Return Game: Birds, 'Boys, and Bad Blood, presented by NovaCare Rehabilitation, is the sweeping story of the Eagles and Cowboys rivalry. Troy Aikman was introduced to the rivalry early in his Hall of Fame career when he met Gang Green - the vaunted Eagles defense. And in 1991, his number was up - or was his number 11?
Tragedy struck the Eagles in 1992 when teammate, friend, and brother Jerome Brown died in a car accident. His memory inspired the team to attempt to "Bring it Home for Jerome."
By 1993, players had secured free agency resulting in the Birds' roster being completely remade. Fans have wondered "what if?" ever since. Meanwhile, the 'Boys stayed relatively intact and continued to dominate.
ROB ELLIS: Welcome to Return Game: Birds, 'Boys, and Bad Blood, presented by NovaCare Rehabilitation. I'm your host Rob Ellis.
DERRICK GUNN: And I am Derrick Gunn. Welcome to the 1990s. It was a decade filled with Doc Martens, flannel, wallet chains, and a struggling Philadelphia Eagles team.
ROB ELLIS: The Birds flew through this decade with true success just out of their reach. They were the runners-up in the NFC East four times. Their intimidation factor of the 1980s began to wane in the '90s due in large part to their neighbors to the south.
DERRICK GUNN: Their rivals, the Cowboys, had weathered some rebuilding years and were ascending. Even to players, it seemed like a done deal.
SETH JOYNER: We knew that Dallas was now a formidable opponent. The rebuild was over and they were moving into that phase of dominance.
ROB ELLIS: If you have been listening along this season, you know the Eagles had their fair share of lean years. Being the underdog is something we luxuriate in. But that status only carries us so far, and it is infuriating when the Cowboys are the team in the conference that keeps winning.
DERRICK GUNN: And winning! And winning some more!
ROB ELLIS: I am going to stop you right there ... But through the ups and downs, fans and players maintained their mantra – BEAT THE COWBOYS!
SETH JOYNER: I can remember one of Buddy's (Ryan) press conferences. He said, "If we don't win but two games a year, you can damn well believe we're gonna beat Dallas' (butt) twice a year."
ROB ELLIS: And boy, did some of the games in the first half of this decade keep fans coming back for more! It was 1991, George H.W. Bush was in the White House. The Hubble telescope was launched. The United States won the first-ever FIFA Women's World Cup in China against Norway.
DERRICK GUNN: In November, Ed Rendell was elected mayor of the City of Brotherly Love.
ROB ELLIS: The Eagles wrapped the 1990 season with a solid 10-6 record. It was now January, the offseason. Eagles Owner Norman Braman decided to make a coaching change. After five years, he fired Buddy Ryan. But who did Norman Braman believe could replace Buddy Ryan? Merrill Reese and Seth Joyner take it from here.
THE END OF BUDDY BALL?
MERRILL REESE: They announced that they were considering Rich Kotite and Jeff Fisher, who was the defensive coordinator. The defensive guys loved Fisher. And then, later that afternoon, the Eagles announced that Rich Kotite was chosen as the new head coach, which did not go over well.
SETH JOYNER: I think everybody on the defensive ball was pretty upset about it and pretty rebellious towards the new coaching staff that was coming in at the beginning. So to see (Ryan) relieved of his duties, to say that guys were really upset would be an understatement.
ROB ELLIS: Rich Kotite replaced Buddy Ryan and things were a touch tense with the new coach. But Bud Carson, a tough-minded defensive guy, joined the team. He continued to build the Eagles' defense into one of the most feared in the league. If you are interested in more details about this era of Eagles hard-hitting football and Bud Carson's defense, I encourage you to listen to Return Game: House of Pain Game.
DERRICK GUNN: In 1991, Ray Didinger remembers teams across the league shivering at the thought of playing the Eagles' defense.
RAY DIDINGER: They weren't just good. They were scary. They were a dominant defense in a way that I hadn't seen many defenses be. I mean that particular defense ranked with the Bears of '85.
ROB ELLIS: One 6-2, 292-pound reason Gang Green was so intimidating: Jerome Brown. He was born in Florida and played for the University of Miami under Coach Jimmy Johnson! You know, the man who replaced Tom Landry as the Cowboys' head coach. Brown was drafted in the first round by the Eagles in 1987. So in the early 90s, he was playing against his former Miami coach. Besides being a powerhouse on the field, Brown had an intangible quality.
RAY DIDINGER: He was kind of the guy who lit the fuse on gameday. That's the catalyst. You need that one guy who's the firestarter. And that was really Jerome.
DERRICK GUNN: Sure, Brown provided a spark for Gang Green, but there was another side to number 99. Nate Newton Jr. was a guard for the Cowboys. He and Brown have some history.
NATE NEWTON: I love Jerome. That is my homeboy. He's from Brooksville, Florida. I'm from Orlando, Florida. We're not that far apart. Jerome has always affected my life. Not always in a positive way. And let me tell you why. I used to date this girl named Jennifer at Florida A&M, and guess who took my girlfriend? Jerome Brown took my girlfriend. He came to Florida A&M all the way from the University of Miami took my girlfriend. That ain't nice.
DERRICK GUNN: A few years later, after the Jennifer incident, Newton and Brown found themselves lining up against each other.
NATE NEWTON: I'm at the Dallas Cowboys and guess who the Eagles draft in the first round from the University of Miami? Jerome Brown. Guess who Jerome Brown lines up against? Me. And he was so nice. "Hey, Nate Newton. What's up, homeboy? How you doing?" Well, besides you taking my girlfriend, Jerome? I'm doing all right.
ROB ELLIS: But when he was on the field, Brown was a really dominant player. Brown, along with Mike Golic, Clyde Simmons, and Seth Joyner, relished their reputation.
RAY DIDINGER: They liked it. They wanted to be the biggest, baddest team on the block. And if you wanted to call them bullies, go ahead and call them bullies. They didn't mind that at all. It wasn't just body language. It was for real. That's the kind of defense they played, and they were good at it and everybody in the league knew it.
"I used to date this girl named Jennifer at Florida A&M, and guess who took my girlfriend? Jerome Brown took my girlfriend. He came to Florida A&M all the way from the University of Miami took my girlfriend. That ain't nice." Nate Newton
EAGLES GET TO KNOW TROY AIKMAN 11 TIMES
DERRICK GUNN: And one Cowboy in particular was going to feel the hurt very soon! Troy Aikman was the first overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft for the Dallas Cowboys. He eventually would be a Hall of Famer, but his first season? It was rough. His record was 0-11 as a starter. Calvin Williams, who joined the Eagles in 1990 as a wide receiver, says he saw something in Aikman.
CALVIN WILLIAMS: Great talent, was an awesome quarterback. You could tell the way he stood in the pocket. And the way he threw the ball, when he got an opportunity, you knew he was gonna be good. It was just a matter of putting the components around him.
DERRICK GUNN: Well, that season Aikman didn't have the support he needed. Number eight racked up two losses against the Eagles that year, so what kind of threat was he?
ROB ELLIS: Very little. To Gang Green, the name lovingly used to refer to the Eagles' defense, they could pretty much dominate anyone who got in their way. In 1990, Aikman went down at the Vet. Clyde Simmons hit him hard. He fell on his shoulder and separated it. That was the end of his season.
DERRICK GUNN: He had surgery and rehabbed in the offseason and was ready for a rematch in Texas Stadium the next season.
SETH JOYNER: Dallas was clearly in rebuild mode. But that didn't mean we're going to take it any easier or any less. It was just a heck of a day.
ROB ELLIS: Fast forward to Sunday, September 15, 1991. Kickoff is 1 PM.
DERRICK GUNN: It's 81 degrees and 77 percent humidity.
MERRILL REESE: It was fun for us to broadcast because of the fact that it was the Dallas Cowboys. And Troy Aikman was the golden boy. And here this tough Eagles defense, they really got after him.
DERRICK GUNN: It quickly became clear to Nate Newton that this game was about one thing: Taking out Troy Aikman.
NATE NEWTON: I'm the offensive lineman that was part of this sack disaster.
ROB ELLIS: Mike Golic says it was Clyde Simmons, the 6-foot-6, 280-pound defensive end, the same guy who separated Aikman's shoulder, who led the charge.
MIKE GOLIC: Clyde was basically the quiet assassin and didn't say two words out there on the field. You know certainly we had our fun off the field. So it wasn't shocking to me that he had four and a half sacks in that game.
NATE NEWTON: We couldn't stop Clyde Simmons because he was just a hell of a pass rusher.
ROB ELLIS: And Clyde Simmons wasn't alone. Mike Pitts had one. Reggie White had one.
NATE NEWTON: I'm gonna tell you something. I'm gonna get close up on you. When you give up one sack, you say, "OK." When you give up two sacks, you say, "Not a good day." When you give up three sacks, you go to wondering. And when you give up four sacks, you know you're in for a long, long day.
ROB ELLIS: Jerome Brown had one ... then another and then a half.
RAY DIDINGER: If two guys get to the quarterback at the same time, they each get a half.
ROB ELLIS: Even Mike Golic got there.
MIKE GOLIC: And that game, you know, it's going well for us when I get two and a half sacks because that's like a season for me.
DERRICK GUNN: Nate Newton was on the field watching Troy Aikman taking this Eagles beating.
NATE NEWTON: These guys were pumped. They were banshees, just hollering and screaming off the rock. And if they weren't sacking, they was hitting him. And, and I'm looking up, I'm like, "Wow, this kid gettin' killed."
RAY DIDINGER: But the thing that I remember about that was the way Aikman handled it. And that day, man, he certainly proved his toughness because he got knocked down on every play. He kept getting back up.
NATE NEWTON: And I'm gonna tell you how intense Troy was. I'm gonna tell you what type of guy he is. He never said a word. He never said a word. He never doubted us. He never talked about us.
DERRICK GUNN: After the game, here's what Aikman had to say, "I got hit a lot more than I cared. It was one of those days. We've been through it before. It was very frustrating. It was not a good day for anybody."
ROB ELLIS: But what does Clyde Simmons, the man who racked up the most sacks that day, have to say for himself?
CLYDE SIMMONS: Those are the kind of games that you dream about. And, if you get multiple sacks and stuff, you're excited about it because it was a good time for us. It was winning a ballgame.
AIKMAN EARNS EAGLES' RESPECT
DERRICK GUNN: To help put it in perspective, the entire 1991 season, Aikman was sacked a total of 32 times. Eleven of them were delivered by the Eagles in one game! That left only 1.4 sacks per game for the rest of the teams that season!
ROB ELLIS: There was media chatter that Simmons and the Eagles played dirty. But Aikman squashed that talk.
CLYDE SIMMONS: The press and everything in Dallas was calling me a dirty player. He was like, "No, not a dirty player with this one of the bang-bang plays." And so with him saying that, my respect level went up for him. That didn't change. I was trying to get at them. Now, I was still trying to tear his head off, but I respected him a lot more after that."
DERRICK GUNN: Ray Didinger was impressed by how Aikman dealt with the media.
RAY DIDINGER: I remember after the game, in the locker room, the Dallas media kept wanting him to say that the Eagles were dirty. He kept being asked questions about how Philly was rubbing it in. Don't you feel they were cheap-shotting you and you don't feel that they play dirty football? And, I remember Aikman just standing there and saying, "No, they're just that good."
DERRICK GUNN: Kristi Scales, a Dallas Cowboys sideline reporter, says that day, the Eagles' defense was unstoppable.
KRISTI SCALES: They just dominated the game. The Cowboys couldn't block them. Obviously, the worst beating that Troy Aikman ever took in his career. The thing that's really disappointing about it? The Eagles were doing it with a four-man front. I mean, that's how bad the offensive line was back then. They didn't have to send a lot of blitzers. If Troy Aikman was able to avoid that four-man pass rush and get the ball off, it was being intercepted on the back end. So that was that. That was 24-0, the Cowboys got beat, and they didn't even cross midfield until the last couple minutes of the game. They got it down in the red zone. That was just a complete beatdown, not just of Troy Aikman, but of the entire Cowboys offense.
DERRICK GUNN: And for Nate Newton, those bad memories linger to this very day.
NATE NEWTON: We couldn't run the ball. We couldn't pass the ball. It was just a horrible, horrible day. We went in. Nobody really said anything to us. We were lepers or something like that. We had something wrong with ourselves. And nobody wanted to be around us. We were the worst offensive line in America. Normally, you have Reggie (White), who may have a good day. Clyde may have an alright day and Jerome may just be alright. And that name may have rotated during the season. But these guys hit on all cylinders at the same time on the same day against the Dallas Cowboys. That right there was glory day for them.
ROB ELLIS: It sure was Nate Newton, and to cap it off, Seth Joyner is going to rub it in – just a little.
SETH JOYNER: In the moment, you're just playing. The W is what you're after, you really don't think about a shutout until you probably get in the fourth quarter, and you realize, "Oh my God, we're up and they haven't scored." Then the focus is we gotta keep them out of field goal range because they don't care about scoring a touchdown; they know they've already lost the game. They just don't want to get goose egg, you know. But we were just so dominant that day, that they knew they weren't scoring any points.
DERRICK GUNN: Philadelphia shut out Dallas. The final tally, 24-0. It was the Birds' eighth straight win over the Cowboys. As the Eagles entered the following season, Gang Green was still a force to be reckoned with and the fans were optimistic about the upcoming season.
THE TRAGIC LOSS OF JEROME BROWN
ROB ELLIS: Then Mike Golic's phone rang.
MIKE GOLIC: I got a call from one of the people with the Eagles. And he just told me what happened.
ROB ELLIS: During the offseason, on June 25, 1992, Jerome Brown, a beloved member of the D-line, died in a car accident.
MIKE GOLIC: I just remember telling my wife who got along with him great. We both just cried, cried hard. And I said, who else knows? And they said, well, they're making some calls. I said, well, let me help. Because the last thing in the world you want to do is find out through the media. So, I called Clyde. And Clyde was golfing at the time. And I remember he answered and I said who it was. He had this smile and wanted to know how you doing, and I'm like, "My God, I have to tell him one of his best friends is dead."
CLYDE SIMMONS: I was in Charlotte, North Carolina visiting friends and family. And Mike called me to let me know. It was a trying time. A friend, a brother ... When I found out about that, it was one of those moments that you can't figure out why, what happened? All this stuff? And once the answer about how it happened or what happened and all that stuff, the next thing is, how's his mother and father doing?
ROB ELLIS: His death left his teammates, these guys who were as close as brothers, shocked and emotionally wrecked.
MIKE GOLIC: Jerome was gone. That was very tough for all of us, especially on the line. He was a big part of the reason we were such a good defense and he was gone.
DERRICK GUNN: According to Brad Sham, the Voice of the Cowboys, Brown's memory is still strong in Dallas.
BRAD SHAM: He was apparently a phenomenal human being. He played one way – hard, clean, fearsome. And he was inspirational. I think there's no question that Jerome Brown was a generational player but also personality in his locker room. And when you lose someone like that the way the Eagles lost Jerome, that's going to leave a mark. That's an irreplaceable human being. He was a force.
ROB ELLIS: That season pushed guys like Golic and Joyner on and off the gridiron.
MIKE GOLIC: So, you held a team together for a while and that was a tough one. But you got to go on, and you got to play. You have different guys than what you had. But noticeably it was a different defense.
SETH JOYNER: We knew that we were short-handed. Even though we started off well, we were playing on pure energy. We were playing that season for a felled brother. So we were playing for his memory.
ROB ELLIS: When asked if Jerome had a special approach to taking on the Cowboys, Simmons says Jerome Brown approached every opponent with the same attitude. And he passed that mentality along to everyone he played with and probably against.
CLYDE SIMMONS: Jerome's philosophy was just play hard, play with emotions, because he was an emotional player. He gonna let you know with his fire, with all the stuff that he did, and how he played. When he played hurt, he played with emotions. He was the emotional spark for our defense.
ROB ELLIS: His absence, though, was palpable.
RAY DIDINGER: When he died that season, there was definitely a void. I mean, you walked in the locker room and it was not the same room. It's the best way to describe it. Before that, when he was there, you walked in that room and the first voice you heard was Jerome Brown. I mean, hollering, laughing, joking. I mean, he was just an enormous personality, in addition to being an enormous talent.
'BRING IT HOME FOR JEROME'
ROB ELLIS: The team's rallying cry that year was, "Bring It Home For Jerome." They had the singular focus to make it to the Super Bowl to honor Brown.
RAY DIDINGER: They had a memorial patch made up – JB and Eagles logo – that they wore on their jersey all year. The opening game of the season, at the Vet, Jerome's family came in and the Eagles retired Jerome's number that day. They honored him that day. And from that point forward, the team really did play on a mission. They wanted to win it for Jerome. It wasn't just lip service. I mean, it was something that was very real and very present every day, during that season. The thing that I remember most about it was that they kept Jerome's locker exactly as it was. His locker remained right where it was. They didn't touch it.
SETH JOYNER: We were just trying to do everything we could to win every game that we could to honor his memory. It's tough to play 16 games with such a heavy burden on your heart and be carrying that expectation of trying to do something for the memory of someone. So I remember that 1992 season was very, very difficult on all of us.
ROB ELLIS: The grieving Eagles had to bury those feelings and keep playing.
DERRICK GUNN: By October, the rivals looked strong.
RAY DIDINGER: It was October 5. They had just come off beating Denver and the John Elway Broncos 30-0, shutting him out. And the Eagles were really playing well. And the Cowboys had gotten their act together and they were a really good team. The Cowboys were undefeated and the Eagles were undefeated.
DERRICK GUNN: With equal records, there was a lot at stake during this Monday Night Football game.
RAY DIDINGER: The buildup to that game was all about this is the game we're going to see who is the Super Bowl favorite because everybody sort of identified that the Eagles and the Cowboys were the two best teams in the NFC. So the feeling was OK, here's the game that's going to determine which of these two teams is best. And which of the teams is probably going to go on and represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. That's the way the game was built.
ROB ELLIS: Yep, one advantage for the Eagles – the Cowboys were coming to Philadelphia. And Seth Joyner was feeling that Cowboys Week energy.
SETH JOYNER: Oh, it's electric. There's no doubt about it. Eagle fans across this nation on Monday morning know ... The focus is just different. The energy is just different. The environment is different on Dallas Cowboy week.
A 15-HOUR PREGAME SHOW?
DERRICK GUNN: To heighten the excitement around this game, the crew at WIP, Philly's sports talk station, floated the idea for a pregame show.
RAY DIDINGER: With Angelo Cataldi, the morning show guy, he made a recommendation. He said, "Why don't we start the pregame show with my show at six o'clock in the morning? We'll sign on. We'll do it from the tent right outside the stadium." And the station managers do the math and say, "Wait a minute. Kickoff is at 9 PM. You're talking about a 15-hour pregame show."
ROB ELLIS: Fifteen hours? In a tent outside the Vet in October? There was no way this would work, would it?
RAY DIDINGER: Angelo's response was you're going to find the 15 hours isn't enough. And he was right. I mean, there was so much talk about this game and there was so much anticipation and buildup to this game. They had no trouble filling 15 hours. It went straight from six in the morning, right up to the kickoff at 9 PM.
ROB ELLIS: I remember you had people camping out the day before in anticipation of the WIP 15-hour pregame marathon. Only in Philadelphia! And Ray Didinger has a story that perfectly sums up this moment in the rivalry.
RAY DIDINGER: I remember Skip Bayless, the writer from Dallas who was traveling with the Cowboys at that time. He meets the offensive coordinator, a guy named Norv Turner. And, Norv Turner says, "Wow, this town here is really on fire about this game." And Skip says, "Yeah, how do you figure you're gonna win this game today?" And Turner said, "Are you kidding? Win this game? We just want to survive."
DERRICK GUNN: For some, this game will be etched in their memories because the pregame hype and the buildup was more thrilling than what went down on the field. It was a thumping. The Cowboys scored one touchdown in the first quarter.
ROB ELLIS: From there, it was Eagles, Eagles, and more Eagles.
RAY DIDINGER: If you're the Cowboys, all you're thinking about is trying to get out of town in one piece. Really. That's how it felt. And that's how it played out. I mean, from the very first snap of the game, the Eagles owned the game. They won the game going away. They just ran the Cowboys out of the stadium.
ROB ELLIS: The final score of that chilly October game was 31-7. The Eagles hung on to their undefeated record for another week. In December, the Birds went undefeated. This four-game winning streak propelled them to a Wild Card spot. Their opponent would be the New Orleans Saints. They were one step closer to fulfilling their quest to make it to the Super Bowl and honor Jerome Brown. The team packed up and flew to the Big Easy.
"Are you kidding? Win this game? We just want to survive." Norv Turner
RAY DIDINGER: Without telling any of the team's equipment managers, they packed all of Jerome's stuff, along with everybody else's. They set up a locker for Jerome right there in New Orleans, with all the other guys on the defense so that when the players walked in the locker room, there was Jerome's locker, back intact. It was really powerful. I mean, the guys on the team, they didn't expect it. They didn't know what was going to be there. When they walked in, it just sort of reinforced this idea that, yeah, this is what it's about. Let's bring it home for Jerome.
ROB ELLIS: The 1992 Eagles bested New Orleans in the Wild Card round.
RAY DIDINGER: They had to come from behind, but in the fourth quarter, they just took that game over and they won it. After the game was over, almost everybody on the team you talked to, be the offense, defense, coaches, whoever, they all said that they really felt the presence of Jerome Brown that day.
ROB ELLIS: It was the lone playoff win of the Gang Green era. The following week, the Birds' journey through the playoffs took them to Dallas. This time, the Cowboys' dished out a 34-10 defeat that ended their dreams of honoring Jerome Brown's memory with a championship. That year, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl. In our 1980s Buddy Ball episode, we told you about the player strikes in 1987. NFL players were lobbying for the right to negotiate where they would continue to play after their initial rookie contract expired.
DERRICK GUNN: Well, they finally won the right in 1993. The result of the players' fight led to dramatic roster changes across the league. Sometimes I do wonder. If the core group of Eagles had stayed intact, would they have been able to dethrone the Cowboys?
ROB ELLIS: It's such a great question. I feel like after free agency, the Philadelphia Eagles had reached the end of an era of sorts. We know that change is the only constant, and that is so true in the NFL.
DERRICK GUNN: The Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson were dominating. They followed up their 1992 championship with another Super Bowl win in 1993. Dallas really was on top of the football world.
ROB ELLIS: Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the Eagles organization was undergoing a significant transition.