LANDOVER, Md. — The last time this happened, Bill Clinton was president and you used dial-up internet to access your AOL account to commiserate with your friends about your lousy football team. Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Malcolm Jenkins were in elementary school, mourning Tupac and celebrating Jay-Z.
Sunday, more than 22 years later, they were celebrating a shutout.
In a must-win game, at the end of an exhausting season, the Eagles beat Washington, 24-0. That’s rare. The Eagles' defense recorded its first shutout since they blanked the Giants on Oct. 12, 2014. Only three players remain from that effort: Graham, Cox, and Jenkins.
If that sounds impressive, consider this: The last time the Eagles shut out a team on the road was Dec. 1, 1996, also against the Giants. Graham, Cox, and Jenkins were still using Walkmans.
Cox sacked Josh Johnson three times. Graham had two tackles for loss and had a strip-sack overturned as an incompletion. Jenkins was everywhere.
They allowed zero points, and while that’s the most important number, it’s not the most impressive. They allowed 30 total yards at halftime, and 38 by the end of the third quarter (discounting the Redskins' successful fake punt), at which point the Redskins had possessed the ball just 9 minutes, 12 seconds of the 45 minutes played.
They played their best game of the year, just in time to make another run through the playoffs.
“You always want to be playing your best at the end of the season,” said linebacker Nigel Bradham. “We pitched a shutout. On the road!”
The notion that the Eagles' defense would shut out any team seemed ridiculous a month ago. After all, the defense was the main reason why the Eagles were 8-7 and needed the Bears to beat the Vikings on Sunday. Battered by injury and bashed by everyone, the defense now has its finest hour in a season of awful moments.
It couldn’t hold fourth-quarter leads against the Titans and Panthers. This defense allowed 48 points in New Orleans and was the worst element in the 41-point blowout, the worst loss ever by a defending Super Bowl champion.
The Eagles were 4-6, and their defense was reeling from personnel losses and undergoing an identity crisis. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz asked little-used players to do too much too quickly, and they failed.
This defense isn’t that defense. This defense has regrouped. This defense has remade itself over the past six games and has been integral to all five wins therein.
This defense doesn’t allow deep balls. The replacements understand their assignments. The 30-somethings -- Chris Long, Michael Bennett, Jenkins, and Graham -- are playing as if they’re five years younger. To a man, this defense tackles like a pack of wolves.
“We’re scary,” said cornerback Rasul Douglas.
He embodies the defense’s metamorphosis. Douglas intercepted Johnson’s first pass. He dropped Johnson for a 5-yard loss to end the Redskins' fourth drive. He finished with six tackles, the fourth time in the past five games that he’s led the team in tackles. He’s a cornerback.
“The guys in the back end have been playing really well, keeping those big plays off us,” Jenkins said. “We’ve figured out what we do well, which is little bit different than what we did last year, especially for the newer guys. How do we put them in position to play fast, so they know their spots? Then it becomes all 11 guys being in their spot when they’re supposed to be there. When we do that, we have success.”
Certainly, shutting out the Redskins isn’t any stamp of dominance. Washington scored 16 points in each of their three previous games, 13 points four games ago and scored more than 23 points just twice this season, and that includes the first 10 games, before quarterback Alex Smith broke his leg. The Redskins ranked 28th in offense and 29th in scoring.
The Eagles beat Josh Johnson.
Understood. But that’s who was in front of them.
And the Eagles' defense, quite literally, could not have hoped for a better result.