By TJ Troup
When a pro football franchise began in Philadelphia they were named the Eagles, and the logo was similar to the poster's President FDR used to help change the morale during the depression with his numerous jobs programs. Cannot think of a better team to write about on the 4th of July than the Eagles.
That said, ready? Here we go!
From 1944 through 1946 Philadelphia won just five of the twelve games they played against Washington and New York, thus they fell short of winning a division title.
Philadelphia was formidable, and at times played well in those three campaigns, yet there were pieces to the personnel puzzle still needed.....though the key man was already there; yes SVB, or as you know him, Steve Van Buren.
|Steve Van Buren|
From 1947 through 1949 Philadelphia posted a 12-0 mark against Washington and New York and demonstrated they were a powerful team. A complete team that had talent, toughness, camaraderie, and strategy to take on anyone and win.
For those of you who own my book The Birth of Football's Modern 4-3 Defense you will see some similarities in this saga. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and the format works for me.
COACHING: John Kellison was an outstanding line coach and had been Alfred Earle Neale's right-hand man for many years. Former Eagle Larry Cabrelli coached the ends, and based upon what film study shows, he sure did his job well.
Greasy Neale had a very strong background when he took the Philadelphia job, and continued to grow with each successive season. Some details that could be written here will not for one simple reason; go purchase The Philadelphia Eagles: Encyclopedia by Lyons & Didinger. It is chock full of stories, and so well written, and was honored to help Ray Didinger years ago when he wrote this outstanding book.
The encyclopedia tells in detail Alfred Earle Neale's story, and this man has an honored place in football history. One of the first coaches to implement the t-formation after the Bear teams of the early '40s, Greasy kept "tinkering" with his offense to augment the strengths and make opposing defenses rue the day they had to attempt to stop the Eagles when they had the ball.
Every team in the league deployed either a 6-2 or 5-3 defense and played man-to-man coverage. Oh, you would see some adaptations once in a while, or an adjustment or two, but film study shows most teams in a 6-2, and shifted to a 5-3 on passing downs.
Very few teams would align in the 5-3 on virtually every down. Philadelphia played excellent defense in '47 and '48 whether they aligned in a 6-2 or 5-3, but as my buddy, Robert Allen Zimmerman would later sing..."The times they are a-changing".
The Philadelphia Eagles were the first team to align in a 5-2-4 defense on virtually every down when opponents had the ball. Neale wanted his team to become a dynasty, and the season of '49 put him on the doorstep of a dynasty.
OFFENSE: Thirty-five men took the field for Philadelphia in '49, yet less than half of those 35 played in all 12 games. You will learn that this is a team that actually has depth on the roster; a rarity in 1949. Though the two-platoon system is augmented on a trial basis for this season, almost all of the Eagles will at one time or another play on both offense and defense. Veteran "Black Jack" Ferrante is the starting left end, and continues to shine as a receiver when called upon, and is a tenacious blocker. Late in the year when Pete Pihos has nagging injuries, Ferrante latches onto 18 passes in the last three weeks(he caught 34 for the year).
Pete Pihos has improved each year and he ranks among the league leaders in receptions during the first half of the season. He also catches 34 passes but only four the last four weeks. Pihos is the complete package in that he blocks well, can run any pattern though he lacks deep speed, and catches the ball well. He is not yet a Hall of Fame receiver, but he is well on his way. Late in the year he also plays some at right defensive end.
Neill Armstrong has speed, and can play either end position, and helps the team on defense both at left defensive end and at right corner. Armstrong grabs 14 passes in the last three games of the year(24 all season), and scores in each of the last four games. Kellison and Neale have unorthodox line splits for their offensive line in that there are huge gaps between some men and very narrow for others.
The "Big Ox" might be a misnomer as Al Wistert weighs about 215 lbs, thus he is not much of a drive blocker when asked. His movement however is premier, as he down blocks with quickness and excellent technique. Wistert has supreme balance and stays on his man when most tackles would have been shed. Add to that—he is the Captain of a team of motivated men tells us this is a once-in-a-lifetime offensive lineman. Though he does not play near as much defense as years past, still is capable crashing and pursuing when in the game at right defensive end.
Bucko Kilroy is a mean-spirited right guard who backs up his borderline dirty play by making every block. When Wistert down blocks; Kilroy pulls or cross blocks to the outside, and thus a lane for the left halfback to run through. He also can trap block when called upon.
Vic Lindskog is at the end of the line, but he begins the year as the starting center and is very team-oriented. As such he schools a rookie on how to play center.
The old adage the rich get richer applies to this team since Philadelphia with the first choice in the draft took Chuck Bednarik. He watches a couple weeks, then becomes the starter for most of the year...though Lindskog still gets some playing time when healthy. Bednarik might be a work in progress due to inexperience, but he sure can block. He does not play defense as he is focused on being the best center in the NFL, and he is a hustling demon on the punt team.
The starting left guard is veteran Cliff Patton, and most folks know him as the first automatic kicker in the league(he just does not miss extra points), but he also is one fine guard. He does not quite measure up to his compadres on the line, but he plays well.
The two backup guards are John Magee at left guard and stumpy Duke Maronic at right guard. They both get plenty of playing time on offense, and the Eagle machine hums right along with them on the field. Starting at left offensive tackle and left defensive tackle is the man who no doubt led the team in minutes played. Vic Sears has seen in at all during his time in the league, and has gotten better and better. Strength, balance, and tenacity are Sears trademarks.
When Philadelphia runs their reverse plays with right halfback Bosh Pritchard running left, the left offensive tackle must maintain his block for a literal eternity, and Sears does this. When Sears does take a breather Goerge Savitsky fills in, and he is rock solid in his last year in the league. Since that aspect was mentioned, will address that factor now. Many teams in this era had a tremendous turnover on the roster. Only six of the 35 are in their last year with Philadelphia.
The last offensive lineman that needs a mention is one of those special stories in league history, and again get a copy of Didinger & Lyons book for the saga of Otis Douglas. Mr. Douglas at the age of 38 plays two games before retiring to coach. Would have relished watching Kellison work with this group of dedicated of men on a daily basis.
Rookie Frank Ziegler (one of only four who make the team) earns his letter at right halfback, and even plays some safety early in the year. Ziegler has speed, and can accelerate instantly and as such carries the ball 45 times in three games where he plays a lot. The fullback position is key for Philadelphia as that man must block.
Veteran Ben Kish (last year) plays some, and of course, Joe Muha has plenty of opportunities to knock a defender down, but the man who is on the field the most at fullback is Jack Myers. Jack is an adequate blocker, and a fine inside runner when called upon. Tommy Thompson began his career with Pittsburgh in the single wing, but that must have seemed like a distant memory these days.
He has become a master at taking his team down the field. Thompson can fake with the best of 'em and as such play-action pass is a strong part of the attack. He is accurate when called upon, though there are games when he just did not need to throw much. Thompson leads the league in efficiency(passer rating system), and is a clutch passer.
Steve Van Buren from his left halfback post is given the ball more than any other runner in league history, and why not? Speed, power, and the magical ability to bounce off tacklers, take punishment, and then get up and do it again! He set records for carries and yards rushing in a season and is now in his sixth year the all-time ground gaining champion.
When healthy Bosh Pritchard darts through holes, run excellent pass patterns and gives the Philadelphia ground game balance in that when opponents key on Van Buren—Bosh makes them pay. Five weeks into the season Tony Canadeo of the Packers is having his best season and has gained 432 yards.
Ranking second you ask? Why Bosh Pritchard with 358 yards on just 57 carries, and of course right behind him is SVB with 348 on 107 carries. His average per carry is low since opposing defenses key on him on every down. When Pritchard is injured during the eighth week of the season; SVB steps up his game. Don't believe me? Ask the Steelers defense as Van Buren gains 205 yards on 27 punishing carries.
Though impressive, let us take a closer look as the week before against the Bulldogs he carried 35 times for 174 yards. No man in history had ever carried the ball over 60 times in two games and gained over 375 yards. A generational talent running behind a line that knew how to block. Wow! Philadelphia established a record for team rushing attempts in a season.
Before 1949 there were times that a passer got tackled behind the line of scrimmage, but those yards were counted as "rushing" attempts. For the first time a new category would be added----"yards lost attempting to pass". Who led the league in fewest sack yards allowed with only 85. Why you guessed it—the Philadelphia Eagles.
DEFENSE: The old adage of you win with defense is only partially true in '49 since the Eagles had such an impressive offense that controlled the ball, did not turn it over, and could score from anywhere, or just flat wear you down.
That said though, the 1949 Philadelphia Eagles defense is simply one of the best of the modern era. Johnny Green was considered too slight to play left defensive end, but when he got a chance he played outstanding football. Green can play the run, and is one helluva pass rusher when he comes crashing in from the left side.
The only issue for Philadelphia is that Green got hurt in the week seven victory over the Rams. Armstrong just does not have the skill set or the physicality to play the position so the Eagles sign Leo Skladany. He is a carbon copy of Green though slighter bigger, and he just flies around the field. He may have played only three regular-season games for Philadelphia, but his blocked punt for a touchdown in the muddy Coliseum was textbook.
Vic Sears is a rock at defensive left tackle, and he is a force in defending the run.
Middle guard in the "Eagle defense" is by committee. Kilroy is immovable, and very adept in pursuit and shedding blocks, while Mario Giannelli is a block of granite at 265.
They are ably assisted by one of the all-time characters in football, and Hollywood—Mr. Walter "Piggy" Barnes. Powerful, and nasty, he actually got better in the early '50s.
Mike Jarmoluk had already played on a championship team with the Bears in '46 and had now played with a couple other teams, including the woebegone New York Bulldogs. Philadelphia acquires Jarmoluk during the campaign, and he plays last 8 games of the year for the Eagles. Though he plays a little on offense he is a literal fortress at right defensive tackle.
Film study also shows him at right defensive end, and for a man of his size, he moves well. Again, as stated earlier—the rich get richer. The nominal starter at right defensive end is Jay MacDowell. He plays some at defensive tackle, but he is man late in the year who comes crashing in from the right side from defensive end. Coach Neale has the vision to realize with free substitution the passing game will become paramount in offensive football.
Since Philadelphia faces Slingin' Sammy Baugh twice a year he knows what it is to face a passer who can make every throw. Bob Waterfield no longer plays defense, and the Rams have rookie in Norm Van Brocklin who can thread the needle long or short. Add to this list Charley Conerly in New York, and Bobby Layne with the Bulldogs and pass defense is an area that must be dealt with in a new way.
Neale aligns two corners and two safeties on the field. He challenges opponents to run the ball against his seven-man front, and with run support from the secondary, he demonstrates that his new defense can stop the run, and limit you when you pass since he has more defenders deep. The defensive passer rating system will not become a stat until the '70s, yet the Eagles of '49 mark of 30.0 is astounding since the league average is 53.9. Look at the numbers, they are eye-popping.
So, who manned the secondary for the Eagles? The right corner in his last year is Dick Humbert. Very consistent and a real ballhawk, he ranks among the leaders in interceptions with seven. The right safety is diminutive Pat McHugh. He is swift and instinctive, and he pilfers six. Pat is an adequate tackler due to his size, but his speed gets him across the field to make open-field tackles.
The starting left corner is Russ Craft. An excellent run defender on sweeps, and he battles receivers on underneath patterns. Craft is injured late in the year, and moving over from offense is Jim Parmer. When asked he was productive on offense, yet in the two games he starts at left corner he is tenacious, and intercepts.
The Philadelphia front office pulled off a masterful trade when they acquired Frank Reagan from New York. Frank had intercepted 19 passes in the 24 games played in '47 & '48. He is quick, instinctive, and always in position to tackle from his left safety post. In a sense, he is the first true strong or left safety in pro football history. Reagan sets an Eagle record his first year in Philadelphia in that he intercepted in five consecutive games. The lynchpins to the Eagle defense are the two linebackers, and boy oh boy is Philadelphia set here.
Alex Wojciechowicz had an unusual stance as an offensive center, and he does play some there, but at right outside linebacker he aligns in front of a receiver with his wide base, excellent balance and with his hand strength destroys the timing of the quarterback with his receiver.
Hugh Taylor ranked among the league leaders in receiving after four games, but in week five he is shut out due to Alex W. and the excellent coverage by Humbert and McHugh. Wojciechowicz is more than adequate as a run defender but is not asked to "red dog" much. His task is pass defense. No publication chose an all-pro defensive team in 1949 though we have two-platoon football.
Who was the best left linebacker in pro football that year? Tank Younger in the Rams 5-3-3 defense would sure get some votes as he was a difference-maker for the Los Angeles defense in winning the west. My vote though goes to Joe Muha. He was superb on the red dog, excellent on pass defense, took the correct pursuit angles in defending the run, and had the strength and tenacity to defeat lead blockers.
The game late in the season stands out as he tormented Conerly and the Giants on the red dog as he got to Chuckin' Charley, and later intercepted, and scored on his return. Additionally, he ranked among the league leaders in punting in '48, and after a slow start in '49 returned to form to boom the ball when the Eagles punted. This first year of listing "team sack totals" shows Philadelphia leading the league with 359 yards.
THE KICKING GAME: Patton was simply the most accurate kicker in the league. Pritchard and Reagan handled the punt returns, with Frank having a sensational season in that category. Philadelphia's punt coverage was adequate, while their kick-off coverage was superb. Opponents returned 53 with a long return of 40 (Canady of the Bulldogs) all year.
THE SEASON: Rather than make this a "War and Peace" saga, will hit the highlights. Before only four thousand in New York, the Eagles won opening night 7-0 over the Bulldogs. They struggled in the night game at home against Detroit before taking control late in a 22-14 win. The Saturday night win over the Cardinals was impressive and set up the showdown in Wrigley against a Bear team they had beaten the year before.
Film study shows a group of Navy Blue & Burnt Orange Grizzlies motivated to knock off the defending champions. Lujack found Jim Keane open on a variety of routes as he caught 8 for 127 (one of only two men who gained over 100 receiving against the Eagles), while the Bear ground attack by committee consistently pounded out the yardage. The Bears needed the win and got it to stay in the race with the Rams. Watching the complete game film of the victory over Washington in week five is a joy simply because it shows how Neale's pass defense adjusted to the Redskin halfbacks in motion in the Washington pass offense.
Philadelphia would rebound from the Bear loss and score 245 points in the next six weeks to wrap up the eastern conference. The soon-to-be-forgotten New York Bulldogs are destroyed in Shibe Park 42-0 as the Eagles recover six fumbles and intercept three passes. Bobby Layne gained 35 yards passing on his five completions. Watching the complete game film of the 24-3 win over the rival Giants at the Polo Grounds tells us that the new defense was at their high point with a crushing pass rush and air-tight secondary.
|Frank Reagan intercepts a Bob Waterfield pass in the NFL Championship game|
The Rams really believed that having a home field and the sunshine in the Coliseum in December would bring a title to Los Angeles. The dominating Eagle ground attack and suffocating defense in the mud and rain ensured Philadelphia's place in history. Back-to-back shut-out championship victories says it all.