When the game starts, players will know Eagles-Cowboys is a big deal

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo runs past Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks during a game in December 2012. (LM Otero/AP)
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo runs past Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks during a game in December 2012. (LM Otero/AP)
Posted: October 21, 2013

Chip Kelly says he knows that Sunday's game against the Cowboys is a big game. He knows that because it is on the schedule, and if it is on the schedule, then it is a big game.

There was little room for rah-rah in the ex-college coach as he prepared for this old rivalry that is very new to him. It is another football game, the only one this week, and neither pork chops nor pickle juice is going to help his team win it.

"I think sometimes that energy that you can kind of devote to wishing, devote that same energy to planning, and [to] what we have to get accomplished," Kelly said.

For their part, the players were polite as they picked through the questions about hating the Cowboys and really getting revved up for the game. They can read the standings, and they know what the game itself means, but the uniform of the opponent is not something that most of them can use for motivation.

"I understand the importance of winning your divisional games," said cornerback Cary Williams, who admitted that his four seasons in Baltimore left him with a strong dislike for the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots. But the Cowboys? He's working on it.

"I only played against the Dallas Cowboys two times in my career. I didn't like them the first time, and I don't like them this time," Williams said.

Twenty-four players on the active roster have never taken part in an Eagles-Cowboys game and another dozen have never played in a meaningful one. (Defensive end Clifton Geathers is on another list entirely, having played for Dallas against the Eagles in one 2011 game.) Most of what happened in the past between these teams is as dusty and remote to them as a cracked leather helmet in a trophy case.

So this is an important day at the office, but just one of 16 equally important days. That's what they say.

And then they will come out of the tunnel.

It is not just another day for the people who will greet them, and the sound the crowd makes for a Dallas game is different. It does not begin to build on the morning of the game, but it rumbles from deep inside, from back across the years and the yearnings.

Admit it or not, the players and coaches on both sides will feel that and respond like racehorses whose ears prick forward at the clanging sound of a distant starting gate. Sure, it's just another game, except it isn't.

"I've never been a guy that's got into the whole hate aspect of 'We hate them, so let's stay later tonight and study harder and work harder,' " Kelly said. "I think everybody we play, we've got the utmost respect for, and if you don't, you're going to lose."

That's the right thing to say, and this coach will be remembered for his whole resumé here, but it is amazing over the years how much of what is remembered about previous coaches came out of games against the Cowboys.

Andy Reid really announced himself and the way he intended to play with an onside kick against Dallas to begin the 2000 season on a blistering hot day when the Eagles famously guzzled pickle juice to stay hydrated. He suffered through three losses to the Cowboys in the 2009 season, the last of those a playoff loss that effectively marked the end of Donovan McNabb's career here and the final turning of his own.

Dick Vermeil was on the sideline for the team's biggest win of the modern era, and, long after the Blue Cross billboards fall, the picture of him celebrating after the NFC championship game against Dallas will endure. Vermeil was 3-10 in the other Eagles-Cowboys games he coached. Doesn't matter, and that one game is why the billboards are still there.

Buddy Ryan, the most popular Eagles coach who never won a playoff game, was popular largely because he didn't mind hating the Cowboys or being hated back. Just days after Ryan nearly died after choking on a pork chop, Dallas fans sitting behind the Eagles bench arrived at the game in Texas Stadium carrying fishing poles with pork chops attached.

The Eagles won that game and won eight of the 10 games Ryan coached against the Cowboys. One of the losses came during the 1987 strike, and Ryan accused Tom Landry of running up the score against his replacement players. When the real teams met later that season, Ryan ordered Randall Cunningham to fake a kneel-down at the end of a game the Eagles controlled and throw a bomb to rub it in Landry's face. Now, that was a rivalry.

There is plenty more. There is Ryan's bounty on kicker Luis Zendejas, and the McNabb-Terrell Owens show on a Monday night in 2004, and the time Randall was excused before a playoff game to attend the birth of his child, but forgot to take his playbook and didn't know what was going on when starter Rodney Peete was knocked out of the game. That was a good one. And Tommy Hutton dropping the snap and snowballs being thrown at Jimmy Johnson and Michael Irvin spread out on the concrete grass at the Vet.

It all meant something then, and perhaps it is meaningless now to the players who punch in for work on Sunday. They can listen to the stories and smile and nod, but this is a football game between 3-3 teams that could eventually decide the division championship and get them into the playoffs. That's enough for them. It is important, but so is every game on the schedule. Nothing more, nothing less.

And then they will come out of the tunnel.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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