1960 was the zenith

BEST TEAM: That intoxicating season forever built a bond between the Eagles and the city.

Posted: August 12, 2007

Pick, the editor-man ordered.

Pick the greatest Eagles team ever as part of the observance of 75 years of Birds. Go on, pick.

Not as easy as it might appear at first blush. Not even for a franchise that has had more losing seasons than winning, whose record for its existence is still under .500. And doubly difficult because, as the wiseacre editor-man suggested: "I'm guessing you haven't seen them all."

Oh-har-de-har-har.

Each generation of Eagles zealots has had its heroes.

There is the double entry of the 1948 and '49 Birds, those back-to-back champions led by the redoubtable Steve Van Buren, who ran with impassioned fury. When he was tackled out of bounds at the Los Angeles bench in the 1949 title game, he heard the Rams yelling: "Kill him, kill him!" A seething, vengeful Van Buren kept demanding the ball. He ran 31 times for 196 yards. In The Eagles Encyclopedia, Pete Pihos is quoted, picturesquely: "Steve was hell on a leash that day."

For some Eagles zealots, branded in the memory bank is Jan. 11, 1981, a minus-20 wind-chill factor in that mausoleum known as the Vet. Wilbert Montgomery takes Ron Jaworski's handoff and runs 42 yards to the end zone on the second play, launching the Eagles past Dallas and into their first Super Bowl. Of the put-together-with-duct-tape-and-baling-wire Montgomery, linebacker John Bunting says: "Wilbert has the heart of a lion."

And for some of the faithful, there is that gaudy stretch that launched this century when, from 2000 through 2004 the Birds went 59-21, a run splotched by unsightly failures in NFC championship games. Call the roll: Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins, Brian Westbrook . . . all the way to Super Bowl XXXIX, only to be tormented by a three-point loss.

So, the editor-man pressed, pick.

So, we select the last and make them first:

The 1960 Birds.

Last to win a championship.

First in our hearts.

The years have spun a Camelot mist around them, and it is difficult to determine exactly where myth leaves off and reality sets in, and vice-versa.

They killed you softly. They weren't overpowering, they weren't especially big or fast, and they would leave you wondering exactly how it was that you had lost to them. They came to be known as the team with nothing but a title.

What they were, were quintessential opportunists.

"We had a lot of intangibles, a lot of spunk and spirit," said Tommy McDonald, the Hall of Fame receiver, who was himself full of spunk and spirit, and still is. "We were close, more like a family than a team.

"And we'd bite and kick and claw and scratch and punch, and somehow we'd come out on top. We got to thinking we had a guardian angel looking out for us."

They almost always did it the hard way, routinely falling behind, then scrambling frantically. They won six times with fourth-quarter rallies. They lost their opener, 41-24, to Cleveland, and then ran off nine wins in a row and began to think themselves invincible.

They needed to cash in every chance, though, because this was no dynasty in the making. This was a one-shot, sprinkled-with-stardust season. Make the most of it because you won't be passing this way again. In the next 18 years they would have only three winning seasons.

In Week 5, the Birds got revenge at Cleveland on a field goal that was supposed to be out of Bobby Walston's range, and into a stiff wind besides. They won by two, with 2 seconds left, and historians have marked that as a pivotal point in the Birds' history. The following week the line for tickets stretched for blocks. The Birds had won over the city. They have owned it ever since.

The Birds were led by McDonald, who from 1958 through 1962 scored more touchdowns than anyone not named Jim Brown; by all-pro cornerback Tom Brookshier; and by a pair of acid-tongued rusty nails, quarterback Norm Van Brocklin and 60-Minute Man Chuck Bednarik.

"The Dutchman would lay you out verbally," said Brookshier, "and Concrete Charlie would lay you out physically."

Bednarik produced the two most memorable tackles in Birds history. The first was the hit on the Giants' Frank Gifford, so shattering a shot that Gifford not only couldn't play the rest of that season he also missed all of the next as well. The picture of Bednarik standing over the de-cleated Gifford is still riveting and stirs something dark and primordial in you.

The other tackle is etched in lore, for it was the final tackle in Camelot.

It is Dec. 26, 1960, a Monday. The Eagles against the Packers for the championship. Green Bay is just revving up its dynasty. Franklin Field is stuffed with 67,325, and the Birds are clinging to a 17-13 lead.

On what will be the 142d, and last, play, Bart Starr passes to Jim Taylor, who stomps on some, runs through others, and appears to be on his way to the winning touchdown. Bednarik, who, at 35, has been on the field for 139 of the plays, lays a crunching hit on Taylor, the impact so violent it snaps Taylor's shoulder pad straps.

Even as he is going down, Taylor is squirming and twisting, trying to free himself. Like a dropped anvil, Bednarik squats on him. And when the game clock blinks down to all zeroes, Bednarik stands and says . . . well, exactly what did you say, Charles?

Concrete Charlie beams, and recites it for perhaps the four millionth time:

"You can get up now, you SOB, this [expletive] game is over."

The ball was somewhere between the Eagles' 8- and 9-yard lines. It would be forever revered in Philadelphia as hallowed ground.

Bednarik arose and walked off the field . . . and into the mists of myth.


The Next-Best Teams

1948 (10-2-1) and 1949 (12-1). Greasy Neale's two championship teams were methodical and relentless, outscoring their foes by a combined 761-290 in 26 games and becoming the only team to post back-to-back shutouts in NFL championship games. Steve Van Buren and Chuck Bednarik (a rookie in 1949) are the stars everyone remembers, but seven other players made at least one all-pro squad those years: Jack Ferrante, Bucko Kilroy, Joe Muha, Pete Pihos, Vic Sears, Al Wistert, and quarterback Tommy Thompson.

1980 (14-5). Dick Vermeil's team was low on blue-chippers - only three starters had been Eagles first-round picks - but stunningly efficient. Their 3-4 defense was No. 1 in the NFL in fewest points allowed and No. 2 against the run, led by a lane-clogging nose tackle (Charlie Johnson) and savvy linebackers (Bill Bergey, John Bunting, Frank LeMaster and Jerry Robinson). Wilbert Montgomery's injuries forced the Birds to pass more, but quarterback Ron Jaworski stepped up with his best season. The 27-10 Super Bowl loss to the reckless Oakland Raiders broke many hearts.

2004 (15-4). Andy Reid's squad roared to a 13-1 start before losing two irrelevant games at the end of the regular season. Coming up three points short against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl was painful, but that loss hardly diminished what had been a spectacular year for the passing combination of Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens, as well as running back Brian Westbrook and a defense that held 10 opponents (two in the playoffs) to 14 points or less.

- David Cohen

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