Reggie White. That name, those two words conjure up a lifetime of thoughts and memories for Eagles fans. Heck, for all football fans. Reggie was special. He was a great football player and a larger-than-life figure.
White played defensive end for the Eagles from 1985-1992. He played in 121 games and racked up 124 sacks. Most of his NFL career was spent in an Eagles uniform and most of his sacks came while wearing kelly green.
So what made White so special? He was big at 6-5 and about 295 pounds. He was also a very good athlete. White was quick and fast. He was agile. He played with excellent balance. He was incredibly strong. White could simply overpower guys when he decided to do that instead of trying to go around them. Players like Mario Williams and Julius Peppers have White's size and athletic ability, but they don't play with the same kind of power that he did.
You can tell by the 124 sacks that White was a gifted pass rusher. He was also a terrific run defender at the left defensive end position. In scout/coach speak: White was stout at the point of attack. He required double teams most of the time on running plays that came his way. One blocker just wasn't going to contain White. You could try to run away from him, but he was fast enough to chase some plays down from the backside. The Eagles had a top-nine ranked run defense in each of White's final six seasons in Philadelphia, leading the league twice.
Run defense was crucial to the Eagles scheme, but annihilating the quarterback was the No. 1 one goal. The Eagles were among the league leaders in sacks in each of White's seasons in Philadelphia. When White retired from the league after the 2000 season, he held the NFL record for career sacks with 198. That has since been passed by Bruce Smith.
White had a variety of ways to get to the passer. Even at 295 pounds, he was quick enough to get by some offensive tackles. This posed a big problem for guys who had to block him. They had to cover to the outside. White could also shoot to the inside. Because of his size and strength, he could force his way between the guard and tackle and get free. There was also the simple bull rush. That is when White just went straight at the blocker and drove him backward. Offensive linemen would focus on inside or outside and would be caught off-guard when he came right at them. They would get off-balance and be easy to move backward. Even if White didn't get to the quarterback, driving the lineman backward could be disruptive.
There are a couple of other pass rush techniques to discuss. White had a famous move that he used called "the hump." He would start to the outside. The blocker would lean that way. After his initial upfield burst, White would head to the inside. He would then take his inside arm and use it like a club. He would bring the arm into the blocker's inside and literally throw the guy off-balance. White said he developed this by watching Howie Long. White was more effective with it because of his rare size/strength combination. Once the blocker moved his feet to adjust to the inside move, White was able to move the guy around like a rag doll. You would see 310-pound linemen just go flying. When the hump move worked, it was a thing of beauty.
White's final pass rushing weapon actually had a lot to do with the Eagles scheme. In Buddy Ryan's 46 defense, the defensive line goes into what is called the "Bear Front." In this look the left guard, center and right guard are each covered by a defensive lineman. The point of this alignment is to ensure single blocking. When the Eagles went into the 46, White would move from defensive end to nose tackle. He would line up directly over the center. Teams couldn't double-team him. White used to overwhelm opposing centers in this formation. He was so quick off the ball that they would stand little chance to handle him effectively. White usually didn't bother trying to go around them. He would drive the center into the backfield and try to disrupt the play.
From 1986-1988, White was unbelievable at getting to the quarterback. He had 18, 21 and 18 sacks in those years. That is 57 sacks in 44 games. Amazing. Bruce Smith's best three-year total was 43. Lawrence Taylor topped off at 48. Michael Strahan got up to 52. The closest I could find was Mark Gastineau at 54.5. Factor in that White's total would likely have been higher if not for the player's strike of 1987, so you have to really be impressed. During the strike year he posted 21 sacks in only 12 games.
White established himself as the game's best defensive lineman while playing in Philadelphia. He was a part of some amazing defensive units. The team had a winning record in each of his final five seasons here. Things were pretty good. The only problem was the postseason. The Eagles were 0-3 in the playoffs heading into a wild card game with the Saints following the 1992 season. New Orleans got out to a 20-7 lead. All Eagles fans could think was, "Here we go again." But wait. Randall Cunningham, Fred Barnett and Heath Sherman came alive to spark the offense. Byron Evans made a huge stop on defense. The Eagles were suddenly in front 24-20. Things looked up. The Saints got pinned deep in their own end. Quarterback Bobby Hebert dropped back into the end zone to pass. White stormed into the backfield and nailed him for a sack and a safety. That made the score 26-20, but more importantly it suddenly felt like good things were going to happen. That safety is one of my all-time favorite moments. My favorite player came up with a big play late in a playoff game. Maybe, just maybe, this was the year for the Eagles.
We did go on to win that game 36-20. Eric Allen returned an interception for a score late in the game and the celebration was on. Next up was Dallas. Unfortunately, their defense dominated Randall Cunningham and the Eagles offense. That was the end of the good times. It also ended an era. White's contract was up. He was a free agent. I was desperate for him to stay in Philly, but owner Norman Braman wasn't. White seemingly flirted with half of the league before going to Green Bay.
White faced the Eagles five times as a Packer. He went 2-3. He did finally breakthrough and enjoy postseason success in 1996. Green Bay beat New England in the Super Bowl. White got his ring. He had three sacks in the game. He beat right tackle Max Lane on back-to-back plays at one point. I was ecstatic. Reggie White wasn't an Eagle, but he was a champion - a title he absolutely deserved. I was going to cheer for number 92 no matter what color uniform he had on.
I wish I had gotten to see White win a Super Bowl while he was an Eagle. That would have meant the world to me, as well as all Philadelphia fans. I am glad that I got to watch him play for the Eagles. We don't have any titles or championship moments from that era, but seeing Reggie dominate week in and week out was a special reward in and of itself. It isn't often that you get to see one of the best players in the history of the game. Number 92 will always be special to Eagles fans.