EDITOR'S NOTE: Daily News alumnus Ray Didinger is a senior producer at NFL Films, a Comcast SportsNet analyst, a WIP radio host, and is a member of the writers' wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
THERE WERE MOMENTS in listening to the "Best of the Nest" when I let the years melt away and my imagination paint the picture.
I could see Bill Bergey tackling Steve Van Buren in the infield dirt at Connie Mack Stadium. I could see Lito Sheppard chasing Tommy McDonald through the late autumn shadows at Franklin Field. I could see Chuck Bednarik staring an angry hole through a showboating Terrell Owens.
I could see it all because the games that WIP's Glen Macnow played on an NFL simulation program matching the six greatest teams in Eagles history were a delightful brew of nostalgia and whimsy. It was a trip down memory lane, one that made you laugh - Joe Conklin imitating the voices of Merrill Reese, Bill Campbell and John Facenda - but also made you think.
What if these teams really did play?
What if Buddy Ryan's ferocious 1988 defense really did face Donovan McNabb and the 2004 Eagles? Picture Reggie White going against Jon Runyan. How about Jevon Kearse chasing down Randall Cunningham? Seth Joyner covering Brian Westbrook?
Imagine Dick Vermeil trying to find a way to beat the 1949 Eagles' defense coached by Hall of Famer Greasy Neale. Think about Wilbert Montgomery turning the corner and finding himself face-to-face with linebacker Alex Wojciechowicz, one of the legendary "Seven Blocks of Granite."
I played these games in my mind last week as the "Best of the Nest" tournament unfolded. I loved the concept, I loved the blasts from the past - Andy Harmon getting a sack, Louie Giammona scoring a touchdown - but I disagreed with the outcome.
The 1980 Eagles emerged as the winner, defeating the 2004 Eagles in the title game. The two Eagles teams that actually won NFL championships, the 1949 team and the 1960 team, were eliminated in the semifinals. The '60 team was blown out by the '04 team, 35-12, and the '49 team lost to the '80 team, 17-10.
To me, it is just more proof that you can't trust a computer. I'm sure WhatIfSports.com fed all the right data into the program, but the bottom line doesn't add up.
If you want to pick the best teams of all time, you should start with the teams that actually won a championship, and with the Eagles it is a very short list. There was the team that won back-to-back titles in 1948 and '49, then there was the 1960 team. In my mind, the conversation stops there.
The best team?
The 1949 Eagles and, in my opinion, it's not even close.
The 1960 team was an overachieving bunch that won on the leadership of quarterback Norm Van Brocklin (who was the league's most valuable player), the iron will of center/linebacker Bednarik (who played both ways at age 35), and the big-play heroics of McDonald (the Hall of Famer who scored 13 touchdowns on 39 receptions that season).
The 1960 team was 10-2 in the regular season and defeated Green Bay, 17-13, in the championship game at Franklin Field. It was Vince Lombardi's only postseason loss as a head coach, which adds luster to that title, but even the men who were a part of it agree, that was not a truly great team. Gritty? Yes. Exciting? Absolutely. But great? No.
The 1949 team, however, was great.
Of course, there is no way of saying for sure how a real head-to-head "best of the nest" tournament would have played out. Since the teams played in different eras, it is hard to compare. People will contend the older teams would have no chance against the modern teams. Johnny Green played defensive end for the 1949 Eagles at 195 pounds. How would he deal with a blocker the size of 6-7, 335-pound William Thomas? Answer: Probably not well.
But you cannot determine the best team on a pound-for-pound basis. You should measure each team by the standards of its era. There the comparisons are more valid. The players are the same size and they are playing with the same rule book. It is a level field. No Eagles team was more dominant in its era than the team of the late '40s, that's why I feel it was the best.
When I was doing the research for my book, "The Eagles Encyclopedia,'' I went through a mountain of statistics and it only deepened my respect for that championship club. Sadly, most Eagles fans are too young to know much about that team. They have heard about Van Buren and Bednarik, they may have seen a few old film clips, but it is hard for them to grasp the true measure of that team's greatness.
The 1949 team finished the regular season with an 11-1 record, and that .923 winning percentage is the highest in franchise history. Van Buren had the finest season of his career, rushing for 1,146 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns. Neale, the brilliant coach, built a defense that did not allow a touchdown in seven games, including the title game against the Los Angeles Rams.
There were five future Hall of Famers on the team: Neale, Van Buren, Bednarik, Wojciechowicz and end Pete Pihos, who led the league in receiving 3 years in a row and still ranks third in Eagles history with 373 catches and 61 touchdowns. Tackle Al Wistert was a six-time All-Pro and it is an injustice that he doesn't have a bust in Canton. He was that good.
Here are some numbers worth noting:
In 1949, the Eagles outscored their opponents, 364 points to 134; that was after outscoring their opponents the previous year, 376-156. They are one of only four teams in NFL history - the 1941-42 Chicago Bears, the 1967-68 Oakland Raiders and the 1975-76 Pittsburgh Steelers are the others - to outscore their opponents by more than 200 points in consecutive seasons. But the Eagles are the only team to win the league title in each of those seasons. The other three clubs fell short.
The 1949 Eagles defeated the Rams, 14-0, in the championship game. That was after defeating the Chicago Cardinals, 7-0, in the 1948 title game. No NFL team before or since has posted consecutive shutouts in championship play.
According to Wistert, one reason the Eagles were so successful was the prospect of a free meal. Bookbinder's restaurant would treat the whole team - players, wives and children - to dinner after a shutout.
"You don't think that was motivation?" Wistert said. "At halftime if we had a shutout working, guys would be talking about those lobster tails. Back in those days we weren't making much money, so a free dinner really meant something."