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Byron Evans: Gang Green's Man In The Middle

  • Gang Green featured a lot of preeminent Eagles, but that defense would not have been the same without Byron Evans as the man in the middle.

From 1989 to 1992, the Eagles had the most feared defense in the NFL. Other teams might have had better statistics, but the Eagles had the ability to dominate and punish offenses in a way other teams couldn't. Opposing players were scared of the Eagles' combination of brutality and skill.

Gang Green, as the Eagles' defense was known back then, overwhelmed offenses. The Eagles had the most sacks (217) and interceptions (99) in that stretch. They allowed the fewest rushing yards (5,394) and yards per carry (3.52). If you can't run and throw, what the heck can you do?

The Eagles didn't just shut teams down. They did it with style. Remember the Body Bag Game? The House of Pain Game? The Eagles knocked out their share of quarterbacks in that stretch. Receivers who dared to go over the middle took some vicious shots. Running backs were pounded, play after play.

Reggie White was the star of stars. He is one of the greatest players in the history of pro football. Clyde Simmons was the "other guy." He finished his career with 121.5 sacks and 25 forced fumbles. Jerome Brown was the force up the middle. One of the reasons White and Simmons piled up sacks is that Brown collapsed the pocket and gave quarterbacks nowhere to go.

Seth Joyner was the stud linebacker. He made plays at a rate that is unheard of for 4-3 outside linebackers. Joyner finished his career with 24 interceptions and 52 sacks. He should get Hall of Fame consideration but frustratingly does not.

Eric Allen was the cover corner who shut down the best receivers. Allen picked off 54 passes in his career and is also deserving of Hall of Fame consideration. Wes Hopkins and Andre Waters were the safeties who controlled the middle of the field. They were the most physical pair of safeties I've ever seen play together. Waters was a great run defender, and Hopkins had terrific range in the deep middle of the field.

Byron Evans was the middle linebacker for Gang Green. He was in charge of getting everyone lined up correctly. He had to be able to stuff runs up the middle, make tackles from sideline to sideline, help in pass coverage, and blitz effectively.

Buddy Ryan picked Evans in the fourth round of the 1987 draft. Ryan was looking for the Eagles' version of Mike Singletary, the middle linebacker who made the 46 defense so dominant in Chicago. Singletary could do it all, and that made it tough for offenses to know where he would be or what he would be doing on a given play.

Ryan arrived in Philly in 1986 and started building the Eagles' version of the 46 defense. Veteran Mike Reichenbach initially got the job as the middle linebacker. Reichenbach was smart but didn't have the talent or athleticism that Ryan needed for his complex defense.

Evans was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year after his senior season at Arizona. He was also a finalist for the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. He led the Pac-10 in tackles as a junior and senior. Ryan saw a player with the kind of talent needed for his aggressive scheme.

Evans, given the nickname "BNE," spent his first two years learning from Ryan and Reichenbach. Like most young linebackers, Evans came to the NFL as a good run stuffer. He had solid size at 6-2 and 225 pounds. Evans was a natural hitter. He had long arms, which helped him tackle runners and receivers on the move. Evans had played in a very aggressive scheme in college so attacking came very naturally to him.

The challenge for Evans was to learn how to cover. College teams did throw the ball back in the 1980s, but there were still plenty of teams that ran the wishbone or the veer and focused on the run game. Pro football was a very different game.

Evans finally became the starting middle linebacker in 1989. He led the team in tackles, and Ryan called him the Eagles' most improved player. The Eagles were 27th in yards allowed in 1988. They finished eighth in yards allowed in 1989. Evans made a real impact.

He still left the field in some passing situations. Evans handled this the right way. He focused on improving his coverage skills so that he could become a true three-down linebacker. He finished his career with 13 interceptions and 35 pass deflections. Evans developed into an all-around player.

In 1991, the Eagles owned the No. 1 defense in the league. They were first against the run and the pass, something that hadn't been done since 1975. It hasn't been done since. White, Brown, Simmons, Joyner, and Allen all made the Pro Bowl as starters. Evans was overlooked. Amazingly, he never made a Pro Bowl.

You have to understand that middle linebacker used to be somewhat of a glory position. If you played that spot on a good defense and the media liked you, you were a star. Singletary made the Pro Bowl every year from 1983-92, whether he deserved it or not. That meant the rest of the NFC's inside linebackers were fighting for one spot. It probably didn't help that Evans was surrounded by so many outstanding players. That made it easy to overlook him.

Ryan drafted and developed Evans, but Bud Carson deserves credit as well. Carson took over the Eagles' defense in 1991. He kept Ryan's 46 defense as part of his package but made his share of adjustments as well.

Carson loved putting together elaborate game plans each week. That meant a lot of work for Evans. He had to know them inside-out as he would be making pre-snap adjustments to get his teammates lined up correctly.

Evans played his best football in 1991 and 1992. The Eagles' defense was the best in the league, and that was no accident. Evans might not have been a household name to fans, but coaches and scouts around the league knew just how good he was.

Unfortunately, Evans was peaking as Gang Green was being torn apart by free agency. 1993 was a year of transition, and 1994 featured a lot of new faces on defense. Evans still played at a high level and so did the defense, finishing fourth in yards allowed.

The Eagles shocked the world by getting off to a 7-2 start that year. In the 10th game, Evans suffered a devastating injury. His knee would never be the same. Evans never played another down in the NFL. It was a sad way for Evans to finish his career. He was such a good player and a part of so many great defenses. He deserved a better ending.

Evans might not have been an all-star player, but looking back, you can see he was an outstanding middle linebacker. He got to be part of football history by playing on the 1991 defense. Gang Green featured a lot of preeminent Eagles, but that defense would not have been the same without Evans as the man in the middle.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Eagles Message Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the editor of

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