1990/1991 Philadelphia Eagles: Best Team to Never Win a Super Bowl

Hey Eagles fans, let’s take a break from the draft talk and the NFL Lockout saga for a moment and take a stroll down memory lane. Do you remember the Buddy Ryan/Rich Kotite era? Well, if you combined the 1990 Philadelphia Eagles offense with their 1991 defense we may have had the best Eagles team of all time. Yes, even better than the 1980 and 2004 teams that actually did get to the Super Bowl.

1990 was the last year of the Buddy Ryan era and 1991 welcomed in the Rich Kotite era. Make no mistake though, this team was assembled by Buddy Ryan and played with an attitude that was eventually termed “Buddy Ball”. With Randall Cunningham in his prime and our “Gang Green” defense, we were one tough and exciting team. But as it seems to always be the case with my beloved Eagles, it was just another instance of “coulda, woulda, shoulda”. In my mind, they were the best team that never went to a Super Bowl.

Allow me to jar your memory by showing you some stats…

Offense in 1990:

  • 3rd in the NFL in total yards by averaging 356.2 per game
  • 3rd in the NFL in total points with 396 (24.8 per game)
  • 1st in the NFL in rushing with 2,556 yards
  • 2nd in the NFL in passing TD’s with 34

Key players:

  • Randall Cunningham – 5th ranked QB with 3,466 yards passing and 30 TD’s (only 13 INT’s). Also had 942 rushing yards with another 5 TD’s
  • Keith Byars – As a RB, caught 81 passes for 819 yards and 3 TD’s
  • Keith Jackson – 50 catches for 670 yards and 6 TD’s
  • Fred Barnett – 36 catches for 721 yards and 8 TD’s
  • Calvin Williams – 37 catches for 602 yards and 9 TD’s

Defense in 1991:

  • They were the 5th team in NFL history to ever be #1 in overall defense, #1 vs. the run, and #1 vs. the pass
  • They led the league in sacks with 55
  • They were tied for the league lead in takeaways with 48 while also scoring 3 TD’s and 1 safety
  • Had the most intimidating defensive line in all of football. 3 out of their front 4 made the pro bowl
  • Had 2 of the most feared hitters in their defensive backfield in Andre Waters and Wes Hopkins
  • 5 players named to pro bowl

Key players:

  • Reggie White: Made pro bowl. Had 15 sacks and 100 tackles
  • Jerome Brown – Made pro bowl. Had 9 sacks
  • Clyde Simmons – Made pro bowl. Had 13 sacks and 115 tackles
  • Seth Joyner – Made pro bowl. Had 6.5 sacks, 6 FF (forced fumbles), 3 INT’s, 110 tackles, and scored 2 TD’s
  • Eric Allen – Made pro bowl. Had 5 INT’s and 39 tackles
  • Andre Waters – Had 156 mostly bone jarring tackles!
  • Wes Hopkins – Had 2 sacks and 5 INT’s

We’ve had offenses under Andy Reid that have produced better stats but you also have to consider the era back then. For one, it wasn’t as “offensive friendly” as today’s game is. Pass heavy offenses also weren’t the norm back then either with the exception of a few teams. Furthermore, we had the 2 Super Bowl winners in our division in those 2 years (Giants in ’90, Redskins in ’91) so competition was extremely tough.

1991 could have ultimately been “The Year” but as fate would have it a season ending injury to our starting QB derailed that train. In what I termed “The Paup Heard Around The World”, Cunningham suffered a torn ACL at the hands of Green Bay Packer DL Bryce Paup (what is it with the Packers and opening day QB’s?). At the time, the Eagles had a respectable back up in Jim McMahon and he led the team to a 3-1 start before he was injured as well.

4 weeks and 4 losses later the Eagles were 3-5 and had played QB’s such as Pat Ryan, Brad Goebel, and Jeff Kemp. In case you weren’t counting, that was 5 QB’s in 8 games and not exactly a formula for success. McMahon returned and brought us back to finish with a 10-6 record but we did not qualify for the playoffs. Just imagine what could have been had Randall never been injured!

However, the story for 1991 was the dominating defense. The Eagles had a defense that is in the argument for the best in the history of the NFL! Led by Reggie White and Jerome Brown, the Gang Green defense simply intimidated teams. A great example of the ferocity of that defense was the “House of Pain Game” against Houston where the Oilers’ wide receivers were dropping like flies after taking ferocious hits by Wes Hopkins and Andre Waters.

The defense limited the Oilers’ vaunted run-and-shoot offense to 6 points via 2 field goals. Afterwards Jerome Brown quipped: “they brought the house, we brought the pain”. 3 years later in 1994, Buddy Ryan again brought the pain when he slugged Oilers offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. Ryan hated the run-and-shoot offense as he affectionately called it the “chuck-and-duck”.

And who could ever forget watching Troy Aikman get sacked 11 times during a 24-0 whipping of Dallas. If you ever listen to Troy Aikman when he is commentating an Eagles game you can tell he still holds a certain respect for the Eagles. It is probably due to the trauma he endured at the hands of that Eagle defense!

But unfortunately, a Super Bowl is to Andy Reid as what a playoff game was to Buddy Ryan: Un-winnable (though Reid still has a chance, right?). Rich Kotite did win a playoff game but as a head coach he just seemed, well, clueless really. I’d say 90% of his success was due to Buddy Ryan. The team during that era had a ton of talent on both sides of the ball and was primarily assembled by Buddy. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Norman Braman would have chosen Jeff Fisher over Rich Kotite to succeed Ryan.

I also always wonder what would have happened had Cunningham not been injured on opening day in 1991. That team was primed to make a big run. Randall may have been “The Ultimate Weapon” as he was dubbed by Sports Illustrated (and he was) but I’ll always remember that era for Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense and “Gang Green”. As a true Philly fan, I appreciate dominating a defense and yearn for a return to that status.

Sources (for stats):