Every Stat Tells a Story: The Sacked-and-Looted 1986 Eagles
by Mike Tanier
(EVERY STAT TELLS A STORY is a new occasional off-season feature telling the tale behind some of the strange, quirky stats that we find when poring through the NFL records researching our other articles. If you would like to recommend a weird stat or good story for this feature, please contact Mike Tanier through our contact form.)
For an NFL offense, allowing five sacks is an embarrassment, allowing ten a catastrophe. It's hard to imagine a team averaging 6.5 sacks allowed per game, or allowing 10 or more sacks four times in a season.
But the 1986 Eagles did just that; they set an NFL record by permitting 104 sacks in one season. The story of how they did it -- and how their quarterbacks survived -- starts with the hiring of one the NFL's all-time mavericks as the Eagles head coach.
The Eagles of the mid-1980s were a franchise in disarray. Dick Vermeil burned out after the 1982 season. Then-owner Leonard Tose was going broke. After almost moving the franchise to Phoenix, Tose sold the team to Norman Braman. Braman kept the team in Philly, but after suffering through a season with Marion Campbell coaching, he was determined to breathe life into the organization.
Braman found a potential savior for the Eagles in Buddy Ryan, the brash, tough-talking defensive coordinator who helped the Bears win Super Bowl XX. Ryan was the architect of the 46 defense, a blitz-happy scheme that made the 1985 Bears defense one of the best in league history. After the Super Bowl victory, Ryan was carried off the field on his players' shoulders alongside head coach Mike Ditka. Here was a charismatic coach that could turn the Eagles around after four years of doldrums.
Ryan quickly realized after he arrived in Philly that he had very little talent at his disposal on either side of the ball. His quarterbacks were 35-year-old Ron Jaworksi and second-year pro Randall Cunningham. Jaworski, a cannon-armed leader earlier in his career, had taken a tremendous pounding in recent seasons; the Eagles allowed 60 sacks in 1984 and 55 in 1985. Cunningham made a splash as a rookie with his uncanny scrambling ability, but he completed just 42 percent if his passes in 1985 and threw just one touchdown against eight interceptions.
Ryan wanted to make wholesale changes, starting under center. He engineered an off-season trade for Matt Cavanaugh. The price was steep: a third-round pick in 1986 and a second-rounder in 1987, all for a 29-year-old best known as Joe Montana's backup, a guy who could never win a starting job from Steve Grogan in New England.
Cavanaugh was immediately named the starting quarterback. Jaworski, meanwhile, held out for a new contract. Ryan continued to make sweeping changes, releasing some veterans while benching others. He also cleaned house on the coaching level, retaining just one Campbell assistant: offensive line coach Ken Iman, whose units had been less than impressive in recent years.
Line of No Credit
Cunningham had been the Eagles second-round pick in 1985. Their first-round pick was Kevin Allen of Indiana, who was supposed to be the team's starter at left tackle for the rest of the decade. The anchors of the 1980 NFC championship line -- Stan Walters, Jerry Sisemore, Guy Morriss -- were long gone. Guard Ron Baker was one of the few holdovers from that team. The team needed fresh bodies on the line, and they were counting on Allen to develop quickly.
Allen was a bust. He held out of camp, foreshadowing the contract problems that would haunt the Eagles during Braman's regime. He was thrown into the lineup at left tackle after only 10 days of practice as a rookie in 1985. He faced All-Pro Leonard Marshall in his first game, allowing three-and-a-half sacks. Four games and 8.5 sacks allowed into the 1985 season, Allen was benched.
Things went from bad to worse for Allen when Ryan arrived in 1986. The big tackle complained of frequent dehydration problems in training camp. He quickly fell into the new coach's doghouse. During July two-a-days, he actually slept through a morning session. The Eagles put him on the trading block. Late in camp, he was put on the PUP list with an unspecified ailment.
Allen wasn't the only lineman to incur Ryan's wrath. Center Mark Dennard, a former starter, was released in the spring. Steve Kenney, a passable journeyman, was cut near the end of camp. The Eagles broke camp with Tom Jelesky, Baker, Gerry Feehery, Ken Reeves, and converted defensive tackle Leonard Mitchell as the starting line. Only Mitchell and Baker were over 25 years old.
On September 1st, 1986, early on a Sunday morning, Allen and a friend attacked a Massachusetts woman and her boyfriend on the beach in Margate, New Jersey. The man was beaten up badly; the woman was sexually assaulted. Allen was still on the PUP list in when the Eagles released him in mid-October, just days before he was charged with rape.
Jaworski's summer holdout lasted just five days. Once he arrived in camp, it was clear that he was a better quarterback than Cavanaugh. Still, Ryan waited through four preseason games -- three of them sloppy losses -- before conceding that his expensive acquisition would sit on the bench behind the creaky incumbent.
Ryan made many strange decisions in his first training camp. He gave his neighbor, 275-pound Gary Bolden, a tryout as a kickoff specialist, dubbing him "The Kicking Mule." Bolden was gone by mid-August, but Ryan was making waves, cutting veterans like Kenney while demoting popular veterans like RB Earnest Jackson, TE John Spagnola, and WR Kenny Jackson. Jackson had rushed for 1,028 yards in 1985, but neither he, first-round pick Keith Byars, nor second-round pick Anthony Toney would start the season opener at running back. Instead, two unheralded rookies named Junior Tautalatasi and Mike Waters had earned starting jobs based on impressive camp performances.
Ryan boasted that the Eagles would go 8-0 in the NFC East, despite the presence of great Giants, Cowboys, and Redskins teams. But as he assembled a team of rookies and youngsters, it became clear that his predictions were a smokescreen for a massive rebuilding project. And he had more tricks up his sleeve. In the week of practice before the opener against the Redskins, Ryan refused to let television cameras record Cunningham when he practiced. Was Jaworski merely a beard starter? Would Cunningham, whose only starting victory in 1985 was against the Redskins, get the call instead?
As it turned out, no one could have predicted what Ryan was concocting.
Three QB Monty
The Eagles lost their 1986 opener in Washington 41-14. The stats were grisly: 95 yards in penalties, two turnovers, a blocked punt, six sacks. The offense was terrible, but Ryan's vaunted defense was even worse, getting scorched several times for long touchdowns.
Jaworski started the game, but Ryan soon unveiled his unlikely new scheme to the world: the fleet-footed Cunningham replaced the wooden veteran in third-and-long situations where the youngster's scrambling would presumably put the defense on its heels.
The results weren't initially disastrous. Cunningham ran for two first downs, gaining 31 yards, and also converted one third down by actually throwing a pass. But he was also sacked twice, and his attempt to quick-kick out of a second-and-40 situation grazed Ron Baker's back, giving the Redskins great field position.
Ryan was forced to fiddle with his lineup in mid-game against the Redskins. Left tackle Jelesky was useless against Dexter Manley, allowing several sacks and amassing 40 yards in penalties before getting yanked in favor of Joe Conwell, best known as the brother of a local rock singer. One week later, Waters and Tautalatasi were benched. Byars and Michael Haddix were given starting jobs in the backfield, Haddix because he was an effective pass blocker.
Ryan added a further wrinkle to his three-QB shuffle in a Week 2 loss to the Bears: Cavanaugh was sent into the game instead of Cunningham when Jaworski got hurt late in the game. Cavanaugh promptly threw an interception. Cavanaugh was also called off the bench to run the quarterback sneak on third-and-short. Ryan was shuffling his passers the way some teams shuffle running backs.
The quarterback rotation continued into Week 3 against the Broncos, when Bob Griese, then an NBC announcer, got his first look at the system in action. After watching Cunningham enter the game cold on third-and-long, misread the defense, and throw a pass that was returned for a touchdown by Denver's Mike Harden, Griese condemned the strategy. "This third-and-long can't do anything but hurt his confidence," said Griese, convinced that Cunningham was picking up bad habits. "Jaworski is a fine quarterback; he can get the job done." With little else to talk about in what became a 33-7 Broncos rout (John Elway left the game early in the third quarter), Griese kept ripping Ryan's strategy, reacting in shock and amusement when Cunningham was called upon to convert fourth-and-8 and a second-and-23 situations.
The Eagles were awful on offense in that game, fumbling five times, allowing an interception return touchdown and a safety. But they allowed just four sacks. They weren't yet on pace to smash the NFL sack record.
Giants and Cowboys
The Eagles won two straight games after the Broncos loss, including a convincing 16-0 win over the Falcons. The defense was starting to come together, and the offensive line held its own against two decent teams.
Then Lawrence Taylor and the Giants came to town. They racked up six sacks, knocking Jaworski down 13 times and forcing the QB out of action with a bruised elbow. What's worse, Feehery, who was coming into his own as a starting center, was injured in a pileup.
The game was a highlight reel for Taylor and an embarrassment for the Eagles. Ryan said later that only Baker and Haddix graded out as adequate on game film. Byars was so inept that when he tried to cut block Taylor, the linebacker just hurdled him and flattened Jaworski.
The Cowboys came to Philly the following week. The score was closer, a 17-14 loss for the Eagles, but the sack carnage was worse. Cavanaugh, pressed into action in place of Jaworski, was sacked three times. Cunningham, going from third down specialist to Cavanaugh's replacement, was sacked seven times. The 10 sacks were the most the team had allowed since 1983.
Ryan listed who was responsible for each sack after the Cowboys game. Cunningham was culpable for 3.5 sacks because he held the ball too long. Cavanaugh was accountable for two sacks. Baker was victimized for two. The others were blamed upon a variety of culprits, from Byars to receivers who blew routes. Mark Dennard, Feehery's replacement, got off clean, but his bad snaps led to two missed field goals.
Jaworski would return, but not for long. He led the team to a win over the Chargers and a loss to the Cardinals, with Cunningham still riding shotgun on third downs. "Poor Randall Cunningham," announcer Merrill Reese would intone when Cunningham entered the game on third-and-25. When the Eagles next met the Giants, Bill Parcells' team racked up seven more sacks, three by Taylor. Jaworski injured his hand in the third quarter. Gamely, Jaws finished the offensive series before leaving the game. The Eagles' starter for nearly a decade, he would throw his final passes for the team with swollen, knotted fingers.
It was clear that Cunningham was his own worst enemy, holding the ball forever and trying to dance out of every tight spot. But Ryan had seen enough of Cavanaugh. Cunningham would replace Jaworski as the Eagles' starter. The sack record wouldn't be broken; it would be obliterated.
Records Shattered, Randall Splattered
Cunningham made his first start of the 1986 season (the second of his career) against a Lions team that had sacked just 16 quarterbacks in 10 games. They recorded 11 sacks against the Eagles: ten of Cunningham and one of Byars, who proved that even running backs weren't safe if they dared to attempt a halfback option pass. The Eagles lost 13-11 on a last-second Lions field goal set up by a Cunningham fumble.
The NFL record for sacks allowed at that time was 70, set by the 1968 Falcons. The Eagles had allowed 64 sacks with five games left to play. And the situation was deteriorating: right tackle Leonard Mitchell was hurt against Detroit.
As the record approached, the Eagles linemen got touchy. "Record? You want a bleeping record? Give me a Van Halen record," reserve guard Nick Haden told the Philadelphia Daily News. Left tackle Ken Reeves tried to put the high sack total in perspective. "I think out of the 64 sacks we have, that the offensive line has given up 26," he said in the same article.
Reeves had a point. A total of 27.5 sacks against the Eagles were recorded by non-defensive linemen, a sign that the collection of rookie runners -- Byars, Tautalatasi, Anthony Toney, Waters -- were incapable of blitz pickup. And as Ryan's itemized list against the Cowboys showed, it was clear that the QBs were holding the ball too long, or in Cunningham's case, pirouetting around with it too much.
Whatever the cause, the problem kept getting worse. The Eagles surrendered nine more sacks against the Seahawks in their next game. The sack record was smashed. "It doesn't mean a damn thing to me. Not a damn thing," Conwell said after the game.
The Eagles allowed 11 more sacks against the Raiders the next week, yet still hung on to win. That was followed by a 10-sack day by the Cardinals in an ugly 10-10 tie. For four straight weeks, the Eagles helped their opponents enjoy a season high in sacks. Cunningham sprained his thumb in the Cardinals game, forcing Cavanaugh into the lineup the next week.
Cavanaugh delivered a win against the hated Cowboys: a sign that the Eagles, defensively at least, were starting to come together. But Cunningham was back the following week, and he couldn't hold onto a 14-0 lead that was handed to him by the turnover-happy defense. Early in the fourth quarter, while trying to protect a one-TD lead, Cunningham endured his 71st and 72nd sacks of the year, the 103rd and 104th for the team, on back-to-back plays. The Redskins benefited from the resulting field position and scored on the next series. A 17-14 win ended the Eagles season at 5-10-1.
A few days later, Ryan called the team's offensive line its "biggest disappointment," saying that they had to get technically better and "a little bit meaner." Offensive line coach Ken Iman was let go. Jelesky had been waived during the season. Allen's trial dragged on. Ryan's first offseason personnel change was another eccentric move: defensive tackle Reggie Singletary would move across the ball to compete for a tackle spot.
And despite the fact that he was sacked every fourth time he dropped back to pass, Cunningham was handed the Eagles permanent starting job for the 1987 season.
A Lasting Record
Ryan and Cunningham are inexorably linked in the minds of Eagles fans, two individuals known for mixing brilliance with colossal idiocy. Cunningham would soon be dubbed "The Ultimate Weapon" by Sports Illustrated. Ryan would become the most controversial coach in the NFL. They would make the playoffs together three times, thanks in large part to the breakout star of that 1986 team, ex-USFL defensive end/tackle Reggie White. But Cunningham wouldn't win a postseason game until after Ryan was fired.
Jaworski played a few more seasons with the Chiefs and Dolphins; he is now one of the most respected NFL journalists in the business. Cavanaugh is a successful coach. Despite his rocky start, Byars would earn a reputation as one of the best blocking running backs in the league. Still, it was Cunningham, not Byars, who often led the Eagles in rushing.
Allen's trial dragged through the 1986 season. He eventually pleaded guilty to the sexual assault. On June 19th, 1987, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. "When I went down to the beach I was only trying to relieve some of the pressures I was facing at the time," he told the judge before being led off in chains.
None of the 12 lineman who played for the 1986 Eagles would go on to lengthy careers. By 1988, only Baker, Darwin, and Reeves were still with the team. Ryan would struggle to scratch together a line every year, acquiring veterans like Ron Heller, Dave Remington, and Ron Solt. But while the team got better, the offensive lines remained substandard. No Eagles offensive lineman made the Pro Bowl between 1981 (Sisemore) and 2002 (Tra Thomas).
The 104-sack record may never be broken. No team would recklessly endanger its quarterbacks the way the Eagles did that year. Several things had to go wrong for that record to be set. Cunningham's journey from third string to third down specialist to starter, Ryan's blithe insistence on juggling rookie running backs, the injuries, the loss of Allen -- all of them pushed the 1986 Eagles into the history books.