Memorial Day is a holiday of remembrance, honoring the sacrifices and contributions of our nation’s military heroes. It is a day when we can step back from all the arguments and issues and difficulties that consistently divide our country and instead focus on the ideals and principles that unite all Americans, past and present. Even the diehard cynics – the rigid, uncompromising critics and steadfast anti-war protesters among us – find it hard to ignore the significance and bravery of our soldiers on a day like today. We can all recognize – even if only for 24 hours – how different this country and our lives would be if it weren’t for the countless generations of brass-balled veterans who flew halfway around the world to battle the armies of Hitler, Stalin, the Viet Cong and Saddam without even the slightest assurance that they would make it home alive. If they weren’t directly protecting us from danger (and most were), they were protecting the innocent men, women and children of dozens of other nations from unspeakable harm and unquantifiable misery. Regardless of your political beliefs or your take on our recent military operations, there’s no denying that anyone – and I mean anyone – willing to die for our country deserves a great deal of respect. We here at ITI would like to say thanks.
So, on that note, we thought we would take this opportunity to salute some of our own “Vets”, the green-clad warriors of past and present Eagles teams who bravely and selflessly fought for our freedom; independence from the pain of never winning a Superbowl. As of yet, the war has not been won. But throughout the past dozen years, hundreds of noble soldiers have rallied under General Andy Reid to change the culture of our corps, advancing further and securing more victories than we had ever dreamed possible in the decades prior. If we are closer now to winning the war than we have ever been – and I think we are – it is no doubt due to the mighty effort of General Reid’s hand-picked commandos. In memoriam, we take a look back at the top ten Eagles veterans of the past 12 years.
10. Asante Samuel
This was a close one, between Asante and Troy Vincent. Vincent usually makes most “Top Eagles of All Time” lists, and rightfully so. He had 749 career tackles, he was team captain for 13 of his 15 NFL seasons, he received three Man of the Year Awards, he’s been an active and popular player rep with the NFLPA for years, and Sports Illustrated recently dubbed him the best NFL player to ever wear the number 23. How in the world could he not be on this list? Well, I honestly think Asante is going to be better, when all is said and done. 22 only has three less interceptions (42) in his eight-year career than Vincent had after 15 seasons, and he’s going to break at least a couple more playoff records in the next few years. He’s one of the best corners in history when it comes to finding the endzone, and he routinely comes up with big plays when we need them the most. Asante may never have as many tackles or become a better team leader than Vincent, but in terms of impact and production I think he’ll prove to be just slightly better when the dust settles. Sorry Troy.
9. Hugh Douglas
The all-pro defensive end currently ranks third on the Eagles’ all-time sack list, piling up 54.5 in only six seasons. He went to three Pro Bowls, all with the Eagles, and was resigned in 2004 to anchor what would eventually become the second-ranked defense in the league. He was the most dominant front-seven player for the Birds in the early-Reid seasons. Also, as an added bonus, he actually got into a fight with T.O. in 2005, purportedly in response to disparaging comments the receiver had made to the media regarding Donovan McNabb.
8. Jon Runyan
The current Republican Congressman for New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District once was part of an even more important committee: the Philadelphia Eagles offensive line. He started 190 consecutive games, a level of continuity sorely missed by Birds fans in the wake of our revolving door of Andrews brothers and backup centers in recent seasons. He was also consistently intimidating, ranked more than once as one of the dirtiest players in the NFL. Fun fact: A poll conducted in 2008 revealed that getting blocked by Runyan on a screen pass was one of the scariest things in the NFL.
7. David Akers
All time leading scorer in Eagles history. Enough said. He probably should be higher, but he is a kicker after all. He also missed two field goals in last year’s heartbreaking playoff loss to the Packers.
6. Trent Cole
How is it, you’re asking, that Asante was ranked higher on the Top 100 Players of 2011 list, but I have Cole ranked higher on the Top 10 of the Reid Era list? Well, as much as I like 22 (and I have two of his jerseys to prove it), I truly think Cole is more important to our defense. “The Hunter” is widely considered one of the hardest workers on the team, routinely drawing double-teams from opposing offensive lines and freeing up D-tackles and other ends to rush QBs and shut down run plays. Even while averaging nearly ten sacks a year since being drafted in 2005, the lack of top-tier talent opposite him at DE has probably robbed him of dozens more opportunities. Cole’s ability to draw attention has made mediocre ends like Jaqua Parker and Daryl Tapp look like rockstars, stealing 8 to 10 sacks a year that should probably go to him. If Brandon Graham pans out – and I pray every night he will – Cole will finally have the opportunity to show the world how good he really is, and he’ll be ranked a hell of a lot higher than 74 in next year’s Top 100. But regardless of the hypotheticals, Cole’s power, determination and durability are absolutely essential to the Eagles’ defensive game plan. I’d hate to see what we looked like without him.
5. Michael Vick
Ok, so here’s where things get dicey. Half the people reading this will say he shouldn’t even be on this list, the other half will call me crazy for ranking him so low. To be honest, I kind of agree with both arguments. Number 7 could very well be the single best football player to ever put on an Eagles uniform. He could also be a flash in the plan, a one-year wonder, an injury-prone one-trick-pony who’s already been figured out by most of the league’s defensive coordinators. In truth, I probably should have left him off this list until at least next season, when I could formulate on honest opinion based on a bigger sample of work. But the things this guy did in 2010 – the big-time victories and miracle comebacks and something-out-of-nothing conversions that ultimately won the NFC East and brought us closer to beating the Superbowl Champion Packers than any other team in the playoffs – were just too ridiculous to ignore. In any other year, Tom Brady would have run away with the MVP award and no one else would have even been mentioned, but Vick’s performance against everyone from the Colts to the Giants to the Texans was so jaw-dropping that more than a few analysts thought he might actually win. Even more shocking than his on-the-field achievements were the strides he made in the locker room. From offense to defense to special teams, Michael Vick became the undisputed leader of the Philadelphia Eagles in less than two months, and his work so far this offseason has already solidified that leadership for years to come. But, in fairness, it has only been one year. So in deference to objectivity, he has to be ranked in the middle this year. Next year, however, it’s safe to assume he’ll either be number one or nowhere to be found.
4. Desean Jackson
For years, both prior to 2004 and after 2005, every Eagles offseason was plagued by one question, and one question only: when will we get an elite wide receiver? T.O. answered the question for one season, then spent the next year making us all wish we never asked it in the first place. But then, like magic, the 2008 Draft came and the question disappeared forever (only to be replaced, of course, by “when will we get another elite safety/cornerback/guard etc”). Yes, we Bird fans are never satisfied. And we very rarely agree on anything. But Desean Jackson…well, he’s about as close as you can get to a perfect answer. I haven’t met a Birds fan yet who doesn’t like him, and anyone even remotely put off by his attitude or his “flashyness” was shut up forever while he ran back Matt Dodge’s punt last season and solidified his reputation as the most dangerous receiver in football. Forget the stats, forget his “character”, forget the penalized celebrations. DJax is the kind of guy you want on your team just because you don’t want him to be on anyone else’s team. He brings a style, swagger and attitude to our offense that had been seriously lacking since Freddie Mitchell got released (remember that guy?). He can score anytime, from anywhere, and because of that our team has the ability to get back into a losing game or put away a winning one in a matter of seconds. After only three seasons, number 10 is already the best receiver to don Eagle green in the Andy Reid era, and before he’s done he might just be the best ever.
3. Brian Westbrook
The all-time yards from scrimmage leader in Eagles history, Brian Westbrook needs no explanation. Still one of the most underrated players to ever play professional football, BWest spawned a legion of copycat backs throughout the league who tried to mimic his shifty running style and his elite receiving skills. To this day, no one has even come close. Whether he was returning a kick or catching a screen, 36 was one of the most elusive and entertaining backs to watch on Sunday. His number should be retired, and it’s a shame he won’t make it to Canton.
2. Donovan McNabb
Yes, he’s ranked higher than Vick. As I mentioned, we need at least another season from number 7 before we officially crown him the best quarterback in Eagles history. Which is exactly what you would have to do, if you wanted to rank him higher than Super 5. McNabb is without question the greatest QB ever to wear wings on his helmet, as he set the all-time record for every important passing stat while simultaneously accumulating the lowest interception-to-touchdown ration in league history. But the stats really don’t matter. McNabb took over a 3-13 team and two seasons later was starting in the playoffs. He won a playoff game on a broken ankle. He completed 4th-and-26 against the Packers in the playoffs, which led to a playoff win. Simply put, he was money when it mattered. Sure, he never won us a Superbowl. But before he showed up we were praying for a six-win season. The fact that we can even complain about “going to five NFC Championship Games and only winning one” is a testament to how consistently great McNabb was for a long, long time. When his mobility fell off, so did his accuracy, and I’ll admit I was as happy as anyone else to usher in a new era last season. But I still have that 5 jersey in my closet. I’ll most likely never wear it again, but I’m sure as hell not going to throw it out either.
1. Brian Dawkins
Does anybody really care how many tackles Brian Dawkins had? How many sacks, forced fumbles, or interceptions? Of course not. People loved Brian Dawkins because he leveled people. He was intensity incarnate, a fire-breathing monster. He was the Philadelphia Eagles, and for 12 years he scared the living hell out of anyone that crossed our path. Never in the history of the NFL has one player so dramatically altered the culture of a football team. Weapon X, more-so than any other player on this list, single-handedly changed not only the way the Birds played on defense, but the way every one of our opponents played against us. The middle of the field was no longer safe. Quarterbacks no longer held onto the ball for that extra second. Running backs no longer stiff-armed their way to a forty yard gain. People got hurt, careers were shortened, NFC East titles became ours. Dawk played more games as an Eagle than anyone (183), and in 2002 became the first player in NFL history to record a sack, an interception, a forced fumble, and a touchdown reception (on a fake punt) in the same game. Talk about doing it all. But his biggest contribution didn’t come during play. It came in the locker room, in the huddle, in the tunnel, and on the sidelines. He loved the game, he loved the fans, and he was arguably the best cheerleader the Eagles ever had. We’ve been trying to find a suitable replacement for Dawk every since we let him walk two years ago. The Draft, trades, free agency, etc. But the hard truth is there is no replacement. Unlike any of the players listed above, Brian Dawkins is simply without equal. No one we ever bring in will match his heart, his work ethic, his drive, or his intensity. He is the best safety to ever play the game, one of the best Eagles to ever wear our colors, and without question the greatest player of the Andy Reid era.