PHILADELPHIA -- The roughest, the toughest, and perhaps the best defense in the NFL walks a fine line between outright hooliganism and simple hard hitting each week. Two handwritten messages taped above the Veterans Stadium locker of Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters are reminders of that balancing act.
One reads, "Nice & clean guy."
The other: "$7500.00 broker."
The Eagles may not be much for grammar, but they get the point. And so did Waters, who last month was fined $7,500 for sucker-punching New Orleans receiver Eric Martin after a 13-6 loss to the Saints. When Waters went over the fine line -- way over -- his teammates properly chastised him.
"We told him that stuff like that is not necessary," defensive tackle Mike Pitts said. "The way to prove yourself is on the field. The way to prove yourself is while the clock is ticking.
"Andre came to the guys on defense and apologized."
There were no apologies, though, when free safety Wes Hopkins pole-axed Houston Oilers receiver Ernest Givins on Monday on national TV, breaking his nose in what became a 13-6 Eagles victory. Friday, the NFL fined Hopkins $7,500 for the hit.
The Eagles take their marauding defense to the Meadowlands today to renew hostilities with the New York Giants. A Philadelphia win, combined with an Atlanta Falcons victory over the Los Angeles Rams, would end the Giants' bid for an NFC wild-card berth. It also would be the sixth straight win for the Eagles in their playoff run.
In a year when they have lost quarterback Randall Cunningham for the season and backup Jim McMahon for extended periods, the Eagles' wild-card drive is fueled by their rowdy defense. It leads the league in several categories and has inflicted a heavy casualty count on opponents along the way. It leads the NFL in total defense, rushing defense, pass defense, take-aways and sacks. It has also knocked out three quarterbacks in 13 games, down from a menacing six KOs a year ago.
Intimidation is the name of the game.
"Our defense is not only leading in several categories, but there's an intimidation factor you can't deny," said guard Ron Solt, a former Terp. "You see it in a lot of holding penalties, in offsides penalties. And there's a tentativeness in the [offense] you might not be able to see."
"Watching our defense sends chills through me," said wide receiver Calvin Williams, a graduate of Dunbar High. "I've known all along that Wes and Andre are going to intimidate people. Every time a receiver goes over the middle, he's going to get whacked. As a receiver, you try not to let it affect you, but you think about it."
That is the desired effect of the Eagles' mayhem.
"It's real important," said Pitts, who starred at Poly. "We try to establish from the opening play that you better buckle up."
"We strive," Waters said, "to be the most physical team in the league."
The lightning rod on a defense that features Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons has been outside linebacker Seth Joyner, a soft-spoken, six-year veteran. Joyner was relentless against Houston, forcing two fumbles, recovering two, deflecting two passes and making eight tackles.
Last summer, Joyner and Simmons became the first players in the NFL to earn $1 million (three years, $3 million each) without having played in the Pro Bowl. Joyner says the Pro Bowl snub doesn't bother him. "It's more important that we get into the playoffs," he said.
Even though the defense lost former coach Buddy Ryan, its architect, and gained Bud Carson, the new defensive coordinator, it has picked up its pace this season.
"Buddy is still in the hearts of a lot of people," Pitts said. "But we had to carry on. This is our profession."
"We've matured a lot, grown a lot," Joyner said. "We've been together for a while now and everybody knows each other. There's a point in time when everything comes together."
;/ This year, for the Eagles' defense, it has.