By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE – If you want to win in the National Football League, there are many things you need a lot to go right – a perfect storm.
Mixed in, you need your need your special teams to be special. For our Philadelphia Eagles, we have surely seen our share of ups and downs in this category, but some real standouts over the years.
The 75th Anniversary Team, as voted on by the fans in 2008, was somewhat predictable. The years have passed, a Super Bowl was won and the time has come to set the record straight.
I do this at great personal risk, but let the bullets fly:
75th Team: Tim Brown
Mulligan Team: Tim Brown
Say What?: Before my time, but I listen to my elders, and they all confirm he was Brian Westbrook before there was Brian Westbrook. They also say his sudden retirement in 1967 (returning briefly to win a second championship with the Baltimore Colts in 1968) to be a B-movie star helped keep the Birds from taking flight. When I started following the team in the early 1970s, he was still talked about lovingly and longingly. I guess when you return two kickoffs for touchdowns in one game, like he did against Dallas in 1966, your place in franchise folklore is cemented. His all-purpose skills sent him to three Pro Bowls. Ironically, Brown began his career out of Ball State with the Green Bay Packers, playing one game in 1959 before helping to beat the Packers in the 1960 championship game.
75th Team: Brian Westbrook
Mulligan Team: Darren Sproles
Say What?: Me? Pick a guy I have complained about, Sproles, over one of my all-time favorite Birds in Westbrook. Yep. Cue the theme from the “Twilight Zone.” My issue with Sproles was that he shouldn’t have been handed a roster spot the last two years, and then force-fed into the offense with what seemed like mandatory touches to push him up the NFL’s all-purpose yardage list. It seemed as if the Eagles were trying to hang on to him long enough that, as a possible Hall of Famer, he would go in as an Eagle. That goal was achieved, even at the expense of the product on the field. Either it was that nefarious of a plot, or they missed the memo that they won the Super Bowl without him – and left tackle Jason Peters, who was seemingly kept around for the same reasons – on the field (Peters missed the second half of the year while Sproles missed almost the whole thing). However, prior to that season the sun, Sproles did something he did not do with his two other employers – the Chargers and the Saints – by being selected to the Pro Bowl three consecutive years – 2014-16 — as the return specialist. He was also a two-time All-Pro (2015-16). Since he had it practically written into his contract that he didn’t want to return kicks, ironically after setting up the game-winning points to beat the Eagles with a kick return in the playoffs the season prior to his arrival here, these accolades were based on what he had done as a punt returner. Before he was a shell of himself the last years, Sproles was a threat on every punt – and smart about when to call for a fair catch and when to let a punt bounce (skills that also eroded). Westbrook was surely the popular choice in 2008, as his punt return late in a game in one of the Miracle of the Meadowlands sequels was fresh in a lot of minds. However, as he became more a part of the offense, the need was less. DeSean Jackson, whose walkoff punt return in the Meadowland remains etched in our souls, went to a Pro Bowl as returner and receiver that same season (2010) At the time, they said he was the first Eagles punt returner to be so honored, which was incorrect. Wally Henry, unfortunately remembered for two bad fumbles in a home playoff game in 1981, was not only a Pro Bowl choice in 1979, but actually took one to the house in Honolulu.
75th Team: David Akers
Mulligan Team: David Akers
Say What?: Really hard not to go with Akers, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, even though he was not as money in the clutch as current kicker Jake Elliott has been – so far. He was selected to six Bowls, five of which were as an Eagle. He was first- or second-team All-Pro six times, five of which were as an Eagle. The Eagles have had some other Pro Bowl kickers – Bobby Walston, Sam Baker and Cody Parkey of double-doink infamy. They have had memorable ones with half a foot, recent coronavirus victim Tom Dempsey, and two that kicked barefoot (Tony Franklin, Paul McFadden). They have also had some so hideous – Happy Feller, Horst Muhlmann, etc. — that having had Akers, and Elliott now, should make us all grateful.
75th Team: Sean Landeta
Mulligan Team: King Hill
Say What?: I know, I know … Landeta is considered, possibly, the second best punter of all time behind Ray Guy. He is the punter, and rightfully so, on both the 1980s and 1990s All-Decade teams. However, of his 22 seasons in the league, five of them – at the tail end of his career – were spent here. He was good, maybe even the best we had seen here, but his years of greatness were behind him. Once discounted for my Mulligan here, the search for a replacement was on. Donnie Jones, of the Super Bowl team, is in a similar situation. Current punter, Cameron Johnston, has a chance to maybe be the best. Going back into recent history, there were some others – Max Runager, John Teltschick, Tom Hutton — who were OK, but not OK enough to be keep beyond a few years. That put me back in time, and the best I could do to at least hold a place for Johnston was Hill. Much hyped coming out of Rice, Hill never lived up to expectations as a quarterback. He landed here as a backup in 1961 and made himself useful also serving a punter for most of the decade. His average was just under 43 yards per punt, and he never had one blocked. For now, we’ll go with it.
75th Team: Vince Papale
Mulligan Team: Bob Picard
Say What?: If I am going to remain unpopular, let me do it in style. I’m accused of heresy for my All-Time Defense, so why not add to the charges. I plead guilty. Unlike above, there is no need to go back in time and look at numbers. A special teamer going to the Pro Bowl, and being named All-Pro, is a 21st century thing. No one kept track of special teams tackles in the bad old days – at least not on the official docket. I have been watching the Eagles since my first game at Franklin Field at 1970. There have been many outstanding special teams players, even on bad teams, and Papale is among them. Others include the likes of Ike Reese, who went to the Pro Bowl as a special teams choice, and three who got Super Bowl rings – Chris Maragos, Bryan Braman and Mack Hollins. However, two stood out to me the most, and neither had a movie made about them. They were Colt Anderson, who was on a Pro Bowl – possibly All-Pro – trajectory when he tore his ACL in the 9th game of the 2011 season (he joined the team in 2010). He never played here again, and was out of the league a few years later. That leaves Picard, who was Papale before there was Papale (ironically wearing No. 82 while Papale wore No. 83). For three seasons here before being selected in the expansion draft by the Seattle Seahawks, who were obviously aware of his special teams acumen (despite zero career catches as a receiver). The opening for someone like Picard set the stage for Papale, but Picard actually set the mold. At Veterans Stadium in the early 1970s, with little else to cheer for, he became a bit of a folk hero with homemade signs hung from the rafters. One some teams not known for hustle, Picard often had mud and blood on his body and uniform. Wrote a scribe at the time: “Of all the Philadelphia Eagles, the easiest one to find in the locker room is Bobby Picard. He’s the one covered with all the blood. Number 82 in your program, but No. 1 in the kamikaze ranks. The guy who looks like a walking transfusion.”
75th Team: N/A
Mulligan Team: Rick Lovato
Say What?: I have been watching the game long enough that it was almost always the backup center serving as the long snapper. For a while, teams would turn to the third tight ends – like Mike Bartrum in the Andy Reid era – but it was become so specialized that guys whose athletic ability wouldn’t even otherwise put them on a roster, are carried for this highly specialized task. You don’t really notice the long snapper until there is a bad one. Never been a real concern here over the years, with the likes of Bartrum and Jon Dorenbos (two Pro Bowls as an Eagle), but it is Lovato who has triggered some of the most important long snaps in team history with aplomb. A pleasant surprise on the coverge units, with some solo tackles, he was also selected to the Pro Bowl this year.
75th Team: N/A
Mulligan Team: Bill Bradley
Say What?: Am I getting weird here? Yeah, maybe a bit. With as much of a pathway to the all-time defense at safety as Bernie Sanders to the Democratic party’s presidential nomination, I feel like there is a place somewhere for my first favorite Eagle. Bradley, a college quarterback, was a bright spot on some hideous Eagles teams. A free safety in the NFL, he twice led the league in interceptions with 11 in 1971 and nine the following year. He went to three Pro Bowls (1971, 72 and 73) and was an All-Pro in 1971-72. What is also of note is that Bradley was called upon to punt, return punts and hold on placekicks (as he was likely doing here when the Eagles probably didn’t have enough, or too many, men on the field). I wanted to find him a place to honor his overshadowed service, so here he is.