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Fan-Demonium: A History Lesson

Posted Jun 20, 2013


This is a quiet time of the year so let's talk about some Eagles of the past. Generally Eagles history is Gang Green or Chuck Bednarik or Steve Van Buren. I thought we'd look around at some other players and coaches from over the years.  

How many people know that John Madden was once an Eagle? He was drafted by the team back in 1958. He was an offensive lineman from Cal-Poly, the same school where Chris Gocong went decades later. Madden suffered a knee injury and never got on the field for the Eagles. He did make the most of his time as part of the organization. The quarterback at that time was NFL legend Norm Van Brocklin. Madden spent lots of time with Van Brocklin watching game film. Van Brocklin befriended the young player and taught him how to dissect game film. Madden learned a lot about the game of football.

When it was clear that his playing career was over, Madden went back to school. He got an advanced degree and then got into coaching. In less than a decade, he became the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. None of this would have happened if he hadn't hurt his knee and had the time to spend with Van Brocklin. How different would the football world be? How different would the video game world be? That knee injury changed the lives of a lot of people.  

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We talk a lot about the Eagles defense, but how many people know about the “Eagle Defense”? Back in the 1940's, the primary defense was the 5-3. That meant there were only three defensive backs. Offensive coaches began to create problems by throwing the ball to speedy halfbacks who were matched up against linebackers.

Eagles coach Greasy Neale came up with the Eagle Defense. This was a 5-2 front, but all seven players were on the line of scrimmage. There were two safeties and two outside defensive backs, what we would call cornerbacks today. The front kept teams from running wide and also clogged the middle. The safeties were able to cover the halfbacks and limit them. From 1943 through 1955, the Eagles finished in the top four in the league in fewest yards allowed. In five of those years, they led the league. The team used great defense to help them win NFL titles in 1948 and 1949. The Eagle Defense was a major success.  

As we know, the NFL is all about change. Offenses began to throw the ball over the middle of the field. With all those players up on the line, this was the one weak spot in the Eagle Defense. The scheme was tweaked by others, most notably Tom Landry, and evolved into the modern 4-3. The middle linebacker became a star player during the late 1950's and 1960's. There were guys like Sam Huff, Ray Nitschke, Joe Schmidt, Dick Butkus, Willie Lanier, Tommy Nobis and Lee Roy Jordan, Nick Buoniconti and Mike Curtis.

As you look at the Eagle Defense from an X's and O's perspective, you can see hints of both the 46 Defense and the 4-3 under defense in it. Some of Neal's concepts have stood the test of time.

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Philadelphia native Frank "Bucko" Kilroy is arguably the most under-appreciated NFL legend of all time. He played collegiately at Temple and then became an Eagle, where he was part of Neale's dominant Eagle Defense. Kilroy was a tough, physical player, to put it mildly. Life magazine once called him a dirty player. Kilroy sued and won $25,000. If he wasn't dirty, he was close. An opponent once accused Kilroy of biting him on the nose. Kilroy responded in classic fashion. “I didn’t bite his nose,” Kilroy said. “I bit his ear.”

Kilroy's true greatness came after his playing days. He is the godfather of NFL scouting. We take for granted that teams do a tremendous amount of scouting and research. Things were not this way in the old days. Check out this quote from Kilroy. "Teams used to draft by hearsay, picking players out of college yearbooks," Kilroy said. "One owner whom I won't embarrass by naming drafted on looks. If his wife thought a player was good-looking, he'd draft him." Can you imagine that?

Kilroy developed the first grading system. He wanted to be able to judge players and rate them. Kilroy was the first scout to put an emphasis on measurables. He wanted a definitive way to be able to discuss size, strength, speed and athletic ability. Prior to him, it was all anecdotal. Someone might talk about how strong a player was based on something he did in a game. That might sound good, but how do you know that the players he went against were strong? At some point, you need quantifiable information. This took years to develop.

Kilroy became an assistant coach with the Eagles from 1956 to 1960. He then became a scout for the Washington Redskins for a short time. After that, Kilroy went to work for the Dallas Cowboys and became part of a legendary front office. You had Kilroy and Gil Brandt running the draft and building the Cowboys into a juggernaut.  In 1971 the Patriots hired him to help run their personnel department. He was made general manager in 1978. That lasted until 1984. Kilroy became a vice president at that point. From 1994 through 2005 Kilroy was simply listed as a scouting consultant.

It really is funny that such a rugged player would become such a cerebral scout. Kilroy didn't go off random hunches. He scouted and graded players. He developed a system that has shaped modern scouting. Kilroy taught his system to Gil Brandt. Kilroy taught it to Dick Steinberg, who became a very successful general manager. Steinberg taught the system to Ron Wolf. Bill Parcells learned about scouting from Kilroy during their time together with the Patriots.

The modern NFL owes a lot to Kilroy and how influential he's been. It is sad that more people don't know about this great man and his amazing accomplishments.  


Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of and is a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.

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It occurred to me recently how many great broadcasters came out of the Eagles. Tom Brookshier was a star defensive back for the Eagles and then became a great analyst for CBS. He was replaced by another former Eagle, John Madden, as the top CBS football analyst.

The first great pre-game show was The NFL Today, which aired on CBS. There was Brent Musburger and Jimmy the Greek, but don't forget about Irv Cross, who also played for the Eagles. He was a smart, well-spoken former player who fit in well with the over-the-top styles of Musburger and Jimmy the Greek. That show had great chemistry and I watched it religiously for years.

Dick Vermeil stepped away from coaching after the 1982 season. The Eagles’ loss was college football fans’ gain. Vermeil became a great analyst for college games for ABC. He and Musburger were an outstanding duo during the early 1990's. Former Eagles tight end John Spagnola also did good work on college games during the 1990's.  

Former Eagles are still part of some great NFL coverage. Ron Jaworski was a terrific player for the Eagles. He might even be better as an NFL analyst. Jaworski has really elevated the level of coverage. Rather than the typical ex-jock schtick (see any Warren Sapp analysis ever), Jaworski did his homework by going to NFL Films and studying tape. This allowed him to speak from a position of expertise rather than just offering up opinions that could be irrelevant (see any Warren Sapp analysis ever). Jaworski helped make the Edge NFL Matchup show into must-see TV. The NFL Network now does this type of analysis several nights a week. Jaworski doesn't get the due he deserves for how influential he's been.  

Jaworski did Monday Night Football games with former Eagles offensive coordinator Jon Gruden for a couple of years. Gruden has established himself as a media star with his game analysis and also his Gruden Quarterback Camp specials leading up to each draft.

One of the ex-players who works for the NFL Network is Brian Baldinger, another former Eagle. Baldinger is very good at watching tape and explaining X's and O's to the average fan. He does excellent work with his game analysis shows.

How about radio? Mike Golic is part of ESPN's Mike and Mike Show. Golic was a key member of the great Gang Green defense. It is funny to think that some young fans will only know him as the guy from the radio. He'll always be an Eagles player to me.

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Five of the first 10 Super Bowls were lost by coaches who once played for the Eagles. John Rauch was a quarterback for a short time and then lost Super Bowl II as coach of the Oakland Raiders. Bud Grant was an Eagles player for a short time in the 1950's. He lost four Super Bowls.  

There have been winners as well. Madden won a Super Bowl as coach of the Raiders. Mike Ditka played tight end for the Eagles in 1967 and 1968. His great 1985 Bears team won the Super Bowl. Former Eagles coaches have done even better. Dick Vermeil won the big game as head coach of the St. Louis Rams in 1999. Gruden led Tampa Bay to the title in 2002. We all saw John Harbaugh win the Super Bowl last year with the Ravens.

Tom Coughlin was an Eagles assistant, but only worked here for a year and isn't really part of the Eagles family so I'm not counting his titles.  

The biggest upset in Super Bowl history was the Jets beating the Colts in Super Bowl III. Joe Namath is the biggest memory people have, but the Jets won 16-7 and defense was a big reason why. The defense was run by Walt Michaels and Buddy Ryan, who would both coach the Eagles down the road. Michaels ran the Eagles defense from 1973-1975. He didn't have much success, but did help develop young players like John Bunting, Frank LeMaster and Randy Logan. All three of them would help the Eagles reach the Super Bowl with Vermeil. Middle linebacker Bill Bergey played some of his best football under Michaels.  

As for Ryan, I'm pretty sure you remember his time with the Eagles. He took some elements of the Jets 4-4 stack defense and used them in his 46 Defense, which terrorized opposing quarterbacks. In his five years as coach of the Eagles, Ryan's defense averaged 52 sacks and 25 interceptions a year. Amazing numbers.

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