Browsed by
Category: Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: Sheldon Brown

Throwback Thursday: Sheldon Brown

Nnamdi Asomugha. Byron Maxwell. Cary Williams. Bradley Fletcher. Mention any one of those names to a Philadelphia sports fan and you’re likely to see a look of disdain, discomfort and disgust. The cornerback position has been largely underwhelming, to put it kindly, for the Eagles the last half-decade. Big-name free agent signings that were downright disappointing seem to have defined a pass defense that’s been inconsistent at best and horrific at worst. Who could forget Nnamdi’s legendary arm tackles or the time an Arizona tight end carried Byron Maxwell on his back like Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back?

The cornerback position hasn’t always been that bleak in Philadelphia though. In fact, there was a time when the Eagles possessed arguably the league’s best secondary year in and year out. Names like Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Lito Sheppard and Asante Samuel all cemented their place in the hearts of millions of Eagles fans. When I look back at Philadelphia’s cornerbacks and the tremendous success they’ve had, however, there’s one man that, to me, truly embodied the hard-hitting nature of the legendary Jim Johnson’s defense. That man is Sheldon Brown.

Born in Chester County, South Carolina on March 19, 1979, Sheldon Brown’s love of sports began at a young age and by the time he graduated high school, Brown had made a name for himself in both football and baseball. Opting to stay rooted in his home state, he attended the University of South Carolina where he excelled as one of the Southeastern Conference’s best defensive backs, twice earning All-SEC honors. After four years at USC, Sheldon Brown declared for the NFL Draft hoping to further capitalize on his college success.

At the time of the 2002 NFL Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles were coming off an unexpected and impressive Championship game appearance and appeared to be poised for a Super Bowl run heading into the next season. While third-year quarterback Donovan McNabb was the face of the franchise, the defense was the pulse to which the team’s heart beat. Sprinkled with Pro Bowl talent, the Eagles secondary seemed to be set for the most part, with veterans Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor anchoring the ascending unit. Despite their sustained success, Eagles Head Coach, Andy Reid, sought to be proactive with the cornerback position by investing high draft picks in it, especially when taking into consideration Vincent and Taylor’s age (31 and 28, respectively). So with the 59th pick in the 2002 Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles selected South Carolina’s own, Sheldon Brown.

Sheldon Brown, in many ways, entered a perfect situation. Unlike many rookie cornerbacks that are immediately thrust into the fire against the game’s top receivers, Brown benefited from the mentorship of Vincent and Taylor while mostly contributing on special teams. By the time the 2004 season began, Sheldon Brown was awarded the starting role – a role he would embrace and solidify for years to come. Through his first three seasons as a starting cornerback, Brown collected a total of 8 interceptions (two of which were returned for touchdowns) and developed a reputation as a physical, fundamentally sound, shutdown CB.

While Brown was viewed as a key cog in a stellar secondary, he had yet to make his name known nationally. That was until “The Hit” happened. It’s so permanently etched in my mind, I remember the exact moment I witnessed it, and the adrenaline rush that followed immediately thereafter, like it was yesterday. The date was January 13, 2007 and the red-hot “Cinderella” Eagles were riding a six game win streak into the divisional round of the playoffs in New Orleans. Early in the game, Saints quarterback Drew Brees lofted a swing pass to rookie sensation Reggie Bush with the intent of getting the young playmaker in open space. Sheldon Brown, anticipating the pass, violently charged towards Bush and BOOM! Bush, in an effort to show he could shake off such a collision, quickly jumped up, but the pain proved to be too much. He slowly dropped to the ground and began crawling towards the huddle. Sheldon Brown was now a household name.

Brown’s career continued to flourish in Philadelphia. 2007-2009 saw Brown deliver more of the violent hits he had become known for (his hit on Steven Jackson in the 2008 opener is among the best), while also managing to intercept 9 more passes in the process. After the end of the 2009 season, however, it was clear the organization was prepared to move in a different direction after Brown’s request for a new contract fell on deaf ears. Thus, he was traded to the Cleveland Browns after 8 memorable years with the franchise.

Although he never made a Pro Bowl, Sheldon Brown also never missed a game for the Eagles after becoming a starter in 2004. It’s often been said that “the best ability is durability” and Brown proved that on a consistent basis throughout his Philadelphia tenure. He finished his Eagles career with 19 interceptions but will always be remembered as the dependable and dangerous defensive back that could decimate an opponent at any time.

Throwback Thursday: Mike Mamula 

Throwback Thursday: Mike Mamula 

Bust: the prospect that never truly reached their potential. Whether it be due to injury, off-the-field foolishness or simply failing to transition from the college to professional level, the NFL has certainly seen its fair share of busts over the past several decades. Names like Ki-Jana Carter, Ryan Leaf and Jamarcus Russell all invoke awkward memories relevant to the reasons rookies never pan out. But what about that highly drafted player that does just enough to leave folks asking 20 years later “was he worth it?”

Mike Mamula will always be an interesting footnote when reflecting on the history of the Philadelphia Eagles. The former Boston College defensive end finished his senior season in 1994 with an impressive 17 sacks. What was more impressive than anything, however, was how Mamula intended on approaching and preparing for the series of events leading up to the 1995 NFL Draft.

By the mid-1990’s, professional football’s popularity was at an all-time high. Gone were the days of just watching games in the Fall and Winter. With the emergence and soap opera-worthy drama of free agency, the growing spectacle that the draft was evolving into, and the larger-than-life personalities that now represented the league, it was painfully evident that any and everything to do with the NFL was worth covering in great detail. The league’s annual scouting combine, an event that serves as a means for representatives of each team to evaluate draft prospects in a standardized setting, also benefited from this increased coverage.

While the combine had been around for over a decade by 1995, the various series of drills featured was not something prospects rigorously prepared for at the time. The general consensus was that good football players were simply good football players, regardless of the amount of reps they could bench press or how high they could jump, so when Mike Mamula set his sights on mastering every aspect of every test he would encounter at the event, he was, in many ways, venturing into uncharted territory. His plan was simple: specifically prepare for and simulate every drill hundreds of times over.

By the time the combine arrived in February, the results were spectacular. Mamula jumped higher than defensive backs, benched more than top ranked offensive tackles (including 3x All Pro, Tony Boselli) and scored an outstanding 49 on the Wonderlic test. This, combined with his 4.58 40 yard dash time at a staggering 6’4 248 lbs., opened the eyes of countless General Managers across the league. Initially viewed as a potential 2nd-to-3rd round talent, Mamula’s consummate combine essentially made him an overnight prodigy with a first-round projection. The question was just how high did the workout warrior’s stock rise and who would be willing to take a chance?

Heading into the 1995 Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles were fresh off one of their more disappointing seasons in recent memory. The team started the season off 7-2, only to finish 7-9, fired their Head Coach and were now two full seasons removed from the departure of Reggie White to the Green Bay Packers. Desperately hoping to recapture Reggie’s magic, the Eagles dealt the 12th overall draft pick and two 2nd round picks to Tampa Bay for the 7th overall selection and a pick later in the 3rd round. With the 7th pick, the Eagles selected none other than Mike Mamula, the presumed successor to the incomparable Reggie White.

Mamula’s professional career started off rather promising. Through his first two seasons, he amassed a total of 13.5 sacks and was considered a key piece in a young, up-and-coming defense. Despite an underwhelming campaign in 1997 and a right knee injury in a 1998 preseason game (that forced him to miss the entire regular season), Mamula returned to full form in 1999 and eclipsed his previous single-season sack total with 8.5. He even managed to score a touchdown on an interception of NFL MVP, and eventual Super Bowl MVP, Kurt Warner to close out Philadelphia’s ’99 season. Unfortunately, for both Mamula and the Eagles, the 2000 season would not be as promising. After suffering a number of critical injuries, he was forced to retire at the early age of 28.

So how, one might ask, does a player that had 31.5 sacks in five fairly productive seasons come to be labeled a bust? Some would point to the fact that the Eagles traded a number of valuable picks to move up for a guy that had to retire before turning 30. Most choose to overlook Mamula entirely and focus their attention on who the Eagles didn’t draft when they exchanged picks with Tampa Bay. That would be eventual Hall-of-Famer, Warren Sapp. To make matters worse, Tampa Bay used Philadelphia’s two 2nd round picks to move back into the first round and select another eventual Hall of Fame inductee, Derrick Brooks.

I get it. The Eagles essentially passed on two legends to draft Mike freakin’ Mamula. It is very important to remember, however, that the Eagles’ intention at the time was to add a dynamic pass rusher to fill the void left by Reggie White. Taking this into consideration, it is safe to assume that even if the Eagles didn’t trade up for Mamula, they still probably wouldn’t have drafted Sapp with the 12th pick. Who they likely would have ended up with was Florida State defensive end, Derrick Alexander. Alexander, by comparison, was drafted 11th overall and finished with only 20 sacks in his short-lived career. That’s the thing about the draft: you never truly know until you know.

Looking back 20 years later, was Mike Mamula a perennial Hall of Fame-talent or the 2nd coming of Reggie White? Absolutely not. What he was, however, was a productive player that deserves to be remembered for more than just changing the way players approach the combine.

Throwback Thursday: Andre “Dirty” Waters

Throwback Thursday: Andre “Dirty” Waters

To the casual Philadelphia Eagles fan (and most Eagles fans under the age of 25), the number 20 is synonymous with one player – Brian Dawkins. The Eagles’ 2nd round pick in 1996 went on to play 13 Hall of Fame-worthy seasons for the Birds and, depending on who you ask, is arguably the franchise’s most beloved player. But before Dawkins dawned the number and later saw it retired with his name in the Linc’s rafters, it was sported by another hard-hitting Safety that captured the hearts of fans and teammates alike. His name was Andre Waters.

There is no question that the Eagles defense of the late 80’s and early 90’s was one of the most intimidating and talented units ever assembled. In an era that embraced the physicality of the game, Philadelphia’s defense was a direct reflection of their outspoken and in-your-face Head Coach, defensive mastermind and former Super Bowl champion, Buddy Ryan. While household names such as ‘The Minister of Defense’ (Reggie White) and ‘The Ultimate Weapon’ (Randall Cunningham) were easily the most recognizable faces of the franchise, the tenacity and intensity that Andre Waters displayed for 10 seasons as an Eagle is probably the most accurate portrayal of a team that instilled fear into opponents each and every Sunday.

Born the 9th of 11 children in poverty-stricken Belle Glade, Florida, Andre Waters (like many other Belle Glade residents) never had it easy. He gravitated towards football at a young age and eventually attended Pahokee High School; a school that later produced Rickey Jackson and Anquan Boldin, among others. After a moderately successful high school football career, Waters wound up at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. Despite being an All-PSAC player his senior season, the 1984 NFL Draft (which boasted a bloated 12 rounds at the time) came, went and failed to see Waters selected by any of the league’s 28 teams. Waters did, however, make enough of an impression on Philadelphia Head Coach Marion Campbell, who opted to sign him as an undrafted free agent.

Although his first two seasons in the league were largely forgettable, statistically (Waters registered 10 total tackles in this span), Buddy Ryan’s arrival in 1986 saw Waters’ role and production increase dramatically. Ryan was instantly drawn to the young Safety’s intense approach to the game and while most scouts viewed Waters as a serviceable special teams player at best, Ryan recognized Waters’ ambition and helped mold him into one of the most feared players of his generation. Andre Waters wouldn’t just hit you: he would inflict pain. Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers, Running Backs…no one was spared. A hit on Rams’ Quarterback, Jim Everett, essentially forced the league to implement a rule banning defenders from hitting QB’s below the waist while in the pocket. Andre “Dirty” Waters had officially arrived.

From 1986 to 1991, Waters averaged an astounding 131.5 tackles a season, with his single season, career high 156 tackles occurring in Philadelphia’s historic 1991 campaign. Even with the firing of Ryan after the 1990 season, the Eagles’ D finished first in run, pass and total defense and carved out their place in history as arguably the most balanced defense of all time. Despite this tremendously successful season under Defensive Coordinator Bud Carson, the following two seasons saw Waters’ production significantly decrease as he managed to play in only 15 total games. Years of playing as if every down were his last appeared to be finally catching up to the once-indestructible warrior. After Philadelphia failed to offer him a new contract following the 1993 season, Waters followed former coach Buddy Ryan to Arizona where he played his final two years in the league for the Cardinals.

Life after football varies for a lot of ex-players. Most retire quietly, some transition into broadcasting and others have aspirations to coach. Andre Waters strived for the latter. Waters, as a Ryan disciple and with the ability to connect and teach fellow teammates the intricacies of the 46 defense, started off coaching at smaller universities such as Morgan State University, Alabama State University and the University of South Florida with the hopes of inevitably landing a gig in the pro’s. His intended climb from the university level to the mountaintop that is the NFL, however, proved to be more difficult than anticipated. In addition to being frustrated by the lack of opportunities at the next level, Waters also began to experience difficulties remembering even the simplest of things. Over a decade of repetitive head trauma, suffered from those same hits that everyone cheered, was now aggressively affecting Andre Waters’ brain. He once confirmed that even he stopped counting the number of concussions he sustained after surpassing 15. In the wee hours of November 20, 2006, Andre Waters tragically took his own life at the young age of 44; no suicide note was left.

Waters’ brain tissue, as confirmed by a study that took place after his death, mirrored that of an 85-90 year old man with early-stages of Alzheimer’s. This is believed to be the direct result of the numerous concussions that went largely unaccounted for. The controversy surrounding football-related head trauma, and Waters’ case in particular, has been well documented in various books, articles and most recently the movie ‘Concussion’ (which features a portrayal of Waters).

Most people will say football killed him. Others will choose to focus solely on the tragedy associated with the way he passed. To me, Waters’ story is about the hard-working and humble fan-favorite that embodied the essence of the Eagles. The man that, after hours of practicing in sweltering heat, would sign autographs and take pictures with any and all fans in attendance. The man that broke down in tears while speaking at the funeral of his former Defensive Coordinator, Bud Carson. The man whose infectious smile lit up the city of Philadelphia for 10 wonderful seasons. For these reasons and the countless others that constitute his legacy, we will always remember Andre Waters.