The official NFL history of the Philadelphia Eagles begins in 1933. The Eagles’ history may be divided into eight distinct eras. In their history, the Eagles have appeared in the Super Bowl twice, but they have never won it. The Eagles have won three NFL Championships, the precursor to the Super Bowl, in four appearances.
The beginning era of the Eagles history, 1933 to 1939, was influenced by its owner, and then also coach, Bert Bell. After Bell ostensibly sold the team, to Alexis Thompson in 1940, the second era of the Eagles history was largely directed by their coach and future Hall of Famer, Greasy Neale.
Formation and Early Years
In 1931, Philadelphia’s NFL franchise, the Frankford Yellow Jackets, who had won the NFL Championship in 1926, went bankrupt and ceased operations midway through the season. After more than a year searching for a suitable replacement, the NFL granted an expansion franchise to a syndicate headed by former University of Pennsylvania teammates Lud Wray and Bert Bell. Bell and Wray had previously played football together on the “Union Club” squads, the Union Club of Phoenixville in 1920 and the Union Quakers of Philadelphia in 1921.
In exchange for an entry fee of $2,500, the Bell-Wray group was awarded the assets of the failed Yellow Jackets organization. Drawing inspiration from the insignia of the centerpiece of President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s New Deal, specifically the National Recovery Act‘s “blue eagle,” Bell and Wray named the new franchise the Philadelphia Eagles. Neither the Eagles nor the NFL officially regard the two franchises as the same, citing the aforementioned period of dormancy. The Eagles simply inherited the NFL rights to the Philadelphia area. Further, only a single player from the 1931 Yellow Jackets ended up with the 1933 Eagles.
The new team played its first game on October 15, 1933, against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York City. They lost the game 56-0. The Eagles struggled over the course of their first decade, never winning more than three games. For the most part, the Eagles’ rosters were composed of former Penn, Temple and Villanova players who put in a few years before going on to other things.
In 1935, Bell, by that point the team’s General Manager, proposed an annual college draft to equalize talent across the league. The draft was a revolutionary concept in professional sports. Having teams select players in inverse order of their finish in the standings, a practice still followed today, strove to increase fan interest by guaranteeing that even the worst teams would have the opportunity for annual infusions of the best college talent. Between 1927 (the year the NFL changed from a sprawling association to a narrower, major-market league) and 1934, a triopoly of three teams (the Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers) had won all but one title since 1927 (the lone exception being the Providence Steam Roller of 1928).
Continuing Franchise history
Midway through the 1931 season, the Frankford Yellow Jackets went bankrupt and ceased operations. After more than a year of searching for a suitable replacement, the NFL granted an expansion franchise to a syndicate headed by Bert Bell and Lud Wray and awarded them the franchise rights of the failed Yellow Jackets organization. The Bell-Wray group had to pay an entry fee of $3,500 (equal to $38,769 today) and assumed a total debt of $11,000 that was owed to three other NFL franchises. Drawing inspiration from the Blue Eagle insignia of the National Recovery Administration—the centerpiece of President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s New Deal—Bell and Wray named the new franchise the Philadelphia Eagles. Neither the Eagles nor the NFL officially regard the two franchises as the same, citing the aforementioned period of dormancy. Furthermore, almost no Yellow Jackets players were on the Eagles’ first roster. The Eagles, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the now-defunct Cincinnati Reds, joined the NFL as expansion teams.
In 1937, the Eagles moved to Shibe Park and played their home games at the stadium through 1957, except for the 1941 season, which was played at Municipal Stadium, where they had played from 1936 to 1939. (Shibe Park was renamed Connie Mack Stadium in 1954.)
To accommodate football at Shibe Park during the winter, management set up stands in right field, parallel to 20th Street. Some 20 feet high, these “east stands” had 22 rows of seats. The goalposts stood along the first base line and in left field. The uncovered east stands enlarged capacity of Shibe Park to over 39,000, but the Eagles rarely drew more than 25 to 30,000.
The Eagles struggled over the course of their first decade, enduring repeated losing seasons. In 1943, when manpower shortages stemming from World War II made it impossible to fill the roster, the team merged with the Pittsburgh Steelers forming the “Phil-Pitt Eagles” and were known as the “Steagles.” (The merger, never intended as a permanent arrangement, was dissolved at the end of the 1943 season.) By the late 1940s, head coach Earle “Greasy” Neale and running back Steve Van Buren led the team to three consecutive NFL Championship Games, winning two of them in 1948 and 1949. Those two championships mark the Eagles as the only NFL team ever to win back-to-back championships by shutouts, defeating the Chicago Cardinals, 7–0, in 1948—in a blizzard—and the Los Angeles Rams, 14–0, in 1949.
After the 1957 season, the Eagles moved from Connie Mack Stadium to Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin Field would seat over 60,000 for the Eagles, whereas Connie Mack had a capacity of 39,000.[ The stadium switched from grass to AstroTurf in 1969. It was the first NFL stadium to use artificial turf.
In 1960, the Eagles won their third NFL championship, under the leadership of future Pro Football Hall of Famers Norm Van Brocklin and Chuck Bednarik; the head coach was Buck Shaw. The 1960 Eagles, by a score of 17–13, became the only team to defeat Vince Lombardi and his Green Bay Packers in the playoffs.
The Eagles had a good 1961 season and then fell on hard times in 1962. Jerry Wolman, after consulting his longtime friend Brandon Sturrock, bought the franchise in 1963 from the “Happy Hundred,” a group of investors who owned the team from 1949–1963, for $5,505,000 (equal to $42,406,451 today).
In 1969, Leonard Tose bought the Philadelphia Eagles from Wolman for $16,155,000 (equal to $103,893,362 today), then a record for a professional sports franchise. Tose’s first official act was to fire Coach Joe Kuharich after a disappointing 24–41–1 record during his five-year reign. He followed this by naming former Eagles receiving great Pete Retzlaff as General Manager and Jerry Williams as coach.
With the merger of the NFL and AFL in 1970, the Eagles were placed in the NFC East Division with their archrivals the New York Giants, the Washington Redskins, and the Dallas Cowboys. Their heated rivalry with the Giants is the oldest of the NFC East rivalries, dating all the way back to 1933 and has been considered by writers in Philadelphia as one of the best rivalries in the NFL in the 21st century.
In 1976, Dick Vermeil was hired from UCLA to coach the Eagles, who had only one winning season from 1962–1975. Starting in 1978, head coach Dick Vermeil and quarterback Ron Jaworski led the team to four consecutive playoff appearances.
Vermeil’s 1980 team won their first NFC East title. They were matched up against their hated rival the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game, which they won 20–7. However, the Eagles lost to the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV in 1981. The following year, the Eagles were eliminated in the wildcard round at home against the New York Giants. In the aftermath of the disappointing and strike-shortened season of 1982, head coach Dick Vermeil resigned, claiming that he was “burned out”. Vermeil was replaced by defensive coordinator Marion Campbell.
In January 1983, Tose announced that his daughter, Susan Fletcher, the Eagles’ vice president and legal counsel, would eventually succeed him as primary owner of the Eagles. Then in 1984, rumors were circulating that Leonard Tose was thinking about moving the team to Phoenix, Arizona due to financial reasons.
In 1985, Tose was forced to sell the Eagles to Norman Braman and Ed Leibowitz, highly successful automobile dealers from Florida, for a reported $65 million (equal to $142,529,394 today) to pay off his more than $25 million (equal to $54,818,998 today) in gambling debts at Atlantic City casinos.
Philadelphia football struggled through the Marion Campbell years of the mid-1980s and was marked by a malaise in fan participation. However, in the 1985 Supplemental draft, the Eagles acquired the rights to Memphis Showboats‘ elite pass rusher Reggie White. In 1986, the arrival of head coach Buddy Ryan and his fiery attitude rejuvenated team performance and ignited the fan base, but the Eagles failed to win a playoff game during Ryan’s tenure. Possibly the worst of these losses was the so-called Fog Bowl in 1988 against the Chicago Bears, which happened to be Ryan’s former team that he helped lead to a Super Bowl XX victory as defensive coordinator. Ryan was fired on January 7, 1991 after an upset home playoff loss to the Redskins. Offensive coordinator Rich Kotite was promoted to head coach three days later.
Kotite did lead the Eagles to one playoff victory against the New Orleans Saints during the 1992 season, yet his contract was not renewed after a disappointing 1994 season in which the Eagles went 7–9, losing their last seven games after starting the season 7–2. From 1988 to 1996, the Eagles qualified for the playoffs during 6 out of those 9 seasons, but they won the NFC East only once, in 1988. Among the team’s offensive stars during that period were quarterback Randall Cunningham, tight end Keith Jackson, and running back Herschel Walker. But the “Gang Green” defense is possibly what defined the team, led by Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, Wes Hopkins, Mike Golic, Byron Evans, Eric Allen, Andre Waters and Mark McMillian.