Take a half crazed coach with an affinity for bounties, a quarterback who was a better version of Michael Vick before anyone ever heard of Michael Vick, the most fearsome preacher in history and what do you get?
A group that belongs right up there with the most colorfully twisted, beloved teams in sports. You know the roll call: the 1986 New York Mets of Doc, Darryl and as many wild stories as wins, the 1990s Cowboys of Aikman, Irvin and the White House that Bill Clinton only wished he lived in, the brawling Oakland A’s of the 1970s where wild moustaches competed with smashed clubhouse furniture.
These are the teams that have gone mythic because of their who-gives-a-damn character, the type of teams that get books written about them long after their members have moved on to civilian life.
And the Philadelphia Eagles of the late 1980s - the best, looniest team you’ve forgot - fit right into this class.
Except for the winning big part.
If only the Eagles hadn’t let an outclassed Los Angeles Rams team walk out of the Vet with a 21-7 rainy wildcard weekend win in 1989. If only they hadn’t lost to Chicago in the Fog Bowl the season before. If only they’d managed more than six points against a Washington Redskins team they beat twice in the regular season in another wildcard loss.
That last inexplicable heartbreaker finally cost Buddy Ryan his job and when the coach who revolutionized defensive schemes with his 46 - and dirty tactics ($1,000 to knock out a kicker anyone?) - left the building, the show essentially closed.
Those Eagles of the late 80s are similar to the Phoenix Suns during the Mike D’Antoni years: A team that changed the game and entertained like no other but still managed to win absolutely nothing significant.
“If the stupid owner had kept it together, we would have won though,” Ryan told me in an interview years later during one of his stints out of football. “That was a helluva group.”
Randall Cunningham - the rare quarterback that Ryan could stand - provided the type of true double threat that people later only wished Vick could be. When Cunningham threatened the single-season quarterback rushing record with 942 yards in 1990, he also threw for 3,466 yards and 30 touchdowns.
If the Madden video game had been all the rage during Cunningham’s prime years, he would have been an even bigger star.
Many people forget that Cunningham had Cris Carter to throw to during the 1989 season. Carter caught only 45 passes that year, but 11 of those went for touchdowns, leading Ryan to crack, “All he does is catch touchdowns.”
Ryan loved Carter, but in fitting with the theme of the legendary bad boy teams of all time, the wide receiver couldn’t shake his drug abuse problems and Ryan cut him the following preseason. Carter later credited Ryan’s move with helping turn his life around.
It was the kind of tough love reality check that Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry never received early in their careers during their own drug binges.
While Cunningham was robbed of a playmaker, Ryan’s defenses continued to churn out difference makers. Reggie White became Reggie White in these years, preaching quarterback destruction. The Eagles led the league in takeaways in 1989 and set the team record for penalties the following year as they increasingly lived on the edge of the NFL’s rules.
Then, the mayhem stopped.
Without Ryan, the greatest collection of crazy characters that never won would revert into just another team.