It's early January, there's no snow on the ground, the Sixers are—as usual—hopeless, the Flyers have been idle for two months, and the Eagles—once again!—are missing from the NFL playoffs. So what's an inveterate Philly fan to do? Reminisce, of course, nostalgia being one of the city's chief selling points and the default setting of its citizenry's psyche.
What I plan to do in a series of five posts is to list the players I consider to be the forty greatest in the storied (?) history of the franchise, which dates back to 1933, when it replaced Philadelphia's Frankford Yellow Jackets, the 1926 league champs who went bankrupt in 1931. Compiling this list has not been an easy task for many reasons. After all, I have only followed the team religiously since 1964, when I was all of seven years of age. That means I have not watched all these players in action, and am hence indebted for information on many players to various encyclopedias and grainy, black-and-white images. Moreover, the nature of the game has changed considerably even during the years I have followed the game, and statistics from one era cannot simply be compared with those of a later one. Players must be judged according to the standards of their era. Players from the 1940s and 1950s cannot be judged "inferior" simply because they were not able to benefit from the advanced training regimens available to today's full-time players.
The judgments contained in my rankings, accordingly, are somewhat subjective. Indeed, apart from the top three, of which I am convinced, the remainder are to be understood as approximate rankings. After all, how does one "scientifically" compare the effectiveness of running backs and offensive linemen, quarterbacks and linebackers? Complicating the matter is the ugly fact of player transience. How does one compare a player who payed his entire career in the city to one who played only a few seasons there? There is no easy answer to this question. And, if there is one, I don't have it. So I have laid a few ground rules. A player must have played at least three seasons with the Eagles, and these seasons—even if at the early or tail end of the player's career—must have been ones in which he performed at peak effectiveness. And no current players are found on the list. The value of such players can often only be judged accurately in hindsight.
Because of these limitations, I have left off eight players who, nonetheless, deserve mention in this introductory post. And these eight are ...
Players Whose Greatest Seasons Occurred Elsewhere:
1. Bill Hewitt (LE, 1937-39, 1943)
This 4-time All-Pro end with the Chicago Bears (1933-36) duplicated the feat in 1938 with the Eagles. Perhaps most famous for being the last player in the NFL to play without a helmet, Hewitt was named to the Hall of Fame's 1930s All-Decade Team.
2. Alex Wojciechowicz (LB/C, 1946-50)
Wojciechowicz was a prominent member of the Eagles' 1948-1949 NFL championship teams, though his best seasons, and reputation, came from his years with the Detroit Lions, where he was a two-time All-Pro (1939, 1944). This Hall-of-Famer was selected to the Hall's 1940s All-Decade Team.
3. Ollie Matson (RB, 1964-66)
|A real football player playing in|
real football weather
(photo @revengeof the birds.com)
One of my favorite players of all time, Matson was a big (6'2'', 220 lbs.) and fast (double Olympic medalist at the 1952 Helsinki games), and earned both Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition in each of his first five seasons with the Chicago Cardinals. He was 34 by the time he joined the Eagles in 1964, though he did manage 404 yards and 4 TDs that season, one of them a 63 yarder, Bill Campbell's radio call of which I still remember all these years later. At the time of his retirement after the 1966 season, Matson was second, behind only the immortal Jim Brown, in career all purpose yards.
4. Sonny Jurgensen (QB, 1957-63)
Hall-of-Famer Jurgensen is the greatest pure passer ever to wear Eagles' green. Indeed, his All-Pro season in 1961 would not be bettered until the days of Randall Cunningham and Donovan McNabb. That year he threw for a then-NFL record 3723 yards, with 32 TDs to boot. But he was, unfortunately, traded to the Redskins prior to the 1964 season for Norm Snead, and it was with the Skins that Jurgensen earned his Hall of Fame credentials: four more Pro Bowls, three times leading the league in yards passing, and once in TD passes. For any long-time Philly fan, this is an all-too-common scenario.
1. DeSean Jackson (WR, 2008-12)
DeSean Jackson, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, is simultaneously one of the most dangerous deep threats in today's NFL and one of the most frustrating players ever to play in the city. In today's short pass-happy NFL, his 17.4 career yards per reception average (22.5 in 2010) is amazing. But he disappears over long stretches, and his relentless showboating is, at least to me, distasteful. Nevertheless, he will always be remembered for his electrifying punt return that constitutes the third installment of the continuing series of "Miracles at the Meadowlands," which can be seen here.
2. Trent Cole (DE, 2005-2012)
Cole, with 71 career sacks, is one of the best defensive ends in Eagles' history, four times recording double digits in sacks. In his two best seasons (2007, 2009), each of which he amassed 12.5 sacks, Cole was rewarded with a Pro Bowl berth. His diminished production this past season is clear indication that he is on the downside of his career, but he has been a joy to watch.
3. LeSean McCoy (RB, 2009-2012)
Shady McCoy has the potential to be considered the greatest (or at least second greatest) running back in team history. His 2011 All-Pro season (1309 yards, 4.8 YPC, 20 TDS [17 rushing]) is arguably the third or fourth greatest season for a Birds' running back since I began following the team 49 years ago. The possessor of blazing speed and sure hands, he is the embodiment of what my forebears called "shiftiness."
4. Jason Peters (LT, 2009-12)
Jason Peters, a mountain of a man at 6'4", 328 lbs., is without question the best offensive lineman I have seen in an Eagles uniform since Bob Brown dominated the trenches back in the late 60s. The five-time Pro Bowler had his best season in 2011, when he was, without question, the team's best player. Indeed, the day he ruptured his Achilles' tendon (28 March 2012) was the day the Eagles' 2012 season, more than five months before it started, ended.