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Eagles have the league’s best defense of the past 30 years

The good ol’ days

Jerome Brown attacks the offense Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Football Outsiders recently put together a list of the top 30 NFL offenses of the last 30 years. The Philadelphia Eagles didn’t make that list, but they did appear twice on FO’s list of the top 30 defenses ... including the No. 1 overall spot. Via ESPN In$ider:

1. 1991 Philadelphia Eagles: -42.4 percent

Looking at raw points scored and allowed can sometimes disguise the true strength of a defense because of problems on the other side of the ball. No team in modern NFL history exemplifies this quite like the 1991 Eagles. After Randall Cunningham tore an ACL 15 minutes into the first game of the season, the Eagles' offense collapsed. The defense spent the season constantly defending short fields. So while the Eagles gave up just 3.92 yards per play, the third-best figure since the move to a 16-game season in 1978, they finished fifth overall in points allowed in 1991.

Opposing quarterbacks completed just 44.1 percent of passes, the lowest rate for any defense since 1978. They led the NFL with 55 sacks and 43 forced fumbles. They finished third with 26 interceptions. And the defense wasn't one-dimensional: The Eagles allowed just 2.97 yards per carry on the ground, which ranks fifth since 1978. They put up these obscene numbers in standard stats despite playing the fourth-toughest defensive schedule in the league. Their division rivals finished first (Washington), fourth (Dallas) and sixth (New York) in offensive DVOA.

This was the late Buddy Ryan's defense, but without Ryan. He had been fired as head coach at the end of 1990. Rich Kotite was the head coach and Bud Carson the defensive coordinator. Three of the four defensive linemen were selected as first-team All-Pros: Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons. Linebacker Seth Joyner and cornerback Eric Allen joined them in the Pro Bowl.

Unlike the 2000 Ravens and the 2002 Bucs, the 1991 Eagles didn't get to build a legend with a dominating Super Bowl victory. The team couldn't get enough out of Jeff Kemp, Brad Goebel and a 32-year-old Jim McMahon to even make it to the playoffs. Nonetheless, the 1991 Eagles were the best defense of the past 30 years.

I wasn’t alive to witness this team, but it’s clear there were some legends on this defense. Reggie White was arguably the best defensive player to ever play the game.

The other team to make the list was the 2008 Eagles at No. 22 overall.

22. 2008 Philadelphia Eagles

-20.9 percent

This was a peculiar season with really high standard deviation among defenses: four of them rank among the top 30 of the past 30 years, while another three (Detroit, Denver and St. Louis) rank among the bottom 30. This was a strong but fairly anonymous defense, with no All-Pros and only Asante Samuel and Brian Dawkins making the Pro Bowl.

This Eagles defense was the last one to win a playoff game.

The 2017 Eagles probably won’t be replicating the success of these past group, but Philadelphia certainly is putting an emphasis on building the defensive line again. Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett, and Brandon Graham are all first round picks. Timmy Jernigan was thought to be a Day 1 prospect who fell to the second round. The Eagles are hoping their front four can be the foundation of a new strong defensive unit under Jim Schwartz. They just have to figure out the cornerback spot moving forward.

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