New York Giants Defense (January 11, 1987)
Ghosts come in a variety of forms. By the early 1980’s, the New York Football Giants had been haunted by a cavalcade of specters for over two decades. They were known as Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and Charlie Conerly – echoes from the glorious Golden Age – memories of what-they’d-been.
The gloomy reminders of what-they’d-become appeared in the forms of Rocky Thompson, Craig Morton and Joe Pisarcik. Those apparitions periodically manifested themselves in the cruelest forms: deflected passes landing in the arms of opposing defensive linemen who return them for touchdowns and whiffed punts.
The most haunting, of course, were the personal ones. The memories of those who were lost before their time: Troy Archer, Bob Ledbetter and Doug Kotar.
The weight of these ghostly, yet at the same time all-too-tangible, phantoms had become unbearable. The 1986 New York Giants were a team in need of an exorcism.
Veteran defensive end George Martin, who joined the Giants in 1975, said, “I attempt to have a conversation every day with at least one of my teammates about the past. We were the laughingstock of the National Football League. I tell them what it’s like to be so low you have to look up to see the bottom, that the fans are burning tickets and you’re embarrassed to wear a Giants emblem anywhere. You’re trying to get through the season so you can go home and watch the playoffs on TV. That’s really a bad situation. I tell them sometimes how grateful they should be that it’s all turned around. And I want them to know that success is a fleeting thing, and that you’ve got to grab it while you can.”
The present hadn’t offered any relief. Only weeks after the playoff loss at Chicago, linebacker Lawrence Taylor was rumored to be seeking professional help for a substance problem. Team officials would neither confirm, nor deny, suggestions on Taylor’s whereabouts. When pressed on the issue in mid-February, General Manager George Young said, “I’ve got nothing to say. I don’t know where our players are most of the time.”
The response to a month of queries was received in March when Taylor acknowledged participation in an unspecified treatment program via a statement through the Giants. In it, Taylor stated: “I have just completed the first phase of what I know will be a difficult and ongoing battle to overcome these problems.”
What the “problems” were continued to be a source of speculation. Anonymous quotes mentioned alcohol and cocaine abuse, and that the treatment facility may have been in the proximity of Houston, Texas. Head Coach Bill Parcells did not partake in the guessing games, “I think the statement tells the story. I think he’s entitled to confidentiality.”
Taylor also initiated what would become a nearly year-long boycott of the press, which Parcells fully supported.
Parcells did obliquely broach the subject when discussing prospects for the draft in late April. It was reported that 53 of the 335 players who had participated in the Combine had tested positive for illegal drugs. Parcells said, “I would probably prefer not to draft any of them, but I wouldn’t have a concrete policy. I’m not interested in being consistent, but in being right…I think we’re more conscious of the drug problem than we were five years ago. We have tried to become better educated.”
General Manager George Young’s draft strategy stunned all observers. The defense rich team appeared to have pressing needs at wide receiver, running back and offensive line depth. Instead, Young selected defensive players with the team’s first six selections, five of which were in the first two rounds, having accumulated extra picks acquired in off season trades. Young said, “I’m not a trader, I don’t like to trade. But these situations developed.”
The first of those “situations” was offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman, whose rights the Giants owned after the USFL folded. Zimmerman had no reservations about playing for the Giants specifically, but he had no interest in living in a large, northeastern metropolis, and preferred to remain in the West. To that end, Young sent Zimmerman to Minnesota for two second-round picks. “I wasn’t trying to unload Zimmerman, but we had been talking to the Vikings for quite some time. They needed an offensive tackle. I finally told the Vikings there was no way I’d make the deal without getting two-second round choices. And they came up with the second choice for us.
The second “situation” had simmered since the 1985 season during a prolonged holdout by All-Pro cornerback Mark Haynes. Young said, “We worked long and hard on the Haynes deal. The Broncos were the team that always showed an interest. They didn’t have a first round choice, so we couldn’t make it that way, but we finally put it together with the three choices – two this year, one next year.” (Second and sixth round picks in 1986, second round pick in 1987).
“I know we took defensive players with all those picks, but we were just taking the best player there at the time. We were concerned about the order in which we took those players. We thought some of those players were being considered by other teams. But we got the four players in the second round we hoped to get.
“For example, we knew we had to take Collins before Howard because Washington picked in the middle of our first two picks and they had just taken a defensive lineman. If we took Howard first, Washington would have taken Collins, and we knew Washington was talking to another team to try to trade up.”
The coup turned out to be: Eric Dorsey, defensive end in the first round; Mark Collins, cornerback, Erik Howard, defensive tackle, Thomas “Pepper” Johnson, linebacker, and Greg Lasker, safety all in the second round, and John Washington, defensive end in the third round.
Young said, “We were fortunate for the Zimmerman and Haynes trades because we thought we could get good players in the second round. I think we wiped out the second round defensively. Someone on the Bears said, ‘We waited at the bottom of the second round for what you didn’t want, and you took them all.’”
Parcells said, “You’ve got to feel good now. I think the strength of the draft was where we got extra choices. We took three defensive linemen, and there weren’t many. If you don’t have a solid defense, it affects your offense. Look at the Chicago Bears. In the playoffs they’re ahead of us, 14-0, and it’s all over. With their defense, you can’t get them. They go in there and run handoffs to Walter Payton.”
Preparation and Distraction
Days before the opening of training camp, former Giant fan favorite Carl “Spider” Lockhart passed away at the age of 43 after a prolonged bout with cancer. Lockhart was a hard-hitting safety with good ball instincts. He played in two Pro Bowls and was a seen as a bright spot on teams that achieved little success, having his 11-year career take place during the Giants “Wilderness Years.” The Giants wore a patch with his #43 and nickname “Spider” on it beginning in the regular season. It would be the first time New York honored a former player in that manner.
Camp opened with seven of the fourteen draftees absent as their contracts were still being negotiated, but not many seemed to notice. The most discussed absentee was 1985 rushing leader Joe Morris who wanted a new contract. The holdout turned out to be a unique one, where Morris came into camp on the third day, but on a limited, non-contact basis. Coach Bill Parcells said, “He kind of asked me if he could do that, and I kind of thought it would be better if he was here…We came to an agreement on what he does.”
The one player present who drew the most critical eye was Lawrence Taylor. How did he look and how would he perform after rehabilitating for substance abuse? When asked, linebacker Harry Carson replied, “No comment.” Bill Parcells said, “There is no update. This is not the 6 o’clock news.”
Despite the hold up and holdouts, optimism was as high as anyone around the team could recall. Quarterback Phil Simms said, “Everywhere I go, people tell me how great we’re going to do. If it’s anything less, they’re going to be disappointed…It’s just speculation. Once the season starts, it all goes out the window.”
Carson said, “Last year was last year. You can’t just take up where you left off. You have to start over. You have to make improvements in camp…I think we have as good a shot as any other team. But a lot of other teams feel that way about themselves too.”
Parcells echoed that sentiment, “I don’t really know. Every year is a new year. You don’t know the kind of attitude your team is going to have. You don’t know who’s going to get hurt. That’s why preseason predictions are ludicrous.”
Parcells had proved to possess a masterful touch as he lifted his dispirited team immediately following their playoff loss in Chicago. Wide receiver Phil McConkey recalled: “Our  season actually started in that locker room in Chicago in January. Coach Parcells told us after our defeat he would do anything and everything he could to get us to the next level. He expected us to, too. He told us George Martin and Harry Carson didn’t deserve what had happened. He said George and Harry deserved to be champions. He had us aiming at Super Bowl XXI before they even played Super Bowl XX.”
The 1986 season was the 30th anniversary of the Football Giants most recent championship. Hall-of-Famers Frank Gifford, Andy Robustelli, Sam Huff, their head coach Jim Lee Howell and about a dozen other players from that team gathered for a reunion to celebrate the occasion. Their quarterback Charlie Conerly succinctly summarized the significance, “Winning the World Championship. That was the whole thing.”
Winning the championship. It was what the Giants strove for and what their fans yearned for. It was also the one and only way to silence the ghosts.
Heading into the final preseason game, most of the unsigned rookies had their deals done and were fully participating in practices, but the Morris situation remained unresolved. Regardless, Morris would play in the game, and despite not having been in a full-contact session all summer, he played well enough, gaining 53 yards on 11 carries with a short touchdown run.
The day after the game, New York learned of the passing of another former player. John Tuggle, who played fullback for the Giants in 1983, passed away after a two-year battle with cancer. He learned of his ailment after a knee injury he suffered during the 1984 mini-camp required surgery. After undergoing treatments, Tuggle was cleared to play football for the 1985 season and participated in the mini-camp, but was unable to continue and left the team. The Giants continued to pay his salary until his contract expired after the conclusion of the 1985 season. The Giants wore Tuggle’s #38 on the back of their helmets beginning in Week 5.
The final cuts brought surprises. Veteran receiver and returner Phil McConkey was released, and kicker Ali Haji-Sheikh was placed on injured reserve. Eric Schubert had already been let go, so New York had no kicker on its roster less than a week before opening day. Veteran Bob Thomas was eventually signed and made the trip to Dallas for the Week 1 Monday Night Football Game. So did the six defensive draft picks. Defensive coordinator Bill Belichick said, “They all have the potential to be good, when they start making giant strides instead of short steps.”
Big Blue Roller Coaster
The Giants received a boost when Morris, who had traveled with the team but wasn’t going to dress for the game without a new contract, signed a deal less than three hours before kickoff. The momentum didn’t last long once the game started, as the Cowboys opened a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. Repeating a familiar pattern, the Giants fought back, tied the game, had the lead entering the fourth quarter, but again lost late to their division rivals, 31-28
Texas Stadium was a house of horrors for the Giants. Since the Cowboys moved into the building in 1971, New York’s record there was 3-12. Most surprising was the failure of the defense, which was supposed to be New York’s pillar of strength, that yielded 14 fourth-quarter points, including the decisive score during the Dallas two-minute drive. There were no freak plays attributed to the offense or special teams as in years past. The defense was simply beaten at the point-of-attack.
Defensive line coach Lamar Leachman said, “That was probably the poorest effort by the front three in my seven years here.”
Parcells said, “We didn’t play good against the run. I wasn’t pleased. We should be good. I don’t think anybody on defense played real well.”
Kicker Bob Thomas reported a sprained right ankle after the game. When it was determined he would be unavailable for the home opener against San Diego, Thomas was placed on injured reserve and replaced by Joe Cooper.
The defense rebounded against the explosive, Dan Fouts-led Chargers, who were coming off a 50-28 win at Miami, in a way that would have made Sam Huff and other Giants defensive legends envious. Fouts was 19-of-43, an uncharacteristically low 43% completion percentage, for 224 yards – a poor 5.2 yards-per-pass attempt with one touchdown against five interceptions. While Fouts was only sacked once, he was pressured on nearly every drop-back. New York had seven takeaways, the most in a single game since the Giants registered 10 against Washington in 1963. All six San Diego possessions in the second half ended with turnovers, and the Giants won 20-7. Fouts said, “It seemed wherever I wanted to throw the ball, the Giants were already there. I don’t think I was tipping anything off. I think they just have did a lot of homework and have a great defense.”
Nose tackle Jim Burt said, “We did a lot of soul searching all week. It was the toughest week of my life. We got knocked to our knees emotionally last week. The defense was supposed to be the backbone of this team and we were the weak link.”
Belichick said, “We took away their outside running game and their short passes. When Fouts tried to go deep, that’s when we got interceptions.”
Leonard Marshall (70), Harry Carson (53), New York Giants (September 21, 1986)
Another NFL star was stymied by Belichick’s unit in the Week 3 contest in Los Angeles against the Raiders. Halfback Marcus Allen brought a league record 11-game streak with at least 100 rushing yards into the game, but left in the third quarter, having gained only 40 yards on 15 carries. Meanwhile, Morris enjoyed his first 100-yard game of the season for New York with 111 yards on 18 carries. Simms threw two, second half touchdown passes and the Giants earned a gritty 14-9 win.
Raiders coach Tom Flores said, “I don’t remember a defense playing us that physical. We had trouble making our reliable plays work, the ones that always do. I’ve got to feel that’s the best defense we’ll face all season.”
Four days later, Cooper was released and Raul Allegre was signed. Since Week 1 of the 1985 season, the Giants had played 21 games, including the post season. Allegre was their sixth place kicker in that span as they headed into their 22nd game. The revolving door began in the second week of 1985 when Ali Haji-Sheikh aggravated a hamstring injury during the game at Green Bay. Jess Atkinson served as his replacement for six weeks, but the Giants lost him in a waiver-claim move while shuffling their roster. Eric Schubert finished out the year but was released during the 1986 training camp and Haji-Sheikh went to injured reserve.
The Week 4 game at home against New Orleans began like a nightmare. The mistake-prone offense turned the ball over twice and the defense let the Saints into the end zone both times. Midway through the second quarter New York trailed 17-0 and Giants Stadium echoed with boos.
More alarming than the team’s wretched performance was the accumulation of injured players on the sideline. Wide Receiver Lionel Manuel suffered badly sprained knee ligaments, an injury that would keep him out the remainder of the regular season. Tight end Mark Bavaro suffered what was believed to be a broken jaw, but remarkably returned in the second half after having it wired shut. (X-Rays later revealed the injury to be a chipped tooth). Joe Morris was already out, not dressing for the game after suffering an allergic reaction to medication he had been taking for the fractured nose he suffered against the Raiders.
The injury that got everyone’s attention came early in the third quarter. Trailing 17-10, cornerback Mark Collins nearly had his skull fractured when he lost his helmet returning a punt and suffered a concussion. He lost consciousness on the bench while being tended to by doctors.
Jim Burt said, “They had him wrapped up and somebody took a shot.”
Parcells said, “When a guy loses his helmet eight guys shouldn’t pile up on him.”
Harry Carson said, “I think the guy who hit him, hit him on purpose. So I got rededicated to play harder, and so did the others. It was like something went through us. I know when something like that happens you want someone to know you care about him. You realize just how fragile a person is. I had tears in my eyes.”
The Giants responded immediately with an 11-play drive for a field goal to reduce the deficit to 17-13. The aroused Carson and New York defense forced three consecutive three-and-outs, while the offense maintained the field position advantage.
That suddenly changed early in the fourth quarter when a Simms pass intended for Bavaro was tipped and intercepted at midfield. The Saints drove to New York’s 26 yard line, where safety Kenny Hill forced running back Reuben Mayes to fumble, and defensive end Leonard Marshall recovered for the Giants. Simms promptly drove the offense 72 yards – including a drive-starting 18-yard scramble – and connected with tight end Zeke Mowatt for the touchdown to give New York its first lead, 20-17, with 8:03 to play. The defense forced another Saints three-and-out and the Giants offense ground out the remaining 7:16 with a 14-play drive to ensure the victory. Burt said, “That was especially gratifying. We didn’t have to go back on the field.”
The comeback was somewhat remarkable in that it was a feat the Giants were not known for. The 17-point deficit was the largest overcome by New York since a 19-point comeback against the Redskins in 1970. Parcells was encouraged, “It tells me we think we’re supposed to win.”
Over the 15 seasons between the two landmark comebacks, the Giants trailed entering the fourth quarter 119 times and lost 108 of them – a 92% losing percentage. Conversely, they led 101 times entering the fourth quarter and lost 23 times – a losing percentage of 23%. Simply put, the Giants could be counted on to lose nine of every 10 games they trailed in the last 15 minutes, while also blowing nearly one of every four fourth-quarter leads. They were not good finishers.
The week following the win saw recognition and praise for Bavaro, whose toughness was already approaching legendary status. Simms said, “The best thing Mark does for us is he runs with the ball after he catches it.”
That usually meant leaving a trail of failed tacklers behind him. Offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt said, “The guy is just determined to play the position as good as he can. He has great determination, great self-motivation…Out near the sideline, those defensive backs can push him out of bounds. He’s better in the middle of the field. He gets extra yardage there because it takes more than a push to stop him.”
Tight ends coach Mike Pope said, “If they hit (Bavaro) high, he’s got the strength to keep going.”
George Martin said, “In a quiet way, Mark Bavaro is as good a tight end as Lawrence Taylor is linebacker. He just isn’t as dramatic or spectacular.”
The most glowing praise came from out of town. Chicago Bears coach and former tight end Mike Ditka said, “(Bavaro) plays the position the way it’s meant to be played. Playing tight end is not just catching seventy or eighty passes, but playing in the trenches and always being in the play. And that’s what he does. He’s the only true tight end in football. He blocks. He catches. He punishes.”
One man was chosen to fill two needs after the injury carnage, and he had been cut by New York only four weeks earlier.
Phil McConkey had received very little playing time with Green Bay and was expendable. For the Giants, he’d be invaluable as both a receiver and returner, as well as locker room presence. While Parcells told McConkey a trade had been worked out with the compensation being “a blocking dummy and a couple of clipboards,” the price actually ended up being a 12th-round pick in the 1987 draft.
McConkey said, “A lot of teams wouldn’t have brought back a guy they’d cut. They would’ve been afraid it would be like admitting a mistake. Bringing me back showed me how serious the Giants were about winning in 1986. They weren’t worried about appearances. They were worried about results.”
The Giants were definitely worried about the results after their next game, an ugly 13-6 win at St. Louis. The defense and special teams were actually magnificent. McConkey already proved his worth – returning seven punts for 85 yards, a total greater than the team had accomplished in the first four games combined. By doing so, he helped maintain favorable field position for New York, while the defense sacked Cardinals quarterback Neil Lomax seven times and forced two takeaways.
The absence of starting talent at wide receiver for the Giants was gravely apparent – the only player on the roster with appreciable experience was Bobby Johnson. Simms struggled, completing 8-of-24 attempts, which made it easy for St. Louis to load up and stop the run. As a team, New York gained 61 yards on 25 attempts. Fortunately for them, Sean Landeta had a strong day, punting nine times with a gross of nearly 48 yards per punt.
Parcells said, “We have got a lot work to do. Thank God for my punter, my field goal kicker and my return man.”
Center Bart Oates said, “You take the win and enjoy it, but we’re not kidding ourselves. We know what it feels like to play a good football game. We just haven’t done it yet.”
To the surprise of many, the solution chosen as the elixir for the ailing offense wasn’t a receiver, it was another running back. George Young’s second trade in a week was for the Cardinals Ottis Anderson, in exchange for 2nd- and 7th-round 1987 draft picks. Many Giants players were pleased with the news. Guard Billy Ard said, “I think it’s great. It takes a lot of pressure off Joe Morris.” Carl Banks said, “(Anderson’s) biggest asset is power. He’s hard to bring down.”
Parcells told Anderson he would primarily play fullback, despite his having played tailback his entire seven-year career. Anderson said, “At this stage of my career it doesn’t matter what position I play. I just want to make the Giants a contender and a team to be reckoned with. Joe Morris is the number one back here, I’ll learn from him.”
Morris said, “Anderson’s presence is going to help this team. It’s going to help me every day.”
Young alluded to the motivation behind his atypical dealing, “If we’re trying to run for the roses, and we can get someone to help us…” Young left the sentence unfinished.
Anderson’s presence was intended to boost the offenses production, but it was the defense that was the dominating force in the 35-3 win over Philadelphia. That stat sheet told the story: nine first downs, 117 total yards, two turnovers, six sacks, and 20:27 time of possession. What gets lost on paper was the brutality with which they played. Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski said, “I can’t remember one game in 14 years when I had this many people around me. I was getting hit every time I had the ball. We played every scheme we had and they beat us.”
Carl Banks said, “The idea was to create confusion in blocking schemes. Sometimes L.T. and I ended up two-on-one. On one play near the goal line, a back had both of us. He took me, and L.T. got a sack.”
Taylor had his first four-sack game since 1984, and was also in on seven tackles. After this game, he led the NFL with seven and a half sacks. Carson said, “(Taylor’s) playing fine. He’s not playing better than last year. He’s just been more dominant. He’s not hurt like last year when he had a couple of nagging injuries. Otherwise, he’s the same Lawrence Taylor.”
While the 35 points was impressive, they were largely set up by the big-play defense giving the offense a short field to work with. Also, one touchdown came via special teams when Carson caught a touchdown pass on a fake field goal. The wide receiver position took another hit when Stacey Robinson left the game after pulling a hamstring. He would end up missing several weeks.
The win was the Giants largest margin of victory since a 32-0 win at Seattle in 1981 and gave New York its first five-game win streak since 1970. Anderson, who carried seven times for 32 yards, said, “It’s a different feeling here. These guys know what it takes to win.”
That winning feeling didn’t make the trip to the Pacific Northwest. The irony was that the offense, at least statistically, played its best game in weeks. The Giants had advantages over Seattle in first downs 22-13, rushing yards 162-72, passing yards 190-166 and time of possession 34:42-25:18. The difference was New York’s shoddy pass protection (Simms was sacked seven times for 45 yards in losses) and four interceptions. Even when Giants scored their lone touchdown, the point-after was missed on an errant snap where the kick never got off. The frustrating 17-12 loss left a bitter after taste.
Ron Erhardt said, “We did everything but score. Inside the 20 we stank.”
Parcells said, “We gave them a couple of opportunities and they capitalized. They gave us a couple of opportunities and we didn’t capitalize…I’m concerned. I’m just hoping we can get a little more consistency.”
The defense remained consistent and played up to expectations. Seattle halfback Curt Warner attested: “I was hit hard and often, and everything I got was extra difficult. That is the best, toughest defense I’ve seen in this league.”
The loss dropped the Giants to 5-2, tied for second place in the NFC East with Dallas, behind 6-1 Washington. There was also added local pressure to keep winning. The 6-1 New York Jets, who at times looked like the NFL’s best team, and the New York Mets, who were competing in the World Series, had elevated expectations of New York fans to an unprecedented level.
The Giants lost another former player on October 21 when John Del Isola passed away at the age of 74. Del Isola was a stalwart on the line for New York from 1934-1940, which included teams that won the Eastern Conference four times and won NFL titles in 1934 and 1938. Del Isola was named First-Team All-Pro in 1939 and was an assistant coach on Jim Lee Howell’s staff from 1957-1959.
New York had an extra day to reassess what went wrong in Seattle as their next game was a Monday Night showdown at Giants Stadium. As they prepared to face Washington for the first time, there was discussion on the ailing passing game as well as heightened pressure.
Erhardt: “I don’t think Phil is happy with the year he’s having. He’s had some real good games and some average ones. I don’t think he was happy with last week. “
Simms: “I feel like I’m a good quarterback. I know what’s going on out there. Offensively, we’re not playing well as a group out there. Sometimes the problems have been my fault. But it’s not time to panic, and I don’t think we’re going to panic. We might not get our offense going all year, but that doesn’t mean we won’t win.”
McConkey said, “People have high expectations, and rightfully so. But we’re playing this week for first place in our division at the halfway point of the season. I’ll take that.”
Burt said, “We’re playing hard, but people are waiting for something bad to happen. That’s what the Giants did in the past. I understand the frustration people have with the Giants, but we’re not like the Giants of the past. We’re better than we were in 1984, better than 1985.”
Even if the fans didn’t appreciate the Giants, there was no lack of respect from their upcoming opponents. Washington coach Joe Gibbs said, “We have been beaten badly by the Giants. That’s what’s in a player’s mind; that’s what builds up the lasting impression.”
Linebacker Neil Olkewicz said, “We respect the Giants…Even when they had bad teams, we respected the Giants. The Giants are more like us, blue-collar guys who worked their way up to what they are.”
Big Wins and Big Struggles
All that had ailed the Giants offense seemed cured for the first 30 minutes of the Redskins game – while seemingly half of the Giants Stadium patrons were watching or listening to the Mets Game 7 on their portable televisions and radios. Simms was 10-of-14 passing for 93 yards, while as a team New York rushed 21 times for 116 yards. Morris contributed 93 of those yards, including an 11-yard touchdown.
The Giants led 13-3 at halftime, and the only minor complaint would be the wide receivers were complete non-factors. Bobby Johnson was the only receiver with a catch – for nine yards – while the rest of the passing distribution went to the backs and a slowed tight end Bavaro, who was playing while managing a foot injury. Zeke Mowatt received his most playing time in two years as the Giants started and played from a two tight end set for much of the half.
The lead ballooned to 20-3 five minutes into the third quarter when Simms connected with Johnson on a 30-yard touchdown pass. Everything was tilted in New York’s favor, the Mets had clinched their Game 7 win while the Giants were blowing out Washington – seemingly poised to take over first place NFC East.
Redskins quarterback Jay Schroeder completed a 71-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ricky Sanders three plays after the ensuing kickoff, as Giants cornerback Perry Williams fell down on the play. In a New York minute the momentum leveled and the uproarious Meadowlands quieted.
Washington’s defense repeatedly forced New York punts while their offense chipped away at the lead. An opportunity to increase a precarious 20-17 advantage early in the fourth quarter was squandered when Allegre missed a 29-yard field goal wide right. Following an exchange of punts, Schroeder led Washington on a nine-play drive – eight of them passes – to the tying field goal from 29 yards with 4:06 to play.
Simms attempted to answer for New York. He received assistance from the Redskins, who twice committed penalties resulting in first downs. Simms ended up only 1-of-5 passing on the drive, the lone completion being a 10-yarder to Bavaro. Bracketing the incomplete passes and penalties, Morris opened the drive with a 10-yard rush and carried off right tackle for 24 yards to set up the Giants at the Washington 22-yard line at the two minute warning.
Following the time out, Morris carried twice for nine yards, then on 3rd-and-1 finished off the drive with a 13-yard carry off right tackle for a dramatic touchdown that gave New York a 27-20 lead with 1:44 to play. The Redskins didn’t quit. Schroeder led Washington on a nine-play drive, all passes, which ultimately was stopped on downs at New York’s 35-yard line. Simms ended the game with a kneel-down, and the Giants and Redskins ended the evening in a three-way tie for first place with Dallas at 6-2.
The Giants defense was magnificent against the run, holding George Rogers to 30 yards on 16 carries, but the pass defense showed cracks. Schroeder completed 22-of-40 for 420 yards, despite being sacked three times by Taylor, who now had 10 on the season. Wide receiver Gary Clark set a Washington team record with 241 receiving yards on 11 catches.
Parcells said, “That’s the NFC East right there. It’s a battle. That finishes up the first half of the season. I guess there are three teams that kind of get to start over. Fortunately we’re one of them.”
Gibbs said, “We let it get away early. And then, when we came back, we couldn’t go all the way to take it from them.”
Morris carried the offense, and finished the night with 181 yards on 31 carries with two touchdowns. Parcells said, “I was very pleased with the offense. We ran the ball extremely well. The percentage of times we used two tight ends was quite a bit. We didn’t plan to use it that much. But once we got it going we were just going to make them stop it.”
Washington guard Russ Grimm said, “They’re tough up front. We got beat up on a few plays. They shut us down in the first half, and we were lucky to make the big plays in the second half to make it a game. They played hard and deserved to win.”
Lawrence Taylor was named the “NFC Defensive Player of the Month” for October. No doubt the nine sacks accrued over four games attracted much attention, but his overall dominance as a perpetual disruptive force was without question.
The 1986 season was the 10th anniversary of Giants Stadium. The New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority marked the field with a red circle at the 50-yard line that read “NEW JERSEY MEADOWLANDS” around a map of the state. It was the first occasion a Giants home field had any ornamentation outside of the end zones.
The Giants had a chance to put Dallas a game behind them in the standings, something they failed to do the previous year in the disastrous Week 15 loss in Dallas. Veteran George Martin had a unique outlook on the upcoming big game, “I remember the years when you would come to the stadium with a 3-7 record and know you’re going to be home for Christmas. Now it’s fun. I don’t mind coming to the stadium early and being the last one out of here at night.”
The fun for Martin was only getting started. The eleven-year Giant was a full time player for the first time since 1980, having been a pass rush specialist since the 1981 conversion to the 3-4 defense. In the Week 9 game versus Dallas at Giants Stadium, Martin showed no signs of age nor fatigue, as he was good to the very last snap.
Martin’s teammates were at their ferocious best. Cowboy backs Herschel Walker and Tony Dorsett both left the game at various points with minor ankle and knee injuries, respectively, and quarterback Danny White exited for good with a broken wrist caused by blitzing Carl Banks late in the first quarter.
The Cowboys defense, while not sending and New York players to the sideline, was actually the more effective unit. They smothered the feeble Giants passing attack to six completions on 18 attempts – a miserable 3.7 yards-per-attempt – and an interception. When three sacks of Simms with losses of 21 yards were factored in, New York netted a grand total of 46 yards in the air. The crowd booed lustily after every incompletion.
Thankfully for the Giants offense, Morris showed no signs of fatigue on the short week, as he was called upon to carry the offensive unit for the second time in six days. He ended with his second consecutive 181-yard game, this time on 29 attempts with two touchdowns.
A seemingly safe 17-7 New York lead fell into jeopardy as Dallas backup Steve Pelluer energized his team and led them on an eight-play, 80-yard drive for a touchdown that brought them within a field goal at 17-14 with 7:29 left in the fourth quarter.
The Giants did little after receiving the kickoff, though Simms did complete his first and only pass for a first down in the game with a 10-yard completion to Bavaro on 2nd-and-7. Sean Landeta punted the Cowboys back to their 16-yard line with 3:33 to play.
Pelluer started the drive with four consecutive completions, and moved Dallas to New York’s 47-yard line. On 2nd-and-5, Pelluer was chased toward the sideline by Leonard Marshall and was flagged for intentional grounding, giving Dallas a 3rd-and-15 from their own 43-yard line. At this moment, the Giants received help from the 12th man, their fans. The crowd noise became so resounding Pelluer had to abandon the shotgun – a staple of the Cowboys offense – so his linemen could hear the calls. Belichick said, “The crowd was a factor. It forced Pelluer to come up under the center, which he’s not used to in that situation. I think as a result, he might have dropped too deep.”
Setting under center proved little help and the officials granted a respite with an unofficial timeout when Pelluer complained about the noise. Marshall said, “The fans were great. The twelfth man worked today.”
On the next snap, Pelluer was chased from the pocket by Marshall but he completed a pass to wide receiver Mike Sherrard for 21-yards and a first down at the New York’s 36-yard line with 1:15 to play. The next play was a 30-yard gain by Dorsett on a screen pass that was negated by a hold on tackle Phil Pozderac. A short pass gave Dallas a 2nd-and-16 from the 42-yard line. Lawrence Taylor appeared to have saved the day with a 14-yard sack, but it was negated by a defensive holding penalty that gave the Cowboys a first down on the 37-yard line with 56 seconds left.
The frenetic sequence continued. Pelluer completed a second-down pass for a first down at the 27-yard line, and Martin pushed Dallas back with a sack for a loss of 14 yards at 0:44. Pelluer threw incomplete on 2nd-and-24 from the 41-yard line. On third down, Dallas was penalized for a false start on Pozderac, who was lined up across from Martin. Pozderac said, “With all the crowd noise once we got past the 50, it was totally impossible to hear the snap count. In all that noise, I had to watch (Martin) and the ball. I’m trying to watch the ball more than him, but it’s hard. As soon as I see movement, I go.”
Martin said, “I knew Pozderac couldn’t hear the count. That’s when I gave him the false move, and he went for it.”
Pelluer’s completion on 3rd-and-29 was good for only one yard. On 4th-and-28 from the 45-yard line, Cowboys kicker Rafael Septien’s 63-yard field goal attempt fell short at with 12 seconds left. Simms knelt on the ball and the exasperated Giants walked off of the field exhausted, but triumphant. The final drive by the Cowboys officially was recorded as 14 plays for 39 yards, but when penalties are taken into consideration, there were 18 snaps of the ball. For once, New York made the big plays late to beat the Cowboys. Dorsett said, “When you come up short because of mental errors, it hurts.”
Dallas had significant advantages in passing yards 306 to 46. Morris kept New York in the game; as a team, the Giants rushed 37 times for 199 yards. When asked of the imbalance of the offense’s output, Parcells said, “I’m not under the illusion that we can run for 200 yards every game.”
The Giants top two receivers Lionel Manuel and Stacey Robinson were still on injured reserve. To compensate, New York resorted to the two-tight end offense as their base personal set for the second consecutive week. The running game prospered while the passing game dwindled to near non-existence.
Parcells said, “We want to have the mentality that we’re going to run the ball and you can’t stop it.”
The pattern repeated itself the following week in Philadelphia against the Eagles. The Giants escaped with a rough 17-14 win after nearly blowing a 17-0 lead in the final quarter. The defense dominated (seven sacks, 237 total yards allowed), the passing offense was inefficient (Simms completed 8-of-18 for 130 yards and two interceptions) and the running game moved the chains (40 rushes for 153 yards with two touchdowns).
Despite having defeated division opponents in three consecutive games and having a share of first place in the middle of November with an 8-2 record, morale was low and tension was high. The output of the offense was not sustainable for success over the long haul.
Fullback Maurice Carthon said, “We can’t keep winning this way.”
Simms took the offense’s struggles personally, and refused to put the blame on the injured and inexperienced receiving corps. “You hit one bad, then you start thinking about it and you hit another one bad. It’s hard when you get to throw only every other series. This is the first time I’ve felt frustrated like this in a good long while.”
Parcells sat his quarterback down for a heart-to-heart talk while preparing for the Week 11 contest at Minnesota. Parcells said, “I called him in and said, ‘Look, I think you’re a great quarterback, and the way you got to be great was by being fearless out there, and resilient. Don’t worry about the things you can’t control, like drops. Be yourself.”
Simms said, “(Parcells) pumped me up when I needed it.”
Teammates and assistant coaches offered support for their quarterback.
Burt: “(Simms) gives you everything he’s got. The media is tough on him. A lot of fans are tough on him. I don’t know if I could take that booing. He’s very dedicated to his job. It really gets me angry when fans boo him because they don’t know anything about it. He deserves all the credit in the world…Winning isn’t enough for him. He works hard at his job, so if he doesn’t do well it hurts him. What other quarterback stays until 7:30 or 8:00 four nights a week to lift weights? He’s the quarterback. He doesn’t have to do it. That says a lot about him.”
Guard Billy Ard: “(Simms) is very competitive. He’s very emotional. He believes in himself. He expects perfection. When things are going well, he’s pumped up. When they’re not, he clams up a bit. He fits the quarterback role well. He’s a leader.”
Ron Erhardt: “I like everything about (Simms). He’s got a good arm, he’s smart, he’s in the game and he knows in certain situations what he can do and what he can’t do…But he knows what should happen in the passing game, and when it doesn’t happen he becomes frustrated. It might be a protection problem or he might make a bad throw or a receiver might run a wrong route. Sometimes you don’t get it done physically, and that bothers him. But it happens to everyone.”
Simms also got some help as Stacey Robinson was activated for the game, giving the quarterback a viable downfield option. For the first time in four weeks New York opened the game with one tight end and two wide receivers on the field. Minnesota was apparently not impressed with the refurbished lineup, as they often aligned with eight or nine defenders near the line of scrimmage to defend the run on most downs. Morris was stymied with 28 yards on eight carries at the half, but the Giants led 9-6 as the teams exchanged field goals.
Following a New York three-and-out to open the third quarter, quarterback Tommy Kramer led the Vikings on an 11-play, 79-yard drive for the game’s first touchdown, an eight-yard completion to running back Allen Rice. The Giants next possession was greatly helped by two Minnesota defensive penalties, a 37-yard pass interference and a 15-yard flagrant facemask, but it came up empty when Simms was intercepted at the 2-yard line.
The Vikings went three-and-out, and New York’s ensuing possession was again aided by a pass interference penalty, this time 31 yards, and Raul Allegre kicked a 37-yard field goal. Minnesota lead 13-12 going into the fourth quarter.
After Kramer left the game with a thumb injury and Minnesota punted, Simms and the offense awakened. Four consecutive completions and a short Morris run gave the Giants a first down at the Vikings 47-yard line. Bobby Johnson gained 22-yards on a reverse, then Simms connected with Johnson on a 25-yard touchdown pass. The Giants led 19-13 with 9:30 on the clock. The Johnson reverse was New York’s longest rush of the day; the touchdown pass was the first for Simms in three weeks. Those back-to-back plays were the Giants longest plays of the second half not aided by defensive penalties.
Wade Wilson came in for Kramer and passed Minnesota to the lead with surprisingly little resistance from New York’s defense. Completions of 18 and 16 yards preceded the 33-yard touchdown to wide receiver Anthony Carter. The six-play drive covered 80 yards and gave the Vikings a 22-20 lead with 7:53 to play.
The Giants offense stalled on the ensuing possession. The Vikings pass rush harassed Simms who resorted to dump offs to Morris and Anderson. New York’s defense held after the punt and forced a Minnesota punt after three plays. Phil McConkey’s 17-yard return set up the Giants on their own 41-yard line with 2:14 left.
The first play nearly put the Giants ahead, but Simms’ perfect pass to the wide-open Robinson, who had gotten behind the defense, was bobbled and dropped. On second down, Simms, again under heavy pressure, connected with Johnson crossing over the middle for 14 yards to the Vikings 45-yard line and a new set of downs at the two-minute warning.
A short pass to Anderson followed by an incompletion gave the Giants a 3rd-and-8 with 1:18 on the clock. After a Minnesota time out, they came with a blitz. The pocket crumbled around Simms and he was called in the grasp by defensive end Doug Martin (brother of the Giants’ George Martin) for a loss of nine yards. The Giants called time out, facing a 4th-and-17 on their own 48-yard line with 1:12 left to play.
Simms said, “I went to the sidelines. Parcells and (wide receivers coach Pat) Hodgson were on the phone, talking with Erhardt, who was up in the press box. Ron suggested the play. Hodgson offered a modification, ‘Why not put McConkey in motion? That would make them change their formation and maybe make the safeties screw up.’ Parcells said, ‘Good idea, let’s do it.’ I went back to the huddle. ‘Half right, W-motion, 74. We need 17 yards. Just be sure it’s 17.’”
Normally this play would have had Simms in the shotgun, but he lined up under center because of the crowd noise. Minnesota was in a dime package with six defensive backs. After McConkey completed his motion across the formation, Simms received the snap, dropped back and surveyed the field.
Simms said, “Bavaro saw that Minnesota’s left tackle was trying to loop around the end to get to me, so Mark stayed in place and blocked. Mike Stensrud, playing right tackle for Minnesota, charged up the middle. When I looked at Stacey, he wasn’t open. I didn’t have time to look at him again. I saw Bobby go past the first down marker. I saw him stop and turn to me. I knew I had to get the ball over the defense back in front of him. Stensrud was about to hit me. I threw, and as I did, I went down, I knew I’d thrown the ball just the way I’d wanted to.”
Johnson found a soft spot in the zone coverage and waited for the high, arcing pass, which dropped right into his hands over the reaching defensive back. Johnson tapped both feet in bounds and went out to stop the clock at 1:10. The play was good for 22-yards and gave New York a first down on the Vikings 30-yard line.
Johnson said, “I wanted to step up and get it, but I was afraid that if I did I would lose the first down.”
Simms said, “The odds against us were enormous. If I threw that pass a hundred times, I’d get it to Bobby maybe five or six. This was one of those times.”
Parcells said, “I wouldn’t say making the play was luck, but it was pretty good fortune…We guessed they would be in a three-deep zone, and we were right.”
The sequence following the climactic play seemed routine by comparison. Even the game-winning field goal attempt felt ordinary. The deflated Minnesota defense jumped offside, Morris ran three times for 11 yards, and Allegre sent the 33-yard kick through the uprights with two seconds left, giving the Giants a stunning 23-22 victory.
Simms was 25-of-38 for 310 yards, his highest yardage total for the season to date. After the game, an elated Parcells boasted, “Anybody who doesn’t think Phil Simms is a great quarterback should be covering another sport.”
The Giants 9-2 record was their best mark this late in the season since 1962, and kept them tied in first place with Washington who also won. It was also New York’s second come-from-behind victory of the season, a sign that confidence was building. Instead of waiting for something bad to happen late, they were finding ways to win. Parcells said, “My players know the race is on, and it started today. But this schedule has made our team better. With this schedule, you’ve got to be competitive. You’ve got to go.”
Resiliency and coming through with game-changing plays at critical moments was beginning to emerge as a pattern. This new tendency shone brightly twice during the Week 12 game versus the AFC West leading 9-2 Denver Broncos.
The first moment came late in the second quarter with the Broncos leading 6-3, and looking to increase their lead before halftime. Denver had just driven to take the lead, but on the first play from scrimmage following the kick off, Tony Galbreath lost a fumble and the Broncos recovered on the Giants 41-yard line. The New York defense came back out on the field with little respite and 2:21 remaining in the half.
Broncos quarterback John Elway completed an 18-yard pass to advance to the 23-yard line at the 2-minute warning. An 8-yard pass completion and quarterback sneak gave Denver a first down at the Giants 13-yard line with one minute to go.
George Martin, New York Giants (November 23, 1986)
On the next play, Elway lofted a swing pass to fullback Sammy Winder that was tipped in the air by Martin at the 21-yard line. Martin had taken a wider rush than Elway had anticipated. Martin pulled the ball in at the 22-yard line, spun, and then chugged up-field with Elway, Winder and Denver linemen in pursuit. Martin faked a lateral to Lawrence Taylor while crossing the 35-yard line, broke through an Elway tackle attempt at the 48-yard line, and picked up a convoy of blockers as he crossed midfield. Martin then feigned another lateral to Taylor, and as he raced up the sideline, Harry Carson blocked a Denver lineman at the 25-yard line. Mark Collins dove and took out Winder at the 10-yard line, allowing Martin a free path to the end zone. As he scored, the entire Giants sideline erupted and raced toward the corner of the end zone where the exhausted Martin fell beneath a pile of celebratory teammates. The play covered 78 yards and took a remarkable 17 seconds to complete. It was the seventh career touchdown for Martin, an NFL record for a defensive player at the time. New York led 10-6 at the half.
Martin said, “The ball came and it surprised me. I knew it was a great distance to the end zone and I said to myself it would be wise if I give it to someone a little bit swifter afoot than myself. I wanted to give it to Lawrence, but Elway was coming at us so I just tried to fake him off. Then I stiff-armed him and he went down. I thought I’d take it down a little further until someone tackles me. One thing led to another and eventually there was the end zone.”
Elway said, “A great play by a great athlete…I was flabbergasted. I didn’t think I’d have any trouble getting the ball over his head.”
Parcells said it was, “one of the greatest plays I’ve seen in football.”
The teams went back and forth throughout the second half. Elway led the Broncos on a 73-yard touchdown drive that tied the game 16-16 with 1:50 left in regulation. This set up the second moment.
Overtime looked to be imminent after a second down sack gave New York a 3rd-and-21 at their own 18-yard line. Simms said, “Bill thought about it for a moment and almost called a running play. But at the last moment he said, ‘Nah, forget the run. Let’s try a Double Seam.’”
Parcells said, “On 3rd-and-21 you think of running the ball and making them take at least one timeout and then we punt. You got to go with your gut feeling.”
Simms and Johnson connected again, as they had done the week before. Simms found Johnson in the middle of the field for a 24-yard gain to the 42-yard line at 1:35. A short run and holding penalty gave the Giants 2nd-and-13 at their 39-yard line. Simms completed another deep pass on a Double Seam, this time for 46 yards to McConkey, who was tackled at Denver’s 15-yard line with 28 seconds left.
McConkey made a sight-adjustment at the line of scrimmage when he read a safety faking a blitz, which allowed him to run straight up-field behind the coverage. It was the longest reception by a Giant for the season. Simms knelt down twice before Allegre sent the winning kick through the uprights with six seconds left.
Billy Ard said, “The old Giants were content to keep games close. This year, we’ve been going for it and getting it.”
There was a noticeable lack of euphoria in the post-game locker-room, contrary to the week before in Minnesota when it had been uproarious. Harry Carson was somewhat matter-of-fact when asked about the recent late game heroics, “It seems like it’s someone different every week. Everyone feels like we’re going to make the big play.”
That confidence would serve them well the next week in San Francisco where the 49ers jumped all over New York for a 17-0 halftime lead. The only adjustment required was for the attitude. Guard Chris Godfrey said, “The sense was we were very close to losing the game. It was slipping through our fingers. We told ourselves these guys were playing harder than us; we weren’t playing like we can. And we could blow it. We just had to play harder.”
To Godfrey’s point, San Francisco’s front seven, who switched from their typical 3-4 to a 4-3, completely smothered the Giants normally formidable rushing attack. Morris carried the ball six times for a total of two yards. Simms passed the ball well, but was intercepted twice.
New York’s defense forced a San Francisco punt to open the third quarter and the Giants took possession on the San Francisco 49-yard line. Simms’ first pass was incomplete. His second was another defining moment that lifted his team, and it personified the intensity Godfrey said the team needed.
Mark Bavaro, New York Giants (December 1, 1986)
Simms passed to Bavaro over the middle at the 49ers 40-yard line. Bavaro turned up field. The first contact came at the 36-yard line; linebacker Mike Walter bounced off Bavaro’s legs. Linebacker Riki Ellison dove at Bavaro from behind and barely grazed him. Safety Ronnie Lott came up and grabbed Bavaro high at the 32-yard line and hung onto his back. Linebacker Keena Turner raced up from behind and threw a shoulder at Bavaro, but bounced off as Bavaro kept driving his legs forward. Cornerback Don Griffin bounced off of Bavaro with a failed shoulder tackle, and two defensive backs, as well as Maurice Carthon, Bart Oates, and Lott all fell in a heap on top of Bavaro at San Francisco’s 18-yard line. The play covered 31 yards, 21 of which were after the catch and 18 after initial contact.
Godfrey said, “It was incredible. We came out playing harder and quit fooling around, watching them. That play got us going. It brought back memories of what our offense had been like. It was a big charge for us.”
After a one-yard run by Morris, Simms connected with Morris on a 17-yard touchdown pass, cutting the lead to 17-7. The defense forced another San Francisco three-and-out. Taking over on their own 29-yard line, Simms completed a 12-yard pass to Ottis Anderson for a first down at the 41-yard line. Morris lost three yards on first down, and Bavaro caught an 11-yard pass on second down. The 49ers stuffed Morris for no gain on third-and-two from the Giants 49-yard line. To this point, Morris had netted zero yards on nine carries. Parcells kept the offense on the field for fourth-and-two.
New York came out of the huddle into a goal-line set with their Jumbo Heavy personnel: two tight ends with William Roberts as an extra tackle. Carthon lined up behind Simms, who was under center, and Morris was strong left. At the snap, Godfrey pulled right, and Carthon trailed. Simms handed to Morris who and followed the interference. The right side of the line held their ground and opened a lane inside right tackle, where Morris cut up-field and accelerated through the hole. Griffin got a hand on Morris at the San Francisco 41-yard line and dragged him down on the sideline at the 34-yard line. The 17-yard gain was the Giants longest of the night.
Parcells said, “I was trying to do something to win the game. We were losing at the time. I wanted to do something aggressive. If it didn’t work, we would probably lose.”
Simms completed a deep pass to Robinson in the back corner of the end zone for a touchdown on the next play. It was a perfectly thrown ball that went over the outstretched hand of cornerback Tim McKyer, right into the hands of Robinson. The score was 17-14 and New York’s sideline was ebullient. Parcells said, “We haven’t really had that kind of momentum this year.”
New York’s defense forced their third three-and-out of the quarter and the Giants had the ball on their own 29-yard line after the punt. Simms passed to Carthon for seven yards and McConkey for 14. On first down on the 50-yard line, Anderson was stopped for no gain. On second down, Simms threw deep for Robinson down the middle, who attempted to make an over-the-shoulder basket catch at the four-yard line, but the ball popped off his shoulder pad as Griffin hit him from behind. As Robinson fell to the ground, he turned his body, kept his eyes on the ball, and pulled it in as he rolled over the goal line for an apparent touchdown. But the officials ruled him down at the one-yard line. Anderson plunged over right guard for the go-ahead score on the next play. The Giants had their first lead, 21-17, with 3:41 remaining in the third quarter.
Phil Simms and Karl Nelson, New York Giants (December 1, 1986)
All told, the New York offense needed only 15 plays to overcome the 17-0 deficit. Aside from the key 17-yard Morris rush on 4th-and-2, Simms was 8-of-9 passing for 175 yards and two touchdowns. Over that span, the defense held the 49ers to 14 yards on nine plays and three punts.
The first play from scrimmage was a big play by the defense to set up the red-hot Simms with a short field. Perry Williams intercepted quarterback Joe Montana’s pass at the 47-yard line and returned it to the 39-yard line. Simms completed a pass to Bavaro in the left seam at the 15-yard line. While fighting for extra yardage, Bavaro fumbled at the five-yard line and San Francisco recovered, preventing the Giants form taking a two-score lead.
Regardless, the Giants defense played bend-but-don’t-break through the fourth quarter and kept San Francisco off of the scoreboard for the remainder of the game. Two 49ers possessions ended on downs in New York territory and the Giants headed back to New York with a six-game win streak, their longest since 1970, and an 11-2 record, their most wins in a regular season since 1963. All that success was good enough for a first place tie with Washington, who had won the day before. The two were scheduled to meet in Washington in six days.
Parcells said, “To win on Monday night, on the road, being down 17-0. I’ll take it…My guys, they’re tough. They don’t quit. We haven’t been out of any game this year, not since 1984. They’re tough guys in that room.”
Morris, who finished the game with 14 yards on 13 carries, said, “Phil Simms was great today. He proved you can shut down Joe Morris, but then you have to deal with Phil Simms.”
A ghost from the past appeared in the post-game locker-room, YA Tittle. He said, “Overall, I think the Giants are physically the best team in the league. They have a good quarterback…Simms has a lot of courage, he’s come back from a lot of adversity. He’s a real pro. He comes back for more.”
Harry Carson said, “When we were behind, 17-0, at the half, we stayed calm, we kept our poise. We just believe that somebody is going to make the big play. And on Sunday we’re going to have to make the big plays again, because the Redskins are probably playing the best ball in the league.”
The win also clinched a playoff berth for the third consecutive year for the Giants, their first such streak since 1961-1963. Parcells tried to maintain an even keel, “I haven’t got too much time to celebrate. I’ll celebrate on the plane. We’ve got the OK Corral next week.”
Big Blue Steamroller
Joe Gibbs warned his team not to say anything inflammatory during the week. The normally loquacious and quotable defensive end Dexter Manley complied, and was even gracious when asked about the upcoming showdown, “I don’t dislike the Giants at all. It’s a great rivalry between two teams. So I don’t have a heck of a lot to say about those guys.”
The Redskins came into the game having won five straight, their last loss being to the Giants, and were 7-0 at home. The Giants hadn’t beaten Washington in RFK Stadium since 1981 and hadn’t swept them in a season series since 1977. Carl Banks said, “They match up to us physically better than any other team. They might outmatch us physically.”
Manley was also the NFL leader in sacks with 17.5, with Lawrence Taylor was right behind at 16.5. Brad Benson, who’d oppose Manley at left tackle, said, “They really need their defensive line to play well for them to win.” During preparations Parcells informed Benson there would be no two-tight end sets, he would be on Manley without help the majority of the game.
Simms said, “Benson gets (Manley) all by himself. That’s our style, and I’ll tell you something. I’m not worried.”
Benson said, “Sure, I’m nervous about facing Manley. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. I’ve never gotten this much attention in my life. It’s like I was a quarterback or something.”
Gibbs said, “This is the kind of game you enjoy being part of. I think that’s why you coach and play. If you don’t enjoy a game like this you’re a loser.”
Simms said, “There’s no extra pressure on us. The pressure is getting to games like this. It’s always nice to play in a game like this. A lot of people in this league would like to be in this game.”
The start of this game was frustrating for Simms, as he threw an interception on New York’s first play from scrimmage, and missed several open receivers for what could have been touchdown passes. The Giants defense was stout against the run and the pass rush was at its relentless best, harassing and chasing Schroeder from the pocket routinely. Schroeder threw two interceptions himself in the first half.
Joe Morris, New York Giants (December 7, 1986)
The ascension of the Giants came late in the first half, moments after Washington had just tied the score 7-7. There was 1:50 remaining in the second quarter. New York swung the momentum of the game in their favor, and the 1986 Giants assumed control of their destiny.
After picking up a first down, the Giants were faced with a 3rd-and-7 on their own 40-yard line. During the timeout, an aggressive call was made on the sideline. Simms said, “(Parcells said) to heck with a first down. I want it all.”
Simms threw deep down the sideline for Bobby Johnson, who made a leaping catch over cornerback Barry Wilburn and went out of bounds at the 25-yard line to stop the clock with 53 seconds left. Two plays later, Simms found Johnson in the back of the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown pass. The Giants led 14-7 and never looked back.
Gibbs said, “We were in a prevent defense, they caught us short down the sideline. That was a big drive, no question about it.”
Washington safety Curtis Jordan said, “The long pass to the sidelines was the pivotal play of the game. That turned it around. We were pressing with our corners and had the safeties deep to take away the inside, and it didn’t work. Simms made a great throw, but, heck, he’s been doing that stuff all year; he just hasn’t been getting the credit for it.”
Simms said, “To be 7-7 at halftime would’ve been disappointing. Instead, we came into the locker room happy and went out and got it done.”
The defense brutalized and frustrated Schroeder, sacking him four times – three by Taylor, including a forced fumble – and forced him to throw a Redskins franchise-record six interceptions. The seven takeaways by the New York defense matched their season high from Week 2 against San Diego. The Giants won 24-14.
Leonard Marshall and Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants (December 7, 1986)
Schroeder said, “They ran a lot of very deep zones, dropping the linebackers 15 to 18 yards. We couldn’t go deep, so we had to throw underneath. It takes a lot of time to zone out; with the pass rush they had, you can’t do that.”
Carson said, “We took away the long pass, that’s what hurt us in the first game. We wanted to force them to throw to their backs and tight ends.”
Gibbs explained his offense’s struggles succinctly, “(The Giants are) the only team in football that doesn’t need a safety to help force on runs. They stop runs with seven guys, not eight. The safety can sit back there and never be out of position if you pass instead of run.”
Simms praised his offensive line: “The pass protection was terrific. For an old man, Brad did a good job on Dexter.” Benson was named the “NFC Offensive Player of the Week” for his performance against Manley. He was the first – and remains the only – offensive lineman to win the award since its inception in 1984.
Taylor’s three sacks of Schroeder moved him into first place in the NFL with 19.5 sacks on the season. Giants legend and Redskins radio broadcaster Sam Huff said, “Lawrence Taylor is the best defensive football player I have ever seen.”
Leonard Marshall said, “A guy as good as Dexter Manley shouldn’t have to mouth off all the time make excuses…(He) didn’t mention that Benson whipped him all day, did he? I didn’t think so.”
Manley said, “I’m not feeling very good right now. I feel like I’ve been sucking on a lot of raw eggs.”
The 12-2 Giants were in full control of the NFC East after sweeping 11-3 Washington. The only negative for New York was the loss of starting safety Terry Kinard with a knee injury that required season-ending surgery. Herb Welch was the next man up. Parcells said, “I think our team basically has that attitude now that there is a way to overcome things. I don’t think that anything that happens now can be devastating to us. For example, losing Terry Kinard was a big loss, but I think somebody will pick up the slack.”
New York clinched their first division title in 23 years a day before they even stepped onto the field to take on St. Louis. The Redskins lost on Saturday at Denver 31-30, with the difference being a missed point-after. George Martin put the division title in perspective: “It was twelve years of struggle and disappointment, and to see it finally pay off…I just can’t put in words how it feels. But it’s still too early to start celebrating.”
The Giants were an unstoppable force their final two home games, annihilating St. Louis 27-7 and Green Bay 55-24. The 14-2 record represented the most regular-season victories for the franchise since they had won 13 games in the 1929 and 1930 seasons. The Giants were also 8-0 at home, marking only the third unbeaten home record in Giants history along with the 1933 and 1939 teams.
New York ended the regular season with a nine-game winning streak, matching the franchise mark set by the 1927 and 1962 teams. The streak can be seen in two distinct parts. The first six games were closely fought struggles, where the Giants built resolve and confidence as they overcame adversity. The average margin of victory was 3.7 points, and in three of the six games the Giants overcome second-half deficits. The first game against Washington that began the steak was tied late and New York won with a touchdown drive to prevent overtime.
The next three games saw the Giants operate at peak efficiency. The average margin of victory was 20 points. New York learned to play from ahead and finish off opponents without letting them back into the contest. There was not one single blown lead.
Carson recalled the late-season surge years later: “We were so physical that we beat teams into submission. Our play reminded me of the same type of power football the Pittsburgh Steelers had exhibited when they beat teams in the seventies. We beat up some teams so badly physically that I actually felt sorry for them. The term smashmouth was used to describe out play on both sides of the football. It was appropriate because we didn’t care what the opposing teams ran against us. We took great pride in playing hard, tough, physical football against any teams we played against.”
Lawrence Taylor led the league in sacks with 20.5 and was named the “NFL’s Most Valuable Player,” becoming the first Giant to do so since Y.A. Tittle in 1963, and the first defensive player to win the award since defensive tackle Alan Page in 1971. Parcells was named the “NFL Coach of the Year,” New York’s first head coach to be so honored since Allie Sherman in 1962.
Joe Morris rushed for a team-record 1,516 yards with 14 touchdowns, and Mark Bavaro became New York’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Homer Jones in 1968, with 1,001 yards on 66 catches.
Although the current Giants stood tall with many of their predecessors, there was a lingering drive to see the season through and end New York’s championship drought to silence the ghosts once and for all.
“It’s a New York phenomenon, not only in football but all sports,” Parcells said. “In baseball they remember Joe DiMaggio and Duke Snider and Mickey Mantle and boo every outfielder that doesn’t measure up. Knick fans remember Willis Reed and boo every center that’s followed him. Phil generated a lot of excitement as a rookie, then there was a lull and the fans were disappointed. For a while it got to Phil, but I think he’s over it now.”
Simms: “The thing you have to understand about New York is that you have to learn to live with the ghosts of the past. You have to get used to hearing people say, ‘Well, the old Giants would have done this or that.’ I’ve gotten to the point where I can shut out the booing now, the constant nagging. I honestly don’t hear it. I think I’ve changed as a player, too.”
Carson: “This isn’t like baseball where you celebrate winning the division. In football, you celebrate once and that’s when you win the Super Bowl.”
Most significant for the Giants prospects was they had home field advantage though the playoffs.
Kenny Hill said, “We don’t want to go to the playoffs in a hostile city with the temperature near absolute zero, as we did last year in Chicago. That made a big impression on us. To stay here and play in front of our own folks in our own stadium in decent weather is incentive enough for us.”
Carson said, “We feel we can beat anybody in the NFL. I think losing to the Bears in the playoffs last season was a good experience for us. I’m hungry.”
New York’s first opponent in the post season was a familiar one, San Francisco. Coach Bill Walsh had the upmost respect for his foe’s versatile and strong defense, “You just can’t do the same things time after time against the Giants. You have to keep them off balance and not get greedy. We have to be patient and play the game and let it run its course rather than try gimmick or low-percentage plays.”
On the other side, Parcells described his focus on fundamentals and containing the 49ers potent offense, “You try to put tight coverage on the receivers early, you try to jam them. That’s always big for us because we’re primarily a zone team on defense. (Montana’s) not going to take sacks early, but if he’s trying to catch up or make a first down, he’s got to hold the ball to do it.”
On the game’s pivotal play late it in the second quarter, Montana let go of the ball while absorbing a violent impact from Jim Burt. The pass fluttered into the waiting arms of Lawrence Taylor who ran it back 34-yards for a cementing 45-yard touchdown, the Giants second in 22 seconds that opened up a 28-3 lead. Montana’s helmet bounced on the turf, causing him to leave the game with a concussion.
Burt said, “I hit him from the front. I couldn’t pull up. He had no chance to get out of the way...I didn’t even know he was hurt until I looked back later. When we intercepted, I was looking for somebody to block…I as worried I’d hurt him badly.”
San Francisco receiver Dwight Clark said, “(Montana) was pretty groggy. He didn’t know what happened to the ball. He didn’t know they had scored. I think he was fine, but he was disoriented…I never thought it got to be hopeless until it got to be 28-3. Then I began to feel a little hopeless. Before then, I thought we could come back, things might change.”
San Francisco tackle Keith Fahnhorst said, “After Joe left, things didn’t look good. Until that time, I thought we could come back.”
Early on, the ball bounced New York’s way. It was perhaps only coincidence that Jerry Rice’s unforced fumble – he apparently lost control of the ball when it hit his thigh pad – occurred in very close proximity to the location of the 1978 Joe Pisarcik-Larry Csonka fumble. The Giants faithful could only feel that the football gods were finally atoning for nearly 30 years of disappointment and unfulfilled promise.
The game opened with a Giants three-and-out. On second down from the 50-yard line, Montana connected with Rice on a slant route that should have gone all the way for an early touchdown and 7-0 lead. Inexplicably, the ball popped out of Rice’s hand. In the wild scramble for the loose ball, it was knocked into the end zone where Kenny Hill recovered for a touchback. “Rice fell on it and it squirted out,” said Hill. “I kept running and fell on it. But I think the significance of that play is being blown out of proportion.”
Taylor said, “If they score on that one, they lose 49-10.”
Walsh said, “You can’t relate this to any one play. It would be an excuse of monumental proportions.”
Parcells said, “I guess it was pretty important, but the way we were playing, I don’t think it would have mattered.”
Simms immediately engineered a 10-play, 80-yard drive for a touchdown, capitalizing on the sudden momentum swing. The first play of the drive was a 15-yard run by Morris, more than he had in the entire game at San Francisco in December. On this possession, Morris carried five times for 40 yards to set up Simms’ 24-yard scoring strike to Bavaro to put the Giants up 7-0 at 7:29.
Mark Bavaro, New York Giants (January 4, 1987)
The teams exchanged punts before San Francisco drove to New York’s 9-yard line and kicked a 26-yard field goal at 1:20. Three more drives ending with punts led to the tide turning the Giants way for good. A blitzing Carl Banks hit Montana as he threw the ball. Herb Welch caught the underthrown pass at the New York 39-yard line, and lateraled to Kenny Hill who advanced the ball to the San Francisco 45-yard line. The first play from scrimmage was a pitch left to Morris, who cut through a huge hole inside left tackle, and sprinted untouched into the end zone, giving New York a 14-3 lead at 7:39.
New York’s defense clamped down on the 49ers. The Banks-led front seven stymied any rush attempt and the pass rush collapsed the pocket every time Montana dropped back. After forcing a three-and-out, Simms engineered a 13-play drive that began with 5:35 in the second quarter and ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Bobby Johnson with 55 seconds before the half. The highlight of the drive came right after the two-minute warning, when the Giants shifted out of a field-goal formation on 4th-and-6 from the 28-yard line and Jeff Rutledge connected with Bavaro on a 23-yard gain to the 5-yard line.
The 21-3 lead quickly became 28-3 with the Burt hit on Montana that gave Lawrence Taylor the interception return for a touchdown. The Giants outscored the 49ers 21-0 in the third quarter before emptying the bench and allowing the reserves to finish off the scoreless fourth quarter.
Billy Ard said, “I almost felt bad about it. I don’t know…you score so many times, you keep lining up and kicking extra points, you look over at the 49ers, at their faces. What the hell, they’re guys like us.”
The Giants ran the ball 44 times for 216 yards, including 24 carries for 159 yards and two touchdowns by Morris. Parcells was pleased with New York’s rushing attack, “The last time we played the 49ers, we got 13 yards rushing. We could’ve run 13 quarterback sneaks and done better than that.”
Joe Morris, New York Giants (January 4, 1987)
The 49ers were limited to 184 total yards and nine first downs by the Giants. Belichick believed it was New York’s best defensive performance of the year: “…the aggressiveness, the intensity, the effectiveness, not letting up for even one play. And the way we kept after them for 60 minutes…We were ready to play today. It was very noticeable. The level of intensity was above what it normally is. And that’s understandable. We waited a year for this game. It was January 5, 1986, in Chicago that we all remember.”
Pepper Johnson said, “We were just too relentless.”
Billy Ard said, “We wanted it bad.”
The 49 points scored by New York broke the franchise record of 47 they scored against the Bears in the 1956 NFL Championship Game. The 46-point margin of victory tied for the third largest in NFL post season history.
San Francisco guard Randy Cross said, “The Giants are capable of doing this to any team. They’re like Chicago last year or us the year before. Every year a team emerges that seems capable of crushing anybody, and that’s the level the Giants are at right now.”
Walsh said, “Shattered, we were simply shattered. They played a perfect game. They destroyed our offense, shattered our blocking angles. We were dealt with…The way they played, the only surprise would be if they don’t win the Super Bowl.”
The Redskins defeated the Bears in Chicago, setting up a matchup between what many believed were the league’s two best teams in the NFC Championship Game at Giants Stadium.
Parcells said, “The Redskins are the best team we played this year…I thought they would have a good shot against the Bears, and they beat them. A month ago, Lawrence Taylor told me it would be us and the Redskins for the championship, and he was right.”
Washington offensive line coach Joe Bugel said, “You’ve got the league’s two most prolific pass rushers side-by-side, Taylor and Marshall. It’s going to take a great game plan and superhuman effort to beat the Giants. If we get into a throwing contest with them, we’ll be in trouble.”
The game would be the biggest hosted by the Giant since the 1962 NFL Championship Game. Fans were ecstatic, even if New York City Mayor Ed Koch said should the Giants win the Super Bowl, the city would not fund the traditional ticker-tape parade up Broadway since they played across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
George Martin, as he often did, put the present in context with the past, “It’s different now. (The fans) are cheering for us instead of against us. It used to be very disheartening when you were at home, but I’m going back a lot of years. I think it began to change in the Perkins’ era.”
Harry Carson said, “It was difficult in those days. Sometimes it felt like it was better being on the road than at home. I guess it changed when we started winning. It’s nicer now.”
Brad Benson believed the home crowd became an asset during the Week 9 game against the Cowboys, “A long time ago, that noise from the crowd wouldn’t have happened. They used to be pretty bad. They used to leave games early because we were losing. But they started to change this year about the time of the Dallas game. I think they realized they could help us.”
Practices throughout the week were palpably intense. Erik Howard said, “The last game we played against Washington was the biggest game I’ve been in so far. I didn’t think there could be anything more intense. Our intensity level all season has been high, and for the 49ers game last week it was up 50 percent. This week, it’s more. It keeps going up and up.”
Billy Ard said, “You can sense the anxiety. Fuses are shorter. There have been pushing and shoving matches in practice.”
The normally guarded Parcells exuded a quiet confidence, “We’re fine. We’re ready to play. Practices have gone fine. I think we’ve had good preparation.”
Meeting an opponent for a third time was a new experience for the current Giants, though it had occurred several times in their history. The three-game sweep was not an easy feat, but it was not an impossible one.
Three times in their history had the Giants faced a team in the post-season after defeating them twice in the regular season. In 1943, New York swept the Reskins in back-to-back games to close the regular season and force a playoff to determine the Eastern Conference champion. But Washington beat the Giants at the Polo Grounds 28-0 in that third contest.
Old Friends: Giants and Redskins Rivalry 1936-1946
In 1950, the Giants were the only team to defeat 10-2 Cleveland, including the first shut out in Browns history when Steve Owen unveiled the Umbrella Defense in their first ever meeting. However, New York lost the American Conference playoff 8-3 at Cleveland Stadium.
New York Giants – Cleveland Browns 1950-1959 (Part I)
In 1958, the Giants successfully completed the three-game sweep over the Browns. The season finale at snowy Yankee Stadium concluded with Pat Summerall’s famous 48-yard field goal that forced the Eastern Conference playoff, where New York’s defense shut down Cleveland 10-0.
New York Giants – Cleveland Browns 1950-1959 (Part II)
Once, the Giants found themselves in the reverse situation. New York entered the 1934 NFL Championship Game having been beaten by the Chicago Bears twice during the regular season, but pulled off the upset with the help of sneakers to win the NFL Title.
The 1934 New York Giants
Simms said, “As Giant football players, we have to live in the past. People remind us of that. Not that it bothers us, but we’d kind of like to wipe it out.”
Heading into the contest, Parcells acknowledged the Giants defense as the foundation of his confidence: “Defense keeps you in the game. There are going to be some days when the offense doesn’t play that well. If the defense plays well, that gives you a chance.”
Washington coach Joe Gibbs expressed the dilemma facing his defense, as in the first regular season game New York ran the ball at will, but in the second game big passing plays were the difference: “You may stop one phase, but they’re going to kill you in another.”
The weather forecast called for harsh playing conditions that included winds over 15 mph. Simms said, “I don’t care if it snows. But if it rains, that means cold winds, and that would cause problems for both teams. It’s windy every day we practice there, but once it gets past 20 miles an hour it gets to be a problem.”
Those conditions proved to influence one of the game’s significant decisions – the pregame coin toss. The officially-recorded condition at kickoff were sustained winds of 17-23 mph with gusts up to 30 mph. The Giants won the toss when Washington called tails and it came up heads. New York elected to defend the end zone with the wind at their backs to start the first quarter.
Parcells sought the council of New York’s punter during warmups. Sean Landeta said, “I told him the wind was going to be a bigger factor than Lawrence Taylor.”
Kicking with the wind at his back, Raul Allegre sent the ball over the end zone and beyond the end line to start the game with a touchback. Washington went three-and-out, and punter Steve Cox’s wind-opposed punt sailed out of bounds at the Redskins 47-yard line, for a net of just 23-yards.
Simms threw two incomplete passes on the first drive, but a 14-yard Morris rush put New York in position for a 47-yard field goal and 3-0 advantage at 11:44. Simms said, “I knew we had to score early. The wind’s velocity was horrendous. You could feel it on your face.”
Allegre’s kickoff was downed eight yards deep in the end zone. Linebacker Gary Reasons sacked Schroeder on the first play and the Redskins once again were forced to punt after three downs. This time Cox’s punt netted 27 yards into the wind, advancing the ball from the 11-yard line to the 38.
The Giants advanced to move the chains once. Then Simms threw an incomplete pass on 3rd-and-10 from the Washington 26-yard line. This set up a critical decision, as offensive holding was called on Bart Oates. Instead of declining and taking the down, Gibbs accepted the penalty, which gave New York a second chance with 3rd-and-20 from the 36-yard line. “I felt another 10 yards would force them into a long field goal and give us a chance for better field position,” said Gibbs. “It was a gamble there.”
That gamble backfired when Simms connected with Lionel Manuel for a 25-yard gain for a first down. Three plays later Simms found Manuel in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown pass and a 10-0 Giants lead at 5:32 in the first quarter.
After another kickoff deep into the end zone, Washington attempted to end the quarter with a succession of rushes to keep the clock moving. The first two rushes were good for a first down. The next two netted seven yards. The next pivotal play came on 3rd-and-3 from the Washington 37-yard line. Schroeder launched a perfect spiral into the wind, deep down the right sideline to Gary Clark who had two steps on cornerback Elvis Patterson. The ball hit Clark’s outstretched hands, then hit the turf. The drop proved costly, as Washington lost not only field positon, but badly needed momentum.
Clark said, “I was running with it before I caught it. I wanted it all, and got none of it. I know nobody would have caught me. And it would have made the score 10-7 and changed the way the Giants were thinking. It hurt a lot.”
Gibbs said, “That could have made our day…I think the coin toss was the biggest play for them. As soon as we lost it, we knew we’d need a break to get out of the hole…We needed a play or break to get us going, and we couldn’t get it done.”
After the drop, Cox had another punt adversely affected by the wind, this time netting 24 yards to New York’s 39-yard line. Cox said, “I was trying to kick low and get a roll, but the ball kept coming back. Forcing us to kickoff and punt into the wind was a great strategy. It really cost us the game in the first quarter.”
The Giants tried to use the wind at their backs one last time, but two of Simms’ three passes were incomplete. Landeta launched his first punt of the game – 40 yards to the Redskins 18-yard line, and it was returned to the 27.
The Redskins got their first break when New York was called for pass interference on a third-down incompletion, giving Washington their initial first down of the game at their 40-yard line. A five-yard run ran out the first-quarter clock. The strategy of defending with the wind proved to be a sound decision. Parcells said, “It was the toughest wind we’ve played in since I’ve been here.”
Changing sides of the field did not change Washington’s fortunes, as the second quarter proved to be just as disastrous as the first. After trading punts, the Giants actually improved field position as Cox’s punt with the wind set New York up at their 24-yard line. Punting from midfield four plays later, Landeta – punting into the wind – set the ball down at the 4-yard line. Landeta received a standing ovation as he walked back to the sideline.
Schroeder moved the ball out quickly, connecting with Art Monk for 48 yards down the right sideline for a gain into New York’s territory for the first time. Another completion to Monk and a George Rogers’ rush moved the chains again before the advance stalled at the Giants 34-yard line. Former Giant Jess Atkinson lined up for a 51-yard field goal attempt with the wind at his back, but the low snap skittered through Schoeder’s hands and Carl Banks recovered the loose ball at Washington’s 49-yard line. Banks said, “I think that was the biggest play of the game.”
The beginning of the end for the Redskins came on a 2nd-and-7 pass completion from Simms to Bavaro, good for 30 yards to the Washington 17-yard line. Morris ran off right tackle for eight yards to the 9-yard line, Simms ran a naked bootleg around left tackle to the 1-yard line, and Morris closed the drive with a 1-yard slant off right tackle for a touchdown and a 17-0 lead at 7:56 in the second quarter.
Joe Morris said, “It wasn’t a pretty game for us. It was hard to pass in the wind. You have to run the ball and they know you’re going to run the ball, so it’s hard. They’re a tough team.”
The touchdown drive into the wind all but finished off the Redskins. Even with the wind at their backs and throwing on almost every play, Washington struggled to move the ball.
Schroeder said, “For 15 yards I could throw. Beyond that, for the receivers it was like catching a knuckleball…The game was decided in the first quarter, no doubt about it. We couldn’t get the ball out of our territory. We had some deep shots, but either the ball was dropped or I threw it too far or the wind took it too wide. We had to fight the elements and the Giants too. It turned out to be too much.”
Meanwhile, the Giants played the clock as much as they played the Redskins, running the ball as often as possible to keep time ticking away. Simms said, “Once we got the lead we sort of choked down our offense.”
Washington’s final chance to get back into the game occurred just inside the 2-minute warning before halftime when Morris lost a fumble at the Giants 37-yard line. Schroeder’s first down pass was incomplete as he was hurried by Jim Burt. Two short completions gave Washington a 4th-and-1 on the 28-yard line with one minute to go. Gibbs gambled again, passing on the field goal attempt and choosing to go for the first down. New York’s defense rose to the occasion and made the stop, swarming over Rogers for no gain on a run off left tackle.
Simms knelt on the ball twice to end the first half. The Giants game plan was seemingly to kneel on the ball the entire second half. Over the final 30 minutes, the Giants ran 29 offensive plays, 27 of which were rush attempts. Playing catch-up, Schroeder threw the ball 50 times in total, but completed only 20. Schroeder was also sacked four times and intercepted once.
The Giants defense was impenetrable – stonewalling the Redskins to 0-of-14 on third down conversion attempts, and 0-of-4 on fourth downs. The Giants advanced to Super Bowl XXI with a 17-0 victory in front of a Giants Stadium record 76,663 delirious and celebratory fans, who filled the air with newspaper, pages torn out of programs and hot dog wrappers. Jim Burt said, “This was our ticker-tape parade.”
Parcells said, “When you hold a team in that department to 0-for-18, it’s not perfect, it’s a miracle…You get those three-downs-and-punt series, it’s artistic.”
Taylor missed much of the second half after suffering a thigh bruise early in the third quarter when he collided with teammate Harry Carson’s helmet. It made little difference, as Carl Banks moved into Taylor’s role and the unit did not miss a beat. Byron Hunt and Andy Headen assumed Banks’ spot with no appreciable drop off. Chris Godfrey said, “Our defense played like a school of piranha waiting for someone to stick their foot in the water. They chewed them up.”
Brad Benson, who had held Dexter Manley to two tackles in the previous meeting, had a shut out of his own, keeping Manley off the stat sheet – no tackles and no assists. Benson said, “In the second quarter we made a bet. (Manley) said, ‘I’ll bet you $500 I get a sack.’ I took it. After the game, when we shook hands, he said, ‘It’s not fair. It shouldn’t count. You only threw two passes in the second half.’ I said, ‘O.K., I’ll settle for a beer at the Pro Bowl.'”
Manley said, “I feel I was a non-factor. I felt I was invisible.”
In their two playoff games, the Giants outscored the NFC’s representatives in the Super Bowl four of the past five years 66-3. Carson maintained a broad mindset amid the celebration: “We have to keep things in perspective because we’ve got a job to do on the field. We’re going to Pasadena not just to show up, but to win. It ain’t over yet…You have Troy Archer, Bob Ledbetter, Emlen Tunnel, John Tuggle, Spider Lockhart, I wish they could have been here to take part in this.”
Joe Morris said, “Today the New York Giant marched out of the dark ages. The only thing we used to hear about was the good old days. Now they’re talking about us.”
Run For The Roses
During the first week of preparations for the Super Bowl, George Martin felt the experience was almost too good to be true, “The Super Bowl was always like a dream, like someone telling you a fairy tale. You always hoped you would be in it. I think now that we are, you have less of a euphoric feeling.”
The Giant who had seen it all, Wellington Mara, said, “I always said the Giants would make the Super Bowl, I just didn’t know if I’d still be around.”
Carl Banks received much recognition for his dominating performance in the post-season, yet he remained humble, “If there’s pressure on the defense anywhere, it’s opposite Lawrence because most offenses are geared to go away from him. So if you’re not ready, they’re going to have a field day on your side.”
The adulation also came from ghosts from the past. Former Giant defensive great Jim Katcavage said, “All their linebackers are great. And the backups would be starting on other teams.”
Andy Robustelli seemed ready to pass on the torch of being the standard bearer: “Why the old Giants? Talk about the new Giants. I see a lot of character in the new Giants, they exude confidence. But I don’t call them a throwback because this is a whole new era. They’re not boastful, they’re not ornery. They have an opportunity to establish a shining example of what this new era can be.”
Phil Simms also garnered attention for his late season resurgence and clutch performances. His coach Ron Erhardt never doubted him, “It’s a shame. I think most of the fans think he’s a pretty good quarterback. In the past, the boo-birds were wrong.”
George Young’s belief in Simms also had never wavered: “He had to work his can off all the time and fight to stay on the field. Just think of all the times he wanted to be The Guy. He couldn’t finish in the playoffs in ’81, and he couldn’t finish in ’82 or ’83. He had to fight through all those frustrations. He had to fight his way through all those things. That’s what impresses me. I don’t count up the completed passes. I don’t know those attempts and completion averages and quarterback ratings.”
Simms himself was typically humble and deflected praise saying, “The Super Bowl is only supposed to be for special people.” He displayed his humility despite enjoying a week of practices that were the best anyone could remember seeing. Bart Oates said, “Phil was phenomenal in that Friday practice. He hit everything he threw. The receivers were making some tough catches. Parcells said, ‘Hey, this is too much. Save something for the game.’ Phil had this strange sort of a glow. It was like he was in a perfect biorhythm stage or something.”
Simms said later, “Right from the first day of practice I felt that I was going to have a good game. I felt good about throwing the ball. Conditions were just perfect for passing. I could see that the ball was carrying better. The weather was great. I was used to throwing in the cold, but now I could grip the ball any way I wanted to. I could make it do anything I wanted…I was excited by the way I was throwing, and I was excited by the game plan. We wanted to surprise them. We were going to come out throwing, and we were going to keep on throwing. I couldn’t have been happier.”
Phil McConkey said, “We were so ready even before we left for California. The game plan was in, and when we got out there, we were absolutely on fire at practice. Those were the greatest practices I’ve ever been associated with. Phil’s confidence was sky-high coming out of those practices, and he didn’t miss anything.”
Zeke Mowatt said, “We knew all week (Simms) was going to have a big game.”
The relaxed confidence from the week of practices carried over to the pre-game warm ups. Simms said, “I felt so good warming up in the Rose Bowl. ‘Nervous?’ Benson asked me. ‘No. Not nervous. Excited. I feel great. I’m gonna be throwing some fastballs today. Give me time and I’ll rip ‘em.’”
John Elway started off as hot as Simms. On the game’s opening possession, Elway started off with a 10-yard run, then connected with wide receiver Mark Jackson for 24 yards on 3rd-and-7 to put Denver in field goal position and an early 3-0 lead.
Simms answered with aplomb. He was 6-for-6 for 69 yards on the 9-play drive. The Giants passed on all five first downs, including the 6-yard touchdown pass to Zeke Mowatt, completely catching the Broncos defense off guard. Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg said, “They changed their whole offensive attack. Pass first, run second. It surprised us.”
Phil Simms, New York Giants, Super Bowl XXI (January 25, 1987)
Elway again moved Denver quickly, completing his first three passes. The third completion had an additional 30 yards tacked onto it when Carson was penalized for a late hit out of bounds and Taylor for unsportsmanlike conduct when he threw the official’s flag. Two plays later, Elway scored a touchdown on a 4-yard draw up the middle. The Broncos led 10-7 at 3:21 in the first quarter.
The Giants ran three more plays before the quarter ended. The passing totals for both quarterbacks were perfect: 13-for-13 for 144 yards (just over 11 yards per attempts). The first pass to hit the ground came on a 3rd-and-3 for the Giants when Phil McConkey fell down at the 45-yrd line of Denver and the ball sailed over his head incomplete. Landeta punted into the end zone and the Broncos took over on their 20-yard line.
Elway skewered the Giants pass coverage for 54 yards on 3rd-and-2, when he was able to move outside of the pocket to his left to avoid pressure, and throw across the field diagonally to wide receiver Vance Johnson near the right boundary. Banks said, “The Broncos have a smart, experienced line and they forced us out of our lanes. We had an unbalanced rush, three guys on one side and only one on the other. Elway just rolled to the side where there was one guy.”
Carson said, “We were tentative. We let Elway make some big plays, some long passes. Our defense is designed to contain the big plays and give up the short ones. It just wasn’t like us.”
Denver had a first down at New York’s 28-yard line, but despite the relative ease Denver had moving the ball against the Giants normally stout defense, there was no sense of panic. Parcells said, “I told our defensive guys before the game not to worry about (Elway) getting completions early and making plays. Just keep wearing them down.”
Three more completions and a short rush set up the Broncos with a 1st-and-goal on the Giants 1-yard line. After moving 79 yards in nine plays, Denver was one yard away from a 10-point lead midway through the second quarter.
Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants (January 25, 1987)
On first down, Elway rolled to his right with a pass-run option. New York’s defense flowed with him, flooding that half of the end-zone and eliminating receivers, while Taylor stayed with Elway until he ran out of room. Taylor tackled Elway on the sideline for a 1-yard loss. Elway said, “When you’re down there, the field gets telescoped real small. They have 11 guys in a small area, and it’s tough to throw.”
A trap play up the middle was stuffed by Harry Carson in the hole for no gain on second down. Third down was a pitch left to Sammy Winder, but New York’s goal-line front got penetration. Cornerback Perry Williams forced Winder back inside where Banks brought him to the turf for a loss of four yards. Banks said, “In New York they had scored on a pitchout from four yards out. I expected that play again, and that’s what they called.”
Denver failed to get any points from the once promising drive when Rich Karlis sent the 23-yard field goal attempt wide right. Elway said, “We were very disappointed. We had it going in the first half. That hurt us when it was 1st-and-goal and we didn’t get it in…At the point we needed the run, we couldn’t get it. The Giants are tough to run against.”
New York Giants Offense (January 25, 1987)
Taking over with 7:40 on the clock, the Giants advanced toward midfield before punting the Broncos to their own 15-yard line with 3:33 to play in the half. Leonard Marshall sacked Elway on a roll out for a 2-yard loss on first down. After a second-down incompletion, Elway was sacked in the end zone for a safety by Martin. The Giants now trailed 10-9 and had momentum on their side. Martin said, “I made a dummy call. I faked inside, he overset, and I went outside and he couldn’t get to me.”
The Giants received the free kick at 2:36 but went three-and-out and punted to Denver with 1:05 left in the half at their own 37-yard line. On second down, Elway scrambled out of the pocket and connected with wide receiver Steve Watson for a 31-yard gain to New York’s 32-yard line. A shovel pass for 11 yards preceded an offside penalty on the Giants and three consecutive incomplete passes.
Again, Denver came up empty when Karlis missed the 34-yard field goal attempt wide right. Reeves said, “I thought we should have scored about 10 more points in the first half. We knew going into the ballgame that if we didn’t take advantage of every opportunity we had, we’d be in tough shape…When you have an inadequate running game, it hurts you most inside ‘plus’ territory. To try to find a pass to use against the Giants is tough down there.”
Mark Collins said, “That missed field goal was huge, because you could feel the Broncos saying, ‘Damn, that was it.’”
Burt said, “We felt fortunate it was only 10-9 against us. We knew it was crucial to stop them early in the third quarter. We knew what we had to do. This is something you work for all your life. And we knew we were capable of coming back strong. We’ve been down at the half in other games this season, and won them.”
Carson said, “At halftime, we knew we had to contain (Elway) in the pocket, and get some three-and-outs.”
Martin said, “We were determined not to make any more dumb mistakes. We were a little bewildered in the first half, but you’ve gotta give credit to the Broncos…It was simply important to keep Elway in the pocket because when he gets out, he’s double dangerous. He can pass and he can run.”
The Giants defense began the second half on the sideline and the offense started off slowly. On 3rd-and-3 from their own 44-yard line, Morris was stopped after a pickup of two yards. New York’s punt team took the field, but quickly shifted to an offensive set with backup quarterback Jeff Rutledge under center. Rutledge checked with the sideline, then took the snap and burrowed into the line for a 2-yard gain and first down to maintain possession. This provided the spark the offense lacked since the game’s opening drive.
Parcells said, “Jeff could take a delay or run. He looked over at me, I nodded my head and he went for it. We went for it because we’re trying to win the game. This is for the world championship. I have a lot of confidence in our guys.”
Simms said, “After that play, things seemed to shift. I knew we could move the ball on these guys.”
Two of Simms’ passes had the Giants at the Denver 17-yard line. After two short runs, Simms connected with Bavaro up the right seam for a 13-yard touchdown and 16-10 lead at 10:08. New York’s revived defense held the Broncos to a three-and-out on three incomplete passes. Unlike the first half, Elway was contained to the pocket, unable to escape pressure.
New York Giants Defense (January 25, 1987)
The Giants took over on the Denver 36-yard line after McConkey returned the punt 25 yards. New York kept the ball on the ground. Three Morris rushes moved the chains. After a 1-yard run by Lee Rouson, Simms completed his only pass attempt for nine yards. The drive stalled at the Broncos 4-yard line after a scramble by Simms and two more runs by Carthon and Morris. Allegre kicked a 21-yard field goal and the Giants widened their lead to 19-10 at 4:18.
Another Bronco’s three-and-out gave the Giants the ball at their 32-yard line. A 17-yard completion to Manuel between two Morris rushes set the stage for the game’s climactic moment. On 2nd-and-6 from the Denver 45-yard line, Simms handed off to Morris, who took two steps toward the line, then pivoted and pitched back to Simms in the pocket. Simms surveyed the field and then passed deep down the left sideline to McConkey who caught the ball inside the 10-yard line. McConkey was upended by former Giant Mark Haynes and downed just inside the 1-yard line.
Simms said, “We’ve run the flea-flicker in practice for I don’t know how long and we’ve never hit on the damn thing. When I hit McConkey on the one, I thought ‘That’s it. We’ve won it.’” Morris went over from the one on the next play and New York lead 26-10 with 34 seconds left in the quarter.
Parcells said, “When we hit the flea-flicker, we really had a tremendous volume of momentum. We were dominating the third quarter pretty well. Once we hit that one and got the touchdown, I knew we would be hard to beat.”
Hard to beat quickly became near impossible. The third quarter ended with Marshall sacking Elway and the fourth quarter began with Elvis Patterson intercepting him. A 6-play drive ended with McConkey catching a deflected pass off of Bavaro’s shoulder for a touchdown and a 34-10 lead. It was the final pass Simms would throw. He finished the day 22-of-25 for 268 yards – nearly 11 yards per attempt – with three touchdowns. His 88% completion percentage was a post-season record and remains the standard for the Super Bowl.
The remainder of the game was anti-climactic, with New York allowing the bench players generous playing time and the defense playing soft to keep the clock moving. Simms was unanimously voted “Most Valuable Player” for the game after the 39-20 triumph.
“(Simms) quarterbacked as good a game as ever has been played,” said Parcells.
Ron Erhardt said, “Technically as close to a perfect game as I’ve seen a quarterback have.”
Reeves said, “The impressive thing about Simms is that when they put him in a pressure situation, he came through.”
Simms said, “In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have hoped it would work out this way. It’s like when you’re playing golf, and you know every putt’s going to go in. I didn’t throw one ball where I felt, ‘Damn! I want that one back.’…This makes up for all the crap I’ve taken over the years.”
The Giants defense also received praise. Elway said, “That defense just seems to know what I want to do and how I’m going to try to do it. There’s more quickness up front than we’ve seen.”
Denver center Billy Brian said, “They line up and say, ‘We’re going to come at you. Try to knock us off the ball.’ Their front seven is the strongest I can remember playing against.”
Lawrence Taylor said, “Now, no matter what people say about our team, whether the Giants don’t look good anymore or whatever, as long as I live I’ll always have a Super Bowl ring. One time in my career, we are considered the best in the world. That was the most important thing.”
Carson said, “This has been a long time coming. I just wish I didn’t have to wait so long.”
The New Standard
Not only were the 1986 Giants the best team in pro football for the season, they rated well against teams of the past as well. They outscored their opposition 105-23 in the post-season. The record differential of 82 points was one better than the 1985 Chicago Bears who had outscored their playoff opponents 91-10.
New York overcame their own history as well. They played in their first championship game since 1963 and won their first championship since 1956.
New York Giants Super Bowl XXI Ring – © USA TODAY Sports Images
Bart Oates said, “Not only did we have to overcome the people we played for 16 games and the playoffs, but there was a lot of history involved. There’s a long history of losing in this organization, and we were able to overcome all that losing by overcoming choking in the big game.”
Carson said, “For so many years, to think we would win a Super Bowl would be to question our sanity.”
Wellington Mara said, “(Winning the Super Bowl) was great, but I tried to be professional about it and remember it was great to win our other championships too. (Charlie) Conerly and Y.A. Tittle had big games for us, but maybe not in that big a game. I wouldn’t trade Simms for any quarterback in the game. For our ream, in our environment, he’s the perfect quarterback. He’s tough, maybe strong is the better word. He’s strong mentally, physically and spiritually.”
Simms said, “We won the Super Bowl, the Giants. They can’t take that away from us.”
The ghosts had finally been buried.
“Reaching For Respect”
Paul Zimmerman, Sep 29. 1986, Sports Illustrated
“Point of Attack: The Defense Strikes Back”
Harry Carson & Jim Smith, 1986, McGraw Hill Book Co.
“A Giant Step Forward”
Paul Zimmerman, Dec 15, 1986, Sports Illustrated
“Deep Sixing The Niners”
Paul Zimmerman, Jan 12, 1987, Sports Illustrated
“Just A Breeze For The Giants”
Paul Zimmerman, Jan 19, 1987, Sports Illustrated
Official Game Program Super Bowl XXI
John Wiebusch, Jan 25, 1987, National Football League Properties, Inc.
“Closing In On The Big One”
Paul Zimmerman, Jan. 26, 1987, Sports Illustrated
Paul Zimmerman, Feb 2, 1987, Sports Illustrated
“Giants 1987 World Championship Yearbook”
Laura A. Thorpe, 1987, Woodward Publishing
“Illustrated History of the New York Giants: From The Polo Grounds To Super Bowl XXI”
Richard Whittingham, 1987, HarperCollins
“The Giants Super Bowl Season”
Jerry Pinkus & Frank Gifford, 1987, William Morrow and Co.
“Giants: The Unforgettable Season”
Kevin Lamb, 1987, Macmillan Publishing Co.
“Simms To McConkey: Blood, Sweat and Gatorade”
Phil Simms, Phil McConkey with Dick Schapp, 1987, Crown Publishers, Inc.
“Captain For Life”
Harry Carson, 2011, St. Martin’s Press
2016 New York Football Giants Information Guide
Micheal Eisen, Dandre Phillips, Corey Rush, 2016, New York Football Giants, Inc.
Official 2016 NFL Record & Fact Book
2016, NFL Communications Dept.
Giants vs Rams Game Program London Game 16
Colin Hubbuck, Oct. 23, 2016, Haymarket Network
Going Back Through the VCR Archives: Looking Back at 25 Years of Giants Games on Tape
Giants-Vikings November 16, 1986 edition
Giants-49ers December 1, 1986 edition
Giants-Redskins December 7, 1986 edition
Historical New York Times searchable archive (via ProQuest)
Historical Washington Post searchable archive (via ProQuest)
Pro Football Reference
New York Giants Franchise Encyclopedia