There isn't a whole lot of action happening right now in the football world. I thought it might make a good time to hop in the way-back machine and look at a season from the past. Normally, I focus on good stuff, but we can't ignore the bad years altogether. Sometimes looking back at the bad days can help us better appreciate how good things are right now. If ever a season was rock bottom, 1998 was it.
The Eagles were 6-9-1 in 1997. That was a lost season, but one in which the Eagles looked terrific at times. The best news was the development of a young quarterback named Bobby Hoying. He was drafted in 1996 and sat until midway through the 1997 season. Once he got on the field, Hoying showed big-time ability.
In the seven games where Hoying started or played a lot, he had a passer rating of 97 or higher four times. He led the team to a pair of games with at least 32 points. Without him, the team only scored more than 21 points once (24 vs. Washington). Hoying threw 11 touchdowns and only six interceptions. The team was only 2-4-1 in the games he played, but bad defense played a big part in that record.
Hoying looked like a franchise quarterback and played like one. He was an Ohio State product. He had size, mobility and a solid arm. There was a lot to like about him coming out of 1997. There was a euphoria among Eagles fans. We finally had a star quarterback back in place. The days of Rodney Peete, Bubby Brister and Ken O'Brien were going to be a thing of the past. Hoying was the man!
The overall team wasn't looking great heading into the 1998 season, but with a franchise quarterback in place and the NFC East looking somewhat down, I was hoping we could be a surprise team.
Following the 1997 season, Hoying had three major changes in his life. He got married. He had an appendectomy. Offensive coordinator Jon Gruden left to become the head coach in Oakland. I don't see how the first two changes had major impact, but they did something. Hoying was terrible in 1998. Losing Gruden hurt him tremendously, but Hoying was so bad that it went beyond coaching. It was almost like aliens abducted him and returned a malfunctioning version. Hoying stunk in training camp. Anyone "lucky" enough to attend (I was there) remembers Hoying dropping back in 7-on-7 drills and dumping the ball to the running backs. He had lost his confidence between the conclusion of 1997 and the summer of 1998. When the quarterback isn't seeing things well or feels rushed in the 7-on-7 drill, the team is in big trouble. That's a drill that all quarterbacks should love. There's no pass rush to deal with.
Hoying was dreadful during the 1998 season. He was on the field for just one win, a 10-9 barn-burner over Detroit. Hoying threw for 97 yards in the game. We ran for 216. Hoying did not throw a touchdown pass all year. He did manage nine interceptions. He finished with a lower passer rating (45.6) than completion percentage (50.9). The team was shutout three times in his eight starts. Hoying made Mike McMahon's 2005 showing look like Pro Bowl material.
Part of the problem with the passing attack was coaching. Dana Bible was Gruden's replacement, but either he wasn't ready for the job or just was a nightmarishly bad fit. He was removed at mid-season and Bill Musgrave took over playcalling duties. Koy Detmer took over at quarterback late in the year and brought some life to the offense. With him and Musgrave working together, the offense went from awful to just bad. The quarterbacks weren't helped by their surrounding cast of skill players all that much.
The backfield had talent. Ricky Watters was gone, but Charlie Garner returned and young runner Duce Staley was ready to emerge. Garner didn't step up when the team needed him. He failed to be a workhorse runner or a playmaker. However, Staley exceeded expectations. He ran for 1,065 yards and averaged 4.1 yards per carry. Fullback Kevin Turner was good as well. He caught 34 passes and averaged just less than 5 yards per carry.
That paragraph, my friends, is the offensive high point. In other words, ouch. The receivers were bad. Irving Fryar fell off dramatically from his previous two years. He caught 48 passes and two touchdowns. Jeff Graham was the other starter. He had 47 grabs and two scores. Nice balance, but bad numbers. The only receiver to average more than 14 yards a catch was the speedy Dietrich Jells. The only problem is that he caught just two passes. Tight end Jason Dunn wasn't drawing any comparisons to Keith Jackson or Kellen Winslow with his 18 catches.
The blocking was also problematic. Eagles quarterbacks were sacked 56 times in 1998. Rookie Tra Thomas showed a lot of promise, but still had some growing pains. Big-time free agent Steve Everitt was a major disappointment at center. Jermane Mayberry had yet to establish himself and was erratic. The right side of the line was Ian Beckles and Richard Cooper, not the greatest free agent signings in Eagles history.
The offense finished dead last in points and yards. I can't stress enough how bad this group was to those who weren't yet Eagles fans or somehow missed the season. Michael Vick threw for 21 touchdowns in 2010 and didn't play in four games. The entire 1998 Eagles offense scored 17 touchdowns. Quarterbacks only threw seven scoring passes all year. Vick had six after three weeks last year. Say what you want about Andy Reid, but we haven't suffered like that since he took over in 1999.
As for the 1998 defense, that group was middle of the road. There were some great pieces in place. Hugh Douglas was a force up front. He had 12.5 sacks that year. Hollis Thomas had five sacks from his defensive tackle position. It is hard to remember that he used to be an effective rusher. Al Wallace was a situational rusher and had six sacks.
William Thomas was the lone linebacker of note. He had a couple of sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. "Willie T." was still a good playmaker late in his career. I hate that Reid let him go after 1999. That's one argument I'd be willing to have with Reid where I'd feel comfortable standing my ground. James Willis was the middle linebacker and an OK starter. The other spot was split between Mike Caldwell and James Darling. Caldwell is now the linebackers coach for Reid and the Eagles.
The secondary was good with Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Mike Zordich, Brian Dawkins and Al Harris. Dawkins was good, but not yet the star we think of him as. He didn't truly break out until Jim Johnson arrived in 1999 and used him creatively. Harris was a lucky find. Tampa cut him just days before the 1998 season opener and the Eagles grabbed him. You could tell right away he was going to be a good player. Zordich is now the safeties coach for the Eagles. Vincent and Taylor were top flight corners in the middle of great careers. The 1998 Eagles gave up the fewest passing yards in the league that year. Part of that was due to other teams running since they had the lead, but don't take away from how good that secondary was. Those guys could cover, hit and tackle.
The 1998 Eagles finished 3-13. It truly was rock bottom for Eagles fans. The story ends on an up note, though. Without that horrific season and record we wouldn't have landed Reid and Donovan McNabb. That one year of misery was worth the decade-plus of success we've had since. Should the Eagles ever hit rock bottom again, hopefully after a few Lombardi trophies, I can only hope we come out of that as well as we did 1998.