With things remaining quiet on the Eagles front, I'm going to go back in time once again. Plenty of people have written about the great games in Eagles history. I want to talk about some interesting games. Each of these showed me something about the Eagles that was new. A couple of the games are season openers, as you might imagine. New players and/or new coaches can have a big impact on a team.
September 1, 1996 - The 1995 Eagles squad is one of my favorite teams. They had a bizarre mixture of players that somehow came together under Ray Rhodes and won 10 games in the regular season as well as one playoff game. While that season was a lot of fun, there was no question that the team was very much patched together. I wasn't sure what to expect heading into 1996.
Jon Gruden was the offensive coordinator and had brought the West Coast offense to Philly for the first time. It was highly erratic in 1995. Randall Cunningham couldn't fully grasp or execute the offense and lost his job. Rodney Peete took over and won games with grit, but sure wasn't a gifted passer. Receivers Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams were accustomed to Rich Kotite's vertical offense and struggled with the crossing routes of the new scheme. They didn't fit the offense well and neither guy seemed all that interested in adapting to it.
We let Barnett and Williams leave in free agency prior to the 1996 season. We signed free agent Irving Fryar and 1995 draft pick Chris T. Jones took the other starting spot. Fryar turned out to be one of the great signings in Eagles history. Peete didn't get any more talented, but he did get comfortable running Gruden's offense with a full training camp as the starter. We also benefited from Kevin Turner's return from a torn ACL. He was a perfect fullback for the offense and helped the running and passing game.
We played Washington in the 1996 season opener. Early in the game we ran a play that sticks with me to this day. Peete took the snap and turned as if to hand off to a running back. Peete wheeled and fired a slant pass to the receiver on the left side. I think Jones caught the pass and got about 10 yards on the play. I wasn't so much fascinated by the outcome as the execution. That was a timing play which was perfectly executed. The quarterback and receiver did exactly what they were supposed to. We didn't see plays like this in 1995. For the first time ever, I was seeing the Eagles run the real West Coast offense and doing it correctly. I felt like I was watching the Packer or Niners offense.
Peete had a good game. He was 20-of-34 for 269 yards. Jones and Fryar combined to catch 11 passes for 156 yards. Each of them had a touchdown. The biggest play of the game was a short pass to rookie tight end Jason Dunn. He caught a pass on the right side and then motored up the field for 54 yards. Turner contributed a pair of receptions. We won the game 17-14. The offense gained 402 total yards.
This may not sound like a big deal to some people, but you have to remember that the offense we watched from 1987-1994 was explosive, but highly inconsistent. That's why we struggled so much in the postseason back then. You couldn't count on Cunningham creating a miraculous play. The West Coast offense was all about timing and execution. Seeing it run so well in that 1996 season opener was a good feeling.
September 3, 2000 - The Eagles slipped in 1997 and then really bottomed out in 1998. The loss of Gruden to the head coaching job in Oakland hurt us. Also, we just had too many mediocre players. We went 3-13 and had one of the worst offenses in recent football history. That team was so bad that it wasn't even competitive at times. Seven games were losses of 10 or more points. The season opener was a 38-0 shellacking by the Seattle Seahawks. You want to talk about putting a damper on a season. Try sitting through something like that in week one. Ugh. The nightmare season cost Rhodes his job.
In January 1999, there were two primary candidates. Everybody in the league wanted Mike Holmgren. He had just left the Packers and was looking for a gig where he could be the coach and GM. We already had Tom Modrak in place, but surely we'd work something out for Holmgren. He was red hot as a coach. He went to Seattle first, but was scheduled to come to Philly next. Unfortunately, he never made it out of Seattle. That killed my dream hire. Next up was Jim Haslett, the defensive coordinator of the Steelers. He and Modrak had a good relationship. Everyone figured Haslett was a shoo-in for the job. Jeff Lurie and Joe Banner also wanted to talk to Andy Reid, some assistant for Green Bay. I knew who he was, but sure didn't think of him as head coach material. Reid came in and had a great, great interview and pulled off a major upset as he got the job.
I was intrigued by the stories I heard about Reid and the infamous blue binder. He grew on me as I found out more about him and his background. He was an offensive coach and I thought that was important. Our offense was dreadful in 1998. We scored 161 points all year. The next lowest total in the league was 241. You have to go back to 1992 to find a team that scored fewer points. We needed help on offense.
Reid had a solid first year. He led the team to five wins. We showed big improvement on offense. We scored 272 points, which improved us from awful to merely bad. That was a big deal as far as I was concerned. Reid didn't have much talent to work with, but had somehow gotten us that far. The defense showed signs of life as well. The question heading into 2000 was whether we could continue going forward. Could we get to .500? Could we win nine games and maybe sneak into the playoffs? There was optimism due to a good finish in 1999, but still plenty of questions.
The 2000 season opener provided us with some very good answers. Reid had the team totally prepared. We were in Dallas on blistering hot Sunday afternoon. David Akers ran up to kick the ball, but instead just tapped it. Surprise onside kick! And it worked. We recovered at our 42-yard line and then drove down to score a touchdown. Running back Duce Staley ran wild that day. He had 45 of the 58 yards on the touchdown drive. He piled up 201 yards before Reid pulled him from the game.
The defense was dominant. We intercepted Troy Aikman twice. Jeremiah Trotter ran one of the picks back for a touchdown. Corey Simon got a sack on his first ever NFL snap. We got to Troy Aikman five times that day and knocked him from the game. He took a real beating. Aikman only played in 11 games that year and then retired.
We won the game 41-14 and it wasn't even that close. That day was total domination by the Eagles. We outplayed Dallas. We out-coached them. We won in other ways. The training staff gave the players pickle juice to combat cramping problems. That worked well and gave us an advantage.
That game showed the kind of preparation and thoroughness I'd never seen from an Eagles coaching staff. Reid was the aggressor that day. We attacked on special teams, offense, and especially defense. We put Dallas on their heels and didn't let up until the end of the game. We went on to win 11 games that year. We won a game in the playoffs as well. You could see in that opening game that this was going to be a different Eagles team than we'd seen in a long time. Things have been pretty good ever since.
September 21, 2008 - The 2008 season began with a drubbing of the St. Louis Rams. We beat them 38-3 and really looked impressive. Still, it was just the Rams. Next up was a Monday night game in Dallas. The offense showed up, but the defense took the night off. We lost 41-37. Tony Romo, Terrell Owens, Marion Barber and Jason Witten made mince meat of us. Great game, but lousy result. After those two games no one was exactly sure what to make of the team. The offense looked great, but the defense had some serious issues. Next up was a meeting with the 2-0 Steelers. We couldn't afford a lackluster defensive effort against Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, and Willie Parker.
I think a lot of Eagles fans were curious as to how we'd play. The last time we faced the Steelers was 2004. They gave us arguably the worst beating of the whole decade. The final score was 27-3, but it might as well have been 127-3. I remember re-watching the game to see what happened. On one running play, center Jeff Hartings drove Darwin Walker more than 10 yards down the field. That play summed up the game awfully well. They just physically manhandled us. I hoped that would not happen again. We had focused on beefing up the run defense and being more physical, but this was going to be a major test of those changes. Plus, you couldn't just load up the box. Big Ben is one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Jim Johnson had been conservative in the loss at Dallas. He dialed back the blitzes and it hurt. Romo had all day to throw and picked us apart. Johnson decided to take out his frustrations on Pittsburgh. He had his defense ready that day. The plan was to attack all game long.
Normally Johnson blitzed about 20 percent of the time. In this game he was closer to 50 percent. Roethlisberger was sacked nine times. He was under pressure all day. Eleven different Eagles defenders got their hands on him at one point. That should tell you how many different guys were going after the quarterback. We eventually knocked Big Ben out of the game.
Not only did we get to Roethlisberger, we shut down the run game. Defensive tackles Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson controlled the middle of the defense. They ate up blockers and even got penetration a few times. Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley had six total tackles. Three of his stops came behind the line. Omar Gaither and Quintin Mikell combined for 15 tackles. They both played very well.
Brian Dawkins had a sensational game. He had seven tackles and a sack. He had one tackle-for-loss. Dawkins made a huge play late in the game when he got to Roethlisberger on a blitz and knocked the ball loose. Dawkins recovered the ball.
The defense was flat out dominant. Turnovers set up a couple of field goals in the game. We also came up with a safety in the fourth quarter. The Steelers ran for just 33 yards and finished the game with 180 total yards.
The emergence of Bradley at middle linebacker helped the 2008 defense to have a great season. That week three beatdown of the Steelers was the first sign of how good the unit could be. We ended up finishing top five in most categories. We were third in yards allowed and fourth in scoring defense. We were fourth in rush defense and third in sacks. We had played good defense under Jim Johnson before, but nothing quite like that. The 2008 defense was pretty special, especially considering that we played quality competition.
The defense carried us to the playoffs and helped us to reach the NFC title game. Unfortunately, Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald turned out to be kryptonite and we couldn't stop the Cardinals offense when we needed to. We didn't get back to the Super Bowl, but we had one heck of a run.