The Eagles had a good run of success under Buddy Ryan from 1988-90, making the playoffs all three years. But postseason success eluded them. Ryan went 0-3 in the playoffs and after consecutive home losses in 1989 and 1990, he was shown the door. Offensive coordinator Rich Kotite was promoted. The 1991 Philadelphia Eagles overcame some serious adversity—but not enough to make it back to the playoffs.
Defense was the foundation of Ryan’s teams and remained so under Kotite. The great Reggie White was at defensive end, and with 15 sacks he was 1st-team All-NFL. The other All-NFL defensive end? On the opposite side of the line, Clyde Summons, with 13 sacks .And between those two? How about Jerome Brown, another 1st-team All-Pro, with nine sacks. Brown was joined by Mike Golic, the future ESPN commentator.
This elite defensive front was augmented by Pro Bowlers at linebacker in Seth Joyner and cornerback Eric Allen. Free safety Wes Hopkins picked off five passes. Philly ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed.
The offense had been built around the dynamic talents of dual-threat Randall Cunningham. But in the first game of the regular season, Cunningham was injured and lost for the year. Veteran backup Jim McMahon performed credibly in his eleven starts—his 60% completion rate and 7.2 yards-per-attempt were each in the top 10 among quarterbacks. But McMahon was mistake-prone and more importantly, he was no Cunningham on a team that lacked great talent at the other skill position spots.
James Joseph, Heath Sherman and Keith Byars shared duties carrying the ball. None were particularly effective, although Byars’ strength was more as a pass-catcher—his 62 receptions would lead the team. Fred Barnett was a good receiver, with 62 catches for 948 yards, but there was a big dropoff in production after him. Keith Jackson caught 48 balls at the tight end spot. The offensive line lacked Pro Bowl talent and the offense ended up ranked 18th in what was then only a 28-team league in points scored.
It was the season opener at Green Bay when Cunningham went down early. The defense still carried the day against what was then a bad Packers team, forcing five turnovers and getting three sacks from White. The Eagles won 20-3, but an early pall was cast on the season. They came home to play another bad team, the Phoenix Cardinals, and fumbled the ball away five times in a 26-10 loss.
The NFC East was going to be rugged. The New York Giants had won the Super Bowl in 1990. The Washington Redskins were a playoff perennial under Joe Gibbs and embarking on what would be their best season. The Dallas Cowboys of Jimmy Johnson were a rising force and it was Dallas were Philly had to go for their third game of the year.
The defensive line was ready. Jerome Brown got 2 ½ sacks and Golic added two more. Simmons was a one-man wrecking crew with 4 ½ sacks. Linebacker Rich Milano intercepted two Troy Aikman passes and the Eagles cruised to a 24-0 win. They came back the next week against Pittsburgh and held the Steelers to 66 rush yards in a 23-14 win.
A Monday Night visit to Washington awaited. McMahon was hurt for this game and the Eagles were down to third-stringer Pat Ryan. It wouldn’t have mattered—this Redskin team would devastate all comers. But it made the offense more inept than it had to be—Philadelphia only gained 89 total yards and allowed more sacks (5) than they got first downs (4). The final was 23-0.
McMahon was still out for the next two weeks and Kotite went on the quarterback carousel. He tried rookie Brad Goebel at lowly Tampa Bay. It didn’t work—even though the defense scored one touchdown, the offense couldn’t do anything and lost 14-1. Goebel got another chance the next week when the undefeated New Orleans Saints came to the Vet. He threw four interceptions in a 13-6 loss that sent the Birds into the bye week at 3-4.
The time off allowed McMahon to get healthy, but it didn’t make the offensive line any better. McMahon was sacked six times and the running game only produced 29 yards in 23-7 home loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Finally, in a Monday Night home game with the Giants, the losing streak ended. Philadelphia pounded New York on the ground with a balanced attack, winning the rush yardage battle 137-53 and cruising to a 30-7 win.
There was still no room for error in a difficult NFC that would see eight teams get to 10 wins. Philadelphia went to Cleveland, who was starting a rebuilding project under first-year coach Bill Belichick. The Eagles dug themselves a 23-7 hole, but McMahon bailed them out. He went 26/43 for 341 yards, with Barnett catching eight of the passes for 146 yards. Philly pulled out a 32-30 win.
The defense was back in gear against Cincinnati, getting six sacks—two apiece from Simmons and White—and forcing four turnovers, two of them Wes Hopkins interceptions. The Eagles won 17-10. They forced seven more turnovers in a 34-14 road trouncing of Phoenix (the Cardinals were an NFC East rival prior to the 2002 re-alignment).
Philly’s defense kept forcing the turnovers the next Monday Night at playoff-bound Houston, where the Oilers of Warren Moon usually had a high-powered offense. Not in this game. The Eagles collected five turnovers, Joyner sacked Moon twice and Philadelphia got a 13-6 win.
The Eagles were 8-5 and squarely in the mix of a logjam for the playoffs. They were tied with the Cowboys and Falcons for two available wild-card spots, with the Giants and 49ers a game back at 7-6. Philadelphia’s next two games would be against the Giants and Cowboys.
Kotite had to do try yet another quarterback and he went with Jeff Kemp, a veteran backup who had gotten substantial playing time on a playoff team in San Francisco when Joe Montana was injured in 1985. It didn’t matter against the Giants—the Philly defense was playing too well and New York was starting to unravel. The 19-14 win set up a huge battle with Dallas the following Sunday afternoon in the Vet.
The winds were heavy at 22mph, something that at least mitigated the disadvantage Philly was facing in the passing game. But they weren’t able to force any turnovers in this game, committed two of their own and gave up a big special teams touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Eagles lost, 25-13.
That defeat eliminated Philadelphia from the playoffs. They were able to beat Washington in the season finale, after the Redskins pulled starters with a 19-7 lead in the fourth quarter. Kemp rallied the Eagles to a 24-22 win that got them to 10-6. They joined the 49ers as the hard luck teams who had won ten football games and watched two teams in the AFC who had not done so make the playoffs.
Postseason football would be back though. Philadelphia got back into the party in 1992 and finally got that elusive playoff victory. It was the high point of Kotite’s tenure and after going 15-17 in 1993-94, the organization moved on. The 1991 Philadelphia Eagles accomplished a lot, even without Cunningham. They were just in the wrong conference at the wrong time.