Taped to the shelf in the locker-room stall of every New York Giants football player is an 11-by-14-inch sheet of Thermo-Faxed paper with an ominous headline: "Adversity breaks some men, other men break records." It serves as a daily reminder to the Giants that 1) they won only one football game last season and 2) their coach, Allie Sherman, does not particularly like Sunday afternoon sing-alongs in Yankee Stadium, especially when 63,000 people serenade him with a crude Bronx rendition of Goodby, Allie.
"I read that line about adversity every day when I come in here to take my clothes off for practice," says Homer Jones, the Giants' superb pass receiver, "and then again when I put them back on to go home. I can't get it out of my mind. It's always there, staring at me."
This year the Giants have not, for the most part, set any records, but they have defeated adversity, as well as six opponents so far. Suddenly, and possibly prematurely, they have come of age, a fact that became abundantly clear last Sunday afternoon in Yankee Stadium, which has been a graveyard since the almost simultaneous collapse of the Yankees' empire in baseball and the Giants' dynasty in football four years ago. Playing their best game in a long, long time, the Giants reminded a raucous crowd of resurrected rooters of the joyous days of Y. A. Tittle, Andy Robustelli and Sam Huff as they trounced the Philadelphia Eagles 44-7. The game between old and supposedly evenly matched rivals never was a contest.
The New York heroes were many: scrambling Fran Tarkenton throwing to Jones and to Aaron Thomas and Bobby Crespino; Ernie Koy and Joe Morrison breaking through wide holes for sizable gains on almost every carry. (The Giants scored the first seven times they owned the football.) And then there was the defense. Until this Sunday the defense had not played well enough to stop an office touch team, let alone the Packers or the Cowboys. It was so bad that no matter how many points the Giants put up on the scoreboard, the team was always in serious trouble, either winning games by 38-34 or 27-24, or losing them by similarly inflated scores. Against the Eagles, though, the Giants played defense as they had when Robustelli and Huff were names more revered than Merlin Olsen and Dick Butkus. Glen Condren and Bob Lurtsema harassed Norman Snead, the Eagles' inconsistent quarterback, with totally unexpected viciousness, and both Freeman White and Scott Eaton hounded Ben Hawkins, Philadelphia's leading receiver, so persistently that he did not catch anything longer than a 12-yard pass all afternoon. And both of them intercepted passes themselves.
So what did Sherman think about his defense? "Well, even when we were leading 37-7 right after the half, I didn't feel secure," he said. "How could I after some of the things that have happened to us this year?"
Sherman need look only to himself for an answer. He has done a masterful job in rebuilding a football team that was wrecked by old age, bad trades and injuries. The Giants won four of five Eastern Conference championships from 1959 through 1963, but then in 1964, as everything came apart, they won only two games and finished in last place. The following season began what Sherman hoped would be the era of the Baby Bulls—Running Backs Tucker Frederickson, Koy and Chuck Mercein—and New York won seven games. But last year its luck turned sour. Frederickson hurt his knee, Koy had a series of misfortunes, Mercein proved a step too slow and Sherman discovered that, while he did not have a competent quarterback, he had thousands of competent—not to say noisy—detractors.
During the winter New York traded for Quarterback Tarkenton, who wanted to get away from Norm Van Brocklin and the Vikings, and on paper, at least, the Giants were somewhat respectable again. "When you have a class quarterback running your team," says Sherman, "you have a chance to win faster. People criticized us for giving up so much for Tarkenton [the first two draft choices last year and a bonus pick this season], but we needed a quarterback who could help us grow as a team. Francis has done that. You know, they all talk about his scrambling, but he still runs a football team. That's what we needed."
Sherman also revamped his coaching staff. The most important change was the appointment of Harland Svare, a defensive master, in place of Pop Ivy.
Jim Katcavage was back at defensive end, while Henry Carr was at one cornerback position and Spider Lockhart was set at safety. They were solid. The rest of the defense, however, was a smorgasbord, as the coaches tried different players every week, hoping to settle on a regular defensive unit before the season began. The worst blow and the biggest break occurred when Mike Ciccolella, who had won the middle-linebacker job, was hurt a week before the first game. Cleveland obligingly presented the Giants with Vince Costello, an established middle linebacker, in Ciccolella's place. Next New York obtained Lurtsema, a rookie, from the Colts, giving up a draft choice. Scott Eaton, a low draft choice the year before, developed immediately and won a starting job in the secondary. Bill Swain moved in at left linebacker, and Ken Avery, a tough rookie from Southern Mississippi, took over at right linebacker. Sherman decided to experiment with Jim Moran, a huge (6'5", 275 pounds) disappointment for three years, at left tackle, and suddenly Moran began to play like Dick Modzelewski had back in the late '50s.
In addition to finding the right people for the right positions, Svare changed the Giants' entire defensive theory. Under Ivy, they had been primarily a blitzing team, and therefore one with weaknesses in its total defense. Svare has practically eliminated the blitz from New York's bag of tricks, concentrating, instead, on containment by having his defenders attempt to read keys.
"It was," Svare says, "a gradual education. One department would improve, but another would be swimming around hopelessly. The key to a good defense is knowing what the other players with you will do in certain situations. It was going to take time to get this into our system, but we had time."
Sure enough, the defense has improved gradually, despite injuries to Lockhart, Carr and Moran. "Last year and for a while this year I was not playing a game out on the field," says Condren, the Giants' defensive right end. "I was getting a lesson. Now I've learned enough so the backs run my way."
Throughout this period of defensive adjustment, the offense, pro football's most explosive, managed to maintain its potency. Frederickson played as he had in 1965 until he injured his other knee two weeks ago and was lost for the season. Koy mysteriously developed into the power back he was supposed to be. Morrison, the versatile handyman, played everywhere with great effectiveness, and soccer-style Place-kicker Pete Gogolak returned. If you remember, he almost ruined the AFL-NFL merger when he jumped from the Buffalo Bills to the Giants before the 1966 season. Gogolak, in the Army, flies to New York every Friday night to kick for the Giants on Sunday. He missed the Giants' first five games, and they lost two of them partly because of faulty kickoffs and missed field goals. "It's not how many field goals someone kicks," says Sherman, "it's when he kicks them. When you need a field goal and don't get it, it completely disrupts momentum. Gogolak gets field goals when we need them." He kicked three against Philadelphia, one when the Giants, leading 7-0, were stopped on a march. In came Gogolak. He hooked the ball across the goalposts from 17 yards and the rout was on.
But it was Tarkenton-to-Jones, currently the most feared combination in the NFL, that the Eagles worked all last week on stopping. "We'll try to do what the Bears did to Tarkenton," said Coach Joe Kuharich. "The best way to stop Tarkenton is to pressure him from the outside, force him around the middle and cut off his escape routes."
Sometimes the best laid plans go wrong. On the game's first play, Tarkenton, operating as though he had guessed Philadelphia's evil intentions, threw a screen pass to Morrison. The play would have gone for 20 yards had Morrison not mishandled the ball, and it was an indication of things to come.
On the next play, with the Eagles set to storm in with seven men, Tarkenton faked to Morrison and sent Koy on a trap over the unprotected middle—everyone was tackling Tarkenton—for 45 yards. The Eagles pressed Tarkenton again, and this time he hit Morrison on a screen pass for another first down. On the Giants' fifth offensive play of the game, Tarkenton and Jones combined perfectly on a typical Tarkenton scramble. The play called for Jones, who was spread to the left, to take one step out, cut at a 45° angle toward the middle of the field and then—three strides later—slant across and down. Tarkenton was pressured by the Eagles' defensive charge, so he rolled back and then to his right. Jones, noticing this, continued across the field. Instantly Tarkenton hit him with a pass just inside the out-of-bounds chalk, and the Giants had another first down. They scored their first touchdown a few plays later.
When Tarkenton does what his impulses—not the planned play—tell him to do, he is almost impossible to defend against. But when he relies on a disciplined, ball-control game, as he has had to do at times this year because of the inconsistent Giant defense, he is much less effective. Against the Eagles he played his type of game all day.
It was a help that the Eagles sometimes double- and triple-teamed Jones. They not only failed to stop him, they also permitted Tarkenton to hit Crespino and Thomas, who were often left uncovered on third-down situations. To cover Jones, the Eagles sent a linebacker against him at scrimmage, then had a corner back pick him up almost instantly and the safety ready to help. Jones beat this easily, once for 63 yards and his second touchdown of the game.
Now the Giants are in second place in the Century Division of the NFL's Eastern Conference, a game behind the Cleveland Browns, whom they play this Sunday in Cleveland. Under the old conference setup, both the Giants and the Browns would be hopelessly chasing Dallas. This year, though, Dallas is in the Capitol Division and, in fact, only a game away from that championship. If the Giants, who beat the Browns a few weeks ago, can win against Cleveland again, they conceivably could take their division championship and advance to the playoff against Dallas. And maybe the NFL championship? And maybe the Super Bowl? Crazy? Sure is. But so is the Giants' offense. And now the defense is getting that way.
"I don't think," said Condren last Sunday, "we'll be reading any more funny headlines about the, ahem, Giant defense." Seems not.