By Ryan Mayer, CBS Local Sports
NFL games rarely, if ever, get nicknamed anymore. The most recent example that comes to mind is the “Fail-Mary” between the Packers and Seahawks a few seasons ago. That game has left an imprint on the minds of today’s fans who recall it as a turning point for the NFL doing away with the replacement referees and bringing back the regular zebras. The nicknames applied to individual games or moments can often evoke powerful memories for a fan base, or the players involved. One such game happened 25 years ago today, and it was one of the more ‘unusual’ games in NFL history.
Monday night, November 12, 1990 promised to add another chapter to the Philadelphia Eagles-Washington Redskins rivalry. It was a 44 degree day in South Philadelphia as the Redskins pulled into town for a crucial division game sitting one game ahead of the Eagles in the division standings, both teams chasing the red hot Giants who started 8-0. Washington had taken the first contest between the two, 13-7, just three weeks prior.
Buddy Ryan, always the braggadocio, told the press in the week leading up to the game that his team would deliver a beating so bad that “they’ll have to be carted off in body bags.” That prediction turned out to be closer to truth than bravado as six Redskins players would end up leaving the game with injuries – including both of the quarterbacks on the active roster.
“I remember thinking it was highly unusual to see a team go to its emergency QB,” said Merrill Reese, long-time play-by-play man for the Eagles. “I can’t remember another time where a team in the middle of a game had to go to their emergency quarterback. I’ve seen games where second string, third string QB’s come in but the emergency QB? That was highly unusual.”
So, who was the emergency QB for the Redskins that day? Kick returner Brian Mitchell. Mitchell made the team as a kick returner and was listed as the team’s emergency quarterback due to his experience playing the position in college at Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette). With Mark Rypien already out, having hyper extended his knee earlier in the season against the Cowboys, and both Jeff Rutledge (broken thumb) and Stan Humphries (sprained knee) forced out of the game, Mitchell was put into action.
“I remember in practice that week, the coaches gave me a shortened version of the offense to learn just in case something happened,” said Mitchell, now a sports talk show host in DC. “I never thought I would go in the game at quarterback, because I wasn’t expecting the other two guys to get hurt. So when coach Gibbs came up and said ‘Brian, you’re in.’ I thought that he meant at running back. That’s when he told me I was going in at QB, and he just told me ‘Just do what we taught you.'”
On Mitchell’s first drive, he drove the Redskins down the field and punched in just their second touchdown of the game, putting that preparation and college experience to good use. That score would be the final one of the game and the Eagles picked up a 28-14 win.
The game has taken on a certain elevated place in Philadelphia lore, viewed as a testament to the soul of the town itself. Tough, blue-collar, and permanently in your face. Why has the game been given that hallowed ground?
“This game is more memorable because it has a nickname,” said Reese. “That and the fact that they went to their emergency QB in Brian Mitchell.”
Mitchell offered a couple of thoughts. He thinks it has become a part of the lore for both cities in two very different ways.
“It became a part of the lore in Philly because they hurt so many guys and Philly is known as such a tough town,” said Mitchell. “For people down here I think the feeling is, yeah they beat us up, but we avenged that game later in the season.”
Reese and Mitchell’s analysis makes sense as the Redskins beat up the Eagles 20-6 when the two teams met in the Wild Card round of the playoffs just a few short months later. For Eagles fans, the game remains one of the most memorable from that 1990 season and the nickname remains to this day passed down as part of the legacy of the Buddy Ryan era.
In the aftermath of the contest, the NFL instituted a 3rd quarterback rule for the 1991 season that allowed teams to carry a third quarterback that wouldn’t count against the 45 man roster. That rule was later eliminated when the league expanded the game day rosters following the 2011 lockout. Though the rule has been eliminated, one thing is for sure, the “Body Bag Game” lives on in local fan base lore.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.