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April 24, 2015

Is Brian Dawkins the greatest living Eagle?

For years, many considered Concrete Charlie -- former Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik -- the greatest living Eagles player. But that all changed last month when the hall-of-famer passed away at the age of 89, leaving a void in the hearts of those lucky enough to have watched him play.

In addition to Bednarik, the debate for the franchise's all-time greatest player would undoubtedly include names like Brookshire, Brown, Van Buren, and White. Unfortunately, some of the greatest Eagles players are no longer with us, and in the wake of Bednarik's passing, there is no consensus as to whom should replace him as the franchise top player.

With that in mind, we've decided to take a look at some of the greatest living Eagles, the kind of guys Jeff Lurie would want to trot out before a big playoff game -- if/when that time comes -- to help get the fans fired up.

Here's a closer look at safety Brian Dawkins, the franchise's all-time leader in interceptions, forced fumbles, and bad-ass introductions:

THE NUMBERS: 183 G (1996-2008); 9x Pro-Bowler; 4x All-Pro; 34 interceptions; 32 forced fumbles; 21 sacks; Member of Eagles Hall of Fame; Had No. 20 retired by Eagles in 2012; Went to five NFC Championships and a Super Bowl in 13 years with Eagles.

HOW HE GOT HERE: Dawkins was drafted in the second round (61st overall) by the Eagles in 1996 out of Clemson. He started 13 games in his rookie season on a team that went 10-6 but lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the playoffs.

HOW HE LEFT PHILLY: Dawkins' 2009 exit was one of the most controversial in recent years, as the Eagles let their veteran safety and unquestioned team leader walk in free agency, allowing him to sign with the Denver Broncos. A few years later, Howie Roseman admitted letting Dawkins go was a mistake. During an interview on 94WIP in January of 2014, the then-GM had the following to say:

I’d be lying to sit here and say Brian Dawkins shouldn’t have retired as an Eagle. And every time I see him, and I have had a chance to visit with him a bunch, I call him and ask him questions about safety play. To me, it’s a great resource for the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s an unbelievable guy, but he was a Hall of Fame [caliber] player.

When you look around the league, it’s hard to find safeties who can cover, who can blitz, who can play the run. I mean, he was an unbelievable player and I think the more we get away from him, and we knew what a great player he was when he was here, but the more you get away from him you find out how special he really was. He’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player.  []

It clearly was, as the team is still looking for "The Next Dawkins" to solidify their secondary.

The move was so controversial, and the reaction so vitriolic, that an Eagles employee named Dan Leone actually got fired for posting some negative comments about the Eagles (and the move) on Facebook. CSNPhilly's John Gonzalez, then at the Inquirer, had the story:

Like a lot of Philadelphians, Leone was upset when Dawkins became a Bronco. So he did what a 32-year-old does these days: He vented on Facebook. "Dan is [expletive] devastated about Dawkins signing with Denver. . .Dam Eagles R Retarted!!"

It was a rash, stupid thing to do, and Leone regretted it almost instantly.


Less than two days after posting the Dawkins remarks, Leone said, he was contacted by Leonard Bonacci, the team's director of event operations. According to Leone, Bonacci said they needed to talk about Leone's Facebook page, and Leone agreed. Leone - who deleted the comment - figured that the two would sit down and that he could apologize to Bonacci in person. But Leone said Bonacci never got back to him after that.

Two days later, Leone said, he received a call from Rachel Vitagliano, the team's guest services manager. Leone said she fired him over the phone. The conversation lasted less than 10 minutes.

No warning. No suspension. No face-to-face meeting. Just a quick call to tell Leone he'd been terminated. []

The purpose of highlighting this story is two-fold. First, it illustrates just how upset the city was by the financially motivated decision to let Dawkins walk. Second, it allows you to see what happened next, something that shows who Dawkins is as a person, which can be contradictory to the menace you see on Sunday afternoons.

When Dawkins heard Leone's story, he decided to take action. Because the Broncos were scheduled to play at the Linc the season following his departure, Dawkins offered his two tickets to that game, normally reserved for players' friends and family, to Leone. Here's what he told the Daily News at the time:

I thought it'd be a good gesture. Had I not ... signed with Denver, that guy would still have his job. Obviously, he made a decision and out of emotion said something. He was one of probably thousands and thousands of Eagles fans who felt that way. That didn't surprise me, that someone said that on their Facebook. It did surprise me that he was let go, though ... I felt it would be a good thing, to reach out to that individual and just let him know how much I appreciate it.  [Yahoo's Shutdown Corner]

WHAT HE LEFT BEHIND: Dawkins returned a few years later in 2012, when he signed a one-day contract with the Eagles so he could retire as a member of the franchise he spent the majority of his (almost-certain) Hall of Fame career. The Eagles returned the favor by adding Dawkins to their own Hall of Fame and retiring his number 20.

His legacy is undeniable. During his time patrolling the defensive backfield, the Eagles experienced one of their greatest eras. Just look at how their record with Dawkins compares to their record without him:

Without Dawkins
425-483-24 .468

Sure, some of those wins came because his time on the Eagles lined up with other guys on this list, like McNabb and Westbrook. But as potent as the offense was on some of those Andy Reid teams, it was Jim Johnson's defense that stole the show, specifically the ways in which the late defensive coordinator could use Dawkins -- in coverage, on the blitz, as a QB spy, as a run stopper; the list goes on. He truly was "Weapon X."

SIGNATURE MOMENT: There. Are. So. Many.

He terrorized the Falcons. First, Michael Vick* in a divisional playoff game:

*I was at this game (as a fan) and was seated in the first row of the end zone almost directly behind where the hit took place. To this day, I don't think I've heard a hit that sounded worse than this. And the best part was, the play would have still gone for a touchdown had it not been for a Falcons holding penalty. All that Vick pain for nothing...

Then, Alge Crumpler in the NFC title game:

He had the interception against Brett Favre and the Packers to seal the win in the 4th and 26 game. So many big hits. And, of course, there was his signature tackling style:

But perhaps Dawkins' greatest game ever came during a meaningless* (compared to the playoff games mentioned above) regular-season game against the Texans. On that day, Dawkins became the first (and only) player in NFL history to record an interception, a forced fumble, a sack and a touchdown reception in the same game

*I know it was a meaningless game because my dad gave me his tickets, and even let me take a friend. That didn't happen often because he would usually want to go with me.

There are no less than a million highlight videos of Dawkins, but I'll leave you with this final one:


  •  •  THE OTHER CANDIDATES    •  •

• Eric Allen, CB

Bill Bergey, LB

• Harold Carmichael, WR

• LeSean McCoy, RB

• Tommy McDonald, WR

• Donovan McNabb, QB

• Wilbert Montgomery, RB

• Brian Westbrook, RB

• Al Wistert, OL

  •  •  HONORABLE MENTIONS  •  •  •

• Randall Cunningham, QB
• Ron Jaworski, QB
• Seth Joyner, LB
• Pete Retzlaff, WR
• Clyde Simmons, DE
• Troy Vincent, CB