Nov 272016
 
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Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants (November 27, 2016)

Jason Pierre-Paul – © USA TODAY Sports Images

NEW YORK GIANTS 27 – CLEVELAND BROWNS 13…
The New York Giants won their sixth game in a row on Sunday by defeating the winless Cleveland Browns 27-13 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland. With the victory, the Giants improved their overall record to 8-3, two games behind the first-place Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East.

In a game that was close until the 4th quarter, the Browns out-gained the Giants in first downs (21 to 13), total net yards (343 to 296), net yards passing (285 to 192), and time of possession (33:51 to 26:09). But the Giants out-rushed the Browns (104 to 58) won the turnover battle (3 to 1), and scored on defense. And while Cleveland was 1-of-3 (33 percent) in red zone opportunities, the Giants were a perfect 2-of-2 (100 percent). The Giants did commit nine penalties for 100 yards.

Both teams struggled offensively for much of the first half as the score remained 0-0 until midway through the 2nd quarter. The Giants first four possessions resulted in five first downs, 65 net yards, and four punts. Meanwhile, the Browns first four possessions resulted in three first downs, 58 net yards, three punts, and a fumble. Defensive tackle Damon Harrison forced running back Isaiah Crowell to fumble, and the loose ball was recovered by linebacker Devon Kennard at the Browns 31-yard line. After an 18-yard pass from quarterback Eli Manning to wide receiver Roger Lewis, Manning then found wide receiver Dwayne Harris for a 13-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

The Giants defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing Browns possession but Cleveland got the ball right back when running back Bobby Rainey muffed the punt, giving the Browns the ball at the New York 30-yard line. Despite allowing Cleveland to convert on 4th-and-1 and to drive to the 2-yard line, the defense held and the Browns were forced to settle for a 20-yard field goal.

The Giants extended their lead to 14-3 late in the 2nd quarter as New York drove 69 yards in four plays and just 30 seconds. While two passing plays resulted in incompletions, Manning found wide receivers Victor Cruz for 37 yards and Odell Beckham for 32 yards and the score on the other two plays. However, with 1:13 to go before halftime, the Browns responded with an 8-play, 68 yard drive to set up a 25-yard field goal as time expired. At the half, the Giants led 14-6.

Like the start of the game, both teams struggled offensive at the start of the second half. New York’s first four possessions resulted in one first down, 32 net yards, and four punts. (Beckham had a 59-yard punt return for a touchdown erased by a holding penalty on linebacker Mark Herzlich). Cleveland’s first five possessions resulted in four first downs, 89 net yards, four punts, and a fumble. With just over 11 minutes to go in the game, defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins sacked quarterback Josh McCown, forcing a fumble that was returned 43 yards for a touchdown by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Place kicker Robbie Gould missed the extra point attempt and the Giants led 20-6.

Cleveland quickly tightened the game again by driving 75 yards in five plays. McCown found wide receiver Corey Coleman for a 21-yard touchdown to cut the score to 20-13 with 8:17 left to play.

The Giants pulled away on their ensuing possession. A 41-yard pass from Manning to Beckham followed by a 22-yard gain on an end-around by wideout Sterling Shepard moved the ball to the Browns 6-yard line. Three plays later, Manning hit Beckham on 3rd-and-goal for a 4-yard touchdown.

The final two Browns drives ended with a turnover on downs at the Giants 40-yard line and a fumble forced by Pierre-Paul on a sack. Defensive end Kerry Wynn recovered the fumble to seal the game.

Offensively, Manning completed 15-of-27 passes for 194 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Odell Beckham was the only player to catch more than two passes, as he had six receptions for 96 yards and two touchdowns. Rashad Jennings rushed for 55 yards on 15 carries and Paul Perkins rushed for 29 yards on nine carries.

Defensively, the Giants accrued seven sacks, 11 quarterback hits, eight tackles for losses, five pass defenses, three forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. Damon Harrison led the team with nine tackles, and also forced a fumble. Jason Pierre-Paul had seven tackles, three sacks, three tackles for losses, a forced fumble, and a fumble returned for a touchdown. Defensive end Olivier Vernon was credited with four tackles, 1.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, and two tackles for losses. Johnathan Hankins had three tackles, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits, and forced one fumble. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins had five tackles, one sack, two tackles for losses, and two pass defenses. Devon Kennard and Kerry Wynn recovered fumbles.

Video highlights/lowlights are available at Giants.com.

INACTIVE LIST AND INJURY REPORT…
Inactive for the game were left guard Justin Pugh (knee), offensive lineman Brett Jones (calf), offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse (knee), wide receiver Tavarres King, quarterback Josh Johnson, defensive tackle Jay Bromley, and cornerback Leon Hall.

Safety Nat Berhe and linebacker Mark Herzlich both suffered concussions in the game. This is the second time Berhe has suffered a concussion this year. Wide receiver Odell Beckham (thumb), defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa (knee), and cornerback Janoris Jenkins (unknown) all left the game with injuries but returned. Cornerback Eli Apple suffered from cramps.

POST-GAME REACTION…
Video clips of post-game media sessions with Head Coach Ben McAdoo and the following players are available at Giants.com:

  • Head Coach Ben McAdoo (Video)
  • QB Eli Manning (Video)
  • RB Rashad Jennings (Video)
  • WR Odell Beckham, Jr. (Video)
  • WR Dwayne Harris (Video)
  • DE Jason Pierre-Paul (Video)
  • LB Jonathan Casillas (Video)

ARTICLES…

Aug 072016
 
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Spider Lockhart, Brad Van Pelt, Jack Gregory; New York Giants (1975)

Spider Lockhart, Brad Van Pelt, Jack Gregory; New York Giants (1975)

The first chapter of the New York Football Giants history closed on December 29, 1963. Up until that time, one of the cornerstone franchises of the NFL, the Giants prospered on the field while they regularly struggled financially to stay afloat. The franchise nearly went bankrupt fending off four American Football Leagues (AFL) and the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), all of which placed one or more teams in the New York market. No other franchise had as many direct competitors as the Giants; 13 in all attempted to carve out their own niche in the greater New York area after Tim Mara, Billy Gibbons and Dr. Harry March purchased the rights to establish an NFL franchise in New York in 1925.

A significant number of these incursions took place during the circuit’s leanest years during the Great Depression in the 1930’s and World War II in the early 1940’s. These were times when a pro football team’s primary source of income was ticket sales. Radio and newspaper were the forms of communication and promotion, and bad weather would keep turnstile counts low.

The AAFC proved to be the most formidable foe to the NFL, and to the Giants in particular. The Maras were forced to take out a significant loan to keep the franchise solvent as escalating player salaries rose disproportionately against the modest income stream that had yet to be augmented by lucrative television money.

The decade of the 1950s was a rare period where both the NFL and Giants remained free from competition. After the New York Yanks franchise relocated to Dallas in 1952, the Giants were the lone football team in New York for eight years, their longest stretch as New York’s long pro football team.

The fourth AFL in 1960 was initially considered little more than a nuisance to the Giants, who were a star-studded outfit that regularly contended for the NFL Championship, and crossed over into popular culture with numerous players receiving advertising and media opportunities. For the first time since Red Grange in the 1920s, pro football players became household names, and the first among them were Giants like Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and Pat Summerall.

On the field, the period between 1925 and 1963, the Giants were among the NFL’s “Big Four” that dominated the gridiron circuit, along with the Packers, Bears and Redskins. The Giants overall record of 294-156-27 over 38 seasons gave them a winning percentage of 0.645. Included were 16 postseason appearances, more than any other franchise, 14 league championship games, and four NFL titles. The first championship in 1927 was played before there was a post season; the other three were all won on the Giants home fields in the Polo Grounds in 1934 and 1938 and Yankee Stadium in 1956. The Giants lost four other titles games on their home field, but established league records for attendance until the NFL moved into the enormous Los Angeles Coliseum which held over 100,000 patrons.

The ultimate recognition for the best-of-the-best is induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The Giants were invited to play in the first Hall of Fame Game in 1962 and had three charter members in the inaugural class of 1963: founder Tim Mara, center Mel Hein and tackle Cal Hubbard. There would be many more to follow. Today, the Giants total number of enshrines of 22 rates third, behind only the Bears and Packers. Of the Giants 12 retired numbers, 10 were worn by players from this era.

Foreshadowing

Many believe the Giants demise was initiated with the trading of linebacker Sam Huff to Washington and defensive tackle Dick Modzelewski to Cleveland during the 1964 offseason. That may be true, but there were warning signs that went unnoticed, obscured by the team’s success and record-setting passing performances by Y.A. Tittle during the 1962 and 1963 seasons.

The 1959 offseason with the departure of offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi to Green Bay began a sequence of miscalculations, untimely misfortunes, unusual circumstances, and poor drafting. New York continued to succeed despite second-choice staffing and unsatisfactory talent backing up an aging, though talented and championship-hardened, roster.

Owners Jack and Wellington Mara had anticipated Lombardi assuming the head coach position when Jim Lee Howell retired. Lombardi had long been frustrated by his inability to land a head spot in the NFL, and prior to the 1958 season had been offered the head coaching job in Philadelphia. Lombardi was advised by Wellington not to take it and wait for a better opportunity. That chance came the following year, and according to Wellington, there had been an oral agreement with the Packers’ board of directors that they would release Lombardi back to the Giants when the New York head coaching position became available.

Howell stepped down from coaching after the 1960 season and moved into the Giants player personnel department. Green Bay refused to relinquish Lombardi to the Giants after he led the Packers to the NFL Championship Game that season. The Maras then turned to offensive coordinator Allie Sherman, considered by many around the league to be a brilliant offensive mind. Sherman would become the most controversial and polarizing figure in franchise history.

Sherman originally came to New York in 1949 as a specialist to help Single Wing and A-Formation tailback Charlie Conerly transition into a contemporary T-Formation quarterback. Giants Head Coach Steve Owen, while being a revolutionary genius with defenses, had dated ideas on offense and relied on concepts that were comfortable to him. Sherman was a prized possession of Philadelphia head coach Earl “Greasy” Neal as an undersized quarterback and later assistant coach. Sherman helped the Eagles become an offensive power and advance to the NFL title game in 1947. Neal told Owen, “Take Sherman as your assistant. He knows more about (the T-Formation) than anyone.”

Sherman and the Giants were mostly successful, albeit never fully committing to either Conerly or the T-Formation, over the next four seasons. A disastrous and injury-riddled 1953 campaign led to Owen’s departure. After being passed over for the head coaching positon for Jim Lee Howell, Sherman coached the Canadian Football League’s (CFL) Winnipeg Blue Bombers for three seasons. His teams featured imaginative offensive concepts with multiple men in motion that took advantage of the CFL’s more liberal rules, and qualified for the post season all three years.

Despite his success, Sherman desired to return to the NFL and accepted a scouting position with the Giants in 1957, while also coaching Conerly part-time. When Lombardi left for Green Bay in 1959, Sherman assumed the Giants offensive coordinator role. Under his tutelage, Conerly enjoyed a career year and was awarded the NFL’s MVP trophy as the Giants won the Eastern Conference title.

After Howell stepped down as head coach, Sherman signed a three-year contract as head coach of the Giants on January 10, 1961. Before Sherman became official, there were many behind-the-scenes machinations where the Mara’s attempted to extract Lombardi, who was entering the third year of a five-year contract to coach Green Bay. Once the futility of that exercise was accepted, Sherman became the eighth head coach of the Giants.

The roster Sherman inherited had plenty of championship experience. Many of the Giants starters, including the core of the defensive front seven, were on the Yankee Stadium field when they won the NFL Championship in 1956. That was also the team’s biggest problem – their best players were their oldest. There hadn’t been a rookie drafted that made an impact on the Giants since Sam Huff.

Most troubling, many of New York’s draft picks produced for other teams. Wide receiver Buddy Dial (2nd round 1959) had an eight-year career in Pittsburgh and Dallas, and appeared in two Pro Bowls. Wide receiver Bobby Joe Conrad (5th round, 1958) had a 12-year career with the Cardinals and Dallas, was All Pro once and played in another Pro Bowl. Don Maynard (9th round 1957) was a reserve and kick returner on the 1958 Giants, but he went on to a Hall of Fame career as a wide receiver with the New York Titans/Jets. In 1959 the Giants first round choice (10th overall) was used on quarterback Lee Grosscup as an heir apparent to aging Conerly. Grosscup appeared in eight games and amassed a total of 47 pass attempts as a Giant through 1961, his last year on the team. He was out of football altogether following the 1962 season.

What the Giants did do well, and what sustained them for a terrific three-year run, was execute exceptional trades. The Y.A. Tittle deal with San Francisco for tackle Lou Cordileone turned out to be a first-rate heist in New York’s favor. Soon after, a trade with Los Angeles for Del Shofner in exchange for a first round pick completed the key components of what would become a record-setting offense.

While the roster still lacked the desperately needed infusion of youth, there was no wanting for talent among the starting eleven, regardless of the dates on their birth certificates. New York’s average age was 29½ with 6½ seasons of NFL experience for their starting lineup in the 1962 NFL Championship Game versus Green Bay. The Packers, by comparison, were just under 28 years with five years of experience. That does not appear to be a significant difference on paper, but once the Giants over-30 crowd began to leave following the 1963 and 1964 seasons the decline in performance was precipitous. Green Bay’s core remained mostly intact through a run of five championships over seven years, which ultimately saw them be honored with the unofficial title of Team of the Sixties.

Duplicitous Eccentric or Misunderstood Genius?

Sherman’s first three seasons at the helm were unqualified successes. The Giants 33-8-1 record earned them three Eastern Conference titles. Despite losing all three championship games, Sherman was recognized as one of the game’s best and brightest coaches. He was voted NFL Coach of the Year in 1961 and 1962, and remains the only coach in history to have won in consecutive years. Wellington Mara quipped years later, “Allie might have been the best second choice since John Alden.”

Tittle certainly was appreciative of what Sherman meant to his career. The reborn quarterback established the NFL record for touchdown passes in a season with 33 in 1962, then reset it with 36 in 1963, during 14 game seasons. Those still stand today as the Giants franchise standard. Tittle said, “(Sherman) never looked upon the Giants as a team but as 40 men – each with a unique personality. Sherman realized early in his career that a successful club depended on the system adapting to the players, not the other way around.” The Giants were so confident in Sherman, they tore up his contract after the 1962 season and locked him up with a new five-year deal.

Y.A. Tittle, Allie Sherman, and Kyle Rote, New York Giants (1963)

Y.A. Tittle, Allie Sherman, and Kyle Rote, New York Giants (1963)

Not everyone behind the scenes were as generous sending adulation Sherman’s way. Halfback and wide receiver Frank Gifford saw two sides to the coach: “Allie was a terrific offensive coach but not a great head coach. Allie had a good sense of the passing game, and he loved to employ it. But when it came to dealing with real players rather than with blackboard X’s and O’s, Allie’s style hurt him a great deal. Instead of saying, ‘this is the way it’s going to be,’ he tried to cajole the players.”

Defensive end Andy Robustelli described the first three years of Sherman’s tenure as “an era of agony and ecstasy for all of us connected with the Giants – the agony often taking place in our locker room while the fans were in ecstasy over the wondrous feats our team performed.

“We freely wondered whether the head coach had a hang-up about the defense, and after a while we simply accepted the fact that we would never be his favorite. It was plain to us that he couldn’t handle the defense’s notoriety. My role as a coach offered me a unique perspective as well as some agonizing dealings with Sherman. Al was not the kind of person with whom you could disagree and feel it was for the good of the team. That was a tough situation for me because I felt one of the prerequisites of being a good assistant coach was to express freely an opinion that was based on experience and knowledge.”

Robustelli placed most of the credit on Tittle. “Y.A. was more than just an efficient quarterback. His personality carried over to the field, where there was no doubt who was in charge.” (Y.A. Tittle’s Incomparable 1962 and 1963 Seasons)

Defensive tackle Rosey Grier was traded to Los Angeles after the 1962 season for John Lovetere, who was younger and more athletic than Grier, who suffered from chronic weight issues. Lovetere had a strong 1963 season but suffered a knee injury the following year and never returned to form. This was only the first of many moves that would backfire on New York for one reason or another. Wellington’s uncanny knack for getting the right player at just the right time had escaped him.

By far, the most shocking and controversial transaction in Giants history was the trading of star middle linebacker Sam Huff to Washington after the 1963 season. The grudge Huff held against Sherman eventually became a legend that took on a life of its own. In return, New York received two journeymen players, defensive end Andy Stynchula and halfback Dick James, who brought youth but little impact. Rookie Lou Slaby inherited Huff’s position as the man in the middle but only lasted one season as the starter, and two overall in New York. He was out of football by 1967.

The friction between Huff and Sherman began before the 1962 season with a change in scheme that confounded the All Pro. In the new defense, Huff was required to fill the strong-side gap between the guard and center, regardless of where the play was going. The reading of offensive keys that Huff had executed to near-perfection in the Landry 4-3 defense was now nullified after the snap. Near the end of the exhibition schedule Huff confided his discontent with defensive captain and coordinator Robustelli, who told him, “I agree with you, but this is the defense Allie wants you to play, and you’re just going to have to do it.” (New York Giants – Cleveland Browns 1950-1959)

Huff eventually voiced his dissenting opinion to Sherman, despite the predictable result being all but assured. No changes were made and the Giants once impermeable defense began to show signs of leakage. Over the 1960 and 1961 seasons, when the NFL schedule expanded to the 14-game schedule, the Giants surrendered an average of 17 points per game with the Landry-created 4-3 defense (this despite its originator now in Dallas with the expansion Cowboys). The next two seasons with the Sherman defense, the total went just upwards of 20 points per game. The won-loss record didn’t suffer as the potent Tittle-to-Shofner connection kept the Giants just ahead of the opponents on the scoreboard.

Also traded away that portentous offseason was defensive tackle Dick Modzelewski. He went to Cleveland for tight end Bobby Crespino, a serviceable if unspectacular player who remained with New York through 1968. The foundation of the Giants 4-3 defense, defensive tackles Grier and Modzelweski backed by Huff, had been gutted.

If the Giants hadn’t felt like they went into games with one hand tied behind their back going into the 1964 season, it probably didn’t take long soon after it started. The injuries that depleted the roster were symbolized in perpetuity with the crushing John Baker hit on Tittle in the Pittsburgh end zone. Tittle and fellow former heroes Shofner, Gifford, fullback Alex Webster, defensive end Jim Katcavage, cornerback Dick Lynch and cornerback Jimmy Patton all missed significant time or their seasons ended prematurely. Robustelli said with his tongue only partially in-cheek: “It seemed we won because of ‘experience’ and lost because of ‘age.’”

New York’s 2-10-2 record in 1964 was as abysmal as it was unexpected. Never before had a Giants team had a double-digit figure in the loss column, and the 399 points surrendered by the sieve-like defense averaged nearly 29 points per game. The inconsistent offense with rotating personnel was unable to bail them out this time. When the season mercifully closed, Webster, Tittle, Robustelli and Gifford all retired. It would be a long time before those shoes were filled.

Wandering into the Wilderness

New York had the first pick in the 1965 draft (which was held in November 1964). The Giants have had the number one overall choice twice in their history, and ironically, both times they selected highly regarded backs whose careers were altered by untimely and severe knee injuries. The first was Kyle Rote in 1951, and the second was Tucker Frederickson.

Frederickson was of a much higher pedigree than New York’s recent run of failed first round picks: Lee Grosscup (1959), offensive tackle Lou Cordileone (1960), running back Bob Gaiters (1961), linebacker Jerry Hillebrand (1962), offensive tackle Frank Lasky (1963) and running back Joe Don Looney (1964), all of whom were deemed questionable choices at the time. Frederickson was an impressive athlete with all of the necessary credentials. Many other teams were envious of the Giants at the time and stated they would have taken the back from Auburn given the chance. Denver of the AFL, which held its own draft the same day, inquired about Frederickson, but he told them he preferred to sign with the NFL’s Giants.

The celebration of the touted pick was short lived. Team president Jack Mara passed away from cancer on June 29 at the age of 57. The loss was devastating to Wellington, who had shared the duties of running the Giants with his brother for 29 years. Jack handled the business side and Wellington the football operations. With no succession plan in place, Wellington dutifully, if somewhat reluctantly, assumed stewardship of everything involved with the franchise. The strain of handling all aspects of the team over time impeded New York’s growth as a franchise during an era where the more successful franchises diversified and modernized their approach in areas such as player evaluation and acquisition. The Giants became stuck in what was often referred to as “old ways.”

While Wellington burned the candle at both ends, he craved a sense of stability and security after the loss of his brother. To that end, he tore up Sherman’s contract on July 26 and signed the coach to a new 10-year deal. Mara said, “The most important thing we could do was get the best possible leadership on the field. That’s why we have given Al a new contract.”

Sherman said, “I think any coach in the business would envy me today. We have the kind of ball club that can give the city what it has come to expect and want in the way of a winning team. We have the ingredients to come back quicker than a lot of people might think.”

Improve the Giants did in 1965, to 7-7 which was good for a second place tie in the mediocre NFL Eastern Conference. Veteran Earl Morrall started every game and stabilized the quarterback position. Homer Jones flashed some big play potential as a wide out and Frederickson made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. The defense continued to struggle, but the kicking game was far and away the weakest link. As a team, New York made an embarrassing four of 25 field goal attempts on the season, a figure that would have been unacceptable even in the drop-kick era of the 1920’s.

Mara reconciled that on-field problem by signing Pete Gogolak from the AFL’s Buffalo Bills to a three-year contract. That move also created a typhoon of issues for NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, which ultimately led to the AFL-NFL merger. The two leagues agreed to have their respective champions meet in a unifying professional football title game after the 1966 season, and would follow with a common draft beginning in 1967. Teams from both leagues were also free to schedule preseason exhibition matches against one another that same year. (History of New York Giants Place Kickers: Drop Kicks, Placements and the Sidewinder)

The Chasm

The Giants 1966 preseason was an unmitigated disaster. Frederickson strained knee ligaments in a scrimmage with Green Bay and sat out almost all of the remaining practice sessions. He returned for the final preseason contest, a 37-10 annihilation at the hands of the Packers, and was lost for the year when that same knee was severely reinjured.

The season opener, a 34-34 tie at Pittsburgh, was at the very least entertaining. The New York Times likened the proceedings of the turnover- and mistake-filled game as a skit by either Laurel and Hardy or Abbot and Costello. The dour Sherman was more succinct, “Sloppy.” Statistically, New York was terribly outplayed. The Steelers had the edge in first downs 25 to eight and rushing yards 138 to 32. Big plays kept the Giants close. Despite being under constant pressure, Morrall connected with Jones twice for touchdowns – one for 98 yards, a new club record, and the other for 75 yards.

There were no such silver linings the following week. The Giants traveled to Dallas and were so soundly beaten (52-7), that the New York media for the first time since Red Grange’s New York Yankees in 1926, began to turn their attention to another team – the New York Jets and their flamboyant young star Joe Namath. The Giants two biggest problems would haunt them the entire season: a weak offensive line that provided no pass protection, and porous defense that offered no resistance and couldn’t get off of the field.

Chuck Mercein (29), New York Giants (October 16, 1966)

Chuck Mercein (29), New York Giants (October 16, 1966)

The points allowed in succession following the Cowboy game were 35, 28, and 24 – all losses. For one game, somehow, the Giants defense plugged the leaks in a game against Washington. New York’s front seven played as if they were inspired by the presence of old friend Sam Huff, and held the Redskins to 179 total yards and nine first downs. Giants quarterback Gary Wood, who entered the game in the second quarter, was battered by the opposing pass rush and gave way to original starter Morrall early in the fourth quarter. Morrall led the Giants to 10 points and a 13-10 win.

That was the season’s highlight, as the following week the point parade marched on. A five-game span in November and December saw the Giants surrender a mind boggling 250 points, an aggregate higher than four teams yielded over their entire 14-game schedules! In two of those games New York scored at least 40 points and still lost. To put this perspective, the average points allowed for the NFL in 1966 was 301. The Giants surrendered 501, a record for a 14-game season. The 500-point plateau has only been passed twice since the 16-game schedule began in 1978: the 1981 Baltimore Colts and the 2008 Detroit Lions.

The entire 1966 campaign was best symbolized by the November 27 game at Washington, a 72-41 loss. Three records were set that still stand today: 113 total points scored, 16 total touchdowns, 72 points scored by one team in a regular season game. The record scoring cost Washington $315 in lost footballs. Thirteen of the 14 were lost on point-after attempts kicked into the stands and the other was thrown into the stands by an enthusiastic Redskin player after a touchdown. The embarrassment reached a ludicrous level when Huff called a time out with 0:07 left in the game and sent the field goal unit onto the field, despite Washington being comfortably ahead 69-41.

Huff remained unapologetic years later: “On the field before the game, Kyle Rote interviewed me for his pre-game radio show. ‘What do you think about the game?’ he asked. ‘We’ll score sixty,’ I said into the microphone for all my friends back in New York. As we were doing our calisthenics, (Head Coach) Otto (Graham) asked me what I thought. ‘Otto,’ I told him, ‘we’re gonna kill ‘em’. And Otto, I want to ask you one more thing: show no mercy. Show no mercy to that little son-of-a-bitch across the field, because this is our day.’”

Regarding the time out call, Huff said, “While Otto was talking to (quarterback) Sonny (Jurgensen), I took it upon myself to yell for the field goal team to get out there. After the game, Otto took a lot of heat for kicking the field goal and rubbing it in. But that wasn’t Otto’s decision, it was all mine. The 72 points we scored were for a lot of people: me, Mo, Livingston, Rosey, and all the old Giants. That was a day of judgment, and in my mind, justice was finally done.”

Giants fans seemed to begin to see things thought Huff’s eyes. The derisive “Good-bye Allie” sing-along (to the tune of “Good Night, Ladies”) began to echo through the Yankee Stadium. At the conclusion of the season’s final game, Sherman required a police escort to walk off of the field through angry mobs of fans.

The Trade

The move to assuage the fan base, as well as divert the city’s fascination with the ascending Jets, was as bold as it was costly. On March 7, 1967, the Giants dealt for Pro Bowl quarterback Fran Tarkenton.

In a football sense this made sense, as the fearless and mobile Tarkenton would be able to be productive behind New York’s weak line. However, the cost of their first and second round choices in the 1967 draft, first round pick in the 1968 draft and a player to be named later was exorbitant. This signaled the start of an era Wellington later termed “the patchwork system”, a repetitious cycle of get-better-now moves that eschewed long term growth and ultimately stability. The 1967 Giants were far from a win-now team that would become a contender with the addition of a single player, even if that player was a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback.

Wellington Mara confessed years later: “I didn’t want to have a loser while the Jets had a winner.”

For his part, Tarkenton did everything he was brought to New York to do. He gave the Giants instant credibility – on and off of the field – and stabilized the quarterback position, something that was desperately needed, as the majority of the roster seemed to be a revolving door over his tenure.

Schematically, the Giants became a diagonal offense, employing short routes and slants to get the ball out of Tarkenton’s hands quickly. He developed a certain chemistry with Homer Jones, who had his most productive years with Tarkenton. Jones set team records in 14-game seasons that stood for decades, even though his penchant for freelancing routes got on his quarterback’s and coaches’ nerves.

The 1967 and 1968 seasons were an even 14-14 for New York in the won-lost column. The difference between the 7-7 campaigns was the latter season had New York 7-3 with a chance for a trip to the post season in the realigned NFL. A four-game losing skid to close the schedule had the anti-Sherman throng at full throat again. Meanwhile, the Jets shocked the world at large with their victory over Baltimore in Super Bowl III.

The pressure on Sherman to turn the Giants around was unprecedented, as was the hype before the August 17, 1969 preseason game between the Giants and Jets at the Yale Bowl. Giants President Wellington Mara posed alongside his Jets counterpart Philip Iselin, each holding their respective team’s helmet, as if it were Super Bowl 3½. The New York Times featured a column speculating what the world would be like if Namath were a Giant, alongside an article expressing traffic concerns of the New Haven Police Department and providing contingency plans and alternate routes. Nobody in the world could be convinced this game didn’t count for something, if not everything.

Both teams were prepared and up for the game in front of a standing room only crowd of 70,874. However, once the game started, the mistake-prone Giants must have felt helpless under the wheels of a green steamroller. Namath and the Jets led 24-0 two minutes into the second quarter and cruised to a 37-14 victory that gave them the neighborhood “bragging rights.”

Despite the one-sided score and Giants frequent ineptitude, the game remained a gritty and spirited affair. The New York Times game summary stated: “Although the contest was in truth a mere preseason game, the coaches, Weeb Ewbank of the Jets and Al Sherman of the Giants, used their personnel as though a Super Bowl were at stake. Perspiring regulars on both sides stayed in action until late in the fourth period.”

New York Giants vs. New York Jets (1969 Preseason)

New York Giants vs. New York Jets (1969 Preseason)

Aside from botched kick returns, poor punts and turnovers, the Giants main culprit was again their ineffective defense. Namath enjoyed a pristine pocket to read through progressions and deliver strikes to open receivers. He finished the day 14-of-16 for 188 yards with three touchdowns and a clean jersey. The Giants were humbled and humiliated, and several of the Jets, including former Giant Don Maynard, said the win over the Giants was more gratifying than Super Bowl III. “The Super Bowl was one thing, but playing in the Yale Bowl before 70,000 people for an exhibition…that was another kind of Super Bowl,” said Maynard.

The dismal preseason began to take on the feel of a funeral procession as the dispirited Giants trudged along and accumulated losses. New York was 0-5 after dropping an awful 17-13 game to Pittsburgh in front of a sparse crowd in Montreal on September 22. Coupled with the 0-4 slide to close the 1968 season, the Giants had gone winless over their last nine contests. Wellington Mara’s sense of loyalty and patience had reached its limits.

The Change

The next day Sherman was fired. A sullen Mara said at the press conference, “Sometime between 2am and 6am I reached my decision. There was no straw, no camel’s back. We just weren’t winning enough football games. The sole reason for our existence is to please our fans. If we’re not pleasing our fans we’ve got to find out why.”

Sherman said, “I was a little surprised, but, heck, that’s football.”

The new coach was offensive assistant, and longtime star fullback, Alex Webster. While Sherman had five years remaining on his 10-year deal, Webster was given a two-year contract to run the team. He said, “I feel like I’m part of the family. We’ve got one of the best offensive teams in the league. We’re going to win some games.”

Mara also said there would be a new hire to work between himself and Webster. This person would focus on “evaluation, selection and procurement of players” and feature “a more distinct approach, a new outlook.” However, it would be several years before Wellington actually added this new director of football operations position.

Later Mara confided there was another candidate strongly in the running for the head coaching job “It was late in the preseason, and we didn’t have a wide choice to begin with. Somebody I would have considered very strongly was Andy Robustelli, but he was in Japan at the time and we just had to do it immediately.”

The former Giant great-turned successful businessman Robustelli years later said, “My biggest disappointment was not being made the head coach of the Giants when Sherman was fired. I was the right choice. I would have done the job.”

Behind the scenes, dissatisfaction and frustration were percolating. Wellington’s nephew Tim Mara, who had been passive with the franchise since his father Jack’s passing, began to feel the need to interject his influence. “From Allie’s later years on, I felt like I wanted to be more involved. And when we finally had to let Sherman go, I was one hundred percent for it. A change was really necessary.”

What Webster the coach lacked in organizational experience, he made up for with personal connections. Wellington said, “I thought the guy on our staff who could get the most out of the players, the guy they would most want to play for, was Alex. Alex had a great grasp of people and players and of offensive football. He was a fine offensive coach. The players knew what a great player he had been, too, and they respected him for that.”

Webster said years later, “Basically the team I took over was an average team. There were some players, but not enough. We had a few…they were offensive players, the defense was weaker. The hardest thing was taking over nine days before the season. I couldn’t put in anything of my own, I had to go along with Allie’s theories.”

Despite the sudden change and numerous challenges to overcome, the season opener at Yankee Stadium was as rousing as it was surprising. A thrilling come-from-behind win over the powerful Minnesota Vikings was highlighted by two late fourth quarter touchdown passes by Tarkenton, the second with 0:59 on the clock. The dark cloud that had hovered over the Giants since the previous November parted, and the jubilant players carried Webster off of the field on their shoulders. Yankee Stadium reverberated with cheers rather than boos and sarcastic sing-alongs.

The celebration was short lived, however. The Giants were whipped 24-0 in Detroit the following week. A seven-game losing streak in the middle of the season buried New York in a deep hole, but a three-game winning streak and a season ending win over rival Cleveland gave some hope going into the offseason.

Fred Dryer, New York Giants (December 21, 1969)

Fred Dryer, New York Giants (December 21, 1969)

Webster’s first move to mold the Giants in his image was obtaining a reliable running back. To that end he traded the prolific, yet inconsistent, receiver Homer Jones to Cleveland for halfback Ron Johnson, defensive tackle Jim Kanicki and linebacker Wayne Meylan. The idea was to have more balance on offense, and hold the ball to keep the defense off of the field. To assist Webster with game planning and scheming, former Giants tight end Joe Walton was promoted, and he coordinated the new passing attack and based the offense around the I-Formation.

The new-look 1970 team had an up-and-down preseason, but it included a win over the Jets (who were without an injured Namath). The Giants endured a disappointing 0-3 start to the regular season and inspired little optimism. But, before going down in flames, Webster’s team started to click. Johnson had the Giants first 100-yard rushing game in three years during a win against Philadelphia. The next week’s 16-0 win over the Boston Patriots was New York’s first shutout since 1961, and the following week Tarkenton became the first Giant to throw five touchdown passes in a game since YA Tittle in 1962. Finally, comparisons to the past were favorable. After evening their record at 3-3, the first regular season showdown with the Jets took place at Shea Stadium on November 1.

Some of the luster of the matchup was missing as Namath watched the game from the sidelines in street clothes, but the demand for tickets was so strong that the Jets management installed temporary seating to meet the demand.

The Shea Stadium record crowd of 63,903 witnessed a mostly non-descript game until a fist-fight erupted between Tarkenton and Jets linebacker Larry Grantham. The Jets led 10-3 in the third quarter and just halted a Giants drive when they stopped Tucker Frederickson on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. Tarkenton felt he had been hit after the whistle by Grantham, and the two ignited a skirmish between the teams. After order was restored, Jim Files tackled former Giants running back Chuck Mercein in the end zone for a safety. Now with momentum with the Giants, Tarkenton exacted some revenge by hitting Johnson down the sideline for a 50-yard gain and then Bob Tucker for a 9-yard touchdown. The two-play drive following the free kick gave the Giants a 12-10 lead.

Fran Tarkenton and Tucker Frederickson, New York Giants (November 1, 1970)

Fran Tarkenton and Tucker Frederickson, New York Giants (November 1, 1970)

Cornerback Willie Williams then intercepted Al Woodall’s first down pass after the kickoff and returned it to the Jets 29-yard line. Three plays later Tarkenton connected with wide receiver Clifton McNeil for an 11-yard touchdown and 19-10 advantage. The 16-pojnt eruption came with just 77 elapsing from the clock. The Giants added a field goal in the fourth quarter for the 22-10 final score. More importantly, the 4-3 Giants were in playoff contention.

Back-to-back come-from-behind wins at Yankee Stadium against division rivals Dallas and Washington set the Giants up for a meaningful December. The Giants had won nine of their last 10 games heading into the season finale against the Los Angeles Rams, and a win would earn their first division title and playoff berth since 1963. Their prospects looked good after Gogolak gave New York a 3-0 early in the first quarter but the game unraveled quickly after that. Los Angeles led 24-3 at the half, as they took advantage of numerous Giants miscues. New York lost five fumbles on the day and lost 31-3.

Regardless of that final game, the Giants had a lot to feel good about. The 9-5 record was their first winning mark since 1963, Johnson was the first 1,000 yard rusher in franchise history and Gogolak set a team scoring record with 107 points.

But New York soon discovered their success was fleeting. Distractions that made the action on the field seem secondary in importance were lurking just around the corner.

The Move

On March 25, 1971, to the surprise of all, The New York Times published an article stating the Giants had forged a verbal agreement with the state of New Jersey to explore future options of constructing a football-only stadium on the other side of the Hudson River.

Backlash came fast and hard. Editorials in all the area papers criticized the Giants for “abandoning” the city and accused the Maras as being “opportunists.” All of these emotionally based assaults ignored the fact that the Giants had indeed explored options construction in Uniondale and Yonkers, New York, and only after refurbishment requests to the city to upgrade the aging Yankee Stadium were refused.

The official announcement of the Giants partnership with the newly created New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority (NJSEA) came on August 26, and ended a summer of rumor and speculation.

Immediately following the announcement, New York Mayor John Lindsay attempted to evoke a clause in the Giants contract with the Yankees, after finally authorizing a $24 million upgrade to Yankee Stadium, to evict the Giants from the city limits. Lindsay also petitioned NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to bring an expansion franchise to New York and demanded the Giants drop “New York” from their name.

In a public statement, an irate Lindsay said, “In taking this action the Giant management crossed the line that distinguishes a sport from a business. I am today directing the Corporation Counsel to initiate proceedings to restrict the rights of the Giants to call themselves the name of the city they have chosen to leave.”

The expansion prospect proved unrealistic. The NFL established home markets as a 75-mile radius from the location of home game sites – regardless of political boarders. Any team staging a league contest within that radius would need the approval of both the Giants and Jets. This concept also played into the Giants keeping their identity with New York after moving the short distance to New Jersey.

At the press conference with New Jersey Governor William Cahill and NJSEA chairman Sonny Werblin (former owner of the AFL New York Titans), Wellington Mara cited the positive aspects of the new football-only stadium: more and better seating, easy access from the highway and more parking close to the stadium. The football Giants had been perennial tenants to the baseball Giants and Yankees since 1925, and they were ready for a state-of-the-art home of their own.

William Cahill, Wellington Mara, David Werblin; Meadowlands Announcement (October 27, 1971)

William Cahill, Wellington Mara, David Werblin; Meadowlands Announcement (October 27, 1971)

Wellington Mara said: “In going around the circuit, we felt other clubs were able to take a lot better care of their fans. We had a lot of obstructed view seats in Yankee Stadium. And we had a huge waiting list for tickets. We thought if we could get better locations for more people, it was something we were very interested in.”

No doubt, part of the vitriol public officials directed toward Mara and the Giants came from the sting still felt by the departure of the baseball Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957. The financially troubled city that was struggling to compete with other markets just learned they were losing their third professional team in 14 years. Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams curtly stated, “We made them a successful operation, now they want to leave. If they want to play in a swamp, let them play in a swamp right now.”

All of this commotion obscured the actual game of football for the next several years. In retrospect, that may have been a blessing in disguise. The surprise winning season of 1970 proved to be little more than a mirage, as the 1971 Giants crumbled on the field and were a discontented rabble off of it.

Johnson appeared in only two games while rehabbing a knee injury, and Tarkenton and defensive end Fred Dyer forced their way out of New York via trades after the season. A rift between Tarkenton and Mara over a financial disagreement caused the quarterback to go AWOL during the preseason, and apparently affected his performance during what would be his statistically poorest campaign. Dryer was simply fed up with what he considered a poorly-run operation, “I had to get out of that place while I had my sanity.”

The Giants rebounded to their second winning record in three seasons in 1972, as the healthy Johnson returned better than ever and had another 1,000-yard season. However, that too turned out to be another tease. While the 1966 embarrassment remains the single-season low point for the Giants, the 1973 and 1974 seasons are the worst back-to-back campaigns in franchise history. The combined 4-23-1 record bridged the Giants exodus from Yankee Stadium – where they started the 1973 season with a win and a tie – to the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut.

Ron Johnson, New York Giants (September 23, 1973)

Ron Johnson, New York Giants (September 23, 1973)

The Giants had explored many options for a location suitable for their temporary home games. These included Downing Stadium at Randall’s Island, Michie Stadium at West Point and Palmer Stadium at Princeton University, but all proved unsatisfactory for one reason or another. While the Yale Bowl lacked its own locker room facilities – the teams changed and showered at a field house approximately 200 yards away – the seating capacity accommodated just over 70,000 patrons.

The Giants residence at Yale featured two head coaches (Webster was released after the 1974 season), one victory (24-13 over the St. Louis Cardinals on November 18, 1973) and zero Pro Bowlers – the first time since that event’s inception in 1950 that no New York player was invited.

Linebacker Brian Kelley recalled, “My rookie year was ’73 and the first couple of games of the regular season we played in Yankee Stadium. From there, it started going downhill pretty quick. We went to the Yale Bowl. Not that it’s a bad place, but it was more like an away game, because we had to drive two-and-a-half hours from our practice fields to go to a home game.”

An Anguished Disorganization

The Giants – somewhat reluctantly and not without consternation – named Andy Robustelli as their first Director of Football Operations prior to the 1974 season.

Robustelli said of his hiring, “During the previous week Well and Tim had discussed what might be done to revive the team, and Tim suggested someone with a football background was needed to run that side of the organization. When Wellington and Jack ran the team, Well was the vice president, but in effect his duties were those of a director of football operations. When he succeeded Jack as president, Wellington thought he could continue to specialize in that area and allow Tim to take over the business side; as club president Well would continue to oversee as necessary. Those plans fell apart when everyone in the organization turned to Wellington to solve every problem.”

Wellington Mara said, “It became obvious to me that I had to step back, that I had to bring someone in to run the team. Because of the closeness and length of my association with all of the people on the staff, where I thought I was just giving an opinion, it was being taken as an instruction. It wasn’t meant to be that way.”

Tim Mara said, “I It became clear we needed a football man to run the team, a general manager. I suggested that and Well agreed with it…(Robustelli) was what I thought we needed…during that time I was still more or less dealing with the business aspect of the team.”

Robustelli said the most difficult aspect of integrating with the organization was the displacement of Wellington’s long-time friend Ray Walsh, who possessed the title of general manager. In Robustelli’s words: “In reality, he was the business manager. Unlike most general managers in professional sports, he did not deal with the players’ contracts, make trades or involve himself in any way with the football operation.” Walsh received a vice president title and continued to deal with non-football responsibilities.

Robustelli’s first major move was finding the Giants next head coach, and for the first time since 1930, a candidate from outside the Giants organization was chosen. Bill Arnsparger, the architect of the Miami Dolphins dominant defense, was a hot commodity following three consecutive Super Bowl appearances, including two victories. Arnsparger was renowned for both his tactical skills as well as his patience, a necessary trait for the massive rebuild that loomed.

Wellington Mara said, “Tim, Andy and I drew up lists (of the) men we thought should be considered as the new coach. Bill Arnsparger was at the head of all three lists.”

Once Arnsparger was on board, Robustelli got to work on a complete overhaul of the Giants organizational structure. This included everything from player personnel evaluation (which included the difficult removal of the current head of player evaluation – Jim Lee Howell), building modern training facilities (which led the forging of a partnership with Pace University in Pleasantville, New York) and right up to the division of responsibilities between the team’s two owners. Robustelli even had a hand in the Giants new look on the field, and radically changed their logo and uniforms in time for the 1975 season.

The Giants on-field fortunes were not unexpectedly familiar. The lingering effects of the back-to-back 2-11-1 and 2-12 seasons were at least temporarily assuaged after the removal of Lindsay from the mayor’s office. New Mayor Abe Beame allowed the Giants back into New York to play at Shea Stadium in 1975. Robustelli said, “Nothing ever compared to Yankee Stadium, but in 1975 any permanent move was at least a year away, and we needed an immediate psychological boost.”

Not surprisingly, under Arnsparger’s direction, New York’s defense began to show significant improvement. Players either acquired or developed under Arnsparger included: defensive end Jack Gregory, defensive tackle John Mendenhall, linebacker Brian Kelley, linebacker Brad Van Pelt, punter Dave Jennings, defensive end George Martin and linebacker Harry Carson.

Bill Arnsparger (1974)

Bill Arnsparger (1974)

Unfortunately, at the same time the once-potent offense began to falter. Finding a long-term replacement for Tarkenton proved to be both difficult and costly. Norm Snead, who came from Minnesota in the Tarkenton deal, had a strong 1972 season (where he set a franchise mark with a 60.3 completion percentage) but slumped badly in 1973 while struggling with knee troubles and weak pass protection. His seven touchdown passes to 22 interception ratio underscored the need for new blood.

The Giants number one draft choice in the 1975 draft was sent to Dallas for quarterback Craig Morton, who had battled on and off for years with Roger Staubach for the Cowboys starting position. Morton possessed all the necessary physical attributes required for the position, but lacked some of the intangibles the rebuilding Giants needed to reverse their fortunes.

“We needed Morton, we had to have a competent quarterback. Maybe we paid too much for him. We probably did. But there was no choice, not really, and I’d do it again,” Robustelli said years later. “I think Morton was the right guy but on the wrong team.”

Arnsparger echoed that assessment, “It was the feeling of everybody that we had to have a quarterback of (Morton’s) capability, and we had to spend an awful lot to get him. But we were trying to do something that had to be done, but I don’t know if our team was ready for him. We probably needed a different type of quarterback, because we weren’t good enough to play with Craig.”

Robustelli said, “Craig often needed a kick in the ass to get his attention and let him know he couldn’t call his own tune. Instead of being the positive influence I had sought, the opposite occurred. I take nothing away from Craig’s football abilities, but he was not the kind of leader we sought.”

At the same time, Robustelli began to have concerns with Arnsparger’s sometime passive approach in dealing with issues. He also sometimes thought the Giants were a soft team and undisciplined team. “Bill was very stubborn about many things and very fixed in his ways, often unwilling to change or even compromise. It was exasperating at times.”

The Giants record improved marginally to 5-9 in 1975. The next desperate move caused reverberations that initiated an irreparable rift in ownership.

New Home, Old Ways

Fullback Larry Csonka, former Super Bowl MVP and associate of Arnsparger in Miami, was a free agent following the demise of the World Football League (WFL). New York’s major overseers, the head coach, general manager and principal owner were all interested in adding him to the roster for both his muscle in the run game as well fostering some as instant credibility with a disenchanted fan base.

Typical of the Giants internal climate at the time, how the Csonka signing came about is a matter of whom you believe.

Tim Mara: “We had a meeting, the three of us, and went over the players that were available.” After reviewing what were believed to be unreasonable contract demands, “…we decided not to pursue it; it might have been the shortest meeting we ever had.”

Later that week, Tim Mara said that while attending a meeting with the NJSEA, Wellington called and informed him the Giants were close to signing Csonka. Tim was incredulous, believing the patchwork system of paying for today’s short-term fix later had to stop. He attested that Wellington assured him the deal would be called off.

“But then the next call I got was that we had signed him, and we were having a press conference that night,” Tim said.

Robustelli: “Wellington became more and more enthusiastic as the negotiations progressed…Tim Mara was another matter. He didn’t even involve himself in the negotiations despite my urgings. During the Csonka negotiations, he chose to be a ‘convenient’ owner – one who was visible in the good times but never around to help make the tough decisions or take his share of the flak when (things went) badly. I believe his non participation was strategic; he left himself in a perfect position to second-guess the move, which he frequently did.”

Robustelli also said this pattern repeated itself during the renegotiation of Brad Van Pelt’s contract and the signing of first round draft pick defensive end Gary Jeter.

As uncomfortable as things were in the front office, they may have been even worse on the field during the 1976 season.

Harry Carson recalled the climate of his first NFL training camp: “Coach Arnsparger indicated that all positions were up for grabs. He wanted players to compete and didn’t care who started as long as they could get the job done. Arnsparger really didn’t have a choice; he needed players willing to shake things up as he had experienced two prior seasons that only netted him seven wins against 21 losses. He knew his ass was on the hot seat and he was in jeopardy of losing his job if things didn’t get better fast.”

The Giants began the season with a four-game road trip. Despite outplaying the Redskins for 59 minutes, New York collapsed late and surrendered the deciding touchdown with 45 seconds left in the game for a tone-setting 19-17 loss. The games at Philadelphia, Los Angeles and St. Louis were never that close, and neither was the home opener. All the compliments following the 24-14 loss to Dallas were paid to the brand new, state-of-the-art football-only stadium. Nobody had anything good to say regarding the overmatched team on the field.

“It became a growing concern, that Andy was right, when the 1976 season started. The lack of success had gotten to the point that, not that he didn’t have the respect of the players, but he couldn’t command their attention,” Wellington Mara said. “The idea of changing in midstream was not appealing, but I felt that if we continued to go downhill, some of the good young players might have been lost beyond recall.”

After closing 1975 with three straight defeats, and opening the 1976 with seven more, it had been over 11 months since a Giants team had tasted a victory. The strain was becoming unbearable.

Carson said, “The team had not won one game, and it was frustrating to lose week in and week out. I could sense that the coaches were under pressure to win…The atmosphere between coaches and players, as well as between offense and defense, was getting more hostile than earlier in the season,”

The time for change came the Monday morning after a 27-0 loss to Pittsburgh.

Arnsparger said, “…when we lost our first seven games, I came in one morning and Andy told me it was over.

Starting Over…Again

John McVay, who had head coaching experience in the WFL and had been brought to the staff as an insurance policy as a coach-in-waiting by Robustelli, was quickly promoted as head coach on an interim basis.

McVay recalled the moment: “(Robustelli) looked at me and said: ‘Bill’s leaving, and you’re it.’ Just like that. They never told me anything beforehand, never asked me if I’d take the job. I mean, they fired Bill and they decided I’d be the coach…It was the most painful, dire circumstance in which you can be cast into the job of head coach. There has been no time to anticipate it, to prepare for it, to even think about it. The shock and surprise are, well, indescribable.”

Following two more losses, McVay’s first win, a 12-9 win over Washington, was a milestone on several levels. It ended an 11-game losing streak to their division rival, marked their first win at Giants Stadium, and ended the franchise record nine-game losing streak.

Wellington Mara, Giants Stadium (1976)

Wellington Mara, Giants Stadium (1976)

Carson said, “With that first victory, you could feel the weight being lifted off our backs and especially off the shoulders of the coaches. With a win, people start to smile and feel better about themselves.”

The Giants finished the season winning three of their last five games. McVay received a new two-year contract to coach the Giants, though not necessarily on a permanent basis. McVay was seen as someone who would ascend to management and run the Giants football operations when Robustelli, who was growing weary of being caught between the bickering Maras, ultimately left to return to his private businesses.

Once again, the paramount offseason need was a new quarterback. This time around however, character was deemed the higher priority above physical ability. The Giants looked north of the border to find their man, Joe Pisarcik, a three-year veteran of the CFL.

Robustelli said, “Pisarcik was a very methodical, strong-armed quarterback who was never going to be exceptional, but he was tough and he’d fight right to the end of the game. I liked him right from the start because I thought he was the right kind of player for our situation – someone who was could hang tough and absorb some of the pounding while we bought time, upgraded other positions and got ourselves the star quarterback of the future.”

The 1977 Giants had a roster that had been largely turned over since the 1974 season. One of the pre-Robustelli players, tight end Bob Tucker, forced a trade in the middle of the season by acting out as a malcontent. His frustration was understandable – most of the promising talent on the team was on the defensive side of the ball, and the offensive line was a perpetual ongoing project. Ageless veteran offensive lineman Doug Van Horn was still reliable, but the pieces around him always seemed to be shuffling as draft picks and free agents came and went. The 5-9 season marked the fifth-consecutive sub-0.500 record for New York, but things did seem to be stabilizing. For the first time anyone could remember, there was hope heading into the offseason.

We’ve Had Enough

The 1978 Giants were 5-3 at the halfway point of the NFL’s first 16-game season. Granted, most of the wins came against the lower half of the league echelon – two of the losses came at the hands of the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. A three-game road trip turned into a three-game skid. Yet, the Giants still in remained in position for wild card contention at 5-6. A home victory against Philadelphia would tie the division rivals for second place.

For just over 59 minutes, that seemed to be a near certainty.

The Giants Stadium sensed all was right, to the point where many began leaving their seats to beat the traffic.

The Giants defense had just turned the ball over to the offense after stopping Philadelphia on fourth down just inside the New York 30-yard line.

Then everything began to go wrong.

On first down, Pisarcik fell on the ball for a three-yard loss, but Philadelphia linebacker Frank LeMaster blitzed and hit Pisarcik while he was lying on the ground, breaking the normal protocol on such a play. The officials stopped the clock to separate the two teams as members of the Giants, who were angered by what they believed was unnecessary roughness, defended their quarterback. Giants center Jim Clack said, “Usually, when the quarterback is just going to fall on the ball, we tell the other team to take it easy and not bury him.”

The Giants ran the ball on second down, ostensibly to protect Pisarcik from an over-aggressive defense. New York players in the huddle disagreed with the call, and told him to just fall on the ball. Pisarcik though, ran the play from the coaches as directed, and Csonka ran behind left guard for an 11-yard gain, setting up a 3rd and two. Philadelphia used their third and final time out. All that was required for New York to secure the victory was run one more play, keep the ball in bounds, and allow the remaining time to expire.

What could possibly go wrong?

The same run play was called. The results changed the fortunes of the Giants forever.

The fateful play was run with 0:31 on the clock from their own 29-yard line.

The snap from center was slightly off, Pisarcik said it was high and hit his right forearm. Unable to handle the ball cleanly, Pisarcik never had firm control as he pivoted to hand-off to Csonka, who was charging toward the hole full-speed. The mistimed exchange caused the ball to hit Csonka’s right hip and bounce away on the hard artificial surface. Eagles safety Herman Edwards scooped up the loose ball after its second bounce and sprinted across the goal line with 20 seconds left on the clock for the game-winning score.

McVay explained the controversial play call after the game, “We didn’t want to get the clock stopped by them faking an injury. Our thought was to get the first down and not have to worry about it.”

Offensive coordinator Bob Gibson said, “It was a safe play. We’ve used that play 500 times this season. It was safe. Csonka never fumbles.”

Others who were there recall the moment vividly.

Jim Clack: “Never in my life have I seen anything like it. It’d make a good movie. We’d write a good book on how to lose.”

Pisarcik: “I should’ve fallen on it. That’s what I should have done. But my job is to call the play that comes in. I don’t really have the freedom to change a play just because I don’t like it.”

Doug Van Horn: “But damn, we beat that team yesterday. Physically we beat ‘em up, only to lose in a horrible, horrible way.”

Harry Carson: “I was stunned, just like everyone else in the stadium. At the conclusion of the game I could not move. I sat on the bench for another 15 minutes staring at the ground.”

Andy Robustelli: “Using the clock in the final minutes of a game is a delicate art, even when your team has the ball and your opponents have no time outs. Plays must be called that use a maximum of time with a minimum of risk.

“However, the play that required Pisarcik to make a reverse spin – that is, he took the ball and spun in the opposite direction from where Csonka was running before wheeling around and placing the ball in his hands. I cringed when I saw that reverse pivot. I would have accepted even a simple handoff with its smaller margin of error, particularly with a back like Csonka who had done it thousands of times in his career.

“I was stunned to the point where I didn’t want to believe that the impossible had actually happened.”

New York’s post-game locker room was frenetic. The press badgered players for an explanation, but most wanted the same answers themselves. Many were too shocked to respond, others lashed out in anger. Pisarcik was coaxed out from the solitude of the trainer’s room by Robustelli and into the fray.

The next morning the decision was made by Robustelli and Wellington Mara to fire Gibson, the man responsible for the call. McVay defended his coach and offered to resign himself.

McVay was retained but fired shortly after the season’s conclusion as the Giants lost three of their four remaining games. The 6-10 record was their sixth consecutive losing season, and the fourth within that streak with losses tallying in the double digits.

Robustelli, as planned, officially resigned early in the 1979 offseason, allowing ownership to initiate their quest for a new successor. Many of the plans Robustelli had made in modernizing and restructuring the Giants organization were underway and beginning to bear fruits, especially the overhauled player development department. But he was unable to overcome the uneasiness and lack of trust between the two feuding owners who had been on non-speaking terms for nearly a full year.

The pathos became overwhelming during the Giants final two home games.

Prior to the game against the Los Angeles Rams on December 3, approximately 100 fans held an organized burning of their normally prized season tickets in a trash barrel on the sidewalk adjacent to the stadium. Their protest was, “in memory of Giant teams of the past,” fan Ron Livingston was quoted as saying in the next day’s New York Times.

Wellington Mara said, “You never like to know that what you’re trying to sell is not what they want to buy. And that’s what it means to me. You listen and you read your mail.”

The following week, during the game against the St. Louis Cardinals on December 10, another fan made sure Wellington got the message loud and clear.

Leaflets were passed out in the parking lot to tailgaters that alerted them to look skyward during the first half of the game. If they agreed with the messaged, they were encouraged to stand and cheer.

Indeed, probably the loudest ovation in the first three years of Giants Stadium occurred when the single engine plane towing the sign that read “15 YEARS OF LOUSY FOOTBALL…WE’VE HAD ENOUGH” slowly and agonizingly circled the stadium. The majority of the 52,226 fans in attendance (there were over 24,000 no-shows) not only stood and applauded, they spontaneously erupted in a thunderous chant of “We’ve had enough…We’ve had enough…” for several minutes.

After the game, the Giants humiliated principal owner Wellington Mara said he was aware of the plane, but did not actually see it, and uncharacteristically declined to comment further.

The Giants looked ahead in need of the three vital components of any successful football program: a general manager, a head coach and a quarterback. The strain they were now under would make the next two months feel like another 15 years.

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Sources:

“A Pedantic Professor Who Likes To Buck Long Odds”
Tex Maule, Sep. 7, 1964, Sports Illustrated

“The Giants Grow Up”
Mark Mulvoy, Dec. 4, 1967, Sports Illustrated

7 Days To Sunday: Crisis Week with the New York Football Giants
Eliot Asinoff, 1968, Ace Books

New York Football Giants 1971 Press, Radio and Television Guide
New York Football Giants, Inc., 1971

“Scramble Back to the Deep Purple”
Tex Maul, Feb. 7 1972, Sports Illustrated

New York Football Giants 1972 Press, Radio and Television Guide
New York Football Giants, Inc., 1973

“It’s Just One Man’s Family”
Robert H. Boyle, Sep. 25, 1972, Sports Illustrated

New York Football Giants 1973 Press, Radio and Television Guide
New York Football Giants, Inc., 1973

New York Football Giants 1974 Press, Radio and Television Guide
New York Football Giants, Inc., 1974

New York Giants 1975 Media Guide
New York Football Giants, Inc., 1975

New York Giants 1976 Media Guide
New York Football Giants, Inc., 1976

New York Giants 1977 Media Guide
New York Football Giants, Inc., 1977

New York Giants 1978 Media Guide
New York Football Giants, Inc., 1978

The Encyclopedia Of Football – 16th Revised Edition
Roger Treat, Suzanne Treat, Pete Palmer; 1979; A. S. Barnes & Co.

Giants Again!
Dave Klein, 1982, Signet

“Up, Down And Up Again”
Ron Fimrite, Jan. 26, 1987, Sports Illustrated

Illustrated History of the New York Giants: From The Polo Grounds To Super Bowl XXI
Richard Whittingham, 1987, Harper Collins

Once A Giant, Always…
Andy Robustelli with Jack Clary, 1987, Quinlan Press

Tuff Stuff
Sam Huff, 1988, St. Martins Press

The Pro Football Chronicle
Dan Daly & Bob O’Donnell, 1990, Collier Books

No Medals for Trying: A Week in the Life of a Pro Football Team
Jerry Izenberg, 1990, MacMillan Pub Company

The Whole Ten Yards
Frank Gifford with Harry Waters, 1993, Giff & Golda Productions

“William T. Cahill: Bringing Professional Football to New Jersey”
Michael Eisen, Gameday, Sept.29, 1996, New York Football Giants, Inc.

Wellington: The Maras, the Giants, and the City of New York
Carlo DeVito,  2006, Triumph Books

Nothing Comes Easy: My Life in Football
Y.A. Tittle, 2009, Triumph Books

Captain For Life
Harry Carson, 2011,  St. Martins Press

2015 New York Football Giants Information Guide
Micheal Eisen, Dandre Phillips, Corey Rush; 2015; New York Football Giants, Inc.

Official 2015 NFL Record & Fact Book
2015, NFL Communications Department

Historical New York Times searchable archive (via ProQuest)

Pro Football Reference
New York Giants Franchise Encyclopedia

May 302015
 
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Frank Gifford (16), Ray Beck (61), Charley Conerly (42), Alex Webster (29), 1956 New York Giants

Frank Gifford (16), Ray Beck (61), Charley Conerly (42), Alex Webster (29), 1956 New York Giants

By Larry Schmitt with contributions from Daniel Franck and Dr. Bruce Gilbert

The 1956 season was a watershed moment for football in New York. Filled with potent portent, the campaign proved to be the penultimate piece of the puzzle for the ultimate explosion of pro football’s popularity with the general public, the event horizon for which was crossed on December 28, 1956 when the Giants met the Bears for the NFL Championship. Almost three-and-a-half decades of groundwork created the proper conditions for the spontaneous and unpredictable happenings that captivated an audience and spawned the new national pastime – Football Sunday. Legions of fans would congregate for tailgate parties at their local stadiums or have the game of their favorite team broadcast right into their living room. Then fans would reconvene at Monday-morning quarterback meetings at their watercoolers on Monday.

The first step was short in distance but profound in stature. NFL Commissioner Bert Bell received an inquiry from a Texas-based oil syndicate about the availability of the league’s New York franchise. The Mara family would later suspect the offer came from Murchison brothers, who would one day start the Dallas Cowboy franchise. Bell notified Giants owner Tim Mara that a $1,000,000 offer had been made, contingent on the home games being staged at Yankee Stadium, rather than the Polo Grounds. Mara declined, but figured if his team was worth that much at Yankee Stadium that the team should make the short trip across the Harlem River to the larger and more prestigious venue.

Yankee Stadium and Polo Grounds (circa 1954-57)

Yankee Stadium and Polo Grounds (circa 1954-57)

The once venerable Polo Grounds, the Giants home for their first 31 seasons, had suffered from a lack of upkeep and was gradually falling into a state of disrepair. Although Mara’s team rarely enjoyed sellout crowds, the growth potential was also attractive. The Polo Grounds standard seating capacity was 55,000 while Yankee Stadium was just over 62,000. [These figures are for the standard baseball configurations. Both stadiums were often equipped with temporary seating along the sidelines for football games which increased ticket availability.]

The Polo Grounds had been the only home field the Giants had known to that point. The Giants had a tremendous run during their residence at the Polo Grounds, including an overall regular season record of 132-62-11 – which included one game in 1949 as the visiting team against the New York Bulldogs. They had won eight Eastern Division titles, hosted five post-season games and won two of their three NFL Championships there in 1934 and 1938. Although there was no post-season in 1927, the Giants won the pivotal game for the championship against the Chicago Bears 13-7 on November 27 at the Polo Grounds as well.

The announcement to move to Yankee Stadium was made on January 26 and was attended by Bell and Yankees General manager George M. Weiss. Bell emphasized the league’s need for stability of a franchise in New York as the Giants signed a 20-year lease. The future of the Polo Grounds was very uncertain; current speculation had the baseball Giants possibly moving to Minneapolis by 1962 when their lease expired. Charles Feeney, president of the baseball Giants, was also in attendance and said, “We had a long and pleasant association with the Football Giants; we are sorry that they’ve left the Polo Grounds but we wish them nothing but luck in the future.”

Wellington Mara, George Weiss, Jack Mara, and Bert Bell (January 27, 1956)

Wellington Mara, George Weiss, Jack Mara, and Bert Bell (January 27, 1956)

The Football Giants move to Yankee Stadium monumentally altered the perception of the team. While Owner Tim Mara emphasized that the team name would remain the Giants with the change in venue, the Giants went so far as to incorporate the structure into their official team logo. The quarterback who had towered among Manhattan’s skyscrapers since the mid 1930’s was now set inside Yankee Stadium. However, the Football Giants remained secondary in the consciousness of the metropolis’ citizenery until the close of baseball season in mid-October.

New York Giants early logos.

That is with good reason, as the Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers and baseball Giants had won every World Series since 1948. In fact, five of those seven were “Subway Series” featuring the Yankees against either the Giants or Dodgers. The 1956 season would make it six of eight as the Yankees played the Dodgers again. While the Football Giants toiled in the shadow of baseball, pro football as a whole had made significant progress not only in closing the gap with college football in terms of popularity, in many markets (New York included) the professional game had already eclipsed it.

Exponential Exposure

While the NFL had made organizational and legislative changes to make the pro game more appealing to fans, there is no debate that the single biggest reason for the proliferation of pro football as the sport that dominates America’s landscape is the advent of television.

Radio was the first medium to extend pro football to the masses in the 1930’s. The first nationally-broadcast game via radio was the Thanksgiving Day contest between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions in 1934. The first television broadcast was between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Eagles from Ebbets Field on October 22, 1939. The telecast was only available in New York and Schenectady. The 1940 Championship Game between the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins was the first title game nationally broadcast via radio.

Teams were left to their discretion with televising their games with their local television affiliates, and ultimately this would lead to a tremendous revenue inequality. But in the early days there were few televisions available and the medium was still very much experimental. Nobody at the time conceived the magnitude of its underlying potential. Most teams chose to broadcast their away games, but there were some exceptions. In 1946, the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams and the Chicago Bears each televised a handful of selected home games, while the Giants televised their entire home schedule (to approximately 8,000 TV sets), and their attendance at the Polo Grounds increased 18% over the prior year.

In 1948, Bell negotiated the first league-wide television contract, which was for select regular-season games and the NFL Championship Game. Television money now became an essential source of income for all teams. The 1948 Championship Game between Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago Cardinals was the first televised championship, although it was limited to the two team’s local markets. In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams became the first NFL team to televise all of its games – home and away. The unforeseen consequence of home attendance dropping was then first realized as there were significantly more television households in America. The NFL adopted the blackout rule in 1951 – no NFL games were broadcast to a market where an NFL game was being played on that same day. Bell reasoned, “You can’t give fans a game for free on TV and also expect them to pay to go to the ballpark.”

The 1951 season also saw the first coast-to-coast telecast of the NFL Championship Game, between the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams, by the Dumont Network. From 1950 through 1953, both ABC and Dumont broadcast weekly pro football highlight programs nationally. Most teams began programming their own weekly shows locally as a supplement to their games on Sunday. Chris Schenkel was the Giants play-by-play announcer for games, a role he would hold for over a decade. Steve Owen hosted the Giants first coaches’ show in New York, and became the franchise’s first familiar face.

During this time, it was noted that the attendance for college football and major league baseball was experiencing a state of decline, but pro football’s attendance was steadily ascending. The stability and prosperity sought by professional football’s founding fathers three decades earlier was now finally materializing. For the first time, public demand was coming to the NFL. The response from the league was the first prime-time, live sporting event series. Every Saturday night from 1953 through 1955 an NFL game was broadcast across America. Some college purists protested that the NFL was hurting their game, but Bell’s retort told how the tide had turned for good, “We’ve got no quarrel with the colleges. Our Saturday night and Sunday games don’t hurt their gate as much as they claim. We have their best interest at heart. They’re our farm system.”

In 1955, NBC purchased the rights to broadcast the NFL Championship Game and would keep it through the rest of the decade. In 1956 after DuMont went broke, CBS entered into a contract and became the first network to televise NFL games to selected television markets across the nation, as long as they did not conflict with the home team. The first nationally-televised Thanksgiving Day game took place between Green Bay and Detroit Lions that season. This tremendous increase in exposure not only introduced the NFL to a larger fan base, it gave the league a significant boost in stature. The most significant change was the cash brought in by the CBS contract. The prosperity seemed irresistible as stadium attendance continued to climb.

Gate receipts increased and sellouts became more common as community support became more robust. Pro football attendance increased to over 70% during the 1950’s. The average gate of 23,356 in 1950 grew to 43,356 in 1959, which represented 90% of the league’s capacity. Having surpassed college football, pro football was narrowing the gap on major league baseball as well. While legal issues on how the new television medium would be utilized were a behind-the-scenes distraction for several years, the problems would be worked out in the next decade.

The biggest leap in attendance occurred between 1956, with an average attendance of 35,356, and 1957, with 39,393. This was undoubtedly helped by the Giants successful season in a larger stadium. TV had an impact too. Head Coach Jim Lee Howell, who had been with New York as a player and coach since 1937, said, “We had a great game all the time, but it wasn’t exposed to many people outside of the cities where we played. Television has helped, it has made more people aware of the game.”

Final Touches and Finishing Business

The Giants had progressed each of the past two seasons under the new regime of Howell and his two brilliant assistant coaches, Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi, and a bolstered roster after a dreadful collapse in 1953. Lombardi brought toughness and precision to the Giants offense while Landry infused ingenuity and innovation to the defense. Each brought a different style to coaching. Lombardi would pound a blackboard with his fist in frustration to make his point, while Landry would simply, coldly stare down the object of his dissatisfaction without raising his voice or gesturing with his arms.

Following a disappointing start in 1955, the teaching and drilling finally delivered returns during an impressive 5-1-1 run to finish the year. The loss and tie were to the league champion Browns, and the final win of the season was against the Western Conference champion Lions in Detroit, a team the Giants had always struggled against.

Despite the upturn in fortunes and the retirement of nemesis Otto Graham from Cleveland, most prognosticators were lukewarm about the prospects for the 1956 New York Giants. New York had gone nine seasons without an appearance in the championship game, their longest stretch since the league had split into divisions in 1933. Perhaps the only people optimistic about ending the championship drought were the Giants players and coaches themselves.

Training camp was a long and grueling affair for the 53 players who reported to compete for the 33 roster spots. Eight full weeks of training and conditioning at a high school field in Winooski, Vermont, that was interspersed with six dates traveling the country to play pre-season contests at neutral sights. The NFL was exploring new ground for potential expansion while also bringing games to fans who had only begun watching on television. Five of the Giants six game were played in non-NFL cities and they stretched coast-to-coast from Boston to Seattle and Portland, Oregon and south to Dallas and Memphis.

New York Giants - Baltimore Colts Game Program (August 20, 1956)

New York Giants – Baltimore Colts Game Program (August 20, 1956)

On offense, Lombardi honed his version of the T-Formation sweep. The Giants had a rugged and battle-tested offensive line, led by All-Pro Roosevelt Brown at left tackle, that emphasized athletic ability and coordination. New York’s philosophy was ball control and their bread-and-butter plays were 47 Power, which featured right halfback Frank Gifford, and 26 Power, which featured left halfback Alex Webster. They were essentially the same play directed to opposite sides of the line. On occasion, fullback Mel Triplett plunged straight into the line.

Vince Lombardi and Frank Gifford, New York Giants (1956)

Vince Lombardi and Frank Gifford (1956)

Offensive assistant Ed Kolman said, “We are playing the percentages in attempting to get modest but consistent gains on each run. If we gain three or four yards a play, we control the ball. And when we are controlling the ball, the other side can’t very well score.” Howell said, “It was almost like the old Single Wing days. What a difference it made in the Giants that year.”

Underscoring the Giants being a run-first team, they employed a unique two-quarterback system where Don Heinrich started the games and veteran Charlie Conerly came off the bench at some undetermined point depending on the ebb and flow of that particular game. Despite being the de facto backup quarterback, teammates and coaches held Conerly in the highest esteem. Gifford said, “I’ve never met a quarterback with less of an ego. Charlie called all his own plays and was the kind of quarterback who wanted information brought back to the huddle. He knew that no quarterback could see everything going on downfield. He respected his guys and made each of them part of the play-calling process.”

Sam Huff said, “Conerly was never a great pure passer, but he was a precise, control-type quarterback, methodical with a great feel for the game. He was a quiet guy too, and he was definitely a leader on that team. But he led out on the field, not with his mouth, and he was the toughest old bird you’ll ever see.” Howell said, “Charlie Conerly was our great quarterback, our meal ticket all the way through. He was a great competitor and admired by his teammates.”

When the ball was in the air, the primary targets were end Ken McAfee and flanker Kyle Rote, who were backed up by former starter Bob Schnelker. Occasionally the passes came from the arm of Gifford, who was deadly with the option pass. Gifford spent time under center during camp. According to Coach Howell, “He’s practicing strictly for experience. He does too much at halfback to change now.” Exhibiting his seemingly unbounded ability, Gifford also started the season as the Giants place kicker on field goals and point-afters. Strong-legged rookie punter Don Chandler handled the kickoff duties.

Nevertheless, with a blend of young talent and veteran leadership, the defense was New York’s dominant platoon. Strong defense had been the hallmark of the great Giants teams ever since Steve Owen took over as head coach in 1931. Landry, having played as an All Pro and coached under Owen, proved to be as least as innovative as his mentor, if not more so.

There still were different perceptions regarding offense versus defense in the NFL. The players who put points on the scoreboard were the well-paid desired commodities. The papers printed the names of the offensive starters only, even though the two-way 60-minute player was a diminishing breed. The Giants rosters typically were composed of two-thirds offensive players, with one-third devoted to defense. Most of the top draft choices, Travis Tidwell in 1950, Rote in 1951, Gifford in 1952, Joe Heap in 1955, and Henry Moore in 1956 were devoted to the offense. When Lombardi became the offensive coach he had other offensive assistants, Landry when he retired and became a full-time coach in 1956 was a defensive army of one in the locker room. And within that locker room the offense had the bigger meeting area while the defense met in the small, desolate and dank regions of the stadium.

What Landry had at his disposal were ways to effectuate change. To his players he used the disrespect to breed a collective sense of pride and purpose to be unleashed against the pampered and proper glamor boys of the offense. He also used the respect Wellington Mara had for him as well as the deference Jim Lee Howell gave him as permission to bring in a group of defensive players with the intellect and instincts for the game that Landry demanded.

Look at the moves the Giants made in the 1955-1956 offseason. Of the ten new players who made the Giants final roster, most were on defense. The middle rounds of the draft brought in Sam Huff, who had played offensive guard in college but was converted to linebacker, and defensive end Jim Katcavage who also played offensive end at Dayton. Both would be significant contributors to the “Coordinated” 4-3 defense Landry had been refining over the prior two seasons.

The predominant defense in the early and mid-1950’s was the 5-2 alignment. There were several variations, with the most popular being the Eagle Defense, popularized by Earle “Greasy” Neal in Philadelphia in the late 1940’s, and Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma Defense. The defining characteristics of the two were the deployment of the linebackers. What they had in common were the middle guard (today known as the nose tackle) being nose-to-nose with the offensive center and the defensive ends lined up outside the offensive tackle and tight end. The Eagle Defense set the linebackers in the gaps between the defensive tackles and ends, which put tremendous pressure on the interior of the offensive line. The Oklahoma defense moved the defensive tackles out a gap and had the linebackers flanking the middle guard. Landry’s Coordinated Defense took the best parts of both of these and assimilated it into a 4-3 front with the backfield concepts of Owen’s Umbrella Defense (essentially what is today known as a Cover 2).

52 eagle oklahoma defenses

What really set New York apart from the competition was Landry’s obsessive analysis of opponent’s tendencies – “frequencies” as he termed it – regarding personal, formation, field position and down and distance. Every man on the Giants defense had a gap or zone responsibility that needed to be honored for the scheme to work. The days of whip-the-man-in-front-of-you-and-chase-the-ball were over.

The key position was what Landry called “the quarterback of the defense” or middle linebacker. The role required someone tough enough to handle the pounding of charging fullbacks and halfbacks on running plays, athletic enough to cover the middle zone and outside flats on passing plays, and intelligent enough to call the defense in the huddle, read the offense’s pre-snap keys, diagnose its intentions and call a shift or audible to get his unit in the proper position to defend.

Landry’s man was Huff, who spent time during a frustrating training camp playing on both lines. During the preseason he was moved permanently to the defensive platoon, and while regularly playing tackle, he occasionally received a few snaps at middle linebacker in relief of starter Ray Beck who struggled with an ankle injury.

Huff said of Landry and his concepts years later: “It was really simple when you think about it. We’d have the ‘Inside 4-3’, where the defensive tackle would shut off the middle and the linebackers would pursue to the outside, or we’d go to the ‘Outside 4-3’, where the tackle would angle outside and I would come up the middle and make a play in there, or catch the play from behind. All the years we played, that’s all I ever did. We got so good at it, it became almost second nature to everyone on the unit. That first year, Landry called the signals.”

43 inside outside defenses

Some of the teams that played the 5-2 defense would occasionally call on an athletic middle guard, such as Cleveland’s Bill Willis and Chicago’s Bill George, to line up in a two-point stance and drop into coverage after the snap. Landry’s 4-3 defense had Huff lined up at true linebacker depth, approximately three yards off of the line of scrimmage, where he could read the offensive backfield and determine where the play would most likely be going.

“Landry was one of the first people to set up his defenses against the strength of the formation,” Huff said. “Every offensive formation has its strength and weakness, and every defense has its strengths and weaknesses. So Tom would meticulously set up the defense to play against the strength of the offense. We would always line up in a 4-3 and give the offensive team the same look, but once the ball was snapped we had all kinds of looks, depending on what we keyed on. Before Landry, teams would line up in that 4-3 and just go after the ball. But Tom would tell us to watch for the way the backs lined up, to watch what side of the field the tight end and flanker were lined up on. Those were the keys to what the offense would do. So we would roll our zone defense to the strength of the formation and react accordingly when the ball was snapped. It really was a very simple concept, and when you watched it on film, it was a thing of beauty. Landry was a genius then and now.”

While Huff received the accolades, he did not do it alone. Three of the four members of the defensive line that kept Huff free to make plays were new to the Giants that summer. Defensive tackle Rosey Grier, who joined the Giants in 1955 along with safety Jimmy Patton, was the lone holdover. Powerful and athletic, Grier was capable of domination when motivated, but struggled with conditioning and was prone to freelancing. Rangy defensive end Jim Katcavage would develop into a pass rushing force, but began the year behind starter Walt Yowarski, and saw significant action at multiple positions as the season wore on. Fourth-year defensive tackle Dick Modzelewski was traded for from Pittsburgh where he had been a disappointment who clashed with his coaches. However, as someone who understood the Landry way of defense, he moved into the starting lineup immediately. He was a strong and dependable player who kept opposing linemen off of Huff. Sixth-year defensive end Andy Robustelli was received in a trade from Los Angeles for a first-round draft choice. He was now happy to be closer to his pregnant wife and three children. Robustelli would move into the starting lineup and remain there, not missing a game until his retirement after the 1964 season. Robustelli was a versatile two-way end and intelligent. He became the defensive leader, and was a clutch player capable of big performances in pressure situations.

1956 New York Giants

1956 New York Giants

The secondary was manned by Ed Hughes and Dick Nolan at the defensive halfback positions and Emlen Tunnell and Jimmy Patton as the safeties. A punishing tackler who possessed uncanny ball skills, Tunnell was already regarded as possibly the greatest safety and kick returner ever to play the game. Along with Conerly, Tunnell was the senior veteran in his ninth season with New York. Patton was fast and just coming into his own in his second season, and would share kick and punt return duties with Tunnell. Hughes, acquired from Los Angeles for a fourth-round pick, and Nolan selected in the fourth round out of Maryland in 1954, were both intelligent players whose intuition as to where a play was going would overcome a lack of foot speed. Their grasp of the game would translate into head coaching careers after their retirements.

The Long and Winding Road

The Giants six away-game preseason was followed up by a three-game road trip to open the regular campaign. Despite moving to a new home field an old problem followed the Football Giants. Yankee Stadium, like the Polo Grounds, was unavailable until baseball season had concluded. In their 31st season of play, the Football Giants had never opened a season at home, and normally played the first three to four weeks of each season away. Combined with camp opening in the middle of July, this meant the most of the players and coaches would be away from home two and a half months.

New York dealt the San Francisco 49ers their first season-opening loss in franchise history during a convincing 38-21 win at Kezar Stadium in front of 41,751 fans. The Giants struck early and often, scoring on their first three possessions: a 44-yard catch-and-run by Webster from Heinrich, a 59-yard rush by Gifford and a 17-yard placement by Gifford. The teams traded touchdowns in each of the remaining three quarters, with Triplett going over on plunges each time for New York. While the Giants defense surrendered 27 first downs and nearly 400 total yards in the 49ers come from behind effort, they were opportunistic, intercepting three Y.A. Tittle passes and recovering a fumble.

Dick Nolan (25), Jimmy Patton (20), Hugh McElhenney (39); New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers (September 30, 1956)

Dick Nolan (25), Jimmy Patton (20), Hugh McElhenney (39); New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers (September 30, 1956)

New York’s defense struggled the following week in front of 21,799 fans at Comiskey Park against the Chicago Cardinals. Halfback Ollie Matson had a big day rushing from the Wing-T formation and quarterback Lamar McHan completed five of seven passes for an impressive 136 yards. Harland Svare moved from this natural weak side linebacker position to middle linebacker for the injured Beck. The Giants led 13-7 but on the last play of the first half Dick “Night Trane” Lane stepped in front of Webster on a pass from Conerly in the flat and returned it 66 yards for a 14-13 lead and Chicago never looked back. Triplett had another three-touchdown game but it wasn’t enough as New York came up short in a 35-27 decision. Pat Summerall was five-for-five on point-after conversions for the Cardinals.

New York Giants at Chicago Cardinals Game Program (October 7, 1956)

New York Giants at Chicago Cardinals Game Program (October 7, 1956)

Notable was Chicago’s use of transistor radios to relay strategic observations from the press box to the field. One adjustment call by assistant coach Charlie Trippi in the third quarter led to a blocked Chandler punt that set up a Cardinal touchdown. The Giants defense again gave up big yardage, 356 total, but had six takeaways with four fumble recoveries and two interceptions.

The following week the Giants upset the Browns in Cleveland 21-9 in front of 60,042 fans. This game is renowned for Paul Brown having his play calls over a transistor intercepted by New York. Later in the week, Commissioner Bell outlawed the use of radios on the field during league games. Andy Robustelli had six sacks for losses totaling 60 yards as the New York defense smothered the Browns attack. Most significantly for the Giants, Beck started at middle linebacker but left early. Huff stepped into the position and everything seemed to fall into place as the Giants defense never looked better. [You can read more about this game here.]

Frank Gifford (16), New York Giants (October 14, 1956)

Frank Gifford (16), New York Giants (October 14, 1956)

Home Sweet Home

Four days before the grand opening of Giants football at Yankee Stadium, New York brought kicking specialist Ben Agajanian back to the team to relieve Gifford of some of his duties. The Giants staff acquiesced on Agajanian’s request to be allowed to return home to the West Coast during the early part of the week, and then rejoin the Giants on the Friday before games. The 38-year old Agajanian would handle field goal and point-after placements while Chandler retained kickoff responsibilities.

Anticipation was high following the win at Cleveland, and a crowd of approximately 40,000 was expected for the game. The 38-10 win over Pittsburgh was convincing and the local press jumped on the bandwagon, exclaiming superlatives and proclaiming intangibles. The New York Times game summary boasted: “The Giants needed about twenty minutes to make themselves comfortable in their new home the Yankee Stadium…Long before the final gun, the 48,108 spectators, marking the biggest crowd at a home-opener in Giants’ history, seemed convinced that the New Yorkers are headed for a ‘big’ year.”

Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants Game Program (October 21, 1956)

Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants Game Program (October 21, 1956)

The game started slowly for the Giants on offense. Once Conerly took over for Heinrich near the end of the first quarter, they became unstoppable. A 3-0 deficit became a 31-3 advantage by the end of the third quarter. New York totaled 455 yards on offense and did not turn the ball over. Conerly efficiently passed for three touchdowns and 208 yards on 14 completions in 23 attempts.

New York Times columnist Arthur Daley made an observation on the difference between the stadium’s two tenants: “The switch from baseball to football is never more apparent than in the dressing room before play begins. The Yankees laugh and joke and engage in horse play. The Giants look like men who are heading for a mass execution without any hope of a reprieve from the Governor.” Howell seemed indifferent regarding the change of venue, “Once the game started I was too busy to make comparisons.”

Gifford offered unique insight on a peculiarity of the playing surface years later: “I disliked one thing about Yankee Stadium: the field wasn’t level. If a football team was moving from the outfield toward the infield, which was elevated for drainage, the players were moving uphill. It was probably a difference of only a few inches, but, in my mind, it looked and felt like Mount Everest. On the other hand, it provided me with the perfect cop-out. Once, after I got tackled from behind after a long gain, I shamelessly told the press, ‘If I’d been running downhill rather than up, he never would have caught me.’ I was only half kidding.”

The following week the Giants defense was even more impressive while the offense sputtered. Part of the reason for the frustration was the return of an old friend – former franchise icon Steve Owen coached the Eagles defense, and he deployed a special 6-1-4 alignment to counter New York’s strengths. Despite his inability to adapt the Giants offense to the modern T-Formation during the latter part of his tenure, Owen had no peer when it came to concocting a scheme to neutralize an opposing offense’s strengths.

Vince Lombardi, New York Giants (October 28, 1956)

Vince Lombardi, New York Giants (October 28, 1956)

Philadelphia recovered two first half fumbles and lead 3-0 in the first quarter, but they were not able to seriously threaten the New York end zone as Landry’s Coordinated Defense wreaked sensational havoc. The New York Times game summary stated, “…the Giants had spectacular tackles such as Dick Modzelewski, Roosevelt Grier, Roosevelt Brown, Sam Huff and Walt Yowarski. These fellows never stopped charging. They spent as much time in the Philadelphia backfield as did the Eagles.”

Conerly entered the game in the second quarter with the score tied 3-3 and led the Giants to a 13-3 halftime advantage that was more than enough. The Giants defense held the Eagles to 132 total yards and intercepted two passes, and preserved the 20-3 win. New York moved into a first place tie with the Cardinals who were upset in Chicago by Washington 17-14.

Charlie Conerly (42), Mel Triplett (33), New York Giants (October 28, 1956)

Charlie Conerly (42), Mel Triplett (33), New York Giants (October 28, 1956)

The pattern for the Giants repeated itself, a sluggish and sometimes sloppy offense was just good enough to get by, while the defense was strong and at times dominant at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field in front of 31,240 spectators. A typical exchange in the first period saw Grier recover a fumble on the Steeler’s one-yard line, only to see Gifford fumble the ball back. New York held, but Agajanian missed a 42-yard field goal attempt. Pittsburgh outgained the Giants in total yards 255-229 but the Giants held the edge in takeaways 3-2, and pulled out a hard fought 17-14 victory to keep pace with the Cardinals who defeated Philadelphia 28-17. The two 5-1 teams would meet at Yankee Stadium the next week.

The hype for the game started early and continued throughout the week. Media coverage for the Football Giants hadn’t been this prominent or enthusiastic since the heyday of the rivalry with the Sammy Baugh-era Redskins a decade earlier. The fans were swept up the excitement, and brisk ticket sales raised hopes for a crowd upwards of 60,000. Howell declared the game a “must” for New York, given that the Giants had already lost to their division rivals, and the Cardinals had a more favorable remaining schedule. “We certainly are not in a position to be able to lose to Chicago on Sunday,” said Howell.

Tunnell spent two days in the hospital with an injured back, but was cleared to play later in the week, which was good news for Landry who needed all of his best players to stop the one player who had ripped through New York in Week Two. “Matson is a bread-and-butter back most coaches dream about. Most experts agree that he is the greatest runner in football today,” said Cardinals staff member Eddie McGuire. Former Giant great Mel Hein, who coached at Southern California, backed up the boast, “You can’t relax a second with him. Give him a foot and he’ll go all the way.”

The Apple of New York’s Eye

If the entire 91-year history of the Football Giants could be distilled down to a single moment in time where they captured the city’s heart and imagination and were finally accepted on an equal plane with their major league baseball constituents, it may very well be Sunday November 11, 1956.

Although the throng of 62,410 inside Yankee Stadium was just short of a sellout, it was the largest crowd to see the Giants play anywhere since 60,337 visited to the Polo Grounds on December 8, 1946 for a matchup against the Redskins, and was the second largest in Giants history after the 73,000 who came to see Red Grange at the Polo Grounds in 1925.

Landry devised a new defense to combat the Chicago Split-T attack that confounded New York in October. This time Huff’s responsibility was to key on Matson and determine where he would go and beat him to the point of attack. This strategy served as the prototype for the way New York would defend Cleveland and Jimmy Brown in future years.

Appropriately, the first points scored by New York came on a safety. Less than two minutes after the opening kickoff, Robustelli blocked Dave Mann’s punt and Katcavage fell on Mann with the ball in the end zone.

The game still hung in the balance through the second quarter. New York appeared to be ready to add to their 2-0 lead at the end of the first quarter until the Cardinals stopped them on downs at the one-yard line. After forcing a punt, Heinrich led the Giants to a touchdown and 9-0 advantage early in the second quarter. Then the Cardinals Lamar McHan led three successive advances into Giants territory that ultimately swung the balance of the contest. Each time Huff and the Giants defense clamped down on backs Matson and Johnnie Olszewski and forced field goal attempts. Summerall missed from 40 and 47 yards before connecting from 30. Conerly replaced Heinrich late in the period and the Giants led 9-3 at the half.

After passing New York to Chicago’s 20-yard line in the third quarter, Conerly was intercepted attempting to hit Rote in the end zone. The Giants defense forced a punt and Conerly engineered a 70-yard drive that was highlighted by a 48-yard completion to Gifford to the Cardinal’s 12-yard line. On the next play, Webster carried the distance for the touchdown and a 16-3 lead.

Following another Chicago punt, Conerly completed a 43-yard pass to Gifford to the Chicago 25-yard line. Following a few Triplett plunges, Conerly completed an 11-yard pass to Gifford in the end zone for a 23-3 advantage midway through the fourth quarter. With the outcome all but settled, the Cardinals put Jim Root in at quarterback, and he led Chicago down the field into Giants territory. Not only did the large crowd at Yankee Stadium not leave early, they zealously exhorted their passion. The bond between the fans and the Giants was galvanized in a chant that reverberates almost 60 years later. As the Cardinals advanced closer to the goal line, the New York supporters in the bleachers at the end of the field the Giants were defending attempted to impose their will and inspire the defense as their twelfth man: “DEE-FENSE…DEE-FENSE…”

Ultimately Matson scored on an 11-yard pass with 10 seconds remaining, but it didn’t matter. The 6-1 Giants were now in sole possession of first place in the Eastern Division and New York was officially a football crazed city. The defense deserved all of the adulation it received. Despite not forcing a turnover in the game (the first and only time all season) they held Matson to 43 yards on 13 carries and Chicago to 284 total yards. The Chicago Daily Tribune cited Robustelli and Grier for “excellent performances” and said Patton, Hughes and Tunnel “were stalwarts” in holding Cardinal passers to seven pass completions in 16 attempts.

This win, however, was a complete team effort. The New York Times game summary stated: “It was not only the Giants beat the team they had to beat that made so strong an impression. It was the manner in which they did it. The defense showed its usual strength and, for a change, the offense sparkled. Superb offensive blocking, missing the past two weeks, was a big factor in yesterday’s convincing triumph.” Gifford was the go-to man with 68 rushing yards and 116 receiving yards on six catches with a touchdown.

During this five-game win streak for New York, the defense surrendered just four touchdowns as the Giants outscored the opposition 119-46. Gifford said of the steak years later, “Halfway through the season we started beating teams easily, and with an intensity I’d never seen.” The normally stoic Howell boasted after the game, “This is the best Giants team in 10 years.”

An interesting consequence of two-platoon football, which was only in its seventh season of permanency, was how it divided teams into factions. Prior to that, teams were coached and practiced as a single unit. Now, not only were players identified and segregated in meetings as “offense” and “defense”, there were assistant coaches further specializing and refining their talents. The platoons ultimately assumed their own personalities. The fascination and appreciation New York fans showed for the defense was unique and unprecedented, but it clearly was the better and more consistent unit for the team, and seemed to get better with each game. The players noticed.

Gifford: “That year marked the start of the much-publicized rivalry between the offense and defense. While it never got mean, it did get intense. Probably the defense’s unprecedented fame had something to do with it. Never in the history of football had fans gone to a stadium primarily to root for a ‘DEE-fense’. The rivalry also extended to Lombardi and Landry, who, as the proud architects of their two units, in a sense created it. The one trait they shared was a fierce competitiveness, especially with each other.”

Huff: “Our defense was so good that many times we simply controlled the offense in practice, wouldn’t let them do anything. That used to get the offensive guys ticked off, and Lombardi would get so angry he’d keep the offense out on the field long after Landry had the let the defense go to the showers.”

Prosperity then Humility

If the Giants became lackadaisical in their preparation, let down their guard or simply believed they were as good as everybody told them they were, they can’t really be blamed. All of this media attention and praise was an entirely new phenomenon for them, and were unprepared to handle it. There is no other explanation for what happened the following Sunday when New York was thoroughly embarrassed in a poor effort against the 3-3 Redskins.

One single play perfectly described the woeful afternoon New York endured in front of 26,261 delighted Washingtonians. Leading 24-0 in the third quarter The Redskins brought their punt team out with a fourth-and-one on their own 36-yard line. After the snap, punter Sam Baker took off with the ball on a 22-yard advance through the completely fooled Giants coverage team to maintain possession. The drive ended with a field goal and ultimately New York lost 33-7.

Most disappointing was the inept performance from the defense, which surprisingly allowed 23 first downs and 231 yards rushing. Although three takeaways were forced by the Giants, their offense turned it over five times. Gifford and Katcavage were both injured and destined for overnight stays in the hospital with back and hip injuries, respectively. The only good news was the second place Cardinals were also upset on the road, having dropped a 14-7 decision at Pittsburgh.

The week of Thanksgiving was a busy one for New York, correcting what Howell described as “a bad day all around.” Gifford and Katcavage were both released and cleared to play. The Giants needed all 33 men on their roster for the 7-1 Chicago Bears, who held a half-game lead in the Western Division over 7-2 Detroit. While the Bears were a familiar opponent with their typically rugged outfit and powerful rushing attack, fronted by the league’s leading rusher Rick Caseras, they were different in that George Halas was not on the sidelines. He stepped aside as a courtesy to long-time associate Paddy Driscoll. Second-year signal caller Ed Brown was also leading the NFL in passing efficiency and end Harlon Hill was leading the NFL in receiving yards and yards per catch.

Chicago Bears at New York Giants Stadium Club Ticket (November 25, 1956)

Chicago Bears at New York Giants Stadium Club Ticket (November 25, 1956)

The boisterous crowd of 55,191 at Yankee Stadium seemed to quickly heal whatever it was that ailed New York the previous week. The three-headed rushing attack of Gifford, Webster and Triplett slashed through the Bears front behind precise blocking. The 10-0 halftime lead stretched to 17-0, and may have been on its way to becoming even wider had Heinrich’s pass not been intercepted by Ray Smith who returned it to the New York 16-yard line. The Giants defense held their ground and the Bears kicked a field goal to close the third quarter at 17-3.

Lombardi sent Conerly in to start the final quarter with orders to keep the ball on the ground. After discussing New York’s unique dual-quarterback system with Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maul (known as “The Old Pro”), Conerly became the first Giant on the cover on the magazine the week after this game, Conerly was the subject of a feature article in the December 3, 1956 issue. He said, “You don’t see much of a game when you’re in. You’re looking for the guy you’re going to pass to or the guy you’re making a hand-off to, and you don’t see much else. I guess I wouldn’t even recognize half the guys I play against in a game if I saw them on the street afterward. They’re just a blur when they are coming in at you, and you don’t look at them again until you come out of the huddle. Then they are uniforms in a defense and you don’t see faces, just the defense.”

Charlie Conerly, New York Giants (December 1956)

Charlie Conerly

Regarding sitting on the bench while Heinrich played Conerly said, “You don’t find any big weaknesses. It’s not like college football. Everyone is good and what you look for are habits a player develops. When you have been in the league a long time you get to know what a defensive halfback will let you do, for instance. One guy will let you throw underneath him—in front of him. The next guy covers pretty good to the outside but he doesn’t move as good to the inside, and you throw that way to him. Little things are what you look for. Like you size up the defense when you’re waiting to start the count and you see a safety man cheating a little bit toward an end you’ve got spread and you know he’s got to cover that end in the defense they have called, and he’s cheating over toward him because it will be hard for him to get there. So you call an automatic and hit the end quick.”

Conerly engineered a drive to the Chicago 22-yard line, alternating Gifford and Webster on sweeps, but Agajanian’s field goal attempt sailed wide. The teams quickly exchanged fumbles which set the Bears with the ball on their own 24-yard line with under nine minutes to play. Brown handed off to back Bill McColl, who swept toward right end, but pulled up and lofted a high arcing spiral deep down the sideline to the wide-open Hill. Giants defender Patton had released his coverage expecting the run, and the speedy Hill was unchallenged on his sprint to the end zone. George Blanda’s point-after made it a one-score game with 8:09 left in the game.

Conerly again directed a ground progression that moved the chains and took time off the clock. Chicago’s defense, which was the second-ranked unit in the league after New York’s, resisted and the Giants punted the ball back with just over two minutes remaining. Brown moved the Bears with a series of short passes along the boundaries, allowing Hill and McColl to step out of bounds to stop the clock and preserve time.

From Chicago’s own 44-yard line, Brown lofted a deep ball to Hill, who was this time covered closely by Patton. Hill tipped the ball up at the New York 5-yard line and began falling forward with Patton right behind him. Hill tipped the ball again, then cradled it in his arms as he fell across the goal line. The play was as spectacular in its artistry as it was stunning in its result. Blanda’s point-after deadlocked the game 17-17 for the final score.

“You can’t ask a boy to do much better than Patton did on that one,” Coach Howell said after the game, but he added: “Of course, he might have knocked it down or intercepted it if he hadn’t lost a step,” he said. “You just can’t make any mistakes.”

The philosophical Conerly had prophetically said to Maule before the game, “Mistakes cost you a lot more in pro ball. Back in college, a club could make a mistake and, like as not, it wouldn’t cost much. But a mistake against a pro club nearly always costs you, and usually it costs a touchdown. The mistakes in the line may not—you got the secondary to help out. But a mistake back in the secondary—that’s usually six points.”

New York’s defense mostly performed well in the game. They held Chicago’s rushing attack to a mere 12 yards and the Bears offense only generated 11 first downs and had four turnovers. The two big pass plays to Hill, who had seven catches for 195 yards and was compared favorable to Don Hutson in the New York Times after the game, in the fourth quarter were costly. The 6-2-1 Giants remained in first place ahead of the 6-3 Cardinals who beat Pittsburgh 38-27.

Lombardi cited this game later in his career as one that permanently changed his game management. He regretted his decision to have Conerly to keep the ball on the ground and play conservatively. He said, “From then on, no matter what the score was, I coached as if it was nothing-nothing.”

The Giants performance the next Sunday against Washington at Yankee Stadium in front of 46,351 fans was far from perfect, Howell commented that the contest which was filled with fumbles, miscues and missed field goals contained “more mistakes than a top game should have.” But Gifford came as close to perfection as anybody could. The star back rushed 19 times for 108 yards and caught six passes for 53 yards, and Gifford accounted for all four touchdowns. He opened the scoring with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Ken MacAfee, ran for two and caught a 14-yard scoring strike from Conerly.

Defensively the Giants returned to their mid-season form. While holding the Redskins to 75 passing yards, New York generated seven take-a-ways, including three fumble recoveries and four interceptions. Huff picked off two of the passes and the defense held Washington to only seven points. The final Washington score came on a fourth quarter 75-yard fumble return. New York’s 28-14 win ended the Redskins five-game win streak and essentially ended their hopes of catching the Giants in the division race at 5-4. The 7-2-1 Giants Eastern Division lead opened to a game and a half over the 6-4 Cardinals when the Cardinals lost to the Packers 24-21.

Over 45,000 fans were expected for Cleveland’s annual visit to New York, but an unusually weak Browns team combined with rain, snow and cold made many fans decide it would be better to stay home and listen to the game over the radio. The 27,707 who braved the elements and hoped to personally witness the Giants clinch their first divisional title in 10 years went home chilled and disappointed. The New York Times game summary even questioned New York’s championship mettle, “The impression yesterday was that the Giants will have to show marked improvement over their latest showing. Against Paul Brown’s energetic and spirited aggregation the New Yorker’s were a do-nothing, go-nowhere outfit. They seemed sluggish on defense and immobile on offense.”

Frank Gifford, New York Giants (December 9, 1956)

Frank Gifford, New York Giants (December 9, 1956)

A 63-yard drive that culminated in a game-tying Conerly-to-Gifford scoring pass early in the second quarter seemed to give New York life. The next possession for the Giants was a 50-yard advance into Browns territory, but Don Doll intercepted Conerly to squelch not only a scoring opportunity, but seemingly the Giants spirits for good. They never threatened again and Cleveland rolled to a surprisingly easy 24-7 win. Gifford caught six more passes and his running season total of 49 already surpassed the previous franchise mark of 47 set by Bill Swiacki in 1949.

Although the Cardinals lost to the Bears 10-3, Washington defeated Philadelphia 19-17 and had two games to play, giving them an outside chance at the title should New York and Chicago both lose their final games. However, the Giants controlled their own destiny. A win or tie at Philadelphia would wrap up the Eastern Division, no questions asked. The Giants closed out their six-game home schedule with an impressive total attendance of 280,727, far ahead of their 1955 six-game docket that totaled 163,787. Division title or not, pro football had taken a significant advance forward in New Yorker awareness.

Bad weather plagued the Northeast all week, and although Howell did not use the sloppy field conditions for the disappointing loss to Cleveland, he was upfront about his desire for improved conditions (particularly for the offense) against the Eagles: “We are a team that accomplishes more because of quickness rather than brute strength, but against the Browns we were not quick at all. We never really got started and I believe the condition of the field was an important factor. I hope we have a dry field on Saturday when we wind up against the Eagles.” Howell and the Giants spent part of the week practicing across the street at Macombs Dam Park while the Yankee Stadium field was covered by a tarp to preserve it for the potential championship game.

The Connie Mack Stadium playing surface was in good condition at game time and the Giants performance was everything their coach had hoped for. The New York Times game summary stated: “Superior offensive blocking, more certain tackling, and a clearly obvious advantage in overall speed all belonged to the Giants.” New York attempted only 11 passes and chose instead to ride the big legs of Webster, who rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. Gifford also contributed 81 yards on 16 carries and Triplett 72 yards on 14 carries. The Giants led 14-0 at the half and 21-0 after three quarters. The defense was magnificent, keeping Philadelphia contained on their own side of the 50-yard line for the first 42 minutes, and barely missed its bid for its first shut out of the season when Adrian Burke completed a touchdown pass to Bobby Walston with 1:08 remaining. The Giants won 21-7.

Early Accolades

The Giants had two weeks to celebrate their first Eastern Conference title since 1946 as the NFL regular-season schedule had yet to be completed for other teams. The Giants would face an old familiar foe in the championship game: the Chicago Bears, who had also beaten the Giants in the 1946 title game. The Bears had clinched the Western conference crown in a winner-take-all brawl against Detroit. Chicago won 38-21 in a violent, fight-filled game that saw hundreds of Wrigley Field fans became part of the mayhem and charge the field during a fight between the two teams. Dozens of Chicago police officers desperately struggled to restore order before a full riot ensued.

Seven Giants were chosen to represent the 31-man Eastern Conference roster in the Pro Bowl: Charlie Conerly, Frank Gifford, Roosevelt Brown and Kyle Rote on offense and Andy Robustelli, Rosie Grier and Emlen Tunnell on defense. The All-Pro team featured five Giants: Gifford, Brown, Grier, Robustelli and Tunnell.

In the overall rankings, the Giants offense was mostly in the middle of the pack in the 12-team league. The best way to describe them would be efficient, if occasionally inconsistent. Lombardi’s unit excelled in rushing the football and not making negative plays. They ground out the third-most yards in the league (Gifford and Webster both finished in the top 10 individually in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns) and surrendered the fewest sacks and turned the ball over the least. Overall, the New York offense finished at or below average in scoring (6th), total yards (7th) and passing yards (8th)

Landry’s defense was first in fewest total yards allowed, fewest yards per rush, most quarterback sacks, most takeaways and gave up the fourth fewest points. They would need to be at their best in the championship game against Chicago, who had the league’s top rusher in Caseras (1,128 yards) and most explosive receiver in Hill (1,128 yards on 47 receptions for a 24 yards per catch average and 11 touchdowns). Hill was a nightmare for the Giants in the November game at Yankee Stadium.

Howell had the Giants spend the first of their two weeks off in the film room, specifically watching the 17-17 game, to clean up what were considered correctable errors with technique and recognition. “It’s a treat to have two weeks to get ready for a game. When you’re playing every Sunday you don’t have a chance to put much new stuff in. There are a few new wrinkles we’ve had in mind for some time and we’re taking advantage of this opportunity to go over them.” Bears coach Driscoll, who also had two weeks to prepare, was confident with his squad’s state: “The boys are in top physical shape and their mental attitude is up. There are no injuries and no signs of staleness.”

Gifford received the NFL’s “Player of the Year” award on the NFL’s final Sunday. He was the first player in history to finish in the top five in both rushing (819 yards, 5.2 yards per attempt) and receiving (51 receptions for 603 yards) and was fifth overall in all-purpose yards. He was 10th in the NFL is scoring with nine total touchdowns (five rushing, four receiving), two field goals and one point-after. He also threw two touchdown passes.

The interest in the game was unprecedented. Articles appeared in the local newspapers daily, ranging from practice updates, player profiles, to prospective strategies the two teams might feature. This served to educate the new audience to the game. Earlier in December, former Notre Dame great and former Bear Johnny Lujack wrote a lengthy feature article in The New York Times that praised the merits of the professional game over the college version. Only a decade earlier, such a public declaration would have been retorted as heresy or dismissed as nonsense.

The public a whole, however, not only was watching the pro football games on television, they were going to stadiums in record numbers. The 1956 season was the fifth consecutive that the league had set a new record at the gate. The NFL’s paid attendance in 1956 was 5,551,623, a 1.17% increase over the 1955 gate. In an interview in The Chicago Daily Tribune, Commissioner Bell said of the NFL’s spike in popularity, “Ten years ago some of our critics wailed that the pro players didn’t try. Now, it seems, the complaint is that the boys are trying too hard.” He also stated that liberalizing the passing game and free substitution were the biggest factors in the pro game attracting more fans.

New York Giants - Chicago Bears 1956 NFL Championship Ticket Stub

New York Giants – Chicago Bears 1956 NFL Championship Ticket Stub

Despite rainy weather the week leading up to the game and concerns over possible poor field conditions, ticket sales were brisk and a sellout was expected. The gross receipts for the game hinted at the age of prosperity the NFL had entered. The winners and losers shares would be the highest ever to that point in time. The wining team members would end up taking home $3,779.19 each and the losing team $2,485.16 each. The most significant reason for this was the NBC contract for the right to the national broadcast. The last time the Giants and Bears met for the championship in New York in 1946, the game was held in front of a robust crowd of 58,346 – which would be slightly larger than the crowd that would be at Yankee Stadium for this game. Yet, the winners and losers shares were $1,975.82 and $1,295.57, respectively. Clearly, television would be a significant factor in determining the course pro football would follow in the future.

The players were aware of this, and the day before the game they formally announced a project that had been surreptitiously in the works for three years – the formation of a players union. Their initial declaration included a list of six demands, which in retrospect were modest and not unreasonable: (1) league recognition of the union; (2) compensation, including per diem, for attending training camps; (3) injury compensation; (4) $5,000 minimum player salaries; (5) a pension program; and (6) clubs – not players – paying for equipment. Rote was the representative for the Giants, and eleven of the twelve teams were accounted for, excepting the Bears whose players declined recognition either out of fear or respect for Halas, a founding member of the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in 1920.

The Bears were considered the favorite to end the championship drought for the two old rivals. Chicago last won a championship in the 1946 game against the Giants and New York hadn’t won since 1938.

The Big One

Not unlike the first championship meeting between the Giants and Bears in New York in 1934, the weather turned extremely cold during the overnight and the field was completely frozen. The overnight temperatures plummeted during the night and was 26 degrees at game time and winds reached 30 miles per hour. Halas’ son-in-law Ed McCaskey said, “It was the coldest I had been in my whole life. We attended `My Fair Lady’ the night before, and as we left the theater, an ice storm set in. The next day, the field was a mess.”

Recalling the 1934 championship game which took place under similar circumstances, Robustelli had 48 pairs of brand new basketball sneakers delivered to Yankee Stadium that morning. Howell had several players try them out on the field alongside players wearing cleats. The players with the sneakers demonstrated superior traction on the slick surface while the players in cleats slipped and fell. The decision on equipment was easy.

Chicago had brought along sneakers as well, but they were of an earlier vintage. George Connor recalled, “We had poor sneakers with little rubber cleats. I know they were old: one pair had Bronko Nagurski’s number 3 painted on the heel. I guess they were the same ones Halas ordered after the 1934 sneakers game … The rubber was starting to crack, they were so old.“ Bears coach Driscoll said, “Those sneakers were better than ours. Their soles were thicker than our soles. This helped their footing greatly.”

Gene Filipski (40), New York Giants (December 30, 1956)

Gene Filipski (40), New York Giants (December 30, 1956)

The difference in footwear was apparent from the very start. Chicago kicked off and Gene Filipski returned the ball 54 yards giving New York possession in Bears territory. Four plays later Triplett rumbled through a huge hole in the line, trucked would-be tacklers and bowled over an official on his way to a 17-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead. Lombardi said, “That run by Gene gave the team its opening spark. From then on, it was a solid effort from each and every man.”

Mel Triplett running for a touchdown; Chicago Bears at New York Giants, December 30, 1956 (1956 NFL Championship)

Mel Triplett running for a touchdown; Chicago Bears at New York Giants, December 30, 1956 (1956 NFL Championship)

New York’s defense made the next contribution when Robustelli recovered a loose ball on a botched exchange between Brown and Bobby Watkins on the Chicago 15-yard line. Three rushes netted four yards and Agajanian booted a 17-yard field goal. After ten total plays from scrimmage, New York led 10-0.

The game summaries from the major newspapers of both cities described the one-sided affair:

  • Chicago Daily Tribune: “The mighty Chicago Bears came into a cavernous deep freeze called Yankee Stadium here today and left as football’s greatest enigma, humiliated by the New York Giants 47 to 7 in the National league’s 24th annual championship playoff.”
  • New York Times: “The manner in which the Giants ran, passed, kicked, scored and defended against the Western Conference rulers shocked most of the 58,826 half-frozen fans watching the playoff game.”

Patton intercepted Brown on an overthrow of Hill that led to another Agajanian field goal. The score was 13-0 as Conerly took over for Heinrich at the end of the first quarter. Conerly hit Webster on a 24-yard gain to set up a three-yard plunge by the big back for a 20-0 lead before the second quarter was three minutes old. The relentless Giants were dominating in all three phases of the game and the Yankee Stadium crowd was delirious.

Frank Gifford (16), Ray Wietecha (55), New York Giants, 1956 NFL Championship Game (December 30, 1956)

Frank Gifford (16), Ray Wietecha (55), New York Giants, 1956 NFL Championship Game (December 30, 1956)

Chicago had one break that gave them a chance to stymie New York’s onslaught and get back into the game. The Giants defense held the Bears, but Tunnell fumbled the punt and Chicago recovered at the Giants 24-yard line. Four plays later Caseras ran for a touchdown to cut the lead to 20-7. However, Conerly guided another long advance that closed with a Webster one-yard plunge for a score.

J.C. Caroline mishandled the ensuing kickoff and Chicago began the possession at their 10-yard line. New York’s defense threw the Bears for losses on three consecutive plays, setting up a punt from the two-yard line as Yankee Stadium roared: “DEE-FENSE…DEE-FENSE…” Ray Beck sliced through the line and blocked Brown’s punt and rookie back Henry Moore fell on the ball in the end zone. The Giants were in command 34-7 at halftime.

The Bears replaced Brown with Blanda and switched from the T-Formation to the Short Punt formation where Blanda essentially operated as a tailback. The results were the same, New York’s defense was stifling and their offense ground away yardage with their three backs. Conerly attempted only 10 passes but was deadly accurate, completing seven for 195 yards and two touchdowns. The Chicago passers combined for 20-of-47 for 237 yards and two interceptions.

Alex Webster (29), Dick Yelvington (72), 1956 NFL Championship Game

Alex Webster (29), Dick Yelvington (72), 1956 NFL Championship Game

The Giants added 10 more second-half points, and several hundred fans who remained in the frigid stadium stormed the frozen field and tore down the goal posts, celebrating the emphatic 47-7 victory and the Giants first championship in 18 years.

Caseras told the Chicago Daily Tribune, “They smashed us from start to finish…The Giants play that winning brand of football: hitting you hard on one play then hitting you harder on the next. We were really confident when we started, but they got ahead so quickly, and did it so easily, we couldn’t play our regular game. We were outplayed, terrifically outplayed.”

Howell said before the start of the game that he was concerned that his team was too relaxed, but that concern was unwarranted once the game started, “They just wanted to play – they wanted the championship.”

Chicago quarterback Brown said the Bears were too tight and possibly exhausted, “We were over-trained. We only had one day off—Christmas Day—preparing for this. What the hell—the Giants got five days off. We were just too tied up.”

Whether the differing philosophies in preparation were at the root of the outcome did not matter to Commissioner Bell who said, “In all the time I’ve been watching pro football, I’ve never seen the Giants as hot as they were today.”

The End of the Beginning

The 1956 Giants not only brought pro football to the forefront of the greater New York area, but the entire NFL came along for the ride. Soon pro football players transcended the confined orbit of the sporting world and crossed over to mainstream America.

Frank Gifford (16), Ray Wietecha (55), 1956 NFL Championship Game

Frank Gifford (16), Ray Wietecha (55), 1956 NFL Championship Game

Gifford recollected, “I’ll always believe that that game (the 1956 NFL Championship) was the key to the development of the NFL today. People forget what the NFL was like in those days. It was not America’s number one sport. But once we played the game, we became heroes in New York. The thing just grew from there.”

The names of the Giants players from this era are still remembered fondly nearly 60 years later, even by fans who are too young to have seen them play, because they are still featured in archival footage from NFL Films. Five players from the 1956 Giants are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Tunnell (1967), Robustelli (1971), Brown (1975), Gifford (1977) and Huff (1982). One other remains on the outside looking in. “Charlie is the best player who is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” late owner Wellington Mara said of Conerly on many occasions. “He has better numbers than some quarterbacks who are there.”

Bill Svoboda (30), Emlen Tunnell (middle), Alex Webster (29); New York Giants, (December 30, 1956)

Bill Svoboda (30), Emlen Tunnell (middle), Alex Webster (29); (December 30, 1956)

Conerly being on the cover of Sports Illustrated in December 1956 was a big recognition at the time, but paled in comparison to Sam Huff being on the cover of Time Magazine in November 1959. Players were being so wholeheartedly embraced by fans that Madison Avenue took notice and exploited the public’s new love for football. The NFL’s new heroes were paid handsomely to endorse products and services nationwide. In New York, Rote hosted a weekly radio program and Gifford televised the sports segment on local news during the offseason. In 1960, Huff became a national sensation when he was featured in a 30-minute documentary hosted by Walter Cronkite titled “The Violent World of Sam Huff.”

More immediate dividends were reaped by the Giants who sold out every home game for the 1957 season, the first time that ever happened. A cottage industry erupted around the Tri-State area as local hotels and restaurants advertised Giants games on television outside the 75-mile radius of the blackout zone. New Yorkers began traveling to eastern Long Island and southern Connecticut to pick up the broadcasts from the Hartford affiliates and south New Jersey to pick up the Philadelphia affiliates.

New York Giants 1956 NFL Championship Ring (Ben Agajanian)

New York Giants 1956 NFL Championship Ring

The public’s insatiable appetite seemed ready to be sated following the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Giants and Baltimore. The thrilling game captured the imagination of not only the 64,185 fans inside Yankee Stadium, but the record 42 million fans nationwide who watched the telecast on NBC.

Only months after that game, a group of entrepreneurs, headed by Lamar Hunt, approached the NFL about expansion and inclusion into the burgeoning league. After being rebuffed several times, the group started their own league, the fifth to challenge the NFL since 1926 and the fourth one to be called the American Football League. This one, however, had staying power and helped continue the pro game’s evolution by sparking the creation of the Super Bowl in January 1967 and NFL-AFL merger in 1970.


SOURCES:

“Pro Football – Parasite or Paragon?”
George Cullicott,  Sep. 1956, Sports Review Football 1956

“The Titans Were Tied”
Tex Maule, Dec. 3, 1956, Sports Illustrated

“Notes On A Gelid Afternoon”
Tex Maule, Jan. 7, 1957, Sports Illustrated

New York Football Giants 1957 Press, Radio and Television Guide
Robert Daley, 1957, New York Football Giants, Inc.

National Football League 1957 Records and Rules Manual
Joseph T. Labrum, 1957, The National Football League

New York Giants
Don Smith, 1960, Coward-McCann Sports Library

The Giants of New York: The History Of Professional Football’s Most Fabulous Dynasty
Barry Gottehrer, 1963, Putnam

The First 50 Seasons
Bob Oates Jr., 1969, Ridge Press

The Encyclopedia Of Football – 16th Revised Edition
Roger Treat, Suzanne Treat, Pete Palmer, 1979, A. S. Barnes & Co.

Illustrated History of the New York Giants: From The Polo Grounds To Super Bowl XXI
Richard Whittingham, 1987, Harper Collins

Tuff Stuff
Sam Huff, 1988, St. Martins Press

The Whole Ten Yards
Frank Gifford with Harry Waters, 1993, Giff & Golda Productions

From Sandlots to the Super Bowl: The National Football League 1920-1967
Craig R. Cowenen, 2005, The University of Tennessee Press

Historical New York Times Searchable Archive (via ProQuest)

Chicago Tribune

Google News Historical Archive

The Pittsburgh Press

Sep 102013
 
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Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants (February 5, 2012)

Brandon Jacobs – © USA TODAY Sports Images

New York Giants Sign RB Brandon Jacobs: The Giants have signed 31-year old RB Brandon Jacobs to a 1-year contract. Jacobs was drafted in the 4th round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the Giants and played with the team for seven years from 2005-2011. He remains the fourth-leading rusher in Giants’ history with 4,849 yards. Jacobs played in two games with the 49ers in 2012.

“Whatever they need me to do,” Jacobs said. “Whatever role they want me to play, I’ll come in and do it. I know the offense. I know they’ve made some tweaks here and there, and I’ll do whatever I have to do. I look forward to teaming up with David (Wilson) and (Michael) Cox and Da’Rel (Scott) and Dre (Andre Brown) whenever he gets back and try to make everybody around us better. We want to be the group that leads the team to victory.

“The Giants have given me a great opportunity. This is where I wanted to be. These are the coaches I want to play for and I wanted to come back with my teammates. This is the place I love most. I’m ready to go. If I need to go Sunday, I can go Sunday. There’s no issue. I’ll be really excited. Now I just have to try to get Stevie Brown on the phone.”

S Stevie Brown is wearing Jacobs’ old number – #27. For now, Jacobs will wear #34.

The video of an exclusive Giants.com interview with Jacobs on his return to the Giants is available at Giants.com.

Article on RB Brandon Jacobs: Why the Giants Signed Brandon Jacobs by Dan Graziano of ESPN.com

Practice Squad Moves: The Giants have signed LB Emmanuel Acho to the Practice Squad. To make room for Acho, the Giants terminated the Practice Squad contract of WR Marcus Harris. Because of these moves, we have updated the Transactions, Roster Analysis (with scouting report), and Roster sections of the website.

WR Ramses Barden Released from Injured Reserve: The Giants released WR Ramses Barden (knee) from Injured Reserve with an injury settlement on Monday. Because of this move, we have updated the Transactions and Roster sections of the website.

Bill Parcells to Be Honored at Halftime of Giants-Broncos Game: Former Giants’ Head Coach Bill Parcells (1983-1990) will receive his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring at halftime of the Giants-Broncos game on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. Other living Giants’ Hall of Famers will also be on hand including QB Y.A. Tittle (1961-1964), RB Frank Gifford (1952-1960, 1962-1964), LB Sam Huff (1956-1963), LB Harry Carson (1976-1988), and LB Lawrence Taylor (1981-1993).

Giants on WFANAudio clips of WFAN interviews with the following players are available at CBSNewYork.com:

Giants on ESPN Radio: Audio clips of ESPN Radio interviews with the following players are available at ESPN.com:

  • WR Victor Cruz (Audio)
  • DE Mathias Kiwanuka (Audio)

Shaun O’Hara Breaks Down Giants-Cowboys Game: O’Hara’s Take: Breaking Down Week 1 by Giants.com

Sights and Sounds from Giants-Cowboys Game: A sights and sounds video from the Giants-Cowboys game is available at Giants.com.