When I started following the Eagles, they had a terrific safety duo in Andre Waters and Wes Hopkins. Waters was the strong safety and played more in the box. He wasn't big, but was extremely physical and an outstanding run defender. Hopkins was the centerfielder. He patrolled the deep middle, picking off passes and blowing up receivers who dared to cross the middle. The great Gang Green defense of 1991 doesn't dominate without those two players controlling the middle of the field.
They were eventually replaced with another strong duo, Mike Zordich and Greg Jackson. Zordich was the strong safety. He played at about 210 pounds and was like having a fourth linebacker on the field. Zordich was solid in coverage, but really stood out when defending the run. Jackson was the coverage safety. They weren't as dynamic as Waters and Hopkins, but still helped the Eagles have top-five defenses in 1994 and 1995.
Those were all really good players. They had distinct skill sets.
The Eagles drafted a kid named Brian Dawkins in 1996. He was brought in to help on special teams and to challenge for the free safety job. Dawkins was in the starting lineup by Week 2. He stayed there for the next 13 seasons.
For the first three years, Dawkins played the conventional free safety role. He mostly lined up deep and focused on keeping things in front of him. There were times when he played in the slot. There were times when he lined up in the box. Mostly, though, Dawkins played deep.
That all changed in 1999. Andy Reid was hired to be the new head coach. He brought in Jim Johnson to be his defensive coordinator. Johnson studied his new players and saw an intriguing talent in Dawkins. He was good as is, but could do so much more.
Rather than coach Dawkins as he would any other safety, Johnson got creative and figured out different ways to use his new toy. This changed the future for Dawkins, the Eagles, and the game of football.
Dawkins was a good player in 1998. He was a weapon in 1999. The first thing offenses had to do was figure out where he would line up. Dawkins might be deep, in the slot, or in the box. After finding him, the quarterback had to try to figure out if Dawkins was going to blitz or cover, whether it was man or zone coverage.
Dawkins was special because he could do it all, and do it exceptionally well. Like Waters, he lacked ideal size but still was outstanding at playing in the box. Dawkins would take on blockers who were 100 pounds bigger than him and find a way to disrupt the play. He wasn't afraid of anyone or anything.
Like Hopkins, Dawkins could play centerfield. He had sideline-to-sideline range. Dawkins picked off any pass he got his hands on thanks to his tremendous ball skills. If he didn't think he could get to the ball cleanly, Dawkins would focus on hitting the receiver.
Dawkins was a vicious tackler. He could turn his body into a missile and explode into the midsection of his target. He didn't care if he was hitting a receiver, tight end, or running back. Bigger players made for bigger targets. I think we all remember the iconic hit on tight end Alge Crumpler in the 2004 NFC Championship Game. That was an explosive hit.
Coming out of college, Dawkins had such good man cover skills that some thought he might be best suited to play cornerback. None of the other Eagles safeties I've mentioned were anywhere close to Dawkins in this regard. Dawkins could line up over the slot receiver and lock that player down.
For my money, Dawkins is the best blitzing defensive back I've ever seen. He had great timing. Some defensive backs are overanxious, and that actually makes them slow off the ball. Others try to play it too cool, and that makes them slow off the ball. Dawkins timed the snap well and exploded into the backfield.
He understood how to slip blocks so even if someone was there to slow him down. He also knew how to finish. Many defensive backs get into the backfield and don't know what to do. Dawkins finished his career with 26 sacks. He knew exactly what to do when he had a quarterback in front of him.
Safety is one of my favorite positions. I can't tell you how much I loved Waters and Hopkins. I was a huge fan of Gary Fencik when he was a star for the Bears. Kenny Easley was an amazing player for Seattle before injuries ended his career. Steve Atwater of the Broncos was a huge, punishing hitter. Vann McElroy was a ball hawk for the Raiders. I fixated on Joey Browner from the Vikings. And that Ronnie Lott guy was OK, too.
Dawkins was unlike any of those guys. He changed the position. He was listed as a free safety, but that was to help out depth charts and player titles. There's a reason why Dawkins was called Weapon X.
Smart coaches see players as individuals. Legendary Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski says if you put a plant in a pot, it will grow accordingly. It will be limited by the pot. If you put that same plant in a field, the possibilities are endless.
The point of this is not to label a player with a particular position and use him just as you would any other guy who plays that position, especially when you have a unique talent like Dawkins.
Football is becoming more and more of a positionless sport. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will tell you that safeties must be interchangeable. Gone are the days of the box safety and the centerfielder. The modern passing game just won't allow for that.
Dawkins was a pioneer for this kind of football. You could line him up anywhere on the field and use him in a variety of ways. That alone made him unique. The fact he could do all of these things at a high level made him a special player. No, a Hall of Fame player.
Congrats, Dawk and thank you for 13 incredible seasons.