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Silver anniversary of an Eagles’ Super Sunday


Twenty-five seasons ago, a Goliath roamed the NFL, vanquishing the Davids in its path.

The San Francisco 49ers owned the NFL’s best record, most prolific offense and sixth-stingiest defense. The Niners won Super Bowl XXIX 49-26; only a late San Diego Chargers junk touchdown made the score look respectable. San Francisco sent 10 players to the Pro Bowl while producing the NFL’s best player on offense – AP MVP Steve Young – and defense with AP Player of the Year Deion Sanders.

Across the country, 1994 disappointed Eagles fans. The team ended the year on a seven-game losing streak, finishing 7-9 and costing head coach Rich Kotite his job.

San Francisco was a nine-point favorite when Philadelphia flew to the Bay Area to play the 49ers on Oct. 2. The 2-1 Eagles had extra rest from an early Week 4 bye. The 49ers were 3-1, coming off of a 24-13 win against New Orleans.

If the NFL has Exhibit A for what can happen on “Any Given Sunday,” the Niners-Eagles game that Oct. 2 would be it. When the smoke cleared, the Eagles thrashed San Francisco 40-8.

The game is still historic as its silver anniversary approaches: It is the worst loss ever suffered by an eventual Super Bowl champion.

“It was a day that offensively, we could almost do no wrong. From play calling to execution to just everything about it, we had gotten into such a rhythm,” recalls Eagles center David Alexander. “Charlie Garner had gone off. You felt like it was easy. Obviously, they had some Hall of Famers on that defense. But we were just ‘in the zone.’”

Candlestick Park weather could be awful. Early 1980s San Francisco Giants fans actually were awarded a medal for staying through an extra-inning game. Yet Sunday, Oct. 2 was sunny, cool and breezy when the teams took the field.

Philadelphia got called for holding on the game’s first play. That hold might have been San Francisco’s highlight.

The Eagles assembled a 10-play, 85-yard drive that ended on rookie Garner’s 1-yard touchdown. Randall Cunningham hit Calvin Williams three times for 56 yards on the march.

“I don’t think they were doing anything that we didn’t expect. They ran a little more bump-and-run coverage early on,” Williams recollected. “Whenever a guy is playing bump and run, the receiver and the quarterback have the advantage because you can throw ahead or you can throw behind. That’s a hard play for the defender. After a couple of catches, they went to some off coverages: playing 7 or 8 yards deep so we were still taking advantage of it. That’s what I remember.

“It was just a good day. The weather was nice. I always liked playing on grass as opposed to turf and,” Williams concluded, “we were just clicking that day.”

“The 49ers had their scheme and they were not going to change,” Alexander commented. “They had a system that they really believed in and they got their players to believe in it. But when you go into a game, come out of the huddle, line up for the first series and they are exactly where you expect them to be … and they do exactly what you expect them to do. It was a lot of fun.”

On San Francisco’s first play, Eric Allen picked off an overthrown Young pass intended for Jerry Rice and returned it 11 yards.

“When you have a guy like Eric Allen who should arguably be in the Hall of Fame, he is your lockdown corner and he is going to make big plays,” noted Eagles safety Rich Miano. “With (Eagles defensive coordinator) Bud Carson, you knew every week that he was going to get you prepared for the best matchups.

“Bud Carson devised a game plan to shut down what they did best, which was obviously Jerry Rice and the West Coast passing game. But we were never physically or mentally intimidated by any opponent we ever played because we felt physically we were as good as any offense and mentally, we were prepared better. If there is a Hall of Fame for defensive coordinators,” Miano feels, “Bud Carson and Dick LeBeau should be the first guys who go in.”

One play later, Garner raced through a hole created by an Antone Davis cross block, shed two tackles and galloped 28 yards for a touchdown. Eddie Murray’s extra point made it 14-0 with less than eight minutes elapsed.

“Charlie Garner that afternoon was just in the zone,” Alexander said simply.

“There is a physical memory of Charlie Garner where you realized how fast this guy was and how he probably never received the accolades of how talented he was as a running back,” Miano added. “If the running game is on and (Randall) is making plays and those guys are doing their thing offensively, you know we’re going to take the ball away at some point. You know they’re going to go three-and-out a bunch of times a game and we’re going to give the ball back to our offense.”

Despite an Eagles neutral zone infraction on San Francisco’s first down, the Philly defense forced a three-and-out when a reverse to John Taylor on third-and-2 was stopped short.

Just three years prior, the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles defense ranked first in the NFL against both the run and the pass. In June 2017, Football Outsiders ranked the ’91 D the NFL’s best over the last 30 years.

The 1994 version still started holdovers Allen, William Thomas and Byron Evans. The ’94 squad, who finished the year as a top-five defense, also featured 1991 alumni Miano, Andy Harmon and Otis Smith.

“We felt going into any game that we were going to dominate defensively, take the ball away and stop the running game,” Miano said. “I think the narrative defensively – I know in that huddle and in that locker room was – it didn’t matter if you had Jerry Rice, Steve Young or Brent Jones. You’re not going to score a lot of points on this defense and it’s going to be a long day.”

Helped by a Gary Plummer pass interference call, the Eagles marched 51 yards to the San Francisco 40. Mitch Berger beautifully pooched a punt out of bounds at the Philadelphia 3 to end the first quarter. On third-and-9, William Fuller beat Harry Boatswain and sacked Young for a safety.

In the game’s first 16 minutes, a San Francisco offense featuring future Hall of Famers had 1 total yard – and was outscored by the Philadelphia defense 2-0.

The in-rhythm Eagles responded by marching 56 yards on a six-play scoring drive. Three Garner runs put the Birds in field goal range. “The Eagles are just beating the 49ers to the punch on offense and on defense,” John Madden commented in-game.

“Anytime you can run effectively, it’s going to help your pass game. People start coming up and safeties start trying to creep to help the front seven,” Williams pointed out. “Anytime you can have success on the ground, you’re going to open up some things. As I recall, that’s what happened. We had a good mix. We had a good team. Everybody was healthy. With that offense, when things were put together and we were clicking, that we would be hard to beat.”

On third-and-10, Randall Cunningham made one of those plays that makes him Randall Cunningham. Flushed from the pocket, Cunningham raced to his right and launched a perfect 28-yard touchdown bomb over two Niners defenders into the outstretched arms of Victor Bailey.

“That’s where Cunningham can kill you, when he scrambles,” Madden said.

“I’ve been around football my whole life. I’m coaching now. I played 10 years in the NFL and I’ve seen a lot of talented, special people but Randall was probably the most physically talented or gifted player that I’ve ever been around,” Alexander praised. “I think he could do anything. He was an All-American punter at UNLV. He could walk out of the locker room cold and kick a 50-yard field goal. He made really fast guys miss and look slow, and he made guys look stupid when they missed.

“He could be rolling left, stop and throw it back to the right 60 yards. He had complete control of every body part, wherever his body was going. He could throw it on a rope 40 yards deep down to the far hash and he could throw it softly over the middle,” Alexander concluded.

In October 1994, the 49ers franchise was in the middle of an NFL record 456 straight games without being shut out. The streak didn’t end that afternoon; the 49ers converted two fourth-and-1s on a seven-and-a-half-minute drive that ended with Young’s touchdown plunge. The two-point conversion made it 23-8 with 4:25 left.

Where Garner had been a hero on the ground – he had 94 yards on 12 first half carries – his receiving abilities fueled the Eagles’ response. Cunningham faked a handoff to Herschel Walker, pivoted and hit a wide open Garner in the flat. Garner raced 28 yards to the San Francisco 12, just before the two-minute warning.

“This guy has really put on some show,” Pat Summerall described in his characteristic understated style.

“Charlie did a couple of things well. He wasn’t the fastest running back in the league but he had great vision,” Alexander described. “I remember a couple of great runs up the middle. One of the plays you remember from that game was him catching a screen pass and setting up blockers. He understood blocking schemes and he helped set his linemen up for success.”

Walker thundered into the end zone from the San Francisco 2 on a first-and-goal; Philly took a 30-8 lead into halftime. Philly gained nearly three times the total first half yardage of its hosts.

The Eagle defense came out just as strong in the second half, forcing two three-and-outs in San Francisco’s first two possessions.

“There were a lot of special, special football players on that side of the ball. Incredible football players. I had to go against those guys a bunch. I was glad I only had to go against them on Wednesdays and Thursdays in practice, and not on Sunday when I was trying to earn my living,” Alexander chuckled. “When the offense is on the football field controlling the clock and scoring points, while the defense is on the sideline drinking Gatorade and getting their legs back under them, it’s momentum. It’s a 12th man on the football field.

“The offense was rolling with 6- or 8-yard plays, driving and getting points while the defense was fresh and getting three-and-outs. Then we’d score again. It just completely snowballed on the 49ers that day,” Alexander said.

Cunningham hit a diving Calvin Williams at midfield for a 15-yard completion on third-and-11 to keep Philly’s second drive of the half alive. “I think, for us, it was proving that we can play with anybody at any time,” Williams reflected. “I don’t know what the mindset of the San Francisco 49ers was. But whether they were taking us lightly or not, my mantra was ‘I’m going to go out there and play the best I can. I’m going to take care of my job. Hopefully everybody else will do what they’re supposed to do.’”

Garner picked up 16 yards on Philly’s next two plays. When intended target Mark Bavaro was covered, Cunningham raced 11 yards on a bootleg to the San Francisco 18. Eddie Murray ended the drive with a 36-yard field goal; the 33-8 score made it a four-possession lead.

Bavaro was open on a post pattern when Cunningham connected with him for an 18-yard touchdown. The score, which capped a 57-yard drive, put Philly up 40-8 with 12:04 remaining.

“Everything the Eagles have tried has worked. They’ve run. They’ve passed. They’ve run options,” Madden said after Bavaro’s score.

“We were kind of an older team,” Miano noted. “Mark Bavaro was at the end of his career. We had Refrigerator Perry. People don’t recall that Herschel Walker was part of that team. We had these veterans who may have been a little long in the tooth but were still very valuable.”

San Francisco was held to eight points and just 189 total yards. The Eagles ran for 191 yards and passed for 246, producing a balance that is the nirvana state for offensive coordinators. Philadelphia gave up no sacks and committed no turnovers.

Individually, Williams caught nine balls, a career high, for 122 yards. Cunningham completed 20 of 29 pass attempts for 246 yards, two touchdowns and a 117.9 quarterback rating. He only had eight more career games with a higher QB rating and as many passing attempts.

“Randall was a human highlight film. When you look at all of these athletic quarterbacks that are in the league and in college football, Randall is one of the pioneers,” Miano said. “Randall was as good, or better, of an athlete as anyone playing the game today. Randall could do things that nobody else could do and as a defensive back, I faced that guy in practice every day. There was nobody else who could lock their hips out, have a front side read and throw the ball across his body with his wrist.”

Garner’s NFL debut would be one of his finest games. The Eagles’ second-round draft pick that April, Garner rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. Although he was just beginning a solid 11-year career, Garner would only have one more game – a 1995 win over a mediocre Redskins squad – where he would have more yards, more touchdowns and a better yards per carry than he did against San Francisco.

If you told viewers that day that the eventual Super Bowl champ was playing in that game, everyone would have agreed. They just would have picked the wrong team.

Postscript: Oct. 2 was the day where the 1994 Eagles soared the highest. A Week 10 win over Arizona put the Eagles’ record at 7-2, but they closed the year with seven straight defeats. There were injuries. There were inconsistencies. 1994 was the first year of Jeffrey Lurie’s ownership, and rumors around the job security of both Kotite and GM Harry Gamble were constant, even during the wins.

“Of course it is (difficult to avoid a hangover). It’s not supposed to be. You’re supposed to be a professional,” Alexander admitted. “On the flight back from the West Coast to the East Coast, everybody is patting you on the back telling you how good you are and maybe you drink a little bit of the Kool-Aid. You knew, going into that game, what kind of a special group the 49ers had. They proved that obviously later in the year and that’s why we’re talking right now.

“You need your head coach to do the Bill Belichick on you: to slam the playbook down on the desk and say ‘Last Sunday, you guys were awesome but today it’s Tuesday and you guys suck again. And if you don’t want to suck on Sunday, you’ve got to work again.’”

“You have to put it together and play it out all of the time,” Williams added. “That was a good game for us but that was a year where we didn’t make the playoffs. It’s a combination of things. It’s the players on both sides. It’s the coaching. The players can’t feed into ‘we just beat a perennial team. One of the teams of the 90s.’ And the coaches have to be able to manage that: to not let people think that just because you had one good game, that you have reached the pinnacle.”

“The line between winning and losing is just so narrow in the NFL,” Alexander reminded. “It can be just as simple as a mindset on two or three plays.”

San Francisco clearly did not let the one-sided defeat get to them. Head coach George Seifert rallied his troops the next week for a 27-21 win over Detroit and Barry Sanders. That “W” started a run where the 49ers rattled off victories in 13 of their next 14 games. Nine of the wins were by 15-plus points, the most noteworthy being the 49-26 pasting of San Diego to earn the Super Bowl XXIX crown.

Yet on Any Given Sunday, Philadelphia not just went toe-to-toe with the world champs but annihilated them on the road.

“Being part of, analytically or what historians would consider one of the best defenses in the history of the league, is something I’m most proud of,” Miano mused.

The apple of 1994 didn’t fall far from the 1991 defensive tree. That defensive dominance, mixed with an in-sync offense, produced a record-setting Sunday 25 years ago.