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Philadelphia Eagles

A Football Team in Philadelphia, PA

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Fly, Eagles, Fly

  • Mar 16, 2012
We all know that fans of the Philadelphia Eagles once lobbed snowballs at Santa Claus. But that was so long ago - the incident was even mentioned in the movie Invincible, which was about the Eagles and took place in the 70's - that's it's hardly even worth bringing up anymore. There are still endless reasons, however, to harass Eagles fans. For starters, there's the way they attacked Donovan McNabb and drove him out of Philadelphia despite his having an MVP-caliber season that year. Or the attacks at the Eagles' home field against a handful of Niners fans who just wanted to see their team play. The fans are, however, ranked quite highly for their loyalty: Since 2008, the stadium has sold out 71 consecutive games and the waiting list is 70,000 strong.

The team itself is another one of those frustrating NFL cases. They have a long, powerful history dating back to 1933. But they have only appeared in six NFL Championship games since then, winning three, and two of the losses include their only two Super Bowl appearances (1980 and 2004). No matter what their era, the Eagles have always had trouble conquering the proverbial hill, and their team history reads like what people expect most teams histories to be like: Dizzying long-term highs interspersed with unfathomable, long-term lows. And this is from a team with a base in the sixth-largest city in the United States!

The Eagles were started in 1933 as a replacement to the Frankford Yellow Jackets, who had folded in 1931. A couple of people who had played for the University of Pennsylvania, Lud Wray and Bert Bell, bought the rights and named the team the Eagles, inspired by the centerpiece of the New Deal. Bell's role in ownership is notable, as he went on to become the first real commissioner of the NFL. In 1935, it was Bell who came up with a revolutionary idea that would try to equalize talent across the league: An annual college draft! This was done to spread the talent as well as increase interest by guaranteeing that the worst teams would have a better shot every season because they would have a better chance at getting the best college talent. Bell did this because he noticed that between 1927 - the year the NFL started to center its business model more on major markets - and 1934, three teams - the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, and Chicago Bears - had won every Championship, with the one exception of 1928, when the Providence Steam Roller took the title. In 1936, the Eagles also received the great "privilege" of the first-ever draft pick and used it to take Jay Berwanger, a Heisman winner from the University of Chicago. You do have to remember, though, that playing professional football was a laughable option back then, and people with REAL options usually had their fun playing football in college before pursuing said options. The Eagles managed to trade the rights to Berwanger to the Bears in the small window of space between the time they picked him first overall and the time Berwanger heard about his drafting, laughed in the NFL's face, and enrolled in medical school.

In 1939, the Eagles had their first great recruiting success with record-shattering quarterback Davey O'Brien. That year they also played in the first NFL game ever televised when they fought the NFL Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. They lost. They earned some measure of respectability when they were forced to combine with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1943 to become the Steagles. All in all, the Eagles were a laughingstock for the first eleven years of their existence before putting forth a competitive team in 1944. Three years later, they went to their first NFL Championship, losing to the Chicago Cardinals. Undeterred by the loss, they returned the next year, aided by their home field in the form of a snowstorm, the Eagles won the title. They returned again to the NFL Championship the following year too, and won it again. The following season proved the beginning of a decline, but the Eagles did thrill their fans when they drafted Chuck Bednarik, a linebacker who would become a career Eagle and retire in 1962 as one of the team's most popular and beloved players.

The 50's Eagles were the remnants of those dominating 40's teams, so they managed to stay in title races for the early part of the decade. They got occasional infusions of talent, but for the most part the best thing to be said was they played hard and won just enough to give their fans promise for the future. In 1958, the team took some real steps toward improvement by hiring Buck Shaw to coach and grabbing Norm Van Brocklin in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams. In 1960, an observer said the team had nothing but a Championship, and it was true: The Eagles took home their third title that year with more willpower than actual talent. Shaw retired afterward and was supposed to be succeeded as coach by Van Brocklin, but they hired some guy named Nick Skorich to coach instead. For revenge, Van Brocklin went to coach the new expansion team in Minnesota. Skorich blew it as coach, and in 1964, former Washington Redskins coach Joe Kuharich was hired to a 15-year contract.

Kuharich spent his coaching tenure running the Eagles into the ground. He wasted great talent like Timmy Brown, Ollie Matson, and Sonny Jurgenson. He traded Jurgenson to the Redskins for Norm Snead. In 1968, the Eagles were on their way to the first pick of the draft when Kuharich somehow managed to win two of his last three games, thus guiding his team to a 2-12 record. Ordinarily eking out face-save victories is a good thing, but they lost the big prize in the 1969 draft. Their consolation prize was running back Leroy Keyes, who only played four years for Philadelphia. By the way, the Jurgenson/Snead trade put Jurgenson in the Hall of Fame while Snead, while a good player, wasn't quite good enough to place the team on his shoulders and lift them out of the basement. And the big prize in the 1969 draft was USC running back OJ Simpson, who went to Buffalo, where he founded the 2000 Yard club en route to over 11,000 career rushing yards which led him to his spot in Canton. (Yes, I know. But no matter what Simpson did, and no matter what we think of him, he was inarguably a tremendous football player who deserves his enshrinement. We can take back any honors bestowed on him until the cows come home, but his talent and accomplishments in football can never be taken from him.) Kuharich was fired with eleven years left on his contract.

After riding a coach carousel for the better part of the next few years, in 1975 the team took a chance on an untested and unheard of college football coach named Dick Vermeil. With Vermeil's enthusiasm, quarterback Ron Jaworski's arm, and a great defense, the Eagles began to take off again in 1978. They squeaked out a winning record that year on one of the most surreal plays in league history: The Miracle at the Meadowlands. In that game, Philadelphia's opponents, the New York Giants, were leading 17-12 in what were literally the closing seconds of the game. They also had a horrifically boneheaded offensive coordinator by the name of Bob Gibson. (In all fairness, Gibson didn't have a lot of faith in Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik. He also believed taking knees was dishonorable and unsportsmanlike, which was the dominant view of the time.) Gibson was one of the first offensive coordinators to call whole games from the booth upstairs, which is very common now. In a situation where football teams ALWAYS take knees to run out the clock, Gibson had quarterback Pisarcik call a run play in which running back Larry Csonka was supposed to take the handoff and run up the gut. Csonka reportedly begged Pisarcik to not give him the ball, and the other Giants players were also shocked when the call came in and begged him to change it. Pisarcik didn't change the play because Gibson had reamed him the previous week for changing a play, saying he'd put the second-year starting quarterback on waivers. Meanwhile, when the Eagles called for an eleven-man blitz when they saw what the Giants might be up to. The play ran, the handoff was fumbled, and Eagles defensive back Herman Edwards recovered it and ran it for a touchdown. The Eagles won and carried the momentum to a 9-7 record and a playoff spot. Pisarcik needed a Police escort to get to his car. Gibson was fired the next morning, never found another job in football, and to this day won't talk about the play to save his life. The Giants blew a ten-point lead against a 3-9 Buffalo team the next week and went 6-10 on the season, and their coach was fired after the season. The Miracle at the Meadowlands also made the kneel a legitimate play which coaches call in the waning seconds of close football games, much to the disappointment of traditionalists. (The Arena Football League actually has a rule against it.) It also resulted in the creation of a new formation used strictly to recover fumbled kneeldown snaps.

Vermeil had the Eagles in the Super Bowl by 1980. They were expected to beat the Oakland Raiders, but nothing went right and the Eagles got their asses handed to them in a 27-10 loss. Vermeil stayed on until he quit of burnout after the 1982 season, and was replaced by defensive coordinator Marion Campbell. Campbell's coaching didn't end well, but he did oversee the arrival of quarterback Randall Cunningham - one of the team's greatest quarterbacks - and defensive lineman Reggie White, quite likely the greatest defensive lineman in league history. Buddy Ryan was hired in 1986, after coordinating the might 46 defense for the Bears. His tough teams had some great years but never won a playoff game, and Ryan was fired after five years while the Eagles spent the next decade middling before Andy Reid was hired in 1999.

Reid began his tenure by drafting Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb, who would go on to lead the team's resurgence and become their greatest quarterback. From 2001 to 2004, the Eagles played in every NFC Championship game, losing the first three before winning in 2004 against the Atlanta Falcons. In the Super Bowl, they kept up with the New England Patriots, playing them close but ultimately losing because Reid suddenly forgot how to manage the clock in the final minutes. They got back to the NFC Championship in 2008 but lost to the Arizona Cardinals. IN 2010, McNabb was traded and the team was handed over to Michael Vick. Now, I'm not quite able to forgive Vick right now, but I'll give him this: He seems very serious about finding redemption for his dogfighting. The Eagles were willing to give him a spot, and before you go on about how he's being rewarded with millions of dollars after serving virtually no time in jail, first of all, he DID go to jail, and in a society where professional athletes have literally gotten away with murder (Simpson, I'm looking at you), that's saying something. As for his millions, the vast majority of that is being taken by the NFL and the federal government. Vick currently lives in a small apartment in Philadelphia which he is given some $800 a month to pay for. After that, he gets another $800 per month to spend on bills, groceries, and anything else he might need.

Vick is, however, becoming something he never was with the Falcons: A quarterback. He's no longer a running back who throws. He's a quarterback who runs. I hope to god he's honest about redeeming himself for his crime, because he's otherwise a likable enough guy, and I like seeing people turn their lives around after that, as well as the other shit he's done.

18 Hall of Famers have called Philadelphia home at one time during their careers. The first commissioner, Bert Bell, was one of them. All-time Eagles include Steve Van Buren, Chuck Bednarik, and Reggie White, although they've also employed Mike Ditka, Richard Dent, Norm Van Brocklin, Sonny Jurgenson, and quite a few others.

Despite the successes they've had, the Eagles are actually the least successful team in their division, the NFC East. This is partially they're fault, too; two of the league's historic titans, the Washington Redskins and New York Giants, are also in that division. The Redskins have won five NFL Championships, including three Super Bowls. They've played in six Super Bowls. The Giants have won eight titles, which include four Super Bowls, and are 4-1 in the Super Bowl. The Eagles have won three titles, but have only been in two Super Bowls, and lost them both for contrast. The humiliation, though, is the Dallas Cowboys are also part of that division; they were formed in 1960, making them considerably younger than any of the other teams in the NFC East. They won two Conference Championships before the Super Bowl era but lost the Championship. But in the Super Bowl era, they share their record number of Conference titles with the Pittsburgh Steelers with eight, and are second in Super Bowl victories with their five titles (Pittsburgh has six).

The Eagles are more an up and down team than any other team I've looked at. An adopting fan would do well to get used to a lot of dashed expectations.

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Nicholas Croston ()
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