Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid is an offensive mastermind. He helped develop Brett Favre during his time with the Green Bay Packers. He drafted Donovan McNabb and turned him into a six-time Pro Bowler. And he helped to resurrect the career of quarterback Michael Vick.
But the Eagles have been a defensive powerhouse for the majority of the last decade, thanks largely to defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.
The Eagles have had a number of incredible defensive players during the Andy Reid era.
At defensive end, Hugh Douglas earned three Pro Bowl selections, and Trent Cole has earned two. Corey Simon earned a Pro Bowl berth at defensive tackle.
Middle linebackers Jeremiah Trotter (four Pro Bowls) and Stewart Bradley (2008 All-Pro) have been among the best in the game.
Cornerbacks Troy Vincent (five Pro Bowls) and Bobby Taylor (one Pro Bowl) shut down opposing wide receivers a decade ago. They were replaced by Lito Sheppard (two Pro Bowls) and the underrated, hard-hitting Sheldon Brown. And who can forget Asante Samuel (three Pro Bowls), who is now both a playmaker and a shutdown corner?
And at safety, Michael Lewis (one Pro Bowl) and Quintin Mikell (All-Pro or Pro Bowler three times) have quietly established themselves among the best in the game.
Yet there’s one player who has stood out above all of the rest, and I can guarantee it’s the first player that almost every Eagles fan thought of when they saw this article.
Weapon X. Number 20. Safety, Brian Dawkins, who was the leader of the Philadelphia Eagles for 13 seasons.
Dawkins was drafted by the Eagles in the second round of the 1996 draft and established himself as one of the league’s best players with his first Pro Bowl season in 1999.
He became the first, and only, player in NFL history to collect a sack, interception, forced fumble, and touchdown (on a 57-yard fake punt reception from punt returner Brian Mitchell) in the same game, when he victimized the Houston Texans in 2002.
In the 2003 playoffs, he collected arguably the biggest interception in Philadelphia Eagles history, picking off Green Bay Packers legend Brett Favre in overtime. The game is remembered for 4th and 26, but it was Dawkins’ interception (and 35-yard return) that led to an improbable Eagles victory.
He became the tenth member of the 20-interception, 20-sack club during the 2008 season, the same year he broke the franchise’s all-time record for games played.
And nobody can forget his countless big hits over the years. His most impressive include those on New York Giants wide receiver Ike Hilliard (2002), Atlanta Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler (2004 NFC championship game), Green Bay Packers tight end Bubba Franks (2005), and Carolina Panthers wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad (2008 preseason).
BDawk was fierce, competitive, strong, and powerful. He covered like a cornerback, hit like a linebacker, and could blitz among the best defensive backs in the game’s history. In 2004, he was named by The Sporting News as number one on the list of Guys You Don’t Want Bearing Down On You.
Washington Redskins scout Mike Kelly once said that “pound for pound, Dawkins might be the most violent guy in the league. He can generate such great speed in a confined space. He closes so rapidly and is just so physically strong. His compact size plays right into playing with leverage. He knows how to come up and through a person, bringing his hips.”
During his 13 seasons in Philadelphia, Brian Dawkins was named a Pro Bowler seven times. He led the Eagles to the postseason seven times, to the NFC championship game five times, and to the Super Bowl once.
Other defensive players came and went. (Hugh Douglas came and went twice. And Jeremiah Trotter came and went three times.) But Dawkins was always there.
As valuable as Dawkins was on the field, he was just as valuable off the field. His motivational game day speeches were legendary in Philadelphia.
Since he left the team following the 2008 season, there’s been nobody who has come close to replacing Dawkins as the emotional leader of the defense. As difficult a city as Philadelphia is to play in, Brian Dawkins never struggled to win over the fans.
He was, without a doubt, the best defensive player during the Andy Reid era.