The 1981 Philadelphia Eagles go down as one of the big disappointments in a franchise history that has inflicted a lot upon its great fan base. The Eagles came into 1981 fresh off three straight playoff appearances and had reached the Super Bowl in 1980. After a blazing start in 1981, they looked ready to finish the job. But the subsequent collapse saw them first give up the NFC East and then make an early playoff exit.
Head coach Dick Vermeil oversaw a team with the best defense in the NFL. Nose tackle Charles Johnson was a first-team All-Pro, and other Pro Bowlers included inside linebacker Frank LeMaster, outside linebacker Jerry Robinson and corner Roynell Young.
On the other corner was 27-year-old Herm Edwards, to achieve later fame as a head coach and ESPN analyst. This group gave up the fewest points in the league.
The offense only had one Pro Bowler, right tackle Jerry Sisemore, but they still ranked fifth in points scored. Wilbert Montgomery ran for over 1,400 yards and was second on the team in receptions. Harold Carmichael, the 6’8” receiver led the team with 61 catches and over 1,000 yards receiving. The quarterback was another future ESPN analyst, Ron Jaworski.
“Jaws” threw for over 3,000 yards and his 54.2% completion rate was pretty good for this era, as was the 6.7 yards-per-pass. The TD-INT ratio of 23/20 could have been better, but it was manageable by the standards of 1981.
Philadelphia was hungry to avenge their Super Bowl loss to the Oakland Raiders the previous January and started out the season looking like they intended to do exactly that. The Eagles opened the season at the New York Giants, who had been awful for well over a decade. Philly spotted New York a 3-0 lead and then gradually took over the game thanks to 178-55 edge in rush yardage behind Montgomery. The final was 24-10.
A visit to the New England Patriots, who were expected to good, produced another solid ground effort with Montgomery’s 137 yards leading the way. Philadelphia broke open a 3-3 game at the half with the combination of the running game and five interceptions on defense leading a 13-3 win.
Thursday Night games were rare at this time, and the Eagles-Bills game between two contenders was a good one. Buffalo was the defending AFC East champs and would make the playoffs again in 1981. Philadelphia trailed 14-10 at the half before Jaworski found Carmichael with a touchdown pass to get the lead.
It was Jaws’ best game of the young season, going 20/32 for 240 yards and no interceptions. Montgomery rushed for 125 yards, that top-rated defense took over the second half and the 20-14 win moved the Eagles to 3-0. Philadelphia returned home to play Washington, and took over late, turning a 14-13 fourth quarter lead into a 36-13 win.
Another prime-time game opened up October, this one on Monday Night at home against the Atlanta Falcons. At the start of the season it was an anticipated battle between one team who had won the NFC crown in 1980 and another who had been the NFC’s top playoff seed. The Falcons struggled to a 7-9 record this year, but they gave the Eagles a tough game. Philadelphia survived 16-13 because Jaworski steered clear of mistakes while the defense picked off Atlanta’s Steve Bartkowski twice.
The defense dominated a weak New Orleans team, holding the Saints to 90 rush yards and forcing four turnovers in a 31-14 win. Philadelphia was riding high at 6-0 and looking every bit like the next Super Bowl champions.
The first crack in the armor came in Minnesota, where the Vikings were leading the NFC Central. Jaworski threw for 330 yards, but four turnovers doomed Philly in a 35-23 loss. Minnesota would fall even worse than Philadelphia, falling out of the playoffs, but the Vikes had handed the Eagles their first loss.
Montgomery ran for 119 yards at home against Tampa Bay, the team that would eventually win the NFC Central, while the defense intercepted Doug Williams three times in a 20-10 win that closed October. The first day of November would bring the Dallas Cowboys to town, Philly’s only competition for the division crown and a rematch of the previous year’s NFC Championship Game.
In that playoff victory, Montgomery had run wild. He didn’t this time and the Eagles generated only 94 rush yards. Even so, after Jaworski found Carmichael on an 85-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter for a 14-3, everything looked right with the world. But the failure to run the ball caught up with Philly and the defense cracked in the fourth quarter of a 17-14 loss.
Two losses in three games were cause for concern, but Philadelphia responded with offensive outbursts in two straight blowout wins. Jaworski threw five touchdowns in a 52-10 win at the mediocre St. Louis Cardinals, while Montgomery and the ground attack piled up the yardage in a 38-13 demolition of the woeful Baltimore Colts.
The record was 9-2 and in spite of the Dallas loss, everything was still just fine in Philadelphia. It was then, just prior to Thanksgiving, that the wheels of the season came off.
The Eagles and Giants were tied 10-10 after three quarter when New York got a field goal and Jaworski threw a Pick-6 that led to a 20-10 loss. The quarterback similarly struggled on Monday Night in Miami, going 12/24 for 91 yards. The Eagles still led 10-3 against the soon-to-be AFC East champs, but another fourth quarter failure led to a 13-10 loss.
A road trip to Washington was next and again Philadelphia was in position to win, leading 13-6 in the fourth quarter. After the Redskins kicked a field goal, Jaworski threw a Pick-6 near midfield, leading to a 15-13 loss, one of three interceptions on the day.
Just like that, Philadelphia was two games back of Dallas with two to play and the postseason was not yet secure. The Eagles’ road game with the Cowboys was next and if Philly could win this game, they were still in position to win the NFC East on a tiebreaker.
One more time, the Eagles failed in the second half, this time for a late Sunday afternoon national audience. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but again failed to make headway on the ground against the Cowboy defense. Jaworski couldn’t get it done without the ground support and threw four interceptions, leading to a 21-10 loss.
The team with the best defense in the NFL had given games up late four straight weeks. They would have to take the long road to the Super Bowl…that is, if they even made the playoffs at all. Unbelievably, the Eagles needed to win at home against the Cardinals, or hope the Green Bay Packers lost in the finale, in order to qualify.
Turnovers still plagued Philadelphia in the finale, as they gave it up five times. But this time it didn’t matter. The defense forced six turnovers of their own, Montgomery ran for 108 yards, while Jaws was a sharp 13/19 for 172 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The 38-0 win wasn’t necessary—Green Bay lost to the New York Jets decisively—but after the collapse, the Eagles had at least played their way to the postseason rather than backing in.
And there was still an opportunity for redemption. They would host the NFC wild-card game against the New York Giants, who had played their latter part of the year with backup quarterback Scott Brunner and had offensive problems most of the year.
The playoff game turned out to be a nightmare. The Eagles fumbled a punt, setting up a touchdown. They fumbled a kickoff that was recovered by the Giants in the end zone. Montgomery ran for just 65 yards, while New York counterpart Rob Carpenter went for 161. Philadelphia fell behind 20-0 and though they closed to 27-21 with less than three minutes to go, the top-rated defense was unable to get the ball back.
It’s difficult to imagine a team with the best defense and a top-five offense only finishing 10-6 and flaming out like this in the playoffs. The 1981 Philadelphia Eagles team simply found ways to lose games at the worst possible time and it foreshadowed the end of this brief era of franchise ascendancy.
Philadelphia missed the playoffs in the strike-shortened year of 1982, and Vermeil resigned, citing burnout. The Eagles went into disrepair for a few years, before Buddy Ryan gave them a few short years of contention in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The franchise didn’t make the Super Bowl until the Andy Reid/Donovan McNabb era in 2004, and even that period is marked by several playoff disappointments. But perhaps no disappointment was bigger than a potentially great team collapsing at the end of 1981.