The Philadelphia Eagles are one of the oldest franchises in all of professional football. The team has resided in the city of Philadelphia through their entire existence too, except for 1943 when because of a labor shortage due to World War II they merged for one season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team had won a number of NFL Championships before the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, but have never won the Super Bowl although they’ve appeared in the big game a number of times. Much of the interesting history of the Eagles can be seen, like with most teams, through the position of starting quarterback.
The Philadelphia Eagles‘ first year in the NFL was 1933 and they would spend the rest of the decade putting up below .500 records each and every season. In the early days of American football many teams did not use a player in what would become the traditional role of a quarterback. The leading passer for the Eagles in their first year was Red Kirkman who in nine games completed 22 passes out of 73 attempts for 354 total yards. In an indication of how the team’s first season went, finishing with a record of 3-5-1, Kirkman finished the season with two touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. 1934 would see the leading passer on the Eagles be tailback Ed Matesic who would also throw two touchdown passes, but only throw five interceptions. Matesic would be the leading passer in 1935 as well. In 1936, fullback Dave Smukler would take over as the team’s leading passer and remain their for three seasons. He would finish those seasons with three touchdown passes in 1936, five touchdown passes in 1937, and seven touchdown passes in 1938. The only time he would lead the league in any passing category was 1937 when his 14 interceptions were tops in the league. 1939 would see Heisman Trophy winner Davey O’Brien come to Philadelphia and immediately set the record for most passing yards in an NFL season with 1,324.
The next decade would start out with continued excitement over the team’s quarterback, and O’Brien would respond leading the league in passing attempts and completions while finishing the season with 1,290 yards. After two seasons in the NFL, O’Brien would leave the team and join the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as an agent. Tommy Thompson would join the team in 1941 and immediately make an impact at the position of quarterback. The team would continue its losing ways at the outset of the 1940s, but in 1943 when playing as the Phil/Pitt Steagles, they would experience their first winning record finishing the season at 5-4-1. 1943 would see Roy Zimmerman see major playing time as primary starting quarterback for the Eagles, he would be the Eagles leading passer through the 1945 season while Thompson moved into a backup role. Also appearing as a backup quarterback for the Eagles during this time was future future head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and New York Giants, Allie Sherman. Through the late 1940s, Zimmerman and Thompson would split duties at starting quarterback with Zimmerman getting the bulk of the starts but Thompson leading the team in most passing categories. This arrangement was very successful with the team appearing in the NFL Championship game in 1947, 1948, and 1949, winning the title in 1948 and 1949.
Tommy Thompson would be the primary starting quarterback at the start of the 1950s, but would end his career before the start of the 1951 season. Adrian Burk would take over the starting quarterback duties in 1952 and though the team would post a winning record (7-5), Burk would lead the league in interceptions thrown with a total of 23. Bobby Thomason joined the team in 1952 and he and Burk would split quarterback duties for much of the rest of the mid 1950s with 1956 being Burks’ last season in the NFL and 1957 being Thomason’s last year. Appearing on the roster as a backup quarterback at this time was Sonny Jurgensen, he would remain in that role throughout the rest of the decade. 1958 would see legendary Rams quarterback Norm Van Brocklin join the Eagles. Van Brocklin would turn the fortunes of the Eagles around, leading the league in completions and attempts in his first year with the team. Of interest here is that with Van Brocklin and Jurgensen on the roster, although they primarily made their names with other teams, the Rams and Redskins respectively, the Eagles would have two future Hall of Famers at the quarterback position.
The Eagles would hit the big time in 1960 with another NFL Championship, and after winning the big game quarterback Norm Van Brocklin would call it a career. Van Brocklin’s retirement opened up a spot for Jurgensen in the starting lineup and he took full advantage, leading the league in completions, passing yards, touchdowns, and yards per game in his first year as a starter. The team would put up a 10-4 record in 1961, but success under Jurgensen wouldn’t last and after an injury filled 1963 season he would be traded to the Washington Redskins for quarterback Norm Snead. Jurgensen would go on to a legendary career in the nation’s capital, and the Eagles wouldn’t see post season play again for almost two decades. Snead would keep the starting quarterback position through the rest of the 1960s and during that stretch the Eagles would only post one winning record. In those seven seasons, Snead would lead the NFL in interceptions three different times.
Snead would be the primary starting quarterback in 1970 and after that one more year of futility he would move on to play a year with the Vikings before ending his career in the mid-70s after stints with the Giants and 49ers. Journeyman quarterback Pete Liske would be the starting quarterback for the Eagles in 1971 and the team would respond with a record of 6-7-1. Liske would split time the next season with John Reaves, and then Reaves would become the backup behind Roman Gabriel, who joined the team following a successful career with the Los Angeles Rams, in 1973. Interestingly, John Reaves would go on to spend time with the Bengals and Oilers before moving on to the USFL‘s Tampa Bay Bandits from 1983-1985. Reaves would come out of retirement in 1987 and start two games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Gabriel’s first season with the Rams would see him lead the league in completions, attempts, passing yards, touchdown passes, and passing yards per game. Gabriel led the Eagles in all passing statistice through the 1975 season. Backup quarterback Mike Boryla saw most of the starts during the 1976 season before the team’s starting quarterback job was turned over to Ron Jaworski in 1977. After a subpar 1977 season, the Eagles would play in the post season for the first time since their last championship in 1960 following the 1978 season. Jaworski would lead the team back to respectability at the end of the 1970s though he would never be the type of quarterback that would statisticaly dominate the league.
The new decade started off on the right track with the Eagles making it to the Super Bowl behind the quarterbacking of Ron Jaworski, the running of Wilbert Montgomery, the receiving of Harold Carmichael, and the coaching of Dick Vermeil. The Eagles would make it back to the playoffs in 1981, but that would be the end of playoff appearances with Jaworski as the starting quarterback, though he would remain with the team through the 1986 season. Randall Cunningham began his NFL career as Jaworski’s backup in 1985, and he would start four games that season and five games in 1986 before becoming the full time starter in 1987. Because of the many times that Cunningham would run the ball, he would actually lead the league in times being sacked during the 1986 season even though he only started five games during the season. Behind Cunningham and the improved defense under Buddy Ryan, the Eagles would once again return to respectability with playoff appearances in both 1988 and 1989. The 1987 season would be the first of four consecutive years that quarterback Randall Cunningham would not only lead the team in passing yards, but rushing yards too.
The 90s would agains see Randall Cunningham leading the team at the position of starting quarterback. The Eagles remained one of the most formidable teams in the league in the early 90s, thanks in large part to Reggie White and the rest of their defense. Cunningham would start out the 1991 season with a season ending injury and former Bears starting quarterback Jim McMahon would step in although games were also started that year by Jeff Kemp and Brad Goebel. The rest of the early 1990s would see Cunningham, mainly because of injuries, share starting quarterback duties with, among others Bubby Brister and Rodney Peete before he would leave following the 1996 season to play for the Minnesota Vikings. 1996 saw Ty Detmer emerge as the starting quarterback with Rodney Peete and former Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien as his main backups. The final three seasons of the 1990s would see Ty Detmer, Bobby Hoying, Rodney Peete, Koy Detmer, Doug Pederson, and Donovan McNabb all start games for the Eagles at quarterback.
The new millennium would see Donovan McNabb take over the Eagles starting quarterback job for the rest of the decade, only relinquishing it due to injury. The primary backup quarterbacks during this time were Koy Detmer, A.J. Feeley, Jeff Blake, Mike McMahon, Jeff Garcia, and Kevin Kolb. During this time the Eagles would make it to the NFC Championship Game four consecutive times from 2001 to 2004, including making it all the way to the Super Bowl in 2004 only to lose to the New England Patriots by a score of 24-21.
The Philadelphia Eagles have had many ups and downs during their years in the National Football League. Though it has been a great many years since they were last champions of the league, they have had numerous years when they were near the top and within reach of the championship. Much of the team’s success has happened when they have had quarterbacks that were some of the best in the league at the time running their offense. Quarterbacks like Norm Van Brocklin, Sonny Jurgensen, Ron Jaworski, Randall Cunningham, and Donovan McNabb. The Eagles have one of the longest histories of any team in the NFL and their future, like most teams, will be largely dependent on the success of their quarterback.