Football Outsiders recently did their statistical evaluations for the 1991 season. This is important to Eagles fans because it finally gave us a chance to see their numbers on Gang Green, the defense that finished 1st vs the run, the pass, and overall.
As great as the Redskins were (as an overall team), the Eagles may have been even more interesting. The 1991 Eagles completely lap the field in terms of defensive DVOA. 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.
It’s crazy to imagine how few points the Eagles might have given up if they were playing with a halfway-decent offense instead of losing Randall Cunningham to a torn ACL in the first game of the season. The Eagles were stuck depending on an over-the-hill Jim McMahon for 11 starts, plus Jeff Kemp for two and Brad Goebel for two. McMahon actually wasn’t half bad, with 6.9% passing DVOA, but the other two quarterbacks were awful, especially Goebel who had no touchdowns with six interceptions. And the running game was dreadful, with 3.1 yards per carry as a team.
Still, the Eagles were fifth in the league in points allowed, and first in yards allowed by nearly 400 yards — and the team that was second in yards allowed is also on that top-ten defenses list, the 1991 New Orleans Saints. The Eagles allowed 3.9 yards per play, where no other team allowed fewer than 4.5. As bad as their running game was, their run defense was even better, allowing 3.0 yards per carry. Three-fourths of the starting defensive line was All-Pro (Reggie White, Jerome Brown, and Clyde Simmons). Linebacker Seth Joyner and cornerback Eric Allen made the Pro Bowl as well.
FO has a table comparing the great defenses of the last 20 years. Gang Green was 1st, definitively ahead of the 2002 Bucs, who came in 2nd. The thing that made that Eagles defense so special is how well they played both the run and pass. There literally weren’t any weaknesses.
Check out the table to appreciate just how good Gang Green was. Their numbers blow away the competition.
The most interesting team listed on there is the 2004 Buffalo Bills. Who knew their defense was that good? Jerry Gray was the DC. The defense had been put together largely by Gregg Williams when he was the HC from 2001-03.
We also can see the Buddy Effect. Buddy Ryan influenced Williams, who ran the 2000 Titans defense that got listed. Williams built the Bills defense that got listed. Buddy built Gang Green, the #1 team. His son Rex coached the 2008 Ravens and 2009 Jets, both listed. The 2003 Ravens were also listed. Rex was the DL coach and Mike Singletary was the LB coach. One was Buddy’s son, the other was Buddy’s on-field son.
Buddy Ryan was far from perfect, but the man knew how to build and coach a defense. A lot of people around him learned how to do both things pretty well.
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Last summer I wrote up an article on the 20th anniversary of the great 1991 season that Gang Green gave us. It’s a tad long, but I don’t think you’ll complain at reading too much about Reggie, Jerome, Seth, and the rest of the boys.
GANG GREEN TURNS 20
Number one. Top of the heap. First against the run. First against the pass. First overall. That was the 1991 Eagles defense. The last team prior to the 1991 Eagles to finish first across the board was the 1975 Minnesota Vikings. Only five teams in NFL history have accomplished the feat, which should give you an idea just how special the 1991 defense was. They were truly one of the great defenses of all time.
2011 is the twentieth anniversary of that defense. They didn’t have a defining national nickname like the Steel Curtain, Purple People Eaters, or Doomsday Defense, but Eagles fans knew the defense as Gang Green. Opponents knew them as aggressive blitzers and punishing hitters. More than a few games ended with quarterbacks, runners, and receivers limping to the sideline. Or being carried off. Getting shut down by Gang Green was tough. Getting beat down by them made it all the more miserable.
Let’s take a look back at the most dominant Eagles defense of the modern era and the magical season that Gang Green put together. The best way to start is by checking out the numbers.
You can’t just look at raw numbers and appreciate them. You need a point of comparison. Here are the key stats for several great defenses of the last 30 years, the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as well as the 1991 Eagles. Take a look at how Gang Green stacks up with some of the other greatest defenses of all time.
Total Yards – 4135
Yards per play – 4.4
Rushing yards allowed – 1319 (6 TDs)
Passing yards allowed – 2816 (16 TDs)
Points allowed – 198
Sacks – 64
Interceptions – 34
Takeaways – 54
Defensive touchdowns – 5
Total Yards – 3549
Yards per play – 3.9
Rushing yards allowed – 1136 (4 TDs)
Passing yards allowed – 2413 (16 TDs)
Points allowed – 244
Sacks – 55
Interceptions – 26
Takeaways – 48
Defensive touchdowns – 4
Total Yards – 3967
Yards per play – 4.3
Rushing yards allowed – 970 (5 TDs)
Passing yards allowed – 2997 (11 TDs)
Points allowed – 165
Sacks – 35
Interceptions – 23
Takeaways – 49
Defensive touchdowns – 1
Total Yards – 4044
Yards per play – 4.2
Rushing yards allowed – 1554 (8 TDs)
Passing yards allowed – 2490 (10 TDs)
Points allowed – 196
Sacks – 43
Interceptions – 31
Takeaways – 38
Defensive touchdowns – 5
The 1991 Eagles also led the league in sacks, takeaways, and fumble recoveries. Interestingly, the Eagles only finished fifth in scoring defense. You can’t pin all of that on the defense. The 1991 Eagles offense was a mess. Quarterback Randall Cunningham got hurt in the season opener and things went downhill from there. Four different players started at quarterback in that one year. The offense struggled to move the ball and score points. They allowed 45 sacks. The offense finished second to last in the NFL with 43 turnovers, often putting the defense in a tough situation. The fact that the Eagles defense only allowed 20 offensive touchdowns is pretty amazing under the circumstances. With a competent offense, there is no telling how good Gang Green might have been.
They were especially dominant against the run. The 1991 team didn’t allow a single player to rush for 100 yards in a game. This streak actually started in Week 3 of 1989 and continued until November 1, 1992. The Eagles went 53 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, the longest streak since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Only two teams in 1991 were able to gain more than 90 yards rushing. You just weren’t going to move the ball on the ground against that group.
The pass defense was hardly a cake walk. Opposing quarterbacks only completed 44 percent of their passes. Forget about 300-yard games, no quarterback even threw for 265 yards against the Eagles in 1991. Gang Green wasn’t just a bunch of huge run stuffers. Those guys could cover. They picked off 27 passes and made life miserable for quarterbacks, whether all-out blitzing or blanketing receivers.
Gang Green was loaded with individual talent. There were great players at each level of the defense. Of the 11 NFC defensive starters chosen for the 1991 Pro Bowl, almost half were Eagles: Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, Jerome Brown, Seth Joyner, and Eric Allen. Free safety Wes Hopkins probably deserved to go, but he wasn’t all that popular around the league due to his extremely aggressive style of hitting. Opposing players feared him more than they liked him and that cost him a few trips to Hawaii.
Future Hall of Famer Reggie White led the way up front. He was a dominant left defensive end that teams had to account for on virtually every snap. White had ideal size at 6-5 and 300 pounds. He could hold up at the point of attack even when opponents used double teams to try and move him off the ball. White was a special player because he was a great pass rusher despite being so big. He was quick enough to beat tackles around the edge. White could also bull rush blockers who sold out to protect the edge. His “hump” move became a major source of embarrassment to numerous offensive linemen. White would start up the field like he was heading to the outside. He would then cut back to the inside. Blockers would get off balance as they adjusted. White would then just use his inside arm to club the lineman and often would send the guy flying to the ground. White started all 16 games in 1991 and had 15 sacks. He also added an interception, a pair of forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Clyde Simmons was the “other” defensive end. There is no shame in playing second fiddle to Reggie White, but Simmons was a terrific player in his own right. He was the smaller of the two, but still went 6-6 and 280 pounds. He would be a huge right end in today’s NFL. Simmons finished his career with 121.5 sacks and made his share of big plays through the years. He picked off three passes and scored five touchdowns in his career. He had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Simmons also came up big on special teams, blocking seven kicks in his time as an Eagle. He’s best known for his ability to get to the quarterback. Simmons certainly benefited from playing across from White, but he was a gifted pass rusher. He was quick off the ball and also used his long frame to get by blockers. He had 13 sacks, two forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries in 1991.
The star up the middle was defensive tackle Jerome Brown. He was able to explode off the ball and get into the backfield. He was also powerful and able to effectively play the run. More than a few people compared him to a dancing bear because of his combination of size and nimble footwork. Brown wasn’t huge by today’s standards, “only” going 6-2 and 292 pounds. He played bigger than he was. Brown was able to push blockers around because he was so strong and used his hands well. The best way to describe Brown is disruptive. Some plays he ate up blockers and allowed the guys around him to make plays. Other times he was in the backfield just after the ball was snapped and the offense had no chance. In just five seasons Brown racked up 29.5 sacks, a very impressive total for a defensive tackle. He got to the quarterback nine times in 1991. A good point of comparison for those fans who didn’t get to see him play would be Warren Sapp. Brown wasn’t as good a pass rusher as Sapp, but was a better run defender. Brown had an added value to the Eagles – his personality. He was the straw that stirred the drink, so to speak. He was part kid and part clown, and that enabled him to bridge the many diverse personalities that made up Gang Green. Sadly, he died in a car accident the following June.
The other tackle spot was shared by Mike Pitts and Mike Golic. They weren’t on the same level as the other defensive linemen, but were important in their own way. Pitts was the starter and better pass rusher. He wasn’t explosive, but was athletic. Golic was more effort than talent, but he fit in well since he was coming off the bench. Both players were 6-5 and helped to crowd the quarterback’s line of sight on pass plays.
The linebackers were big time playmakers. Seth Joyner was the ringleader. He started at left outside linebacker and put together an amazing season. He was only fourth on the team in tackles, but made a ton of big plays. He had 6.5 sacks, three interceptions, six forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries. He ran two of the fumbles back for touchdowns, which tied an NFL record. Joyner was a special player because he was a rugged run defender, but also skilled at pass coverage. He was a good enough pass defender that late in his career Buddy Ryan used him at safety for part of a season. Joyner was one of those special linebackers that just had a knack for making things happen. He finished his career with 52 sacks, 24 interceptions, and 26 forced fumbles. He scored five career touchdowns. 1991 was the best year of Joyner’s career. Sports Illustrated actually chose him as NFL Player of the Year. Not just the best defensive player, but the best player period. That’s an incredible honor for a 4-3 outside linebacker.
Byron Evans was the man in the middle. He finished third on the team in tackles, but his most important job was running the defense. The Eagles ran a complex scheme and Evans was the man in charge of making sure everyone was lined up correctly. He also had to make adjustments to whatever motions and shifts were used by the offense. Evans was more than just a heady linebacker. He was physically gifted as well. Evans was a big hitter. He punished runners and receivers that came across the middle. He had long arms and that benefited him in a couple of ways. Evans was a good wrap-up tackler because of the long arms. Players had no chance to get away. The long arms also helped in pass coverage. Evans was able to jump up and get his hands on passes. In 1991 he deflected 10 passes, a really impressive total for a middle linebacker. Some of the knockdowns happened at the line of scrimmage while he was blitzing and others happened when he was downfield in coverage. Evans also picked off a couple of passes and recovered a pair of fumbles. Evans never made it to the Pro Bowl, but The Sporting News conducted a poll of NFL insiders during the 1992 season and Evans was voted the second best inside linebacker in the league. NFL coaches, scouts, and executives knew just how good Evans was.
The right linebacker spot was split between two players. Jessie Small was the incumbent starter and handled the job early on. Rookie William Thomas took over at mid-season and didn’t give up that spot for the rest of the decade. Thomas starred on special teams prior to taking over the starting position. He was productive when he did take over. Thomas had two sacks, three quarterback hurries, and broke up a couple of passes. Coverage would become his specialty in time. He finished his career with 27 interceptions. Thomas developed into a Pro Bowl linebacker by the mid-1990s.
The Eagles aggressive, attacking style of play would not have been possible without a good secondary. Cornerback Eric Allen was the top cover guy. He excelled in man-to-man coverage. Allen wasn’t huge at 5-10 and 184, but the NFL was filled with huge wide receivers in those days. Allen was big enough to be able to be physical with receivers. He had good speed and great coverage instincts. Allen also had exceptional ball skills. He picked off 54 passes in his career and made six Pro Bowls. Allen was able to play “on an island” as the saying goes. He could take the receiver to his side and shadow him all game long. Allen got burned on occasion, but definitely won most of the battles. His ability to lock down one side of the field and free up the safeties was hugely important to the success of the defense. Allen tied for the team lead in 1991 with five interceptions.
The other corner spot was split. Rookie Otis Smith had one start. He was a big, physical player and made a couple of plays. He picked off two passes and ran one back 74 yards for a touchdown. He forced one fumble and recovered one. Not bad for a rookie. Second year player Ben Smith started most of the season. The Eagles had looked for a good corner to play opposite of Allen for a couple of years and Ben Smith appeared to be the answer. He made the All-Rookie team in 1990 and played at a high level in 1991. Unfortunately he suffered a devastating knee injury in Week 10 of the 1991 season and never was the same player again. Izel Jenkins started five games down the stretch, but wasn’t a top shelf player. He didn’t get the nickname “Toast” by accident.
Wes Hopkins was the free safety and leader of the secondary. Hopkins was the longest-tenured member of the defense, having been an Eagle since 1983. He was an integral part of the defense. Hopkins controlled the deep middle, both physically and with his skills. He was a devastating hitter. Receivers were not comfortable running across the middle of the field. They knew Hopkins was out there just waiting to come up and attack them. In today’s NFL, Hopkins would be getting fined and probably suspended for his brand of hitting. He exploded into his targets with the intention of knocking the football loose, and maybe a body part or two. Hopkins was a very good tackler, both against the run and pass. He had no fear about coming up near the line of scrimmage and attacking a runner. What made Hopkins special was that he wasn’t just a physical hitter. He was a skilled centerfielder. Hopkins had good instincts and ball skills. He knew when to go for the big hit and when to go for the ball. Hopkins picked off 30 passes in his career and had five years with five or more picks. He was a consistent playmaker.
Andre Waters was the strong safety and Hopkins longtime running mate. They formed a lethal combination because each player was so good at his role. Hopkins controlled the deep middle and Waters was a force around the line of scrimmage. A lot of teams talk about playing eight men in the box. They hope to outnumber the blockers and shut down the run. Waters was the eighth man for the Eagles and he was like having an extra linebacker. He wasn’t all that big at just 5-11 and 200 pounds, but Waters was a ferocious player. He was the one defender that Emmitt Smith was afraid of. Smith actually once referred to Waters as the “dirtiest player in the league”. Waters led the 1991 Eagles in tackles and was a force against the run all year. He had one interception and one fumble recovery as well.
Buddy Ryan took over as the head coach of the Eagles in 1986. While he wasn’t officially the defensive coordinator, he ran the defense. Ryan installed his famous 46 Defense. It took a couple of years for him to build up the personnel to run it correctly, but when all the parts were in place, the defense became a force. Ryan got fired following the 1990 season. Rich Kotite got the head coaching job and brought in Bud Carson to be the defensive coordinator. Carson had run more conservative systems in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Cleveland, but was smart enough not to make too many changes. He knew the defense needed to remain aggressive. Carson embraced the blitz and kept the Eagles on the attack.
He wasn’t as reckless as Ryan had been. It also helped that Carson got hold of the defense as many players were hitting the prime of their careers. Young guys like Simmons, Brown, Evans, Allen, and Joyner were broken in and ready to play at a high level – consistently. The Eagles style of play took a lot of chances. One mental mistake could lead to a big play or touchdown. There wasn’t always a safety playing back to clean up the mess. The players made mistakes as they learned the scheme and adjusted to the NFL. By 1991 those mistakes were gone and the defense was able to wreak havoc.
The Eagles primary goal remained the same under Ryan and Carson. The focus was to stop the run and force teams into known passing situations. At that point the defensive linemen could simply go into pass rush mode or the defense could blitz and overwhelm the opponent. Offenses struggled against the 1991 Eagles under the best of circumstances, but third and long was a situation quarterbacks wanted no part of.
The Eagles focus on run defense was risky. They brought Waters down into the box on a lot of first downs. That meant the cornerbacks had single coverage on the wide receivers. Hopkins stayed back off the ball so he could handle the deep middle. Play-action passes could be dangerous. Once you got past the linebacker level, there was a lot of space for offenses to work with. The Eagles gamble was that they could smother the run if teams tried that or get to the quarterback before he had a chance to find the open receiver. As you can tell by the numbers, the Eagles won the gamble most of the time.
The thing to keep in mind when looking at the 1991 Eagles in comparison to other teams is the quality of opponents. That defense had to face three Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Troy Aikman, Steve Young, and Warren Moon). The defense also faced three quarterbacks just a notch below that level (Phil Simms, Bernie Kosar, and Boomer Esiason). The Eagles played two games against the defending Super Bowl champs (Giants from 1990) as well as two against the team that would win it in 1991, the Redskins. Mark Rypien was Washington’s quarterback. While he wasn’t a great player overall, he had a tremendous season in 1991 and made the Pro Bowl as well as being selected Super Bowl MVP. The Cowboys had yet to fully come alive under Jimmy Johnson, but were a wildcard playoff team in 1991 so they were no picnic either. Overall, the 1991 Eagles played seven games against teams that finished in the Top 10 in offense that year. Gang Green truly earned the great numbers they posted.
The success of the 1991 defense is really impressive when you think about the context of the season. They came into the year without their beloved coach Buddy Ryan. They had to adjust to a new head coach and a new defensive coordinator. The Eagles lost star quarterback Randall Cunningham on the first drive of the season opener. Think about that. The one offensive playmaker was gone and now all the pressure in the world was on the defense. The team would sink or swim because of that side of the ball and those players were still getting used to having a new coach run the show.
The defense did everything in their power to make the season a success. They held 10 opponents to 14 points or less. Only once all year did a team get more than 300 yards in a game. Six teams were held to less than 195 yards of total offense. Sometimes even that wasn’t enough. There was a two-game stretch at mid-season where the defense allowed just 355 total yards and 27 points, while coming up with eight takeaways, but the Eagles still lost both games.
The offense was mediocre with backup quarterback Jim McMahon at the helm, but downright awful when he was knocked out of action. The other three quarterbacks who played that year were terrible. They combined to complete less than 50 percent of their passes. They threw five touchdowns and 15 interceptions. To be fair, those quarterbacks didn’t get much help from the running game. Rookie James Joseph led the team with 440 yards rushing. The team averaged a paltry 3.1 yards per rushing attempt. Fullback Keith Byars had the longest run of the season when he went for 28 yards. There were eight games where the offense scored 17 or fewer points.
Most of the great defenses in NFL history had at least an average offense and generally ran the ball very well. The 1985 Bears had Walter Payton. The 2000 Ravens had Jamal Lewis. The 2002 Buccaneers had Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott. Gang Green would have killed to have any of these running backs on their offense. Ball control is a defense’s best friend. The 1991 offense was 18th in scoring (and remember that included five defensive touchdowns) and 25th in yards. The offense provided little to no help to the defense.
The low point of the season was a three-game stretch near mid-season where the offense failed to get in the end zone. The defense helped them out by scoring in one of the games, but that wasn’t enough and the team lost all three contests.
McMahon returned from injury and the Eagles got hot and went on a six-game winning streak starting in early November. That pushed the team’s record to 9-5 and suddenly the Eagles were a team to be feared. There was a late season clash with the Dallas Cowboys to see who would make the playoffs. Gang Green limited Emmitt Smith to 75 yards on 25 carries. Troy Aikman wasn’t able to play and backup Steve Beuerlein had a miserable day. The Eagles held him to 9 of 31 for 145 yards through the air. The Eagles defense couldn’t overcome a pair of offensive turnovers, a safety, and a long punt return for touchdown. Dallas prevailed 25-13. That game was a metaphor for the season. Great effort and some good numbers, but a disappointing finish.
There were a couple of games along the way where Gang Green was ridiculously good. In Week 3 the Eagles shutout the Cowboys 24-0. Aikman was sacked 11 times by a tremendous Eagles pass rush. Simmons led the way with 4.5 sacks. Aikman was picked off three times, with backup safety Rich Miano getting two of them. Dallas only managed 90 total yards in that game. That was a Texas-sized butt whipping.
There was a late season meeting with the Houston Oilers that became a legendary game. The Oilers were a very good team, both on offense and defense. They were in the top four on offense in both scoring and yards . They were in the top nine in fewest points and yards allowed on defense. The Oilers were a complete football team. They played their games at the Astrodome, which was nicknamed the “House of Pain”. The Eagles went to Houston for a Monday night game in early December. Some saw this as a potential Super Bowl preview. Others just wanted to see how Gang Green would hold up against Houston’s explosive run ‘n’ shoot offense. After all, it was the Miami Dolphins aerial attack that gave the 1985 Bears fits.
Both defenses came out and played at a high level. The Oilers knocked McMahon out of the game and limited the Eagles to 240 total yards and just 13 points. Shockingly, that was enough offense to beat the Oilers and their vaunted passing attack because Gang Green played a brilliant game.
Hopkins set the tone early with some huge hits on receivers. That had an impact on the rest of the game. Oilers receivers weren’t so keen on the notion of crossing the middle. They knew Hopkins and Waters were waiting on them. In the first half alone Hopkins and Waters combined to get six hits on receivers. Hopkins landed a pair of devastating shots that forced players to be helped off the field. He drew a penalty on one. He broke up one pass with a hit. Waters forced a fumble with a hard hit. He put his facemask right on the ball while a receiver was trying to secure it. The ball popped loose and the Eagles recovered. Warren Moon quit working the middle and started feeding the ball to the outside.
Meanwhile, things weren’t going so well up front either. There was a first half run play where Brown got into the backfield and just grabbed the running back and pulled him backward before slamming him to the ground. White got an early shot on Moon when he just tossed the right tackle out of his way. The Eagles blitz was also working very well. The Oilers were so focused on stopping the defensive linemen that linebackers and defensive backs were able to get into the backfield and hit Moon multiple times. Moon was sacked four times and took a pounding that night.
The real star of the game was Seth Joyner. He played one of the best games you’ll ever see by a 4-3 outside linebacker. He was magnificent. Joyner had eight tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. The numbers are great, but they still don’t tell the whole story. Joyner was all over the field. He covered backs and receivers in the flat. He covered wide receivers in the middle of the field, even breaking up a pass on such a play in the first quarter. The first fumble recovery came on the play where Waters knocked the ball loose from the receiver. At first glance it looked like an interception. Joyner showed really good hands and awareness on the play. Joyner blitzed up the middle and off the edge. He had two sacks and pressured Moon on several other plays. One of his forced fumbles came on a draw play. The Oilers spread the defense out and tried to hit a big run up the middle. Joyner got to the runner and ripped the ball loose. Joyner was dominant in all three phases (run defense, blitzing, and pass coverage).
Gang Green held the Oilers to only a pair of field goals, easily their lowest point total of the season. No one else held them to less than 13 points. Houston only gained 247 yards, also their lowest total of the season. They ran 11 times for just 21 yards. The long pass play went for just 24 yards. The Eagles came up with five takeaways, all fumbles, and won the game 13-6. The victory is referred to as the “House of Pain game”. As Brown famously said after the game, “They brought the house. We brought the pain.”
The defense was never the same after the 1991 season. Brown’s tragic death plus age, injury, and free agency ripped the unit apart over the next few years. Members of the 1991 Eagles defense don’t have rings to prove how good they were. Sadly, Gang Green didn’t even get a chance to show what they could do in the playoffs. It would have been interesting to see how well that group might have fared. All they can do is watch some highlights or read some old stories about the magical season when they dominated the NFL and think about what might have been. If only Cunningham hadn’t gotten hurt or even just McMahon had stayed healthy, the story might have had a much different outcome. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The 1991 Eagles are stuck in the “what if” category when it comes to NFL history.