clock menu more-arrow no yes
1995 NFC Wild Card Playoff Game - Detroit Lions vs Philadelphia Eagles - December 30, 1995 Photo by Greg Crisp/Getty Images

Filed under:

The 2021 Eagles are mirroring the 1995 Birds

There are a lot of similarities between these two teams.

Barry Switzer stood on the frigid Veterans Stadium sidelines, pleading with officials to give his team a chance to redeem themselves amidst 65,000 screaming fans watching with manic glee as the hated Cowboys seemingly handed their underdog Eagles a thrilling victory.

Dallas’ head coach had just foolishly refused to punt the ball away late in the 4th quarter of an early December, 17-17 tie game in Philadelphia, and instead ran Emmitt Smith into a wall of Eagles defenders just before the two-minute warning. Deep in their own territory, Switzer’s gaffe placed the Eagles in field goal range and in position to win a huge game over their hated divisional rivals.

But the officials mistakenly claimed the two minute warning had begun before the ball was snapped. On the telecast, John Madden was apoplectic. Switzer would get his do-over.

What happened next is Eagles lore.

In his great arrogance, Switzer went for it again, despite the failure that had taken place moments before. Not only that, he chose to run the same exact play.

I loved the ‘95 Eagles.

4th and 1 remains my favorite Eagles childhood memory and I deliriously attended the Wild Card blowout against the Lions. They are my second favorite Eagles team in franchise history (behind only the 2017 Super Bowl winners), an out-of-nowhere playoff team with one superstar, a journeyman QB, a ragtag defense, and a rookie head coach that coaxed a 10-6 record out of a group that had no business winning more than 8 games that season.

This year’s Eagles team reminds me a lot of Ray Rhodes’ bunch.

We’re now 11 weeks into the 2021 NFL season and the Philadelphia Eagles are surprisingly knocking on the postseason’s door.

At 5-6, they are a half-game behind the No. 7-seed New Orleans Saints, a 5-5 team they manhandled on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, and the 5-5 San Francisco 49ers, who are also on the outside looking in but own a tiebreaker over the Eagles thanks to their Week 2 victory over the Birds at the Linc.

The Eagles have the league’s easiest remaining schedule, a hot young quarterback in Jalen Hurts, a suddenly dominant run game, an opportunistic defense that is learning to close out games, and a head coach that has done an outstanding job adjusting his game plans and finding an identity for his team.

Back in ‘95, following Jeff Lurie’s first season as owner, Rich Kotite was fired as head coach and San Francisco defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes took over. They signed Ricky Watters as a free agent and watched as Rhodes led the Eagles to a 10-6 record, a wild card berth, and even a memorable playoff win over the Lions at Veterans Stadium.

The ‘21 Birds are a lot like that ‘95 gang.

2021 vs. 1995 Eagles By the Numbers

Season Rush Yards Rank Passing Yards Rank Rush Defense Rank Pass Defense Rank Total Defense Rank Turnovers Rank Sacks
Season Rush Yards Rank Passing Yards Rank Rush Defense Rank Pass Defense Rank Total Defense Rank Turnovers Rank Sacks
2021 1687 2 2194 26 27 12 8 16 18 (26)
1995 2121 4 2686 29 12 29 27 3 48 (2)

GRINDING IT OUT

Offensively, both teams are getting it done on the ground.

In the ‘90s, it was more common to have a single bell cow running back and, in the case of the Eagles, that was Watters. After a slow start (“For who? For what?”), Watters caught fire and ran for 1,273 yards and 11 TDs, while also hauling in 62 passes for 434 yards. But Charlie Garner was also around with lightning in his legs, adding an additional 588 yards and 6 TDs as the team’s change-of-pace back. Thanks Watters and Garner, the Birds had the fourth-most rushing yards in the NFL that season.

This year’s Eagles are led by a cavalcade of running backs and, of course, their running QB, Jalen Hurts, who leads the team with 618 yards on the ground and 8 TDs. After missing three games with an injury, Miles Sanders (394) is the team’s leading rusher at running back, while Jordan Howard (274), and Boston Scott (221) have had outstanding seasons, too. All are averaging at least 4.8 yards per carry, behind an offensive line that is dominating opponents. Jordan Mailata, Landon Dickerson, Jason Kelce, Jack Driscoll and Lane Johnson may be the best offensive line in football right now and, between them and Hurts’ playmaking ability, no one, not even the No. 1 rush defense of the Saints, has been able stop their running attack.

ROOKIE HEAD COACH

Like the ‘95 squad, these Eagles are being led by a first-year head coach. Earlier in the year, I compared Nick Sirianni to the league’s worst coaches (Joe Judge, Matt Nagy, Urban Meyer) and, at the time, it was appropriate. But I owe Nick a big ‘ol apology, as Sirianni has righted the ship with outstanding play calling this last month, carving out an identity for this team that, in the same way, was Rhodes’ calling card.

Toughness.

You don’t get to be the 2nd-best rushing attack in a pass-happy league without instilling toughness in your players. When things were at their worst in September and October, when the Eagles were losing big, they never quit in any game. Not one. Some of that mental toughness is now paying dividends, as the schedule eases and Hurts comes into his own as a quarterback and field general.

But just as Rhodes preached toughness, Sirianni’s Eagles are demonstrating that same quality repeatedly this season.

PASSING ISSUES

Much like the ‘21 Eagles, the 1995 version had difficulty in the passing game.

When Randall Cunningham failed to grasp then-offensive coordinator Jon Gruden’s West Coast Offense, Rodney Peete replaced him after the first few games. Peete’s numbers in 1995 were pretty awful (57.3% completion, 8 TDs, 14 INTs, 67.3 rating) and the team had the second-fewest passing yards in the NFL, yet Peete led them to a 9-3 record in the 12 games he started.

Jalen Hurts’ passing numbers are certainly more efficient than Peete’s (61.6% completion, 13 TDs, 5 INTs, 90.4 rating) but in a league that has become a pass-first operation, the Eagles’ 2,194 passing yards are 5th-fewest. Like the ‘95 team, the ‘21 Eagles don’t have a ton of weapons at receiver, although DeVonta Smith is emerging as a star and Dallas Goedert has become a security blanket for Hurts. There is more room for growth there.

Not only that, Hurts’ upside is far higher than Peete’s ever was, and Hurts adds to his value by running the ball, a skill Peete never possessed. Still, both teams are similar in that they struggle to move the ball through the air but dominated on the ground, and are led by QBs with strong leadership qualities.

DEFENSIVE DIFFERENCES

The ‘21 Eagles have a surprisingly better defense than the ‘95 team, according to the numbers. They’ve given up the 8th-fewest total yards in the NFL, with a dramatic shift in blitzing and turnovers over their last four games. Before, Jonathan Gannon’s defense was a passive unit striving not to get burned, but he’s turned up the pressure and the result has been an increase in takeaways and three-and-outs. While the ‘21 Eagles rank 27th in rush defense, they are 12th in pass defense.

The ‘95 Eagles did not have any stars, save for William Fuller and Bobby Taylor, and ranked 29th in pass defense, 12th in rush defense and just 27th in overall team defense. However, those numbers are based on yards allowed. The ‘95 defense was adept at sacking the quarterback (48, 2nd-most in NFL), and creating turnovers (3rd-most). By contrast, the ‘21 team has just 18 sacks (26th) and they’re 16th in turnovers, although those numbers are trending in a positive direction.

THE FUTURE?

The 1995 Eagles weren’t quite good enough to overtake the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East. Despite that dramatic 4th and 1 victory at the Vet in December that year, Barry Switzer’s Cowboys went 12-4, two games clear of the Birds. Those Cowboys would go on to win their third Super Bowl in four years, the last time Dallas would win the Super Bowl.

This year, the Cowboys are once again the best team in the NFC East and threaten to pull away with the division. They are 7-3, 2.5 games ahead of the Eagles with a victory over them already earlier this year. While the Eagles are improving, the Cowboys are still formidable, and virtually everyone would agree Dallas is the better team right now.

The ‘95 Eagles won the Wild Card and toppled the Detroit Lions in a memorable Vet wild card game 58-37, before falling to the Cowboys in the divisional round.

With an easy schedule ahead of them and momentum building, this year’s Eagles team doesn’t have to win it all for the season to be a success. To surprisingly make the playoffs during a rebuilding year would be a tremendous accomplishment, and a postseason victory would just be icing on the cake.

That’s all we need to close the loop on two teams that mirror each other in many ways.

NFL | From SBNation.com

The art of the forced fumble, explained by the NFL Draft class of 2020

NFL | From SBNation.com

The gore, guts and horror of an NFL fumble pile

NFL | From SBNation.com

I understand why Andrew Luck retired, because I’ve been in his shoes

View all stories in NFL