The Forgotten Defense: The 1991 Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles of the late 1980s were a stifling defensive team, being led by the infamous Buddy Ryan, but little attention was given to the offense. That was to blame for the continuous playoff upset losses in 1988, 1989, and 1990 against the Bears (The Fog Bowl), Rams and Redskins. In 1991, the Eagles were poised for a title run, with an extremely talented defense including the likes of Reggie White, Seth Joyner, Jerome Brown, Andre “Muddy” Waters, Clyde Simmons, Eric Allen…the list goes on.

The Super Bowl dreams were shattered on opening day, however, as star quarterback Randall Cunningham tore his ACL after a low sack by Bryce Paup of Green Bay.

Randall Cunningham 3

Cunningham and the fans blamed it on Rich Kotite’s constant “stay in the pocket” mantra, which Cunningham was extremely uncomfortable with, being a scrambling quarterback.

His replacement was 60 year old Jim McMahon, who, while a perfectly fine replacement, was injury prone.

The other two quarterbacks weren’t as successful. Jeff Kemp and Brad Goebel were awful, combining for 5 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The running game was worse, averaging only 3.1 yards per carry as a team. Despite the defense holding opposing teams to 15.2 points per game, the offense could only best that by 2 points, scoring 17.8 per game.

But enough about the offense, this is a post about defense! In order to cover for their stale offense, the defense had to step up, big time. They did just that, and then some. Philadelphia was 5th in points allowed in the league, first in total yards allowed (beating out the next best team, the Saints, by over 400 yards), passing yards allowed, and rushing yards allowed, becoming the first team since 1975 to achieve that feat. Philadelphia allowed 3.9 yards per play when no other team allowed fewer than 4.5, and allowed only 3.0 yards per carry to opposing backs. Three members of the defensive line were All-Pros, those three being Reggie White, Jerome Brown, and Clyde Simmons. They only allowed 30 or more points 3 times. This unit also led the NFL in sacks (54), and takeaways (48), with the latter tying for the most in the 1990s.

Football Outsiders calculates that the 1991 Eagles had the best defense in their team’s ranking system, far and away.

Only the 2002 Bucs had a better pass defense, and only the 2000 Ravens had a better run defense, and the Eagles were much more balanced than either of those teams.

If the Eagles had a half-decent offense, they would have finished with about 13 or 14 wins, but sadly, they couldn’t deliver on that half of the field.

The Eagles finished with a 10-6 record, but finished 3rd in the NFC East thanks to 14-2 Washington and 11-5 Dallas. The Eagles were only one of the two teams to beat Washington, with a 24-22 win Week 17. They also held the AFC Central winning run-and-shoot Oilers to 6 points at home.

To think how good this team would have been is a dagger through the collective heart of Philadelphia fans and NFL historians alike.


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