch me but you won’t, now you see me now you don’t”...See it for yourself.
Armed with their new anthem and the knowledge that the Eagles would be playing Ryan’s former team, the Chicago Bears, the city of Philadelphia had Eagles Fever. Ryan pumped the city up on his local television show and the Buddy’s Watching video was everywhere as the Eagles were determined to show the Bears the real “46” defense.
Ryan said the Bears head coach Mike Ditka—no love lost with his former coach—and Ditka’s new defensive coordinator Vince Tobin had lived off of a unit that he had built.
Ryan continued to preach how his new team was going back to the Windy City to finish the job that they had started in 1986 when the Eagles had the Bears on ropes at Soldier Field in a close 13-10 loss in Week Two of that season.
Ryan’s new young pups were going to take a bite out of smug Buddy Basher and archenemy Ditka. The Eagles arrived early and instead of going to the hotel for preparations, they went straight to Soldier Field and did a couple laps around the stadium to tell everyone the Eagles were in town.
The game was set for Saturday Dec. 31, 1988 (New Year’s Eve) and the city of Philadelphia was hoping that they would send the year out with a bang. The game would start in the afternoon, so the evening was supposed be a celebration in Philadelphia...but no could imagine what would happen next.
The Eagles started the game slow and inconsistent as they had done it seemed for the entire 1988 season. Chicago drew first blood as quarterback Mike Tomczak hit receiver Dennis McKinnon with a 64-yard pass early in the first quarter.
The Eagles answered back as Cunningham mixing runs and passes drove the Birds to the Chicago 26-yard line only to see kicker Luis Zendejas miss a 43-yard field goal. The Eagles quickly got the ball back after late-round draft pick steal linebacker Seth Joyner intercepted a pass from Tomczak and this time they managed to score.
However the Zendejas 42-yard field goal only came after an apparent Cunningham to Quick touchdown pass was nullified by an illegal motion penalty on RB Anthony Toney.
Plus TE Keith Jackson, who had been Cunningham’s security blanket all season, developed a case of the “Dropsies” as he could not catch a perfect pass in the end zone.
After Chicago kicker Kevin Butler missed a 51-yard field goal attempt giving the ball back to the Eagles with great field position, another Birds drive stalled inside Chicago’s 20-yard line and Zendejas kicked another short field goal (29 yards) to make it a one point game at 7-6.
The Bears seemed to start pulling away when running back Neal Anderson ran four yards for a touchdown and 14-6 lead, but the real fun was yet to start.
The Bears added another Butler field goal making the score17-6 lead late in the second quarter then all of the sudden a gray ominous fog wiped away a balmy Chicago afternoon around the two-minute warning of the first half.
The Eagles continued to battle on as they settled for their third field goal by Zendejas making the score 17-9 at the half and making everyone from CBS to fans of both teams to the NFL hoping that the strange fog would lift in the second half.
In retrospect, referee Jim Tunney should have postponed the second half until the next day, but the NFL and CBS were thinking it was more important to keep the playoff schedule as it was.
The second half featured several missed calls by the CBS broadcast team of Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw as everyone in Philadelphia including yours truly was wondering why the Playoff Gods had to derail Buddy’s Boys from advancing to the NFC Championship Game with that Lake Michigan Fog over Soldier Field.
Everyone knew that the Birds had been a second half squad all season, but for most of the second half, the Eagles and Bears relied on their running games as visibility was about 10 to 15 yards on the field.
The fans at home were treated to some pretty bad television as the announcers and everyone else in the stadium had trouble seeing what was happening on the field. It got so bad that Tunney ended up announcing the down and distance for each play on his wireless microphone, plus CBS had to use sideline cameras to show the limited view action to the fans at home.
Both teams only managed to kick meaningless field goals with the score ending with the weird total 20-12. First time Pro Bowl quarterback Cunningham finished the game with 407 passing yards and 12 rushing yards, but he failed to throw a touchdown pass and was intercepted three times.
What I remember most about the game was Jackson catching seven passes for 142 yards but dropping the ones that mattered most in the end zone, former Bears player and Eagles linebacker Todd Bell severely breaking his leg after had earlier intercepted a pass, and of course watching the majority of a game on television where you couldn’t see a thing due to the fog.
I am not going to lie to you on New Year’s Day 1989 I was not a happy camper as I felt my beloved Eagles were robbed of their chance to join the 1986 Giants and 1987 Redskins as NFC East Champs that went on to win the Super Bowl.
But after a few days the melancholy fog that surrounded the 1988 Eagles was soon lifted by optimism as there surely would be more playoff runs for Buddy Ryan’s Eagles. After replaying this season over twenty years later for this article, I have found myself saying one word over and over regarding the 1988 Eagles, “Potential.”
This team was so young and energetic with their future firmly ahead of them, which of course included at least one championship—only had three Pro Bowl players in White, Cunningham, and Jackson but there should have been at least three more.
Their defense was growing into an unstoppable force behind White and a gang of future Pro Bowl players, quarterback Randall Cunningham was at his pre-injury MVP form as he led the team in passing and rushing for the second year in a row and head coach Buddy Ryan was always there with his whimsical tongue to string together another week’s worth of animosity toward the Birds’ next opponent.
But in retrospect the future was not as bright for the 1988 Philadelphia Eagles as it seemed back on New Years Day 1989. Sure the mummers would strutted down Broad Street that day and the young Eagles would play in many more national spotlight games like the Bounty Bowls I & II, the Pork Chop Bowl, the House of Pain Game, and many others.
But their dream of bringing the city of Philadelphia its elusive football championship since 1960 continued to elude Buddy’s Boys.
In the end, in the next seven years this team would have a totally different look with the only thing left hanging over them a big “What might have been” cloud.
Ryan was fired after two straight home playoff losses where the Eagles were the favorite. Cunningham left unceremoniously in 1995 as he retired for one season with little fanfare before coming back with the Vikings, big kid and some say the heart of the team defensive tackle Jerome Brown died in a fatal car accident.
Buddy Ryan did immature Cris Carter a big favor by cutting him so he could get a fresh start in Minnesota and Reggie White along with several other top line players left the team after contract squabbles with Braman.
The end didn’t seem to justify the great season that the Eagles had in 1988 leaving many fans muttering to this day about the blank-ing fog that covered the playoff game in Chicago.
But you have to admit the 1988 Philadelphia Eagles were an entertaining bunch who kept you on the edge of your seat week in and week out, which is why they are easily my favorite team of all-time.
Well, at least we still have our memories from that season like the miraculous Cunningham to Giles MNF highlight touchdown and of course the “Buddy’s Watching You” video to remind us how great this team truly was.
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)Posted in NFL