Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Giants: Nostalgia

The 2009 NFL season had two very interesting and exciting conference championship games. I thought I would take a trip down memory lane to review an exciting conference championship game that the Giants played in more than 20 years ago and insert some of my own somewhat faded and admittedly murky recollections.

In 1986 the Giants had a dominant defense led by number 56, Lawrence Taylor. If you never saw him play, he was one player whose play actually exceeded his reputation. He was a game changer, completely absorbed the opposing offense in their game planning and blocking schemes. He was the best player on the field in every game he ever played in. In this particular game, Joe Gibbs put in a 6th OL-man, a G, lining him up in the backfield, usually right behind the TE, in order to block Taylor. Gibbs was particularly sensitive to stopping Taylor for a few reasons. Being in the same division his Redksins played the Giants twice per year, so he could see personally the havoc that LT could wreak on opposing offenses. In particular, in a November game the year before, LT laid the famous hit on Joe Theismann, breaking his leg and ending his career. Jay Shroeder was the heir to the Redskins qb mantel and Gibbs wanted to protect his assets. The Giants played a 3-4 defense and had 4 outstanding LBs, 2 of whom are in the hall of fame. The four LBs were: LT, Harry Carson, Carl Banks and Gary Reasons. They also had very capable substitutes in Andy Headen and a few others, in what has to be considered one of the best LB units ever assembled on one team. They were having a very good year led by their defense and a good offense. Simms was passing to mostly pedestrian receivers but had RB Joe Morris and TE Mark Bavaro as important weapons. Lionel Manual was the main WR threat, but missed about 10 games that year due to injury. He came back for the playoffs and made several big plays.

The Giants beat the Redskins early in the year at Giants Stadium, behind 180 yards rushing by Joe Morris. I thought they were a good team, but was not thinking Super Bowl thoughts. They were winning a lot of games, but some of them were close and they did not have the aura of invincibility, especially with a great Redskins team down in Washington and Joe Montana leading the 49ers on the left coast. The Giants had been crushed the year before by the Bears in the conference championship game and I did not think they had progressed enough from that game to be legitimate championship contenders. Then the Giants went down to RFK Stadium late in the year (around Thanksgiving weekend, I think) and completely destroyed the Redskins 24-14. The game was not as close as the score indicated, the Giants sat on a 24-7 lead and gave up a late garbage time TD to make the final score closer. They intercepted 5 or 6 Redskins passes and moved the ball through the air easily on their defense. Personal note - I remember being really ticked off because I took my 7 year old son to a bowling birthday party on the day of that Redskins game in RFK and taped the game on VCR (remember those?) hoping to watch the game later without finding out the score. I successfully avoided human contact all day long with anyone who would tell me the score, but the VCR failed and I never watched that regular season game at RFK. Back to the story - when the Giants beat the Redskins so easily on the road, I remember thinking for the first time that the Giants might have what it takes to go all the way.

The conference championship game between the Redskins and Giants was a cold wintry January day in the Meadowlands, with winds of 30 MPH. Parcells strategy was to get up early on the Redskins and force them to have to throw the ball in that wind. Giants won the toss and Parcells elected to kick off, taking the wind at his back in the first quarter, hoping the defense would stop the Redskins early, they would get good field position and take that early lead. Giants kicker was Raul Allegre who had a very accurate but only a medium strength leg. His opening KO went all the way through the end zone, going beyond the back line on a fly, emphasizing the strength of the wind. Ironic twist - the starting RB for the Redskins was George Rogers, who was drafted first by Bum Phillips of the Saints a few years earlier, allowing LT to fall to the Giants. Giants stopped the Redskins first possession with a 3-and-out and got a weak punt into the wind, starting on the Redskins side of the 50. Simms moved them down for a first down but were stopped at the 30 yard line. Allegre kicked a FG from 47 to give the Giants a 3-0 lead. That distance is normally right at the edge of Allegre's range, but with the tail wind, he knocked it through easily. The kick had about 15 yards to spare and looked like it would have easily been good from 60 yards.

Allegre's KO after the FG was another touchback, also going through the endzone. Giants held the Redskins to another 3-and-out and got another weak punt into the wind, setting them up in Redskins territory again. Simms moved the team down for a few first downs and they were facing a 3rd and 10 from the 24 yard line. Simms threw an incomplete pass, and the Giants were called for holding in the OL. If Gibbs had declined the penalty, Allegre would have been faced with a 41 yard FG, shorter than the 47 yarder he made a few minutes earlier. Instead of declining the penalty, Gibbs accepted, pushing the Giants back to the the 34. If the Redskins held there, Allegre would have been faced with a 51 yard FG, easily within range with those trailing winds. It was only 4 yards longer than the first FG which looked like it had 15 yards to spare. Nevertheless Gibbs elected to push the Giants back and gave the Giants another offensive play. Simms took advantage of it, hitting Lionel Manual for 25 yards and a first down at about the 10 yard line. They scored a TD a few plays later on another pass to Manuel and had a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.

In the 2nd quarter, the Redskins had the ball and made some plays down field to get in position for a makable FG attempt. They made a bad snap on the FG attempt, however and the Giants recovered at around midfield. Simms tried to test the wind with a deep throw that was knocked down and fell to the turf like a dying duck. (It looked like a Dave Brown pass, who would be Simms' successor at Giants QB a few years later.) After that, Simms threw only short and medium range passes, those that he could throw flat and on a line, so that they would be less affected by the wind. He threw beautiful tight spirals, with a lot of rotation on the ball that could really cut through the wind in the Meadowlands. On this drive after the recovered bad snap, Simms saw TE Bavaro being covered by a LB and hit him on a shallow crossing route which he turned into a 25 yard gain. A few well designed running plays, including a naked boot leg by Simms, set up a short TD run by Morris for a 17-0 half time lead.

In the second half, the Giants did a great job stopping the run and because they were down by 17 points, forced the Redskins to pass in that bad wind. The Redskins QB, Jay Schroeder, had a big arm and actually made some plays, but the Giants defense stopped them every time and the game ended 17-0. My recollection is that the Redskins threw the ball about 50 times that day, not a formula for winning in the wind of January at the Meadowlands. The Giants won behind the great play by the defense, the good running of Morris, timely passing by Simms and the coaching of Parcells. However, the real star of the game for the Giants was punter Sean Landetta. I don't remember all the statistics, but with only 3 scores in the game, there were lots of punts, (somehow 15 punts sticks in my mind) many of them into the wind. Redskins averaged about 30 yards per punt and Landetta was over 40 yards per punt, including one memorable 45 yard kick into the wind. Giants also had some decent punt returns and Redskins had none, adding to the important special teams field position advantage that is so important in bad weather games.

Giants went on to beat the Broncos that had Elway at QB and Dan Reeves as coach in the Super Bowl by a score of 39-20. That was a very good Broncos team, who had just beaten the Browns (Accorsi was their GM) in the AFC conference championship on a FG in OT. They had tied the game in the 4th quarter with the famous 98 yard march ("The Drive") leading to a TD with less than a minute left.

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