As a transition free agent, RB Ricky Watters had to wait a week after he signed an offer sheet with the Philadelphia Eagles to find out if the San Francisco 49ers, the club he had represented in the Pro Bowl after each of the past three seasons, would match it. On March 25, 1995 he officially switched clubs when the 49ers refused to match Philadelphia’s three-year, $6.9 million offer.
“We’re thrilled to have obtained one of the premier running backs in the NFL,” enthused new Eagles Head Coach Ray Rhodes (also a recent transplant from San Francisco, where he had been the defensive coordinator).
It was the second major off-season signing by the Eagles, who had seen a promising 7-2 start in 1994 degenerate into seven consecutive losses to end up at 7-9. FB Kevin Turner had earlier been signed away from the Patriots in an effort to upgrade the offensive backfield.
Watters was picked in the second round of the 1991 draft by the 49ers out of Notre Dame, where he set the record for longest punt return in that school’s storied history (97 yards). His pro career began inauspiciously when he broke his foot in training camp and ended up spending the season on injured reserve. But he gained over a thousand yards rushing in ’92 and became a significant contributor to the team’s success over three years, capped by a three-TD performance in the Super Bowl victory over San Diego following the ’94 season.
Watters parted the 49ers amid much acrimony – the player criticizing the front office and offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan for a lack of respect, the team accusing him of selfishness. Thus, he came to Philadelphia amid both excitement and wariness. The Eagles were excited by his obvious ability on the field, but there were concerns as to his attitude. It didn’t help when, in his first regular season game in Philadelphia, he gained only 37 yards on 17 carries and displayed an apparent lack of effort in not catching two passes thrown toward him in a dismal loss to Tampa Bay, and when questioned later uttered the words “For who? For what?” that many fans would never forget in spite of an apology and later accomplishments.
And there were accomplishments. After the inauspicious beginning to the 1995 season, Watters went on to gain 1273 yards on the ground and catch 62 passes. He went over the thousand-yard mark all three years that he was with the Eagles, and never caught fewer than 48 passes. He gained a total of 3794 yards rushing on 975 carries for a 3.9-yard average and 31 TDs. His 353 carries in ’96 led the NFL (and set a team record), and the 1411 yards rushing that year were the second-highest total in franchise history to date. Watters had 12 hundred-yard rushing performances for the Eagles, with a high of 173 yards on 25 attempts, including a 49-yard touchdown carry, against the Miami Dolphins in 1996.
An outstanding receiver out of the backfield as well as a workhorse running back, Watters caught a total of 161 passes for 1318 yards, an 8.2 average, and one TD. He had a high of 11 receptions for 90 yards vs. Washington in ’95.
Altogether, Watters gained 5112 yards in total offense in Philadelphia, with a high of 1855 in 1996, when he also scored a career-high 13 TDs. He was a second-team UPI All-NFC selection in 1995 and ’96, and went to the Pro Bowl after both of those seasons as well (he went to the Pro Bowl five times total, including three times as a 49er).
At 6’1” and 217 pounds, Watters was a very physically punishing power runner. He played with a passion and unique style that drew much admiration around the league, and in tandem with change-of-pace back Charlie Garner made the Eagles running game tough to stop. The team finished among the top ten ground-gaining offenses in each of Watters’ seasons there.
And yet there was always the controversy. No amount of carries was enough, and Watters was continually feuding with offensive coordinator Jon Gruden. A high-strung player who was quick to speak his mind on the sidelines and away from the playing field, he drew constant criticism for lacking maturity. His complaints for not getting the ball enough seemed odd during seasons when he was leading the league, or among the leaders, in total rushing attempts, as well as catching a healthy share of passes. While durable and well-conditioned, he tended to wear down with overuse, which also undermined his complaints.
As for the Eagles overall, they reached the postseason in 1995 and ’96, going 10-6 both years to earn Wild Card berths, and after winning a high-scoring contest against the Lions in the first year, didn’t win another playoff game. They dropped to 6-9-1 in 1997 – and would drop further after Watters’ departure.
The relationship between Watters and the Eagles deteriorated both prior to and during the ’97 season, and with promising RB Duce Staley waiting in the wings the team made no attempt to sign him to a contract extension; he left as he came, signing as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks in 1998. With the Seahawks, he became the first player in NFL history to gain a thousand yards rushing in a season with three different teams. His career came to an end in 2001.
(NOTE: This post is significantly adapted from a profile of Watters that I wrote for Concretefield.com as part of the “Greatest Eagles by the Numbers” series)