This is the time of year when things really quiet down. Since I'm still a football junkie I have to break out some old Eagles games to satisfy my appetite. I love watching old games. We had some really fun teams in the past. I also enjoy seeing the changes in the way the game is played.
Most of the games I watch are from the "Gang Green" era, 1988-92. Those teams were built around the defense. Eagles fans really fell in love with the team in that era despite repeated losses in the postseason. Those teams were tough, physical, rugged and just plain mean.
The defensive line was the most dominant part of the team. Reggie White manned the left defensive end spot. He was arguably the greatest defensive end in the history of the NFL, especially on the left side. White racked up 198 sacks in his legendary career. He had 21 sacks in 1987, despite playing in only 12 games because of the players' strike. At 300 pounds White was also a very good run defender. Opponents knew they weren't going to run his way without having a good plan for how to block him.
White shifted inside to defensive tackle when the team lined up in the "Bear Front," a key component of the 46 Defense. Centers in the NFC East absolutely hated to look up and see White directly across from them in that alignment. He was virtually unblockable.
Jerome Brown was the key player on the inside. He had a rare combination of size, strength, quickness and agility. Brown was a good run defender, but also got to the quarterback quite a lot for a defensive tackle. He totaled 29.5 sacks in a five-year career that was tragically cut short by a fatal car crash. Joining Brown on the inside of the line were Mike Golic and Mike Pitts. Neither guy was a star, but both were solid players who got the job done.
The right defensive end was Clyde Simmons. He'll never get the full credit he deserves. Simmons finished his career with 121.5 sacks, 50 of which came while he played without White on the other side of the defensive line. I think too often people assume that Simmons got many of his sacks because White drew so much attention. Certainly White's presence had an affect, but Simmons still had the arduous task of getting by the left tackle, the best pass blocker on the offensive line.
The line was great. The next level of the defense, the linebackers, was very good. The key linebacker was Seth Joyner. He played on the strong side. Three words come to mind when describing Joyner: ferocious, intense, playmaker. You see players getting together after a game and shaking hands and wishing each other well. I'm not sure Joyner could have handled that. He lived and died with each game. Heck, with each play.
There are plenty of intense, physical linebackers. Joyner was special because he made so many big plays. He recorded 52 sacks, 24 interceptions and 26 forced fumbles in his career. Think about those numbers. Joyner also scored five touchdowns. That's impressive for a linebacker. Freddie Mitchell scored five touchdowns in his career. That's not so impressive for a wide receiver.
The man in the middle was Byron Evans. I think he's the most underrated member of the "Gang Green" defense. Evans didn't have Joyner's big plays. He didn't get to the quarterback like the pass rushers. He wasn't a feared hitter like the safeties. Evans ran the defense, made a ton of tackles and provided the versatility that the 46 Defense requires in a middle linebacker. The thing that pops in my mind with Evans is his long arms. I can always see him in his stance with his arms dangling, waiting for the snap. Those long arms served him well. He was an outstanding wrap-up tackler, but the arms also helped in pass defense. He had excellent reach when he went up for the ball. Evans had 13 career interceptions, a good total for a middle linebacker.
The linebacking corps might have been a great unit, but the weakside spot sat open until William Thomas was drafted in 1991. He became a starter at midseason and held that job through the end of the 1999 season. Thomas didn't emerge as a star player until 1993. Had he, Joyner and Evans all played at their peak together, that would have been a special set of linebackers.
Wes Hopkins was the hard-hitting free safety. Andre Waters was the hard-hitting strong safety. They owned the middle of the field. Receivers were welcome to catch as many passes as they wanted. All they had to do was take a punishing blow or two and see if they could hold on to the ball. Several Oilers wideouts from the 1991 "House of Pain" game will tell you that wasn't such a good idea. Hopkins and Waters also punished running backs. They flew up in run support and eagerly joined in the fun. Waters is the one player that Emmitt Smith was actually scared of.
Cornerback Eric Allen was a great cover guy. He could stick with receivers one-on-one all over the field. Allen had good speed and very good instincts. The problem that "Gang Green" had was that no other cornerback ever really stepped forward to play opposite of Allen. Ben Smith showed good potential in 1990 and 1991, but injuries ruined his career. Buddy Ryan built a great defense, but he could never find that other corner that could have made the group really special. Put Troy Vincent on those teams and who knows how good they might have been.
"Gang Green" had some incredible feats and moments:
• Run defense was the foundation of everything. In 1989 Gerald Riggs ran for 221 yards on the Eagles. The next player to break 100 yards in a game was Emmitt Smith. In 1992. That's good run defense.
• The point to playing such good run defense was to force teams into known passing situations. The defense could then blitz and get after the quarterback. That led to sacks and turnovers. The Eagles had 55 or more sacks three times in the 1988-92 span.
• As for turnovers, they also came in droves. Three times in that era the team came up with 44 or more. The defense had 56 takeaways in 1989.
• The 1991 defense finished first overall in total yards allowed, as well as rushing and passing defense. The last team to accomplish that feat was the Minnesota Vikings of 1975.
• Individual games could produce crazy results. Troy Aikman was sacked 11 times in a 1991 game where the Eagles beat the Cowboys 24-0.
• In 1992, John Elway had one of the worst games of his career. He was 8 of 18 for 59 yards passing. The Broncos finished with 82 total yards and lost the game 30-0.
• I don't have any way to track how many quarterbacks were forced out of the game due to injury back then, but it was a regular occurrence. The most infamous game was the "Body Bag" game in 1990. Several Redskins players were knocked out of action. Washington lost two quarterbacks and running back Brian Mitchell ended the game playing under center. That made for some fun viewing for us Eagles fans.
• The team pitched four shutouts in the five-year span. We're in a bit of a dry spell right now. We haven't had a shutout since 1996. That drives me crazy.
The Eagles weren't all defense back then. Next time out I'll talk about the offense and some strategic differences in the NFL of then and today.