Since this is a quiet time for the Eagles I thought I'd mix in some retrospective pieces. This week, I decided to talk about big hitters on defense. We're Eagles fans. We live for good defense and punishing hits. Thankfully, we've had our share of great defensive players over the years. Opposing players have taken a beating when facing the Eagles.
The first great moment we all think of is Chuck "Concrete Charlie" Bednarik laying waste to Frank Gifford of the Giants. Whether you watch the hit on film or look at the photos of Bednarik standing over his prey, the images stick with you. The pretty boy star of the Giants took a huge beatdown from one of the meanest, nastiest players in Eagles history. That moment summed up what Philly football is all about.
Rather than go through all of Eagles history, I decided to focus on the last 25 years. I started to make a list of the five greatest hitters in that era. I couldn't do it. I whittled the list down to six guys, but that is as far as I'm willing to cut it.
There's no surprise with the first person on the list. You have to start with Brian Dawkins. He's not the biggest guy, but Dawkins is a great hitter. He generates a lot of power and then explodes through his targets. That really is the key element in being a great hitter. Ronnie Lott is the first player I ever heard explain this principle. You need to go "through the target" and not just "to the target." That is where devastating hits come from.
Dawkins is famous for many hits in his Eagles career. Back in 2002, he unleashed a brutal hit on Giants receiver Ike Hilliard. (It was incorrectly reported at first that the hit was on Amani Toomer. We apologize for the mistake.) The hit was so powerful that it hurt both players. Hilliard suffered a dislocated shoulder and missed the rest of the season. In the NFC title game after the 2004 season, Dawkins hit Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler and really set the tone for the game. When a 205-pound safety levels a 250-pound tight end it sends an emotional charge to the whole team. That was the case that day and Atlanta's offense struggled all game long.
|[Video Player : Center/Linebacker Chuck Bednarik](/multimedia/videos/all-videos.html)|
I think the biggest hit of Dawkins' career is one that a lot of people have forgotten. We went down to play the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte back in 1999. The game was an embarrassing debacle and Carolina won 33-7. There was one really special moment. The Panthers drove the ball into the red zone. They tried a run to the outside. Dawkins flew toward the sideline and exploded through running back Fred Lane. The play didn't come close to being a touchdown. Dawkins sent Lane flying out of bounds. It was an inconsequential game in a very forgettable season, but that was a great moment. Words don't do it justice. You can try finding it on YouTube, but you'll probably have to dig out an old video tape to find the hit.
It is hard to find a stat that quantifies how much of a hitter a player is. The only thing that comes close is forced fumbles. Dawkins has 34 of those in his career. That is an astonishing number for a safety. Rodney Harrison finished his great career with only 16. The explosive Troy Polamalu only has seven. Dawkins is a freak when it comes to forced fumbles.
The next great hitter of the last 25 years is Wes Hopkins. Like Dawkins, Hopkins played free safety. He was the ringleader of the secondary during the 1980s and early 1990s. Hopkins was a big, rangy safety that had good ball skills, but preferred to destroy targets over the middle. There is no debating his greatest moment.
In 1991, the Eagles took the top-ranked defense in the league to Houston to play the Oilers and their explosive passing attack. Would the 46 Defense get the best of the Run 'n Shoot or be exposed by Warren Moon and his aerial circus? Hopkins wasn't fast enough to run with the Oilers speedy receivers. He knew that he'd have to land some big hits to let them know there was a price to be paid for working the middle of the field. Hopkins was especially vicious in that game. He knocked a pair of receivers out of action. Hopkins gave Drew Hill a concussion and broke the nose of Ernest Givins. The Oilers weren't happy with Hopkins. They felt he was too aggressive with his hitting. The bottom line is that Hopkins had the receivers thinking about him and that hurt the Oilers offense. Houston had season lows in points (six) and yards (247). That night is affectionately known to Eagles fans as the House of Pain game.
Rarely are cornerbacks great hitters, but Sheldon Brown certainly was. He's next up on the list. Brown gave us an indication of things to come with some big-time hits in his rookie season. He endeared himself to Eagles fans with a big hit against Dallas in a blowout win back in 2002. Throughout his Eagles career, Brown was a good tackler and powerful hitter.
There are two signature hits for Brown. The most recent moment came in the 2008 season opener when we hosted the Rams. Running back Steven Jackson weighs more than 230 pounds. He is a big, strong back. The Rams decided to get creative and split him out. Jackson is a good receiver so that made sense. Jackson caught a pass about 10 yards downfield. He focused on the ball and made sure he had the catch. Maybe half a second later, Brown exploded through his upper body with a big time shot. The hit sent Jackson flying. His helmet even came off. Jackson hopped right up and grabbed his helmet, but you know he was feeling that hit as he walked back to the huddle.
Brown's greatest hit came in the wild card playoff game at New Orleans in January of 2007. Reggie Bush caught a pass to the right side. He never had a chance to look upfield. Brown flew up and made contact right after the catch. Brown put his shoulder right through Bush's midsection. The ball came flying out and we all went crazy thinking that it was a fumble, but the play was ruled an incomplete pass. Bush went straight to the ground. He got up and staggered for a step or two before going right back down to the ground. He got on all fours and was crawling, hoping the pain would go away and the air would come back to his body. Unfortunately, Bush responded with some big-time plays in the game and the Saints won. Still, that hit from Brown is something I'll never forget.
Now for the first non-defensive back. Byron Evans was an outstanding middle linebacker for us in the Buddy Ryan era. Evans was 6-2 and 235 pounds. That meant he had enough size to be physical (we are talking 20 years ago), but also was athletic and ran well. Evans never really got the spotlight that he deserved. He played in the shadow of Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Seth Joyner. Evans was powerful enough to land big hits against running backs. He was also able to play in space and punish receivers that came near him.
The biggest hit I remember from Evans also came in a playoff game at New Orleans. We faced them in 1992, not having won a postseason game in more than a decade. There was a key moment in the game when the Saints tried to convert a short-yardage situation by sending a running back over the pile. Evans hit the runner in the air and stuffed the play. Even better, the CBS replay showed a little bit of spit going flying from the running back as Evans hit him. John Madden went on and on about that hit being a slobber-knocker. That play is somewhat forgotten, but really was important in the outcome of the game, our first playoff win since the Dick Vermeil days.
We can't talk about big-time hitters without bringing up a little dude from Montana – Tim Hauck. He didn't play for the Eagles for a long time (1999-2001), but Hauck made quite an impression. He is most famous for his hit on Michael Irvin that ended Irvin's career. The play was in no way dirty. I've heard Irvin say plenty of times that he holds no grudges against Hauck or the Eagles for what happened. Actually, Hauck's reputation as a hitter caused Irvin to duck his head on the play and that really led to the injury. The hit was nothing special. The best hit of Hauck's career with the Eagles came against the Saints. What is it about them? Hauck took the place of Dawkins when he got hurt in a game in 2000. Receiver Joe Horn crossed the middle on a pass play and Hauck lit him up like a Christmas tree. That was a fun moment. Horn loved to talk and there was nothing better than seeing the little guy shut him up with a punishing shot. Hauck also had some moments on special teams. He forced a fumble in our playoff win at Chicago with a big hit on kickoff coverage.
Here are a few players that I wanted to mention whom I considered for this piece. Safety Mike Zordich was a terrific hitter for us in the mid to late 1990s. Michael Lewis had some good moments for us in the middle of the last decade. No list of memorable Eagles defenders can ignore Seth Joyner. He had some big hits in his day. Jeremiah Trotter was more of a tackler than a hitter, but he was a real physical presence in the middle of the defense. I'll leave you with one name that really flies under the radar. Rashard Cook played safety for us early in the Andy Reid era. Jim Johnson loved to use Cook as a run defender because of how good of a hitter/tackler he was. Johnson would pull Bobby Taylor off the field in some sets and put Cook at cornerback. We'd have been in trouble if the other team passed, but Cook was a terrific run defender. Sadly, a knee injury shortened his career before he had a chance to make a strong push for a starting role.
The final key player to talk about is Andre Waters. I saved him for last because it is so awkward to talk about him after what happened. Waters was a big hitter and extremely physical tackler. He believed in attacking the ball and inflicting pain. Emmitt Smith was only scared of one NFL player and that was Waters. I really can't think of a signature moment for Waters. He was the guy who got the job done every game, but just doesn't have the one great highlight. Waters' physical play unfortunately caught up to him in the long run. It damaged his brain and helped to end his life.
I'm sometimes troubled by how much I enjoy the violence of football. These men entertain us, but they pay a very real price for all of the big hits we love to watch. I see the league making rules changes left and right. I get ticked off because I want the game I grew up watching. Then, I think about Andre. Maybe the NFL is right to make the game less violent.
There is no simple answer. Part of the magic of football is seeing men hit each other at full speed and deliver bone-jarring hits. If you take that element away, you'll ruin the game. At the same time, the league is wise to add as many reasonable precautions as they can. Better helmets can help. Believe it or not, mouthpiece technology could be a crucial factor. There are companies working on that now and we've already seen some progress. Protect the players, but please don't ruin the game.