Opposing quarterbacks have hated playing the Eagles for a long time. The punishing hits started in the pre-Super Bowl era and haven't stopped. The defenses of Marion Campbell, Buddy Ryan, Bud Carson, Ray Rhodes, and Jim Johnson featured a terrific combination of scheme and talent. Even last year when things were so erratic, the Eagles managed to lead the NFL in sacks.
While no one would argue the Eagles have had some of the best defensive minds of all time running the show, the real key is the players. Ryan's 46 Defense was all the more effective with Reggie White coming up the middle or off the edge. Jim Johnson had both Trent Cole and Hugh Douglas. Where would Jim Washburn's attacking style of line play have been last year without Jason Babin coming off the left side?
Let's try to rate the Eagles pass rushers of the last 25 years. Why that time period? Sacks weren't an official stat until 1982. That makes judging players from past eras really difficult. You end up going on opinion more than any type of fact. The game has also changed. Passing is much more frequent now. That means more chances. The flip side is that teams aren't as vertical anymore. It is hard to rush the passer when the defense is facing three-stop drops left and right.
The other factor is that pass blocking is worlds different now. Left tackles are special athletes. They are trained on pass protection at the high school level these days. Heck, earlier than that in some places. This isn't a world where lower levels of football are purely running offenses and only some college/pro teams throw the ball. Pass rushers now must face skilled blockers on a weekly basis. The other part of this is that each offensive line now has multiple good pass blockers.
So with all of that in mind, who are the best pass rushing Eagles of the last 25 years?
Any credible list has to start with Reggie White. He played defensive end and defensive tackle. He destroyed blockers at both spots. The thing that made him so special was that he could defeat blockers with size, strength, speed, or skill. Reggie was 6-5, 300 pounds. That is a monster sized end today, but was still big back then. There were more than a few blockers he faced where Reggie was the bigger of the two. That is a good advantage to start with. Reggie had rare speed and quickness for a guy his size. He could beat some blockers by just flying off the edge.
His deadliest asset was when Reggie combined his strength and skill in the form of the "hump move". Reggie would start upfield and get a blocker to take an outside pass set. Reggie would then stop and use his inside arm to club the blocker. By stopping mid-move, Reggie forced the blocker to also stop mid-move. This got them off balance. When the arm "clubbed" the blocker, he went flying to the outside and Reggie had a direct path to the passer. You won't see this move tried by many. It takes an unusual amount of body control, speed, and power. Reggie embarrassed quite a few offensive tackles with the hump move. Opposing quarterbacks paid the price.
Putting Reggie's production in context isn't easy because the numbers are so special. Babin last year did a pretty special thing by finishing a full season with more sacks than games played (18 sacks to 16 games). Reggie did this three times as an Eagle. He finished his Eagles career with 124 sacks in 121 games. That is simply staggering. The most amazing season was 1987 when Reggie had 21 sacks in just 12 games. Think about this. The reason he only played in 12 is due to a players strike. There were quite a few veteran players around the league who crossed the picket line early. Can you imagine if White had played a game against replacement players? He might have had 25 sacks that year and the record would be off the charts.
Next up is Clyde Simmons. There really isn't a clear choice for the second spot, but Simmons is the guy who makes the most sense to me. One of the arguments against him is that teams would load up on Reggie and that made things easier for Simmons. The counter argument to that is to remember that Simmons went up against the left tackle each week, generally the team's best pass blocker. Even though he wasn't facing a double team all that often, Simmons rarely had an easy matchup.
Simmons was a funny guy to watch. He was a good athlete, but had a gangly build and that made him look strange at times. Simmons was 6-6, 280. He wasn't a smooth, fluid player. What he lacked in style points, he made up for in results. Those long arms helped Simmons to give offensive tackles fits. He was able to get his hands on them quickly and keep blockers off him. Simmons did have good quickness and speed as well.
From 1989 to 1992, Simmons racked up 55 sacks and eight forced fumbles. Keep in mind that the total would be even higher but Simmons had Achilles tendon surgery prior to 1990 and that limited him to 7.5 sacks for the year. All of them came in the second half of the season, as he got to 100 percent. His best year was 1992, when he led the NFL with 19 sacks. There were some great games in this stretch. In 1991 Simmons had 4.5 sacks in a 24-0 win over Dallas. He had a pair of three-sack games in 1992. Simmons was All-Pro in both of those years. He finished his career with 121.5 sacks and 25 forced fumbles.
Too often we think of just ends when talking about pass rushers. Next on my list is Andy Harmon, a defensive tackle. He was a starter from 1992 to 1995. He then got hurt in the 1996 preseason and was never a factor again. In that four-year stretch, Harmon totaled 38.5 sacks. Two of the years Harmon hit double-digits. Jerome Brown is the only other Eagles defensive tackle in the last 25 years to total 10 or more sacks. He did it once, with 10.5 Brown didn't come close to Harmon's four-year total.
Harmon was projected to defensive end when he came to the NFL, but he bulked up a bit and found his home on the inside. He was 6-4, 278. He was very quick off the ball and a natural pass rusher. In college Harmon spent most of his career at linebacker before moving to defensive tackle as a senior. That background gave him a unique skill set that served him very well in the NFL. Harmon holds the Eagles record for sacks in a single season by a defensive tackle with 11.5 in 1993.
Back to the outside now. The final two spots belong to Trent Cole and Hugh Douglas. Choosing between them is very difficult. Cole is the better run defender and overall player, but I think Douglas was the better pass rusher of the two so he'll get the number four spot on the list. The Eagles traded for Douglas in 1998 and he delivered 12.5 sacks that year. The highlight game was a 4.5 sack performance in a tough loss to the Chargers. Douglas then got hurt in 1999 and only played in a pair of games. Over the next three years he totaled 37 quarterback takedowns. If you take out the 1999 season, he had an impressive total of 49.5 sacks over a four-season span. That's not Simmons or White good, but still is very impressive.
Cole has been a model of consistency since joining the Eagles. Over the last five years, Cole has racked up 55 sacks and 10 forced fumbles. There hasn't been a great year, but he did hit 12.5 sacks twice, 2007 and 2009. It will be interesting to see if Cole does have a breakout year in the future. He is entering year two in the Wide-9 scheme. He is healthy and in great shape. He's got big time talent around him. It wouldn't surprise me to see Cole have a 15-sack year in the next couple of seasons.
1 - DE Reggie White
2 - DE Clyde Simmons
3 - DT Andy Harmon
4 - DE Hugh Douglas
5 - DE Trent Cole
As for some other players, Jevon Kearse had a chance to be on this list, but things didn't pan out as hoped. He was terrific in 2004, but was used as a weapon more than just a pure pass rusher. He started off red hot in 2006, but hurt his knee and was never the same player. William Fuller had 35.5 sacks and 12 forced fumbles in three years as an Eagle. Who knows what Jerome Brown might have done if he had lived. He was a great player. He might have become a more consistent pass rusher. Corey Simon got off to a great start, sacking Troy Aikman on the first play of his career, but Simon never built on the promise of his first couple of seasons. He was really gifted, but had some weight issues that hurt him.
Why not put Jason Babin on the list? Too small a sample size. A strong showing in 2012 will change that. Babin was good in 2010 and spectacular last year, but I just want to make sure he's able to stay a double-digit sack artist.
We'll have to wait and see if Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, or Fletcher Cox make a push for this list in the next five years.