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Philadelphia Eagles

Return Game Season 2 | Episode 6 | Dawn Of A New Era


Return Game: Birds, 'Boys, and Bad Blood, presented by NovaCare Rehabilitation, is the sweeping story of the Eagles and Cowboys Rivalry. Jeffrey Lurie buys the Birds and makes some immediate changes, including hiring Ray Rhodes as head coach.

The Birds traded wins with the 'Boys during this era and fans were ready for it all - wins and losses. Four words from Merrill Reese still live in infamy: "They stop them again!" And Troy Vincent floats to the end zone and silences a stadium of shocked Dallas fans.


ROB ELLIS: Welcome back to Return Game: Birds, 'Boys, and Bad Blood, presented by NovaCare Rehabilitation. I'm your host Rob Ellis.

DERRICK GUNN: And I'm Derrick Gunn. Let's pick up where we left off with our story.

ROB ELLIS: In 1994, the Philadelphia Eagles were in their 62nd season in the NFL. In the early years of the decade, the Eagles had made a brilliant showing sacking Troy Aikman a total of 11 times. They lost a beloved member of the Gang Green D-line, Jerome Brown. And free agency had changed the makeup of the 'Birds.

DERRICK GUNN: The team was owned by a car dealer from Florida, Norman Braman. Braman had fallen out of favor with the city, players, and fans. Well, just about everyone. He had become known for his penny-pinching ways. His eye was always on the bottom line. He wanted to sell the team. So, in May of 1994, Jeffrey Lurie bought the Philadelphia Eagles.


ROB ELLIS: Jeffrey Lurie was a huge football fan. In 1958, he was 8 years old. He watched that year's NFL Championship Game game with his father. That game is sometimes referred to as the greatest game ever played. It was Baltimore Colts against the New York Giants. It was the first overtime game. And that was really when he fell in love with pro football.

RAY DIDINGER: He kept waiting for the right opportunity, and the right opportunity presented itself in 1994 when the Philadelphia Eagles went up for sale. He jumped to the head of the line and bought the team and here we are now.

DERRICK GUNN: Philadelphia and Eagles fans were excited about the new owner.

RAY DIDINGER: Jeff came in as a guy who really loves pro football, wanted to be a part of pro football. And, on that basis, he seemed like a good fit for the Philadelphia community.

ROB ELLIS: Jeffrey Lurie was not from Philly. But his love of the game was apparent to Eagles fans and that is all they needed.

RAY DIDINGER: Jeff became accepted as a quote-unquote Philly guy pretty quickly. Anyone that knows anything about Philadelphia knows how the people here feel about the Eagles. I mean, there is a very intense and very personal connection between these fans and the football team. So the guy that owns the Philadelphia Eagles is maybe, next to the mayor, the most important man in the city.

DERRICK GUNN: Lurie's approach to owning the club was a refreshing change from Braman's. And he made it clear he wanted to win!

RAY DIDINGER: Jeff came in and he said right away that I view myself the way as a fan/owner, that I can't really separate the fan part from the owner part. I want to have the best team I possibly can. I want to win championships and bring Super Bowl Championships to the City of Philadelphia.

ROB ELLIS: As for the Birds and 'Boys rivalry.

RAY DIDINGER: When he bought the team, he bought into the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry. The feeling that had been there all along still existed. Jeff, as a real football guy, I think he got the idea of the rivalry, the intensity of the feeling, how important it was to the city that the Eagles win those games against the Cowboys.


ROB ELLIS: With Lurie at the helm, the team parted ways with Rich Kotite and brought in Ray Rhodes.

MERRILL REESE: Ray Rhodes was a very, very nice man. He was the first hire by Jeffrey Lurie. And he had been the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, the Super Bowl Champions.

ROB ELLIS: Less than one week after San Francisco beat the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, Ray Rhodes was scooped up by the Eagles. He was one of the few African-American coaches in the NFL.

MERRILL REESE: He was as nice an individual as you could ever meet. When Ray Rhodes came here, he wasn't the guy who smiles a lot. But he was a very warm person. As you got to know him, he would tell some great stories about his childhood, about his career, first as a wide receiver, then as a defensive back with the New York Giants. But Ray had a glare, and if someone stepped out of line, he would just look at him. That player would make sure that he was listening to whatever direction Ray was giving him.

ROB ELLIS: For his first season, Coach Rhodes had a big task ahead of him. He needed to reshape the Eagles and get more W's on the books.

DERRICK GUNN: Ah, 1995, what a year. Michael Jordan ended his first retirement. The nation and world watched transfixed as O.J. Simpson was found innocent. Gas was only $1.02 per gallon. As much as it pains me to say this, by the beginning of 1995, the Cowboys had won their back-to-back Super Bowls. Coach Jimmy Johnson was fired. His replacement was Barry Switzer. The triplets – Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin – were dominating every team they came up against.

ROB ELLIS: In Philly, Coach Rhodes, a man who favored sweater vests on gameday in both hot or cold weather, surveyed his squad.

MIKE ZORDICH: Hello, I am Michael Zordich and I played strong safety for the Philadelphia Eagles. I played from the '94 through '98 seasons, five years with them, five great years. They assembled a bunch of veterans in '94-'95. And it was a great group of guys going down the list. Andy Harmon, (Bill) Romanowski, Kurt Gouveia, William Fuller, Greg Jackson, Eric Allen, there's just a lot of really good football players and a lot of good guys on that team.

ROB ELLIS: When Zordich joined the Eagles, he had been in the NFL for eight seasons. For a few of those years, he played for the Cardinals. Like Dallas, they were another outlier geographically in the NFC East, so he knew about the Cowboys' reputation. It didn't take long for him to land on a decision about this rivalry.

MIKE ZORDICH: We certainly did not like each other. I think we respected each other. But we did not like each other. That's for sure.

ROB ELLIS: Another guy suiting up for the 1995 season.

BOBBY TAYLOR: Bobby Taylor, I play cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles. I was drafted in the second round in 1995. And I played there for nine seasons.

ROB ELLIS: Taylor is a great storyteller and since he played in a number of these key rivalry games, we'll be hearing from him quite a bit.

BOBBY TAYLOR: I am from Texas. I was born in Houston, Texas, but I grew up in East Texas is a smaller town called Longview, where I stayed with my grandparents. I graduated high school from there and that's where I call home.

DERRICK GUNN: We know a lot of Eagles players over the years have come from Texas. But Bobby Taylor has a secret.

BOBBY TAYLOR: I was a Cowboys fan growing up, but that had to change on the day I got drafted by the Eagles. I had to put that to the side.

ROB ELLIS: It takes a big man to admit when they have made such a big mistake! And as Taylor likes to point out.

BOBBY TAYLOR: Our head coach at the time, Ray Rhodes, he's also a Texas native.

ROB ELLIS: Let's move as fast as small-town gossip to Week 15.

DERRICK GUNN: Is that a Texas saying?

ROB ELLIS: It sure is! You can use it when you want. Alright, so the Eagles record is 9-5.

DERRICK GUNN: The Cowboys stand at 10-4, so it's close. But the team from Texas has a slight mental edge. They had beaten the Eagles pretty handily in Week 9.

ROB ELLIS: Dallas was coming to Philly, so you know that home-field advantage and the fan intimidation machine would be out in full force!

BOBBY TAYLOR: I had a nice ride going down I-76, just to see some of the fans that were already en route to go down to South Philly. So I'm passing people in my truck. And fortunately, some people recognize me and we're waving, hanging out of the windows. And so just to make that exit and go down Broad Street and turn into Veterans Stadium and at the time, the way we parked, it wasn't too private. When we parked, there were always fans there lining the parking lot. And so to walk through all of the fans and to see how spirited they were, I think the game didn't disappoint once we went out there on the field.

ROB ELLIS: The game started at 1 PM on Sunday, December 10, 1995. I was actually in the stands that day and it was so cold!

DERRICK GUNN: The thermometer at kickoff read 23 degrees, and there was a wind chill. Watching Zordich and Taylor take the field were 66,198 fans.

MIKE ZORDICH: Madness, mayhem, as usual, at the Vet, especially when the Cowboys came to town. It was a great atmosphere. The Philly fans are the best, without a doubt the best. They love you when you're good, and they hate you when you're bad. But that's all part of it. And it was a hell of a crowd.

ROB ELLIS: Looking back, it wasn't just the Eagles fans who made playing in Philly so tough for Nate Newton.

NATE NEWTON: The Vet football field was the worst. There, y'all is like, "How could you survive on that turf?" I mean, it was hard as a brick. You didn't want to fall. So you had to fight these beasts and not fall on the ground and scar yourself all up. Especially as a young guy, you were not going to be comfortable that whole game. Y'all had crevices and y'all feel crevices. I wear a size 15 shoe and was tripping all over the place.

DERRICK GUNN: The Eagles scored first on a Gary Anderson field goal. But soon the Cowboys took the lead and they just kept increasing it.

ROB ELLIS: By the end of the second quarter, the 'Boys were beating the Birds, 17-6. That's a fair amount of ground to make up in the second half. But football games can change pretty quickly.

DERRICK GUNN: Coach Rhodes must have found a way to motivate the guys heading into the second half because it was almost like a new team ran onto the field.

ROB ELLIS: The third quarter starts. Neither team is able to make much headway. Then Philadelphia gets the ball. And Ricky Watters scores on a 1-yard touchdown. The Eagles were within striking distance of Dallas. The scoreboard read Cowboys 17, Eagles 14.

DERRICK GUNN: Final quarter. Fifteen minutes left on the clock.

ROB ELLIS: Gary Anderson, the Eagles' kicker, nailed a 38-yard field goal.

ROB ELLIS: If you go back and watch the game clips, you see coach Barry Switzer pacing along the sidelines thinking, "We've lost our lead. This isn't good."


DERRICK GUNN: With the score tied, Mike Zordich, Bobby Taylor, Ray Didinger, Merrill Reese, Kristi Scales, who was covering the Cowboys, and Nate Newton explain what happened next.

MIKE ZORDICH: It was a very close football game. We actually tied it up then they had the football with maybe three minutes to go in the game. We got him to fourth-and-1, and it was on our side of the 50. Barry Switzer was a coach at the time and he decided to go for it.

BOBBY TAYLOR: When you're in a crucial (situation) offensively or defensively, you're going to go to your bread and butter. And Emmitt Smith was their best player at the time. And, I mean, it was a no-brainer. I mean, we knew what they were going to run. The strength of their team at the time was their offense. I can almost remember the game plan and remember every guy that they put out there on the field. They came out in their heavy personnel and Troy (Aikman) just basically turned around and gave the ball to Emmitt. And fortunately, we were able to get a stop.

RAY DIDINGER: The coach says go for it. And he's got the ball on his own 30-yard line. And I remember John Madden, who was broadcasting the game, said, "Man, I wouldn't do this. If I was Barry, I wouldn't do this."

MERRILL REESE: At that point, the handoff went to the great Emmitt Smith. And the Eagles, who were beaten so many times by Emmitt Smith, stacked him up at the line of scrimmage. It was exciting in this part of the game to stop Emmitt Smith. And, all of a sudden, the official came running over waving his arms. And I couldn't imagine what was happening. He explained that the two-minute warning had occurred right before that play began, so that waved off the play entirely.

NATE NEWTON: Me and Mark Tuinei and (Daryl) Moose Johnston, we are load left.

KRISTI SCALES: In Dallas, we know of that historic game as load left.

NATE NEWTON: That was our most successful short-yardage play and the world knew that we always ran load left when we needed a yard or two, so when they called it, everybody and their momma (knew). The linebackers, they were pointing right, "They come in right here. They come in right here."

"To this day, when people stop me, when fans stop me, they will go into one of their impersonations of me. One of the things they'll often do is go, 'They stopped them again!'" Merrill Reese

KRISTI SCALES: They were gonna run Emmitt Smith behind left guard Nate Newton and left tackle Mark Tuinei and get a first down and run out the clock. But before they could get the ball snapped, actually, they did snap the ball. And Emmitt was stopped well short of the first down. But the officials ruled that the two-minute warning, it just hit two minutes, and so the play didn't happen.

DERRICK GUNN: The fans started to chant Queen's "We Will Rock You."

ROB ELLIS: There was commotion on both sidelines regarding the two-minute warning. Switzer's got his headset on, Cowboys parka zipped to the top, snow pants on, hat pulled tightly over his ears. This is the moment that coach Barry Switzer could have course-corrected. He had a mulligan, a do-over. But instead ...

KRISTI SCALES: Why in the world would you go out and line up for a play when you got stuffed and got lucky that the officials went ahead and ruled that the clock hit two minutes?

NATE NEWTON: The first time we ran load left, we had four guys in the hole with us against me, Mark Tuinei, and Moose Johnston. For the second time, we had eight guys standing in the hole. I actually turned and looked up at Troy, like ... fake this ball in here to Emmitt. Pull that ball out, it's bootleg around other way. They handed that ball off and they crushed us.

KRISTI SCALES: You were going to be able to correct the mistake, but to go out and not only send your offense out there for another fourth-and-1 play, but to run the exact same play ...

DERRICK GUNN: It's been more than 25 years since this game and I think there is still a hint of exasperation in Scales' voice.

ROB ELLIS: Let's let Merrill Reese take it from here.

MERRILL REESE: When we came back, I was speaking to our color analyst, former Eagles offensive tackle Stan Walters, and we're theorizing what the Cowboys are going to do this time. I thought maybe they would throw a pass to their tight end Jay Novacek. And instead, they came back with exactly the same play. And the handoff was to Emmitt Smith. And I yelled! And to this day, when people stop me, when fans stop me, they will go into one of their impersonations of me. One of the things they'll often do is go, "They stopped them again! It's Groundhog Day. They stopped them again!"

DERRICK GUNN: The reactions from both sides: SHOCK! They ran the play twice and the Eagles stopped him twice!

MIKE ZORDICH: Gary Anderson, we ended up winning with him kicking a field goal, but you know, the fourth-and-1 twice was was a quite an experience, to say the least.

DERRICK GUNN: The Cowboys flew home to Dallas that night with an L.

ROB ELLIS: I think Nate Newton sums up how it went after the game for him and the 'Boys quite nicely.

NATE NEWTON: We got it after the game. But everybody cussing me out. I'm like, "Why I'm the only one getting cussed out? We went on to the Super Bowl." So who cares?

ROB ELLIS: OK Derrick, I am going to give you a couple of clues and I would like you to have a go at guessing the year.

DERRICK GUNN: OK, I'm game, let's give it a go. Is there a cash prize!?

ROB ELLIS: If wishing made it so ... OK, first clue. The film with the lines, "Show me the money," and "You had me at, 'Hello,'" came out. And Jeffrey Lurie made a cameo!

DERRICK GUNN: Well, that is Jerry Maguire, but I need a bit more help than that.

ROB ELLIS: Oprah started her now-famous book club.


ROB ELLIS: The Summer Olympics were in Atlanta, Georgia? Does that help?

DERRICK GUNN: Yes! It's 1996!

ROB ELLIS: Nailed it! Nice work. I am now going to awkwardly segue to talking about football.

DERRICK GUNN: Go for it!


ROB ELLIS: It's 1996. It's Week 10 and the Eagles were 7-2. The Eagles had lost to Dallas at home during their Week 5 matchup. Now, they face Dallas at Texas Stadium. But could they split that year's series?

DERRICK GUNN: Ray Rhodes had started his second season as head coach. Earlier, Merrill Reese said that coach was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. Ray Didinger recalls another facet about Rhodes.

RAY DIDINGER: Tough guy was the best way to describe him. I would not want to fight him. His favorite expression was like, "I go through life with my fists balled up," and he kind of did. Ray was one of these guys that he had to fight for everything in his life. He grew up, you know, sort of an undersized, African-American kid in a small town in Texas, faced a lot of prejudice and bigotry on his way up. He was a late draft pick into the NFL. Everybody thought he was too small to play. But he fought his way onto the roster. Really earned everything he got. And that really shaped his personality. So there was a real fierceness about his personality. The players respected him and they liked him and they played hard for him.

ROB ELLIS: One of the players Coach Rhodes brought in was Troy Vincent, a Trenton, New Jersey native. He joined the Eagles as a free agent in 1996. As a young player, he described himself as very focused.

TROY VINCENT: Some say I had little sense of humor. I was always about my business, a team player. A young Troy Vincent actually wouldn't change anything differently today because I was able to be an Eagle and be back home. So it was a dream come true for me.

ROB ELLIS: Bobby Taylor had this to say about his teammate.

BOBBY TAYLOR: Oh, Troy was the ultimate leader. The constant professional. We challenged each other. I would like to think that I challenged him. He definitely challenged me. And, you know, we had a great Batman and Robin reign while we were there in Philly.

DERRICK GUNN: Vincent, Zordich, and Taylor, and the rest of their teammates flew to Texas.

TROY VINCENT: I'm going to your turf. And we're gonna duke it out in front of your extremely, let's say obnoxious, fans. I'm being diplomatic here. It was always fun because it was like you were the underdog. No one gave us a chance to go down to Dallas and compete with the Cowboys.

ROB ELLIS: For Taylor, the Texan, playing at "home" took on another meaning.

BOBBY TAYLOR: Playing in Texas Stadium was a dream come true. When I was in high school, we were able to play a couple of games in Texas Stadium. And so to be a professional, and to go back home, and play in your home state versus a team that you're a fan of growing up, it was the world for me to be able to go back and do that.

ROB ELLIS: Kickoff was at 1 PM on Sunday, November 3. God was probably settling in to watch his favorite football team take a beating, well hopefully. But it was anyone's game.

DERRICK GUNN: The Eagles hadn't won on the road in Dallas in five years!

ROB ELLIS: And in fact, this game was a real edge-of-the-seat, drag-out, lead-exchanging nail-biter.

DERRICK GUNN: Dallas scored first. Then the Eagles got on the board. Tied 7-7 end of the first quarter.

MIKE ZORDICH: A lot of time in a football game, especially that early, so no one should panic that early. No way.

ROB ELLIS: Dallas scores a field goal and captures the lead. Then with about four minutes left in the half, Ty Detmer scores.

DERRICK GUNN: Halftime comes and goes, and the Eagles have a slight edge. I mean the score is 14-13.

ROB ELLIS: Then the Eagles added another touchdown. The score creeps up 21-13. They could exhale ...

DERRICK GUNN: Well, not really. Five minutes into the fourth quarter, one of the triplets, Emmitt Smith, scores a touchdown!

ROB ELLIS: Now 21-21! A field goal gave the Eagles a three-point lead. At this point in the game, it could go either way. And then Troy Vincent stepped up.

TROY VINCENT: It was neck and neck. One of the two teams had to make a big play.

MERRILL REESE: We were seated at Texas Stadium. We're way, way, way up in the air. We're looking basically at little dots on the field. It came down to the big play in the corner of the end zone.

TROY VINCENT: I can go back through coming out of the huddle. You got the triangle. We got one of the all-time best players now in the history of the game in Emmitt. They're driving, we're coming out of huddle, either they're gonna feed Emmitt on a lead or you may get a play-action pass because they're probably thinking they're gonna go to their bell cow. And as the play progressed, it was a play-action pass down here in the red zone. Everybody got it, glue your man. The ball was thrown in that you hear, like you hear excitement. And then it got completely silent all within a matter of a second or two. And the silence came upon the interception.

RAY DIDINGER: Aikman throws a pass, a rare bad pass for him.

MERRILL REESE: I could see the Eagles reach up. I saw a pair of arms reach up with the green helmet.

RAY DIDINGER: And a guy named James Willis intercepts it and comes running out of the end zone with it. And then he pitches a lateral to Troy Vincent, who takes it the rest of the way.

TROY VINCENT: The ball was pitched coming out of the end zone. I can see their sideline and you can kind of see everybody like, "Oh my God, yes, like, yep, this is happening!" And it was complete silence in the stadium. And you just run it, like running on air. You got this big, big guy that, you know, he can't tackle you, let alone he can't catch you. And then, once I cleared the last defender, it was just space. I remember, looking up after the touchdown. And people are in complete disbelief. You go from like, "We got this to like, oh my gosh, that just didn't happen." Oh, yes, it just happened. It happened in Dallas.

DERRICK GUNN: The Eagles left Dallas that day with a W. The final score, 31-21.

ROB ELLIS: Coming up it's Y2K, the year 2000, a brand-new century and fresh decade. The Eagles have a new coach.

DERRICK GUNN: And so do the Cowboys.

ROB ELLIS: There's... pickle juice. Texas' own Jeremiah Trotter has a reputation for his laugh and his possible Dallas Cowboys fandom.

JEREMIAH TROTTER: I plead the fifth.

ROB ELLIS: There are David Akers' kicks, life lessons from Andy Reid, lopsided wins, and maybe a little bit of Eagles luck.

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