When They Were Kings
The inside story of the greatest defense to never win a Super Bowl
Merrill Reese, who has broadcast every Philadelphia Eagles game since the 1977 season, simply calls it "the greatest defense in the history" of the team.
It is the 1991 defense, a unit that included such iconic Eagles as Reggie White, Seth Joyner, Jerome Brown and Andre Waters. Statistically, it was one of the best defensive units to ever take the field, finishing the year No. 1 in total defense, rushing defense and passing defense - the first team to achieve the Triple Crown since the "Purple People Eater"-era Minnesota Vikings in 1975.
Yet, those who played for the '91 defense often talk about that year with tinges of regret for one simple reason: Despite finishing 10-6, the team failed to make the playoffs. The result, says then-cornerback Eric Allen, is that the unit has been relegated to a "footnote" in history.
That may be true in some places. But not in Philadelphia, where - nearly 20 years after it last walked off the carpet at Veterans Stadium - the '91 unit is still held up as the standard for defensive excellence, beloved for both its dominance and the characters that made up the group. Here is their story:
In January 1991, 3 days after the team's third consecutive first-round playoff loss, Eagles owner Norman Braman fired popular coach Buddy Ryan. Six hours later, Braman replaced Ryan with offensive coordinator Rich Kotite. "It is time to stop being a bridesmaid and become a bride," Braman said at the time. "We hope we made the moves today that will get us to the Promised Land." The offense Kotite oversaw the previous season was actually ranked No. 3 in the NFL. The defense, though, had been assembled by Ryan - and the unit's loyalties remain, to this day, with Ryan.
Seth Joyner, linebacker: Clearly, no one was happy with the move . . . We were a 10-, 11-game winner over a 3-year span . . . You turn around and let the head coach go who put it all together? Winning head coaches don't usually get fired. So there was a lot of animosity and a lot of bitterness that went on as far as players are concerned.
Britt Hager, linebacker: You not only lost Buddy, but you lost [defensive coordinator] Jeff Fisher . . . So not only your head coach, who's a defensive-minded coach, but you lost a coordinator that we all admired, enjoyed and wanted to play for.
Byron Evans, linebacker: Jeff Fisher, Wade Phillips. Who's going to be the next coach? . . . To let [Ryan] go was a big shocker. And to go get Rich Kotite was a bigger shocker.
Wes Hopkins, safety: We were mainly upset that Jeff Fisher didn't get the head-coaching job . . . Jeff was our defensive coordinator, and when Braman made that decision to go with Kotite, it was based on what our offense was doing . . . Why would you make the head coach our offensive coordinator who's over one of the bad offenses in the league, over the defensive coordinators of one of the best defenses in the league?
Eric Allen, cornerback: The year before Kotite took over, he was on our staff as the offensive coordinator, sort of hired without Buddy's approval. And the first practice, there was tension between him and the defensive side of the ball. He kind of came with the view that this was like other teams, and defensively, we're going to cow down and let the offense run us over. For Buddy and our team, that wasn't the case. Our defense, we were the lead dogs. We were the ones you made waves for. There were a couple comments early between Kotite and Jerome Brown in 1990, and it kind of set the direction of our relationship from then on.
Kotite: When I went there in 1990, I went as the offensive coordinator. And when we went to training camp, this I had never seen before. Players on offense told me their curfew was at 11 p.m. The
defensive curfew was midnight . . . You tell me the atmosphere that was created there? . . . I understood how it was. I understood all that stuff.
Joyner: As a defensive team, we had no idea who Rich Kotite was. There was no back-and-forth between us and him before he was hired as the head coach. He didn't really know the defensive players. And his personality changed once he became the head coach, which also rubbed guys the wrong way . . . We didn't really respect him.
Kotite: I never was in the business of trying to have everybody like me. And they had a heck of allegiance to an outstanding coach. And that was great. All I cared about, did it help the football team?
Allen: We're still working with Buddy and his principles as the mode of operation. Kotite is just kind of a figurehead. He doesn't really have anything to do with us, to be honest. He doesn't really speak to us. It's not a really good relationship.
Kotite: The most important thing, I've always felt, I'm not running for office. I'm not running a popularity contest. And I think I got the right guy to [run the defense], and we did some very good things.
The Carson show
When Jeff Fisher left Philadelphia to become the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams, Kotite hired former Cleveland Browns coach Bud Carson to replace him. Carson had a storied history, including two Super Bowl victories with the Pittsburgh Steelers as defensive coordinator - the architect of the "Steel Curtain" of the 1970s.
Kotite: My No. 1 task was to get a great defensive coach. And I got Bud Carson, who in my estimation, was as good as anyone I'd ever seen.
Merrill Reese: Bud Carson, to me, belongs in the Hall of Fame . . . He was an average head coach, but as a defensive coordinator he was absolutely brilliant. He looked like a college professor going back in his laboratory and stirring something up, and then making it work.
Joyner: We weren't really happy to have Bud Carson come in as a defensive coordinator, but as time went on, we implemented some of the things we were doing and we saw how legitimate he was as defensive coordinator. As time went on, our impression of who he was and what he could do for us changed dramatically.
Mike Pitts, defensive lineman: We knew that Bud would probably come in and make a few changes, but to be honest with you, the changes weren't that drastic. He knew he had a good defense, so why change things?
Allen: He gave Buddy the utmost respect in the meetings by mentioning, "You know what? I don't have to do a lot here. You guys understand the plays. You guys are extremely tough. You guys have been coached well, you guys are intelligent, smart football team . . . I'm going to move guys around a little bit to put you in better position to make plays."
Joyner: Byron would come into the huddle and call an old defense, and everyone would look at each other and laugh. And there were times [Carson would] call a coverage and we'd call a similar coverage and we'd play it, and he'd be like, "What's going on? What's that coverage what you're running?" It kind of angered him for a while. We pushed authority for a while, and then it came a time when we realized, "This guy knows what he's doing. If we listen to him, we could have a lot of success."
Hopkins: He actually made our defense better . . . He made our defense better by incorporating the secondary into Buddy Ryan and Jeff Fisher's system. Our coverages matched what we were doing up front.
Allen: Once we started this process and saw how the two defenses are married together, it was like magic. It really was. Buddy had the 46. When he came to Philly, it was called an over-10. When Bud came, he basically called it the Eagles defense. He said, "I'm going to take what Buddy had given you guys and from now on, I'm going to call it after you guys. It's not going to be the 46 from the Bears; it's not going to be this random defense; it's going to be called the 'Eagles Defense.' " . . . And that was special for us. We had a lot of respect for Bud.
Reese: I think what they respected about Bud Carson was his brilliance. The fact that they saw, whatever he told them, worked.
'They stepped it up'
The marquee player on offense was quarterback Randall Cunningham, who was coming off an MVP season. His 1991 campaign, however, ended on the first play of the second quarter in the season-opener against Green Bay, when Packers linebacker Bryce Paup tackled Cunningham and left the franchise quarterback with torn ligaments in his left knee. Jim McMahon was Cunningham's backup, although McMahon also missed four games that season because of injury. The Eagles would eventually play five quarterbacks, including Jeff Kemp, Brad Goebel and Pat Ryan, the latter two of whom combined for 10 interceptions and zero touchdowns.
Reese: Stan Walters turned to me - Stan was doing the color at the time; we were in Green Bay [when Cunningham got hurt] - and Stan says, "There goes the season."
Kotite: People were saying, "Jeez, Rich. Too bad. What a way to start." And I said, "Well, listen. We'll see what happens."
Hopkins: That's our offense, basically. Our concept was Randall make a few big plays, and we can win on defense. With Randall going down, it's like, "We're on our own."
Clyde Simmons, defensive lineman: He was such a key component of the offense . . . We knew then we'd need to step it up. Jimmy Mac was the backup and he had a history of getting hurt.
Joyner: We went through maybe five or six quarterbacks that year . . . I think that was the year, more than any other year, that it created a tremendous divide between the offense and the defense. We were like, "Just give us 12 or 14 points, and we'll do the rest." It was frustrating.
Kotite: I never heard one guy on the team say, "Oh, God, we don't have Randall!" This has nothing to do with Randall. This has to do with their mindset. This has to do with them playing and practicing every day. They didn't bow their heads. They stepped it up more than a notch to do all the things we did in that year.
One of the greatest
The defense showed its potential in Week 3 against the Dallas Cowboys, when it combined for 11 sacks and four turnovers and limited the Cowboys to 90 total yards in a 24-0 blowout.
Allen: At the time, they [the Cowboys] were trying to turn the corner. It seemed like it was a race between our two franchises to see who was going to be that next team. Remember, the Redskins had won a championship. The Giants had won a championship. And basically, we were the best division in football, so it's going to be either us or the Cowboys.
Pitts: They were young, and they were starting to get recognition. A lot of trash-talking was going on. Michael Irvin was talking the most trash. But we wanted to go out there and show you had to respect the Philadelphia Eagles.
Joyner: We were at that point as a defense where we were just becoming a dominant defense. A bunch of young guys with basically 5 years under our belt, we knew what was it like to prepare and get things done. It was just our time. Dallas was trying to figure out how to rectify us, because we were their measuring rod. If their offense could get to the point where they could survive against our defense, there weren't many of the defenses in the league that could stop them.
Simmons: It was a perfect day for us. Weather was perfect . . . Sometimes when you play Dallas early in the year, it's smoky down there. Everything seemed to go right.
Scott Kowalkowski, linebacker: Total domination from Down 1. I don't think they could move the ball at all. I think that the scheme that we had teed up that week really fit in . . . I don't know if the 11 sacks in one game was a record or not. I just remember that, personally, as an absolute demolishing of an offense.
Reese: I remember what I said on air. I said, after about eight sacks, "If this were a heavyweight fight, it would be stopped." That's how totally dominating the Eagles' defense was.
Hopkins: It was an easy game for me playing free safety. Any time Troy Aikman went back to pass, he was sacked. Any time he wasn't sacked, he was hit. If he wasn't hit, he was running for his life. The secondary was basically us standing back watching the dominance of our linemen.
Reese: It's not often that I felt sorry for the Dallas Cowboys, but I actually remember almost feeling sorry for Troy Aikman and the tremendous pounding he was taking.
Allen: I was never really intimidated by the Cowboys. That was one of the games where our game plan worked. They weren't very difficult to prepare for. That's what I always remember from them. It allowed us to really play with a lot of enthusiasm and aggression. And I remember feeling in control with everything that went out in the secondary.
Evans: We couldn't do anything wrong. Eleven sacks, three interceptions. Probably one of the great defensive games of all time.
Kotite: We played as well as we possibly could play.
Supplying the pain
In Eric Allen's home office, he keeps a signed football that reads: 12-2-91; Eagles 13, Houston 6. That game against the Oilers is remembered as the "House of Pain" game, when the Eagles stymied high-flying Houston on "Monday Night Football," forcing five fumbles and limiting the league's No. 2 offense to two field goals.
Simmons: Going into the game, there was a lot of talk how the [Oilers'] offense was so unstoppable and how they put points up against everyone . . . They were talking like we were a high-school football team they were getting ready to play. It started to get a little personal. We didn't say a lot in the press about it. But during the week, in our preparation, people were starting to get pissed off with how they were talking about us.
Pitts: We knew we were on the big stage. Commentators were talking about that they didn't know if our defense was for real or not. They didn't know if we were playing on emotion because Buddy had been released. And we wanted to show them this was what Buddy put together.
Hopkins: In the AFC, they had a really good defense. And their place was, of course, called the House of Pain.
Allen: And so when we get down there, we're in the tunnel. Guys were talking about this is the house . . . Jerome said, "You guys gave the house, but we're going to supply the pain." From that moment on, we took it personal.
Evans: They had the run-and-shoot. Warren Moon was throwing the ball all over the place. And then Wes Hopkins, he hit one of those little guys across the middle, and it was over after that . . . Seth, he was sick. I don't know what he had in his IVs, but he had a heck of a game.
Jim Vechiarella, linebackers coach: We didn't know if [Joyner] was going to play. In pregame, his temperature was very high. That was an example of a guy who was so determined, he had one of the greatest nights of any individual against that group.
Hager: He's sitting there with a 100-whatever temperature, acting like you're sick, IVs in there. I was backup, preparing to go in and he pops up, and that was a game of a lifetime.
Joyner: That was a big game I had to have. That was the signature game for us defensively that year, because as good as we were, you're not looked upon as a great defense until you play one of the great offenses and shut down them.
Allen: It was just phenomenal how [Joyner] was able to really showcase his talent of being a very versatile player. From that moment on, when you talk about linebackers, he was in the argument.
Hopkins: They had cues with their receivers, how they ran their routes . . . I give Bud Carson all the credit. He found tips they would do with their receivers to show who Warren Moon was going to throw the ball to. In certain cases, Bud Carson would have Andre [Waters] and myself watch just one receiver. And if he put his hand up, Warren was going to throw him the ball.
Reese: They came over the middle, and Andre Waters and Wes Hopkins were just pulverizing them. You could hear the hits all the way up in the press box.
Kowalkowski: We shut them down from the run-and-shoot. I don't think they were the same after that. It was one of those kind of games where, whatever we did on defense, everybody copycatted. It shut them down and they weren't the same.
Vechiarella: That run-and-shoot became run-and-dunk.
Allen: People really understood how good we were after that performance.
Kotite: I remember we were in the old locker room and I'm speaking to the team, and the lights were kind of dim, and I see this steam coming up from all these heads. The guys played so hard ... We played next against the Giants up in New York. I said the next time you're putting the shoulder pads on is when you're stepping out on the field at Giants Stadium, and they went crazy.
One reason the 1991 defense was so good was that it wasn't just a unit on the field; the group maintained a tight bond off the field, as well, often spending idle time together.
Pitts: We weren't a bunch of guys who just showed up in the locker room for practice. It was amazing. Jerome Brown would have fish-fries over at his home. Randall would have people over at his house. Reggie and Sarah. Everybody. We involved the family. It wasn't like we were a bunch of strange players. We were one unit.
Kowalkowski: There was a function, everybody was expected to show up. It was an old-school mentality.
Allen: About four, five of us lived in the same complex in Cherry Hill. It was Jerome, Clyde, Seth, myself and Keith Jackson. Keith had just left, and then it was Keith Byars. We would all hang. We'd eat crabs. Go to Kenny Jackson's place, eat crabs on Friday. Go to Jerome's condo and play cards. It was just a really great group of guys to grow up with and learn from. A lot of that was brought from Buddy from Chicago.
Hager: We traveled to Atlantic City
together, to restaurants together; we did functions on Tuesdays together as a team. A lot of guys showed up, and the leaders would be part of it. The star players would be leading the charge.
Simmons: We'd bowl . . . We went to dinner together, out drinking together. It was a lot of things.
Allen: My brother would come into town. I don't like to hang out late, so he'd hang out with Jerome and Jerome would take care of him.
Hopkins: We would try to stay as close together because with that team, it was much more than just a football team where we come to work, practice, go to meetings and then leave and go home and everybody's on their own. We tried to do a lot of things together. We would have a night out, maybe a Wednesday or a Thursday, the defensive backs, linebackers, defensive players, just go out and have a dinner or something just to keep that camaraderie.
Allen: I remember they had the banquet room and they had this table that seemed like a mile long. And every 15, 20 minutes, they'd come and change the table. It would go from salmon, to shrimp, to steak. And we were just like, "Are you crazy?" Everyone was trying to take stuff. We were calling from Philly to come down and eat.
Evans: I remember I used to do a lot of camps and free clinics for the community. I'd call and they'd all come down. You had Wes, you had Seth, you had Eric, you had Clyde, you had Andre, you had Willie T. [linebacker Willie Thomas]. Anyone you called, they would come down.
Allen: The girlfriends would all hook up. We would be at practice sometimes, and we'd get a call from the highway patrol or the state troopers. "Hey, we just saw Ms. Allen, Ms. Byars and a couple other wives make it back from the New Jersey mall to get home before you guys finish practice. So just be aware that they went shopping." So we'd get home, "Where have you been, babe?" "Oh, I just went to lunch!" "No, you didn't!"
Kowalkowski: [Mike] Golic and I, and Antone Davis and Reggie White, when Tennessee played Notre Dame that year, had a bet that the loser would have to sing the other person's fight song on TV. You can probably Google it. And there's Mike and I, with these hats on, singing "Rocky Top."
Hopkins: It was just a group that I don't think will happen too much anymore in the league anymore because of the way guys move to different teams now.
Allen: It's how I thought every team was. But after leaving, you realize how important and how unique that really was.
With a six-game winning streak and a postseason bid on the line, the Eagles hosted the Cowboys at Veterans Stadium during the next-to-last game of the season. The Cowboys started Steve Beuerlein in place of Troy Aikman, but still left Philadelphia with a 25-13 victory that put the Eagles' playoffs chances in jeopardy. They needed help the following week - help that never came - and finished the season 10-6, missing the playoffs.
Allen: It was kind of like the microcosm of the whole season into one game ... You feel helpless because there's nothing else you can do. We did all we could to prepare and play well. But when it came down to it, we still missed Randall. We still missed that guy we lost in Week 1 of the season. If we only had him or a capable guy, we could have done some special things that year.
Hopkins: It was kind of surreal.
Watching how we lost on the sideline, it wasn't the offense doing anything wrong or the defense having the Cowboys offense score on us. It was a special-teams play that ended up losing it.
Joyner: You get a safety, that's two points. You get a punt return, that's another seven. A couple field goals. You have two field goals and you have 15 points and the defense didn't really give up anything. Just 15 points would have been enough to beat us. There are things surrounding that game. Any time you give up 210 yards total offense, usually you have enough to win the game.
Simmons: It was a bitter pill to swallow. To this day, and I felt it when we lost that game, if we would have gotten into the playoffs, we would have gotten to the Super Bowl.
Hopkins: I remember just being on the field after the Cowboys scored on the punt return, looking at the Cowboys' sideline and just thinking, "This is one of the best teams that I'd ever been associated with on defense, and why did it have to end this way that there's nothing we can do on defense to make something happen to change this?" They ended up having the ball and kneeling down on it, and all we could do is watch them celebrate kicking us out of the playoffs.
'We're not invincible'
The 1991 defense was the last great one with the group that Buddy Ryan had assembled. The following June, Jerome Brown died in a car accident. The following year, Reggie White left as a free agent, and the rest of the defense soon split.
Joyner: Once Jerome died, that was the signal of the end. Because without him in the middle, it made life more difficult for Clyde and Reggie, because now you don't have a guy pushing in the middle who you have to double.
Hager: Jerome's persona was bigger than life, but he was bigger than life. When that guy got into the room, the atmosphere changed.
Allen: When Jerome passed away, you just felt like, "Wow, we're not invincible! You really can't predict what our futures are going to be. It's life and death." It took us a long time to understand how to come back and try to fill that friendship void. That was like a brother, not a teammate. It was very difficult for us. Because we were so tight, we tried to keep his great sense of humor alive. Whenever we traveled, we took his locker, his jersey with us. We tried everything we could do to get to the big game for him. But it came down to, we needed him. He was a huge piece of our success.
Simmons: It made me change my approach to how I thought about football because it was a great loss to me. A dear friend and someone I was as close to as my own brother. When he died, it changed the way I approached the game. It became more businesslike than having fun.
Hopkins: I know the next year, he [Kotite] started trying to meddle with the defense, also. We were on defense thinking, "He can't do anything on offense; why is he trying to mess with our defense?" That was the beginning of guys not wanting to be in Philadelphia anymore.
Pitts: I really felt like if Jerome was there the next season, we probably would have made it deep in the playoffs. We did get there, but we could have gotten to the Super Bowl. When he passed away, there was a lot missing.
Joyner: I think any shot we had went down the tubes when Jerome passed away. Because then Reggie left, and we didn't have the horses to compete anymore.
The '91 legacy
Twenty years later, pride is not the only remaining emotion when the players reflect on the '91 season. There are also pangs of regret, because there is so little to show for their effort. And although the '91 defense remains alive in barroom debates and the NFL record book, its legacy is limited by the lack of playoff success.
Allen: Every time Super Bowl Sunday comes up, there's that hole. I wish things could have been different. I wish we could have won the big game with that Eagles team.
Kotite: [For quarterbacks] to come off the street and overall have the offense have production, have a defense that dominated all the time . . . I think everybody on that team, and I would hope all the Eagle fans - and they are great fans and we know the passion - would realize that it was one of the greatest efforts that I've seen. To be able to win 10 games and do it in a very physical and commanding way, as we look back, it was a great effort by the team.
Simmons: I take a lot of pride that we were that good that year and go down in history as one of the best defenses out there. But what's bittersweet about it, as good as we were, we don't get the same recognition as the Ravens did when they won the Super Bowl; the Steelers, Doomsday.
Vechiarella: I don't know if it was the best, but I'll tell you what, I don't know too many that would have been better.
Allen: It still stings every time people talk about great defenses. I played against the Ravens in 2000, they weren't even close to us . . . They had Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and after that? Tony Siragusa? You're going to compare Tony Siragusa with Jerome Brown? . . . But they won a championship and we didn't.
Joyner: I also look back at a time of great regret because had Buddy not gotten fired . . . You look at what could have been because the rug was pulled out from under us before we had the chance to finish what we begun.
Allen: In the end, the game is all about winning. The winners get to write about history. And if you don't, it's always "but." "We were great, but . . . " You want to have the hardware to show how good you were. We didn't finish.