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Was the 1991 Eagles Defense the Best Ever?

Bloody, brutal, and indomitable, the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles defense should be known as the best in NFL history.

The Pittsburgh Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s are highly regarded among football fans as the best-ever. The 1985 Super Bowl-Shufflin' Chicago Bears are said to have had the best squad of the modern era. Even the 2000 Baltimore Ravens have their admirers.

But in 1991, Bud Carson—the same architect of those Steel Curtain defenses—had the best defensive personnel and personalities ever assembled on an NFL field.

The Eagles' lack of postseason success in that era causes their defense to be somewhat overlooked in the discussions of the best-ever squads. Those failures were largely the fault of the offense.

In 1991, the Birds did not even make the postseason, starting five different quarterbacks due to a string of injuries. Even so, the team cobbled together a 10-6 record.

When looking at the individual pieces of the 1991 Eagles defense, it is staggering how complete the unit was.

The line was anchored by Reggie White, perhaps the greatest defensive player to ever play football. Reggie’s ability to regularly destroy double teams allowed his counterpart, DE Clyde Simmons, to add another 13 sacks to Reggie’s 15. Each collected more than 100 tackles apiece, an astounding total for any defensive end, let alone any two on the same team.

The run-stuffing tackles were led by the larger-than-life Jerome Brown, who tallied nine sacks of his own that year, earning a second consecutive Pro Bowl berth.

Alas, 1991 was the last year in what could have been a Hall of Fame career for Brown, who was killed tragically in an automobile accident during that off-season. Even then, Brown's spirit inspired the 1992 team to another fine season, which ended in the Eagles' first playoff victory in 12 years, against the New Orleans Saints.

The linebacking corps was led by Seth Joyner and Byron Evans. In recording 100-plus tackles, seven sacks, six forced fumbles and three interceptions, Joyner played at an All-Pro level that year. Evans made more than 100 tackles himself.

The defensive backfield was anchored by Eric Allen, one of the best cover cornerbacks in the history of the NFL, and who should end up in Canton. Allen earned the second of his six Pro Bowl selections in 1991.

The safety tandem of Wes Hopkins and Andre Waters struck fear into the hearts of opposing receivers. These two were as much the heart and soul of this fearsome defense as any other of its component, roaming the middle of the field like cold-eyed killers, daring receivers to enter their realm.

The ferocity of the defense was the aspect that elevates it above any other in NFL history. Other NFL teams feared playing against the 1991 Eagles defense. The eye test often tells a deeper story than do the stats.

Carson's squad was as violent and single-minded as a school of sharks that smells blood. Its purpose was to punish opponents as much as to tackle them. The 1991 Eagles actually intimidated other NFL players, feeding on the opportunity to extract blood from their opponents.

The best example of this was the famous “House of Pain Game” against the Houston Oilers, who had taken to calling their stadium, the Houston Astrodome, the “House of Pain” for their opponents.

On Monday Night Football with the nation watching, the Eagles manhandled the Oilers, forcing six fumbles while holding the high-flying Houston team to 21 yards rushing and just six points.

The Eagles literally bloodied the speedy Oilers receivers, who refused to go over the middle, into the teeth of the Eagles defense, after seeing one of their own being carted off the field with a broken nose. In choosing safety over valor, the Oilers receivers lived to play another day, but without their usual contribution, the game belonged to the Eagles.  

After the game, Jerome Brown famously quipped, “They brought the house. We brought the pain.”

In 1991, the Eagles played in the toughest division in football. The 1985 Bears played in a putrid division. Despite that, the '91 Eagles allowed 35 fewer yards per game than did the '85 Bears.

In fact, the 1991 Eagles put up the second-best numbers against the run and the pass in the history of the NFL. That the same defense could achieve both in the same year is inconceivable; the Bears were third against the pass in 1985 alone.

Football Outsiders ranks the 1991 Eagles as the greatest defensive team in history, noting “they completely lap the field in terms of defensive DVOA,” a complex ranking formula that considers the quality of opponents in determining the value of a defense.

The 1991 Eagles led the league in fewest yards allowed against the rush, the pass, and overall. The squad led the league in sacks, forced fumbles, and takeaways. Half the defense made the 1991 Pro Bowl. Their ferocity and ability to inspire fear in their opponents was unmatched in NFL history.

The 1985 Bears were great—but the 1991 Eagles were better.

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Mike Diviney July 28, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Yes, the Steelers deserve mention, which they got in the first paragraph of my article. 14 game schedule, smaller league and I never saw them. They won 4 Superbowls and have a ton of HOF'ers so they have to be given a nod, but not having seen them...
Mike Diviney July 28, 2012 at 06:23 PM
Not a whole lot of turnovers officially disqualifies them from contention. That's one of the most important stats. The Eagles D led the league in '91 in forced turnovers and I believe the Bears '85 team did as well.
Mike Diviney July 28, 2012 at 06:24 PM
The Eagles D went a step further. They not only stopped the other team from scoring, they scored themselves. Sometimes, the D outscored the Eagles offense, which wasn't always difficult to do.
Baumer July 28, 2012 at 07:40 PM
If that team had any type of consistent offense at all I don't think this would even be an argument. That defense dominated like no other but because the offense couldn't put up points in the playoffs, they get overlooked. The Bears' 85 offense was better and scored enough to win the big one...thats the only reason they get mentioned by most as the best D ever.
Mike Diviney July 29, 2012 at 11:20 PM
Agreed Baumer. The Bears offense wasn't a juggernaut, but they weren't inept like the Eagles. Again, Walter Payton vs. Heath Sherman sums it up.

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