The Eagles will debut their old kelly green look on Sunday night against the visiting Miami Dolphins. The Eagles won three NFL championships donning kelly green: 1948, 1949, and 1960. But those were not the same kelly green jerseys that the Eagles will be wearing on national TV on Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field.
This version of kelly green comes tainted with the curse of Eagles’ failures past.
It arrives with the memory of a talented, jinxed team that underachieved, had an exciting quarterback in Randall Cunningham who thrilled though never quite fulfilled his promise to be the “Ultimate Weapon,” and bogged down by unrealized dreams despite a famous defense that has tragically lost five starters that are no longer with us (Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Andre Waters, Wes Hopkins and Mike Pitts). It was a time and a team that managed to win regardless of being under heavy-handed, tight-fisted owner Norman “The guy in France” Braman, as Buddy Ryan affectionately called him.
Most importantly, the Eagles never won a playoff game wearing the kelly green jersey with the flying Eagles sleeve style that they will be wearing Sunday night.
In 1985, Braman took ownership of the team from the addled Leonard Tose for a reported $65 million, which helped pay off Tose’s alleged $25 million gambling debts. Braman wanted to make sweeping changes to the team, and part of that was the uniform switch from the darker green, multi-striped, thick gray-and-white sleeve jersey to a simpler, cleaner look that featured the kelly green jersey with white numbers trimmed in black and the flying Eagles’ logo on the sleeves. The accompanying white jerseys bore green numbers outlined in black, and the flying Eagles’ logo on the sleeves.
These specific jerseys were worn from 1985 to 1995.
During that time, the Eagles played, technically, under five head coaches: Marion Campbell, interim coach Fred Bruney, who took over for Campbell in the final game of the 1985 season, then Ryan, the bombastic, defensive genius who never won a playoff game and who is still beloved by a faction of Eagles’ fans, Rich “I’m-a-coach, you’re-not-a-coach” Kotite, and Ray Rhodes.
In those 11 years wearing the flying Eagles sleeve style, the Eagles were 96-78-1 (55.1 winning percentage; there were 15 games played in the 1987 season due to the players strike). They finished .500 or better in seven of those 11 seasons, but they were an ugly 2-5 (28.5 winning percentage) in the postseason, winning one playoff game under Kotite, in 1992, and the other under Rhodes, in 1995.
That period featured teams that constantly teased the Eagles’ rabid fanbase into imaging great things, only to come thudding down in the playoffs. Those postseason losses were compounded by the infancy of sports talk radio in Philadelphia, amplifying each letdown.
Those teams were fun to watch.
Each season was played on the treadmill to nowhere: Style points during the year came in their black shoes, incredible, mind-boggling plays and in how concrete hard they hit (“The House of Pain” game; “The Body Bag” game, Cunningham’s 95-yard TD pass to Fred Barnett, in a 30-23 loss at Buffalo on Dec. 2, 1990). Reality usually arrived in late-December or early-January. Gnawing angst soon followed and sat there for the next six months until July’s training camp began.
The interesting point of the flying Eagles sleeve kelly green jersey is that they were 0-3 in playoff games wearing it, losing to Washington in the 1990 NFC Wild Card round (10-7), to Dallas in the 1992 Divisional round (34-10), and to Dallas again in the 1995 Divisional round (30-11). Wearing white, the Eagles were 2-2 in the postseason, beating New Orleans in the 1992 Wild Card round (36-20) and Detroit in the 1995 Wild Card round (58-37), losing to the Los Angeles Rams in the 1989 Wild Card round (21-7) and to the Chicago Bears the previous season in the infamous Fog Bowl game (20-12) in Chicago on Dec. 31, 1988, probably the most memorable game the Eagles played in the flying Eagles sleeve jerseys.
You would think the Eagles would look at the history of these jerseys like the Cowboys’ old aversion to wearing their cursed “bad luck blue” jerseys (see Eagles-Cowboys 1980 NFC championship). (NOTE: This 2023 Eagles’ kelly green jersey comes from the Cunningham era, which is a marked difference from the basic kelly green jerseys the Eagles wore in their 2010 home opener against the Green Bay Packers).
Ironically, the last time the Eagles wore this kelly green look, Cunningham hit Ricky Watters in the back of the head with a pass on the first play of the fourth quarter in their 30-11 Divisional round playoff loss to Dallas on January 7, 1996. The demise of two popular Eagles’ figures came after the Eagles wore these kelly green jerseys: The Washington Wild Card loss marked the end of Ryan; the Dallas 1995 playoff loss was the last time Cunningham played for the Eagles.
In May 1994, Jeff Lurie bought the team from Braman. By 1996, the new Eagles’ owner wanted to create a new culture and design the team with his vision in mind. Lurie approved at the time a controversial, though what was deemed more modern look, switching from kelly green to the midnight green the Eagles currently wear. It may be the only major mistake Lurie has ever made as the owner of the Eagles, but it did separate the Lurie Eagles from the miserable Braman years, reflecting a regime change both on and off the field. It’s safe to say Lurie has since become the most successful owner in Eagles’ history—and arguably the greatest owner in Philadelphia pro sports history, up there with Hall of Famers Ed Snider, the Flyers’ initial owner, and iconic baseball figure Philadelphia A’s owner Connie Mack.
Lurie endured one year of Kotite and four years of Rhodes, before bringing in future Hall of Famer Andy Reid, who set the Eagles franchise on a winning path (though, it’s hard to believe, many in the Philadelphia area still comically feel Ryan was a better coach).
The NFL and NFL Properties this season made the popular move to bring back the throwback jerseys of the 1980s and ’90s with the Seattle Seahawks silver look, the Eagles’ mid-1980s to mid-1990s kelly green jerseys and helmets, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ creamsicle jerseys and Bucco Bruce helmet. The Eagles’ throwbacks were easily the most popular. Local sports merchandize stores were bombarded by an avalanche of Eagles’ fans that grabbed piles of kelly green jerseys, caps, sweatshirts and hoodies off the racks (I personally lived to see it).
The one glaring problem with the history of the Seahawks’ and Bucs’ throwbacks is that each franchise far exceeded the Eagles when they wore their old colors. Seattle reached the AFC championship in the 1983 season, and Tampa Bay, in just its fourth year of existence, reached the NFC championship during the 1979 season, upsetting the favored Eagles in the first playoff game in Bucs’ franchise history wearing their creamsicle orange in the divisional round (see Ricky Bell game).
The Eagles will be wearing kelly green twice this season, Sunday night against the visiting Dolphins and in Week 12 when they host Buffalo on Thanksgiving Day weekend Nov. 26 again on national TV (prompting another kelly green gold rush for the holidays).
The sharp jerseys sell and they will continue to sell.
This Eagles team has a chance to create new memories wearing them.
There is a likelihood the Eagles will make the playoffs. There is a probability the Eagles will host a playoff game. How frenzied do you think Lincoln Financial Field would be if Lurie and the Eagles opted to wear kelly green for the playoffs, opening the possibility to right the curse of Eagles’ kelly green playoff nightmares past?
For the time being, a generation of Eagles’ fans are stuck with the memory of Watters in kelly green getting hit in the back of the head running down the sideline in Dallas.
(NOTE: In an historic college football game, Joe Montana and the 1977 Notre Dame Fighting Irish came out in green against USC, on Oct. 5, 1977, in the famous “Green Jersey Game.” The Irish changed into their green jerseys in the locker room after coming out in their traditional blue during pre-game warmups. USC never had a chance. Changing uniforms after per-game warm-ups would never be allowed in today’s NFL considering the league’s modern emphasis on player protection, which understandably values proper-fitting jerseys and helmets as vital pieces of a player’s protective equipment. But it would be a fun move if it was permitted).
Joseph Santoliquito is a hall of fame, award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written feature stories for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, which appeared on SportsCenter. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.