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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: New York Giants
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from New York Giants History
By Michael Benson
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Michael Benson
All rights reserved.
There have been more than 40 Super Bowls, and the Giants have won two of them. Maybe that doesn't seem like a tremendous stat, but considering the size of the NFL, it still means that Big Blue has won more than its share. And so we start with "The Good," stories of Giants who wear rings.
PHIL SIMMS: PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY
In the long run Super Bowl XXI was the climax of the Phil Simms story. Not the end of the story, for sure, but the high point for the injury-prone quarterback, the much-maligned first-round pick out of — is that a typo? — Morehead State. When they announced his pick in the 1979 NFL draft the Giants fans in attendance booed heartily. They booed vociferously and with gusto. They booed with vociferous gusto! The fans attending the draft had had their hearts set on Jack Thompson, the "Throwin' Samoan" from Washington State University, who ended up going to the Bengals.
It was at age 31, in his eighth year with the Giants, that Phil Simms stepped onto the biggest stage of his life. Super Bowl XXI was played in a jam-packed Rose Bowl and before a record TV audience. Under those ultimate circumstances, Simms gave a near-perfect performance: he connected on 88 percent of his passes, gained 268 yards through the air, and completed three touchdown passes. It was a vindication for all of those who believed in him all along, and it was proof positive that the finger- pointers were wrong.
His completion rate was not just the best ever for a quarterback in a Super Bowl, but also for quarterbacks who threw the ball 15 or more times in a game. Simms's completion rate was the highest in NFL postseason history.
So where's the TV movie? He had transcended adversity and risen from a small school in Kentucky to the pinnacle of his profession. Even at the end, when he couldn't have been a bigger football hero, a football hero of Namathian proportions, he still shared camera time with a young Bill Parcells, who in 1985 had become the first football coach in the history of football coaches to have Gatorade poured over his head by his players in joyous celebration. By Super Bowl Sunday, Parcells's Gatorade bath had become a Giants tradition, and by the following season, the practice had caught on anywhere there was football, big games, coaches, and Gatorade.
But we start with the end of the story. Let's go back and find out how Phil Simms got to the mountaintop — and a very good mountaintop it was.
Philip Martin Simms was born on November 3, 1955, in Lebanon, Kentucky. He grew up in Louisville, and when it came time to go to college, he stayed close to home, attending Morehead State in Kentucky — not exactly a football powerhouse.
Simms was drafted in the first round by the Giants despite the fact that he had never played a game against a top-notch college opponent. The truth is, he would have been drafted by the 49ers in the third round if the Giants hadn't taken him immediately.
Simms got off to a wham-bang start in the NFL. He won the first five starts of his rookie year and finished with a 6–4 rookie season. He was runner-up for the 1979 NFL Rookie of the Year award. After that first year, however, things went kablooey, and Simms couldn't stay healthy. In 1980 he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against the Redskins. In 1982 his season ended before it started when he tore up his knee against the Jets in the preseason. The Giants started the 1983 season with Scott Brunner as the starting quarterback, but he struggled. Midway through the sixth game of the year Simms was brought in to replace Brunner. Simms lasted only two drives before he hit his thumb on an opposing player's helmet while following through after a pass. Simms suffered a compound fracture that left his thumb dangling, the bone sticking up through the skin. Few who watched that game on TV will forget Simms's knees buckling as he was led off the field, a bloody towel covering his hand.
It wasn't until 1984, his fifth year with the team, that Simms emerged as a star. That year he was third in the NFL in passing yards with 4,044, and he led the Giants to the playoffs with 22 touchdown passes. The Giants were improving. They won 10 games in 1985, their most since 1963, while Simms had another great year. The highlight of the quarterback's 1985 campaign was a game against the Cincinnati Bengals in which he passed for 513 yards — a Giants best and still the fifth best ever in NFL history.
Simms's coming out of Morehead State didn't stigmatize him on this team: a group of first-round draft-pick pedigrees they were not. Jim Burt was an undrafted free agent when the Giants got him. Phil McConkey was a reclamation project working on his second, or maybe third, career. Sean Landeta, Bart Oates, and Maurice Carthon were all veterans of the United States Football League. It was a rag-tag bunch glued together into a solid unit by the coaching genius of Bill Parcells.
Guys like Harry Carson and George Martin had already been around for a while and knew even during the off-season following the 1985 season that 1986 was going to be a special season for the Giants.
Though the era of bad football continued in New York, there were intermittent reasons to smile during the '80s. The 1981 Giants — after winning only four games in 1980 — made the playoffs, playing postseason football for the first time since losing their third consecutive NFL championship game in 1963. That 1981 team's defense was led by the "Crunch Bunch," which consisted of Harry Carson, Brad Van Pelt, Brian Kelley, and rookie Lawrence Taylor.
Taylor's addition made the Giants' defense truly frightening. At first L.T. had not been greeted with open arms by the veteran linebackers he was joining. But it didn't take him long to become accepted. Van Pelt remembered L.T. making that transition. He said, "I'll never forget it. I was pissed off because I was coming off my fifth Pro Bowl in a row, and they signed L.T. to a million-dollar bonus and the guy's making nearly twice as much as me. Then I watched him one day in practice, and I said, 'Okay, he's worth it.'"
Van Pelt also remembered that watching L.T. on film was amazing because in slow motion you could see L.T. reacting before everyone else, moving with the snap of the ball rather than just after it.
But even with L.T., the Giants floundered for a few years. Then came 1985 and another trip to the playoffs. The feeling grew that the pieces were in place and ready to jell.
THE 1986 SEASON
Years later, Carson recalled the run-up to the start of the 1986 season. He said, "When I came to minicamp I could just tell that everyone's attitude was completely different." The Giants made the 1985 playoffs but lost 21–0 to Chicago in the playoffs. That was the game when Sean Landeta tried to punt the ball out of his own end zone and missed.
Carson believes it was that loss, not any of the team's successes, that melded them into a unified unit dedicated to never losing again. And that was the feeling even at minicamp at Pace University in Pleasantville, New York, long before the season began.
Carson said, "That loss to Chicago really was the thing that galvanized us. We were just pissed that we came so close and lost. From that point on it wasn't a matter of making the playoffs because we knew we were going to make it to the playoffs. It was about winning the Super Bowl."
Carson may have felt touched by manifest destiny during camp, but Parcells, starting his fourth year as Giants coach, didn't. "In training camp I thought for a while that we didn't have a chance," Parcells said. "There were a lot of problems early on."
Joe Morris was holding out in a contract dispute. L.T. was battling cocaine problems and had privately sought treatment. Jim Burt had a bad back. Running back George Adams was out for the season with a broken bone in his pelvis. All was not well, but Parcells was good at keeping things out of the papers; even players didn't know the full extent of their teammates' problems.
The preseason press was all positive, in fact. The NFL preview issue of Playboy picked the Giants to go all the way, beating the Broncos in the Super Bowl. According to the magazine's prognos-ticator, Anson Mount, "This will be the Year of the Giants. There are no obvious weaknesses anywhere. Quarterback Phil Simms has matured, the offensive line might be the best in the league, and the running game, with Joe Morris and George Adams, will be spectacular. Best of all is that the Giants are a stable franchise, with no internal bickering or jealousies."
After all the hype, the Giants traveled to Dallas for the opening game of the season. But they had no answer for Herschel Walker, who was making his NFL debut. Walker came in when Tony Dorsett sprained his ankle, and the Giants lost 31–28.
The following Sunday the Giants won their home opener against the San Diego Chargers. During that game, some of the pieces that would grow comfortably familiar as the season wore on fell into place. Simms passed for 300 yards. Joe Morris ran for 83. And the Chargers' Dan Fouts, who usually had his way with NFL secondaries, completed only 19 of 43 attempts versus the Giants' defense.
The next week the Giants traveled out west to meet the L.A. Raiders at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Again the Giants' defense ruled the day, holding running back Marcus Allen to 40 yards and pressuring Jim Plunkett on every pass. The Raiders managed only three field goals, while the Giants scored two touchdowns on two Simms-to-Lionel Manuel passes for the 14–9 victory. Joe Morris gained 110 yards.
The Giants proved that they had the ability to come from behind the following week. They trailed 17–0 in the second quarter to the Saints at Giants Stadium but came back to win 20–17 on two Simms touchdown passes to Zeke Mowatt and Mark Bavaro, and two field goals by Raul Allegre.
The Giants began the second quarter of the season by defeating the Cardinals in St. Louis 13–6, sacking Cards quarterback Neil Lomax seven times. Giants linebacker Carl Banks had a career game, with 10 tackles and two sacks.
The Giants' offense woke up in the Meadowlands against the Eagles the following week, blowing Philadelphia away 35–3. The most memorable touchdown of the day came on a fake field goal, when holder Jeff Rutledge threw a touchdown pass to Carson, who had lined up as a legal receiver.
That was it for the winning streak, however. The Giants traveled to the Kingdome in Seattle the following Sunday and put in a flat performance, losing to the Seahawks 17–12. Simms was sacked seven times.
Next came the key game that not many Giants fans saw. It was a Monday night game on national TV against the rival Washington Redskins, but it couldn't compete with what was on the other channel: Game Seven of the Mets-Red Sox World Series. For those of you who were watching baseball, here's what happened: the Giants pulled out to a 17-point lead, but then blew it late and had to score on the last drive of the game to win 23–20. The final touchdown came on a Joe Morris 13-yard run with 1:38 left on the clock. That night Morris had his best game of the season, gaining 181 yards on 31 rushes and 59 more yards catching the ball.
The Cowboys came to town next, and the Giants took them 17–14. Carson had 13 tackles and Morris again gained 181 yards on the ground. The Dallas passing game took a hit when Carson, who was everywhere, sacked Cowboys quarterback Danny White, breaking White's thumb.
Next up were the Eagles, to whom the Giants had administered a whomping earlier in the year. The Giants perhaps took the task too lightly and came out flat. They got things revved up for a time during the second quarter and went to the fourth quarter ahead, 17–0. Then the Giants let up again, and the Eagles came within three points of tying the score late in the game. Still, a victory is a victory, but New York knew it couldn't get away with a performance like that against a better team.
The nail-biter of the year came next. The Giants took on the Vikings at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. The teams traded field goals during the first half, with the Giants going into the break ahead 9–6. The teams then traded the lead during the second half. With time running out, the Vikings led 20–19. The Giants needed to score and found themselves at their own 48-yard line facing a fourth down and 17 yards to go — a do-or-die play if there ever was one, and the sort of play that entire seasons hinge upon. But Phil Simms, cool as a cucumber, dropped back and fired a 22-yard reception to Bobby Johnson for a first down. That fourth-down conversion may be the single most-clutch play in franchise history.
The Giants continued to move the ball, and on the final play of the game, Allegre kicked a 33-yarder for the victory, his fifth of the game. Only Joe Danelo versus Seattle in 1981 kicked more Giants field goals in a game than Allegre.
The Broncos, who were in first place in the AFC West, came to the Meadowlands next but were no match for the surging Giants. The most memorable Giants touchdown that day came when George Martin intercepted a John Elway pass and ran it back 78 yards for the score. Martin later made fun of how slowly he ran down the field. "When I caught the ball it was sunny. By the time I got to the end zone it was partly cloudy," he quipped.
Parcells had other words for the moment. "That was the greatest play I've ever seen," the coach said of Martin's touchdown.
Next came the 49ers, with the Giants playing their third Monday night game of the season. During the first half, the 49ers defense held Morris to 14 yards on the ground on 13 attempts, and San Francisco had a solid lead at the half. However, the tide turned completely in the third quarter. Whatever Parcells said to his team during the break sure worked. Simms threw two touchdown passes to Robinson and Morris, and Ottis Anderson added another touchdown on the ground, giving Big Blue a 21–17 win.
Next up on the schedule were the Redskins. Both New York and Washington had 11–2 records, but once again the Giants' defense was devastating. Redskins quarterback Jay Schroeder was forced to pass the ball 51 times, and the Giants' defense picked off five of them. The Giants won 24–14 and were all alone atop the NFC East.
The Giants finished the season with routs over the lesser Cardinals and Packers and soared into the playoffs.
The stats for the regular season showed why the team had been so hard to beat. Morris gained 1,516 yards. Simms passed for 3,487, and Bavaro had more than 1,000 yards receiving — pretty amazing considering he played six weeks with his broken jaw wired shut, eating all his food through a straw. And L.T. led the NFL in sacks with 20.5.
Burt later recalled, "We were a juggernaut by the end of the season. No one could touch us."
Leonard Marshall remembered that the team grew confident on and off the field: "There were different guys in the locker room, all very youthful, full of piss and vinegar, just coming together for one cause. New York hadn't had a football team to identify with for almost 30 years. And then this group comes along and puts New York on its back and says, 'I'm gonna carry New York every time I walk out the door. I'm gonna carry the attitude. I'm gonna carry the toughness. I'm gonna carry the resilience it takes to be identified as a champion.'"
McConkey recalled, "It was a bunch of guys that just wanted to know when and where. If you told that team the game was at midnight on the Brooklyn Bridge against the Jersey City Destroyers, those guys would show up and play hard."
Bavaro, a man of few words even when his jaw wasn't wired shut, later said, "Parcells called us lunch-pail guys. I didn't understand it, but looking at the players today, absolutely."
Burt called it a "blue-collar situation." Burt remembered, "Even L.T., as great as he was, wasn't a flashy guy. We never took the pads off. We would grind on people. We did it the grinding, grinding, grinding way. And you know what, that goes for the quarterback, too."
The most memorable playoff victory on the road to the Super Bowl for the Giants was over the 49ers at Giants Stadium on January 4, 1987, in the NFC divisional round. In that game Simms threw four touchdown passes — to Bavaro, Johnson, McConkey, and Mowatt.
The stifling Giants defense held San Francisco's running game to a measly 29 yards for the day. And L.T. built his legend before our very eyes.
The Giants probably had their all-time greatest defense that year. They were known as the "Big Blue Wrecking Crew." And Taylor was the greatest of the greats. He dominated the league at outside linebacker. He changed the way teams ran their offense. Joe Gibbs, the coach of the Redskins, admitted that he devised the two-tight-end offense as a way to prevent L.T. from getting to Redskins quarterbacks unhindered whenever the Giants blitzed.
The other Giants linebackers were Banks and Carson, legends themselves. But L.T. was the man. That year, L.T. became one of only four defensive players ever to be named NFL MVP. Before his career was through, he'd play in 10 Pro Bowls and be elected Defensive Player of the Year three times.
The Giants' ultimate victory over the San Francisco 49ers was partly caused by a really good Giants team. But it was also partly caused by the 49ers, who were making inexplicable unforced errors. Jerry Rice, the 49ers future Hall of Fame wide receiver, was on his way to a 50-yard touchdown catch, running with the greatest of ease, when out of nowhere the football squirted loose. Of course, the Giants recovered it, then marched 80 yards down the field to score on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Simms to Bavaro. And the 49ers probably could have gotten on their team bus right then and there.
Excerpted from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: New York Giants by Michael Benson. Copyright © 2007 Michael Benson. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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