Eagles vs. Redskins: Body bags before Buddy bagged

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The Eagles’ rivalry with Washington was most heated during Buddy Ryan’s tenure as Eagles coach.

Part 1 of a three-part series detailing some of the memorable moments and personalities involved in the Eagles’ rivalries with their three NFC East opponents. Today: The Washington Redskins. 

Almost all the ingredients are in place for the Eagles and Washington Redskins to have the most bitter of rivalries. Close proximity? Check. Same division? Yes. Rabid fan bases? Absolutely. Long history? They’ve been playing each other since 1933, when the Boston Redskins shared Fenway Park with the Red Sox.

The only thing consistently missing during their first 84 seasons of going against each other was timing. With only a few exceptions, when the Eagles have been good, the Redskins have not, and vice-versa. The teams have met in the postseason only one time (more about that later) and they’ve made the playoffs in the same season only three times. Remarkably, they have had winning records in the same season only 10 times.

Camera icon Philadelphia Eagles
Randall Cunningham (behind center) faces the Redskins at Veterans Stadium. On Sept. 17, 1989,  after signing a record contract extension worth $18 million in the morning, Cunningham threw for 447 yards and five touchdowns  in an Eagles victory at Washington’s RFK Stadium.

“Oh, it’s absolutely still a rivalry,” longtime Eagles broadcaster Merrill Reese said recently. “It’s still in the division, and it’s still very heated. But little kids in Philadelphia don’t grow up saying, ‘Beat the Redskins.’ They’re not America’s Team, and it’s not like the Giants where there have been so many great games between the teams and we all have a friend or neighbor from New York.”

All true, but there have been some superstars who have played for both teams, and the few exceptions when the Eagles and Redskins have been good at the same time have made for some great stories, with most of them coming during the blustery Buddy Ryan era in Philadelphia.

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Reese’s favorite memory from the rivalry came in 1989, when Randall Cunningham signed a five-year extension worth $18 million on a Sunday morning in a Washington hotel suite and that afternoon threw for 447 yards and five touchdowns in an improbable 42-37 Eagles victory at RFK Stadium.

“Amazing, amazing game,” Reese said.

The Eagles trailed by 20-0 and 27-7. With 3 minutes, 6 seconds remaining, they were still down by 37-28. Cunningham connected with Mike Quick for a 2-yard score to get the Eagles within two points, but the game appeared to be over when Gerald Riggs broke loose for a 58-yard run to the Philadelphia 22 with 90 seconds remaining. The Eagles had no timeouts remaining.

“I was positive we had it won,” Washington defensive end Dexter Manley said afterward. “No ifs, ands, or buts about it. I didn’t think there was any way they could beat us. When Riggs broke loose on that big run to give us a first down with a minute and a half left, I turned to [teammate] Darryl Grant and told him, ‘That’s it, it’s over.’ He looked at me, shook his head, and said, ‘Wait until it’s over. You never know what can happen.’ And I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right.”

The sure victory turned into a defeat when Riggs fumbled after running into his own center, Raleigh McKenzie. Al Harris scooped up the ball and handed it to Wes Hopkins, who returned it 77 yards to the Washington 4, setting up Cunningham’s final TD pass of the day, to tight end Keith Jackson.

“When [Hopkins] started to run with that fumble, I almost ran out on the field and tackled him — that’s how stunned I was,” Manley said. “I was going to pull a Woody Hayes and nail him. I should have. A penalty would have been better than what happened.”

The Redskins argued to no avail that Harris’ exchange with Hopkins after the fumble recovery was an illegal forward pass.

“This is one of the toughest losses I have ever been a part of,” Washington coach Joe Gibbs said.

It was only the second game of the season, but when Washington went 10-6 and failed to make the playoffs, it was that game that Gibbs remembered and blamed.

Two more unforgettable ones would be played the following season.

The game most associated with the rivalry between the teams was played on Nov. 12, 1990. It has a classic nickname: The Body Bag Game.

“The Eagles are having them for lunch and dinner,” Reese said during the radio broadcast.

The final score of the nationally televised Monday night game at Veterans Stadium was 28-14, but it was the numbers three and nine that stuck out afterward. Three was the number of quarterbacks the Redskins used after the Eagles knocked out starter Jeff Rutledge (fractured thumb) and his backup, Stan Humphries (knee). Rookie running back Brian Mitchell finished the game at quarterback for the Redskins. Nine was the total of Washington players who left the game because of injury.

“They acted like they didn’t want to play us anymore, if you ask me,” the late Jerome Brown said. “It was like … they just said, ‘Bleep this, let’s get outta here; these mugs ain’t messing around.”

Reese said it was just a matter of the Eagles’ carrying out their coach’s game plan.

“That was Buddy’s plan going into every game,” Reese said. “Take out the quarterback. That was the aim of Buddy. Take out the quarterback, and the rest was easy.”

Take out two when the actual starter — Mark Rypien — wasn’t available, either, and forget about it.

Washington kick returner Joe Johnson was among the other players who did not return after being knocked unconscious on a kickoff.

“Man, he was snoring,” Hopkins said.

Ryan naturally loved the night’s proceedings.

“It was a great game,” the coach said. “That was probably one of the best defensive games we’ve played since I’ve been here.”

The Eagles thought that game would help serve as a launching pad for a successful playoff run. Ryan said that if the Eagles had to go on the road for the playoffs, they’d prefer to play in Washington. He boasted that Cunningham was better than Rypien.

Reports out of Washington were that Joe Gibbs, the typically reserved head coach of the Redskins, was furious with Ryan’s antics.

The first and only playoff meeting between the Eagles and Washington was played on Jan. 5, 1991 at Veterans Stadium. The Eagles scored the game’s first six points on a couple of Roger Ruzek field goals. The Redskins scored the  next 20 points. Ryan benched Cunningham in the fourth quarter and inserted Jim McMahon.

It was the Buddy Bagged game. Owner Norman Braman fired Ryan a couple of days later.

“You knew he was done,” Reese said. “It was the last year of Buddy’s contract, and Norman was looking for a reason to fire him. It was very deflating because a lot of us loved Buddy. He was a funny guy, and he taught me a lot about the game.”

Opponents tended not to enjoy Ryan’s sense of humor, and Gibbs was high on that list.

“We enjoyed beating everybody, but we knew [Gibbs] had a particular disdain for Buddy Ryan,” former Redskins center Jeff Bostic told the Washington Post after Ryan died last year. “He did not like any coach that was popping off and running his mouth about what his team was going to do. I think he respected Buddy as a coach, but he just didn’t like all that mouth.”

The Redskins and Eagles have not had winning records in the same season since the turn of the century, but second-place Washington (3-2) comes to Lincoln Financial Field on Monday night to face the first-place Eagles (5-1).

“I think they are the best team in the division other than the Eagles,” Reese said. “I think they are extremely dangerous.”

Maybe, just maybe, the rivalry is about to get heated again. It is hard to imagine, however, that there will ever be another Body Bag Game.