Bounty Bowl legacy recalled 25 years later

Former Eagles coach Buddy Ryan. (Allsport /Allsport)

Just days before the Eagles' 1989 Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas, as he dressed in Veterans Stadium's dank locker room, Mike Reichenbach wondered why Buddy Ryan was huddling with a backup linebacker, Jesse Small.

"I heard Buddy say to him, 'You know what you've got to do, right?' " Reichenbach recalled last week. "I thought he was just checking to make sure Jesse did his job because he sometimes struggled. And then when I saw what happened, I said: 'OK, that's what was going on.' "

What happened, of course, was that on the second-half kickoff in the Eagles' 27-0 victory that Nov. 23, Small weaved through several Cowboys and flattened their 5-foot-9 kicker, Luis Zendejas. Afterward, Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson insisted Ryan had placed bounties on his kicker and quarterback Troy Aikman.

That game, exactly 25 years ago Sunday, and the snowball-sodden rematch two weeks later in Philadelphia would forever be recalled as Bounty Bowls I and II. Together, they may make up the most memorable season series in Eagles history, each marred by the kind of physical and foolhardy fury that Ryan regularly provoked.

Thursday, when Dallas and Philadelphia stage another Thanksgiving matchup, they will do so in a far different NFL. Thanks in no small part to the Bounty Bowls' legacy, the image-conscious league has since stiffened its penalties for cheap shots and fan misconduct, doubled down on its opposition to bounties, and virtually purged itself of shoot-from-the-lip coaches such as Ryan.

"Buddy was old-school," said Reichenbach, the East Stroudsburg linebacker who played six seasons in Philadelphia.

The issue of whether the Eagles offered bounties remains unsettled, though few would be shocked if they had. What memories persist, a quarter-century later, primarily concern the two coaches' animosity.

"At [the University of] Miami, Jimmy had the horses. So he and his players could talk trash, which they did," said Paul Palmer, the Temple product who was an '89 Cowboys running back. "He came to the NFL, went 1-15, and had to eat humble pie. He didn't like it. Buddy didn't respect Jimmy very much. He was a college coach, a guy who thought he was a hotshot. And after a while the feeling became mutual."

According to the fourth-year Eagles coach's guiding philosophy, dislikes and differences demanded physical intimidation. That was the weapon Ryan wielded to trim his roster, to get even with Zendejas, and, maybe most especially, to teach Johnson a lesson.

"Buddy used intimidation," Reichenbach said. "He'd tell our defensive linemen that if the quarterback throws an interception, he'd better see all four running after him, trying to get a hit on him. 'If I don't see that,' he'd say, 'I'll cut you,' " Reichenbach recalled. "Quarterbacks around the league knew that, and watching film, whenever that happened, you'd see them run the other way."

It began on Oct. 30, when Ryan, who had little use for placekickers, cut Zendejas.

"He can't kick," was how the Eagles coach, never one to censor himself, justified the move.

Stung, Zendejas fired back, claiming Ryan couldn't coach.

"Buddy read it. He had a long memory," Reichenbach said.

In the week before his 7-4 Eagles faced the 1-10 Cowboys in the first Ryan-Johnson meeting, there was a buzz in Philadelphia's locker room.

"A lot of coaches were saying, 'Boy, if I had the opportunity to play I'd give anything to take someone out of the game,' " Reichenbach recalled. "It built up. I don't remember any bounty talk, but that stuff went on around the league."

He didn't hear anyone mention Zendejas, either, but he did notice the Eagles coaches were giving Small, a special-teams stalwart, a lot of attention.

"They'd say, 'Jesse, when we're receiving, you know what your job is, right?' " Reichenbach said.

On Zendejas' third-quarter kickoff, Small, a 6-3, 240-pounder, made a beeline for him. The shot sent the diminutive Cowboy sprawling.

He got to his feet and, staggering like a drunk, moved toward the Eagles sideline, where he removed his helmet and barked at a smirking Ryan.

"We were like, 'Oh no, here we go. Snap 'em up, man, because this is going to be a wild one,' " Reichenbach said. "That was designed to happen."

From the Dallas sideline, Palmer didn't see it as a cheap shot, an opinion an NFL investigation later confirmed.

"I think Zendejas just got caught by Jesse," Palmer said. "Sometimes it's your assignment to block the kicker. Instead of waiting for him to come downfield, which he never does, you just go get him."

Meanwhile, as Ryan's 46 defense demanded, the Eagles assailed Aikman. After a penalty whistle aborted a play, the Eagles' Brit Hager flung him to the ground. A brief brawl ensued, and one Eagle, tackle Mike Pitts, was ejected. By the fourth quarter, Johnson had removed his $11 million rookie.

At the end of the game, Dallas' angry coach ran toward midfield. Ryan, meanwhile, had headed for a Texas Stadium tunnel.

"I was so furious I went looking for Buddy," Johnson recalled. "But he'd waddled that big, old, fat butt of his into the locker room."

Later Johnson and Zendejas alleged the Eagles had offered a $200 bounty for taking out the kicker, $500 for Aikman. Zendejas claimed Eagles special-teams coach Al Roberts and punter John Teltschik told him of the plot.

Ryan laughingly denied it. "Why put a bounty on a kicker that's in a six-week slump? You hope he doesn't get hurt. You want to be sure he kicks."

Asked about Johnson's charges, the Eagles coach said his counterpart didn't even have the Cowboys' respect.

Then on Dec. 8, two days before the Veterans Stadium rematch, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said an investigation had uncovered no evidence of a bounty. By then, the war of words between the clubs and their fans had so intensified, Tagliabue planned to attend the game.

This time the Cowboys were ready. Though they lost, 20-10, they teed off on Randall Cunningham, sacking him four times and drawing a late-hit flag in a game marked by penalties and scuffles.

"They definitely were looking for revenge," Reichenbach said.

Dallas linebacker David Howard defended the late hit on Cunningham.

"If they don't want Randall hit, keep his butt in the pocket," Howard said. "Guys were hitting guys after the whistle all day. It was ridiculous. That's the way Buddy Ryan wants them to play."

Palmer, limited to 34 yards on 15 carries in the games, said he couldn't vouch for the Cowboys defense, but on offense heard no revenge talk.

"Maybe some guys on defense thought about an eye for an eye," Palmer said, "but I don't recall any rallying cry that week."

But it's what happened away from the field that made Bounty Bowl II so infamous.

Tagliabue brought along a phalanx of NFL security people. They stood outside Eagles owner Norman Braman's box, where the commissioner watched. They guarded the Cowboys locker room and the tunnels leading to it. And they paid special attention to Zendejas and Johnson.

It was little help.

A snowfall earlier that week hadn't been entirely cleared. Eagles fans, their natural Cowboys antagonism heightened by two weeks of the controversy, fired snowballs at the Dallas coach, at Zendejas, at the officials, at Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw in the CBS broadcast booth.

"Seeing that snow," Cris Carter, then an Eagles wideout, recalled, "I knew that wasn't a good sign."

The barrage had its ugly climax at game's end, when, as Johnson exited the field, snowballs rained down.

"My only goal that day," Palmer said, "was to stay as far away from Jimmy as possible. Those fans had great arms, and they were accurate."

The criticism of Eagles fans came swiftly and from all quarters.

Lundquist said he'd enjoyed root canal more than broadcasting the game. An embarrassed Braman called it a disgrace and banned beer sales at the Vet for the rest of the season.

Newsweek columnist Joe Gergen wrote: "This was the city and the stadium that gained distinction at the start of the decade by [ringing] the field with horses and police dogs in the final innings of the World Series. All the animals were two-legged yesterday."

In the end, Johnson and his Cowboys would exact sweet revenge over the Eagles, who fired Ryan in 1990.

"I had the last laugh," Johnson remembered. "Buddy's Eagles never won a playoff game, and we ended up winning two Super Bowls."