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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Gary B July 26, 2012 at 09:47 PM
Admittedly his disruption was partly due to the fact that he sent up coke and escorts to the opposing Tackle the night before a game LOL...and not to mention the cheese spreads and other fatty foods in gift baskets. The only time he treated the O line nicely was on Saturday nights lol....except for as he says the Cardinals, because they were never good either way. LT was great.
Mike Diviney July 26, 2012 at 09:50 PM
Reeves and Gibbs were both great coaches and it wasn't THAT long ago. In fact, when there were fewer teams and less free agency, they were competing with superior teams at times. Guys like the ones you mentioned, Parcells, Walsh, etc., would have been successful in any era.
Mike Diviney July 26, 2012 at 09:52 PM
Gary B, I wonder how true those stories are. I heard it was the opposing RB, but either way, the guy dominating games.
Gary B July 26, 2012 at 09:57 PM
He was quoted in his book as saying such, and over the years some O line men have given less than defiant defenses lol Agree either way, looking back especially, he was great. And he got the idea from a running back btw, Eric Dickerson.
Bo July 27, 2012 at 12:58 AM
Both teams played in the fog Mike, and Tomczak threw a 64 yd TD to Dennis McKinnon in it. Deciding factor, huh, the Eagles defense was better? Off base about what, I never mentioned Jerome, and wasn't Mike Pitts the other tackle. Mongo and the Fridge were better than Pitts. Hampton played both tackle and end in this defense, and though he wasn't better than Reggie, he was a hell of a lot better than Clyde. Hampton was a great fit for Buddy's defense. Do you want to believe, that man for man, the '91 Eagles defense was better than the '85 Bears defense, cause that just isn't true. What really matters is that this Eagles defense was better overall, which is true.
Bo July 27, 2012 at 01:13 AM
Playbook limited to Peyton right or left, how well did that work before Ditka made McMahon his first pick as head coach? Payton came into the league in '75. Ditka is one of the best Tight Ends in NFL history, he must know a bit about implementing an effective passing game.
Porterincollingswood July 27, 2012 at 02:49 AM
Bo, you need to look at some tape and some stats of this team - the one you admit you don't know much about yet continue to make sweeping statements about. McMahon's numbers in 1985, and the passing game in general, were horrid. Dreadful. Putrid. The man had 15 TD's that year - laughably enough, this was his career high. In 1985 Payton surpassed 2,000 yards rushing and receiving. It was a very slightly above-average year for one of the best backs in NFL history. I don't care how good the offense was in Tecmo Bowl, it was brutally bad on the field. That team was carried by the defense every bit as much as the 2000 Ravens carried Dilfer & Co.
Mike Diviney July 27, 2012 at 02:57 AM
For once, I agree Bo. However, unless you were talking about Manning, Walter's name was actually spelled Payton... with an "a".
Mike Diviney July 27, 2012 at 03:00 AM
Gary B, so Dickerson recommended that LT send hookers to the opposing RB's room the night before? I guess that makes sense and ED had some good times the night before playing the Giants!
Mike Diviney July 27, 2012 at 03:02 AM
Hmmm, McMahon's stats were never great, but he was a winner. He was so injury riddled his entire career, it's hard to tell how good or bad he was. But he won a ring and I tend to feel like he deserved it more than Dilfer. Remember, that Ravens team went FIVE games without scoring an offensive TD during that regular season.
Gary B July 27, 2012 at 03:13 AM
Can't speak for LT and say whether Dickerson recommended it or not (or if they even had a convo about it) but LT did say that Dickerson is who inspired him to send up 'room service'. The 80's were wild in NYC, anything and everything was happening there, a little coke was deemed harmless..remember this was the place where Brookshier and Pat Summerall took a horse into the Plaza (and for a discussion on another matter for another day, I have some wild and funny tales about Doc Gooden and the Straw, gems)
Porterincollingswood July 27, 2012 at 12:08 PM
And his leading receiver in 1985 was...Walter Payton. It really is amazing to look at the stats of that man. Bo is correct, he was well into his career when he was putting up that level of production in 1985. It's a workload that you just don't see anymore, and probably for good reason. His use of pain killing drugs is easily explained by an examination of the sustained 300 carry seasons. We've seen smaller workloads wreck guys like Jamal Lewis, Jamal Anderson, Clinton Portis, and many others.
Bo July 27, 2012 at 05:13 PM
Listen Peyton Porter .. glad you learned how to spell his name correctly now, I guess Mike missed that like i missed the '77 Falcons season, You need to look at the context of that previous comment I made, Mike, who I guess just wants to have a debate for the greatest defense of all time, but with only three teams, but really just that Bears and Eagles units. Mike say that I had never seen that Falcons team so how much could I know about them, and then I said in counterpoint, when you really think about none of us, including myself saw that much of that Bears team, so what are you and I rightfully debating about it here. That said your 'sweeping generalizations' about a Falcons defense that apparently you or Mike don't know too much about, as you stated that it was one 'gimmicky' play. If you don't know anything about this defense I put those links so you could gain some wisdom. I know this much, McMahon was a winner and how might you quantify that, we saw it to a lesser extent when he was with us. So that 'horrible' season you note that Jim had in '85 ended up with a Super Bowl ring on his finger, and I assure you his teammates will credit him with playing a full season, was one of the many things that went right that year, which assured them a Super Bowl win. You are right when you said Mike Ditka was a media creation, cause he has been on ESPN for quite a bit now. I just think you were off 20 years, and Mike was an NFL great before he took his 1st coaching job.
Porterincollingswood July 27, 2012 at 07:57 PM
Bo, what makes it a complex argument - and a fun one to have - is that it can't be all about numbers OR all about wins-losses OR all about winning a Super Bowl or all about pure talent level. I just don't think Ditka was an offensive genius, he didn't bring a lot to the table and merely continued to use Payton as he's always been used. The defense was the difference. And McMahon was a winner, but he wasn't terribly effective. We hail him for 1985 but totally dismiss Dilfer in 2000...because of marketing. Look at the stats... Trent Dilfer (2000): 8 starts / 7-1 record / 1,502 yards / 12 TD's / 11 INT's Jim McMahon (1985): 11 starts / 11-0 record / 2,392 yards / 15 TD's / 11 INT's That's not a whole lot better than Dilfer. But the marketing leaves one with the impression that McMahon was a big part of what they did. I wouldn't argue Ditka's contribution to the sport as a player. But mainly his efforts have been as a marketer.
Bo July 27, 2012 at 08:33 PM
Yeah sure defense carried them, but you wouldn't say that Bears team was carried more by the defense than that Ravens team. What does marketing have to do with what he did as a coach, Ditka was hired as head coach in '82 of a rudderless franchise and in three years they were Super Bowl champs. Whatever he did, this is a pretty amazing turn-around, and I don't think he was concentrating on marketing himself before that Super Bowl, as such was a tall order he had in front of him. He also played under two of the greatest coaches in NFL history, Halas and Landry, he must have learned something from them. one thing I learned first hand in my time in Chicago is that even the most marginal ex-bear didn't have to do a lot to get whatever commercial and or business opportunity. Mike was 1 of the greatest Bears ever, so he didn't have to do much to get such. I'd add that I am certain he turned down a lot before that SB and I guess he took too much after which led to his falling out of favor with his players. Ditka's coaching ability and accomplishments still have nothing to do with him selling Chunky Soup, and how your making that connection is a bit out in left field. Simply put he was a good coach and far from brutal. I know Payton, Gault, Mckinnon and Suhey needed someone to throw them the ball, and that entire team respected Mac to great degree. Walter alone took a beating and often finished in last, but sure had great stats, but every defense knew what was coming.
Mike Diviney July 27, 2012 at 09:41 PM
Bo, the fact that no one on here but you has heard of the Gritz Blitz '77 Falcons proves the point. If they were worthy of being in the argument, we all would have heard of them as we've all heard of the '85 Bears, '91 Eagles, etc. I don't agree with your contention that none of us saw the Bears. I don't have their schedule, but I'm sure they were on MNF, I'm sure the Eagles were and I'm sure all their games were not up against each other. Even seeing them once is more times than you saw the Falcons. Plus, we've all heard all about them and know the players on that team. Not so with the Falcons... which proves the point.
Mike Diviney July 27, 2012 at 09:45 PM
I agree Ditka was a good coach. Payton was GREAT and he was a constant before Ditka got there and after. Before Ditka got there, the Bears never had much postseason success with Payton.
Mike Diviney July 27, 2012 at 09:46 PM
Porter, I think a large part of the reason McMahon and Dilfer are viewed differently is because of their personalities.
Mike Diviney July 27, 2012 at 09:49 PM
By the way Bo, if you were 11 in '85, then you were 3 in '77. Unless you have memory powers beyond any individual I've ever heard of you NEVER saw this defense you keep bringing up, nor have you ever seen them on film. If they were that great, their reputation would proceed them as the Bears and Eagles unit do... it doesn't.
Jono July 27, 2012 at 09:54 PM
Bloody, brutal, and indomitable .... But not long-lived. R.I.P. Jerome, Reggie, and especially Andre.
Bo July 27, 2012 at 10:52 PM
Hey literal guy, this all goes unsaid, which is what I guess I should have more clearly stated. We of course can have a debate about these two teams, mostly by using stats as we were here, and stories by respected football journalist such as Paul Zimmerman, which I added a link about here too. How could we have a debate about the best defense of all time, but limit it to who you might have saw, it seems you should have limited your scope in this debate to the 80's and 90's. It's pretty standard to substantiate any 'all-time' who ever sports figure or team with statistics, or how could anyone have an 'all-time' debate about anything. That Falcons defense still holds the all-time record for fewest points allowed in a season. If you projected their total allowed, with their 9.2 avg per game over two more games, they'd still be 15 or so points lower than that 2000 Ravens defense, which holds the record for a 16 game schedule. You must acknowledge that their reputation is hampered by their horrible offense, scoring 179 points in '77, which was 25th in the league that season. So if stats can support their seat at the table in this debate, and they do, then they have earned that seat, no matter if I saw it or not.
Porterincollingswood July 27, 2012 at 11:10 PM
Marketing. Hey, I probably over-estimate guys like McMichael and Wilson because the pull of marketing is even more powerful than what I saw with my own eyes as an Eagles fan.
Porterincollingswood July 27, 2012 at 11:22 PM
I don't know the 77 Falcons, so I looked. They were decent. They were the #1 defense, only had one Pro-Bowler in a smaller league. Went 7-7. A few blown leads. Not a whole lotta turnovers. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/atl/1977.htm
Bo July 27, 2012 at 11:47 PM
Yes and that pro-bowler was their left corner, Lawrence, who I imagine had a lot of opportunity yet much stress with all the blitzing they did. They should be recognized in such an all-time debate, even if they weren't the best. The other link supports this with stats, you wouldn't do a similar comparison with only two teams, right. What seems strange to me here, is to not hear anyone mention those Steelers defenses, which have how many enshrined in Canton.
Porterincollingswood July 28, 2012 at 12:46 AM
True, that must've been a hellish assignment.
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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