There are blitzes and there are blitzes. There are safety blitzes and maniac blitzes, single linebacker blitzes and delayed blitzes; there are blitzes that look like blintzes because they're so ineffective. Then there are Lawrence Taylor blitzes.
They are like nothing else in the NFL, or any other FL. They are like messages from Thor, or as Taylor's former New York Giant teammate Beasley Reece once said, "When Lawrence is coming, you can hear sirens going off."
On Sunday, Taylor blitzed Dallas into submission, and a happy, sun-drenched Giants Stadium crowd of 75,921 cheered mightily as the New Yorkers shocked the Cowboys 28-7, the Giants' biggest margin of victory over Dallas in 22 years.
Random House's unabridged dictionary defines a blitz this way: "War waged by surprise, swiftly and violently, as by the use of aircraft, tanks, etc." Etcetera stands for Lawrence Taylor.
September 16, 1984
Swiftly? Yes. The Giants' right outside linebacker runs a 4.5 40, a time no man who stands 6'3" and weighs 243 pounds should be allowed to run. Gary Hogeboom, the young Dallas quarterback who went down three times under Taylor blitzes, said, "I never saw him coming." And Doug Cosbie, the tight end who tried to block Taylor, said, "When you're four yards away from him, what can you do? He's too quick."
How about violently? Well, Taylor made Hogeboom cough up the ball twice when the Cowboys had driven deep into Giant territory. The first bobble gave New York seven points and a club record for longest fumble recovery when their other outside linebacker, Andy Headen, scooped up the ball and went 81 yards for a TD. The second fumble choked the Cowboys off when they had reached the Giants' 10 at the end of the first half.
The Giants led at halftime 21-0, but it could have been 14-14 if not for Taylor's sacks. The Cowboys had reached the Giants' six-yard line, after marching 88 yards, when Taylor knocked the ball loose and Headen ran it back. Two possessions later they'd gone 41 yards to get to the Giants' 10. It isn't inconceivable that they would have scored twice, and then the momentum would have been Dallas's. And they would've gotten emotional. And their locker room would have been a happy place. And a lot of "What's wrong with the Cowboys?" angles would have been killed.
Instead, their halftime locker room was devoted to solving the perplexing question that has tormented some of the finest minds in the NFL: What the hell do we do about Lawrence Taylor?
In 1981, when Taylor burst into the league from the University of North Carolina, a running back was assigned to pick up his blitzes—the conventional blocker-blockee relationship. He was too fast, too strong and too nasty for that matchup. Better use the big people on him. The 49ers solved the problem in a playoff game. They had a 265-pound guard, John Ayers, peeling off to pick up Taylor, and they got a standoff out of it.
Back to the drawing board went Bill Parcells, then the defensive coordinator, now the Giants' head coach. You want to pull a guard and leave a hole in the middle? Fine. We'll send other people through it. Or maybe we'll send Taylor on a wide, looping rush and make a footrace out of it. The guard idea was soon mothballed, and various combinations of two or more blockers were assigned to Taylor. Sure, we're tying up a lot of people, the offensive coaches said, but it's better than having to face the quarterback's parents the next day.
The Cowboys tried it a different way. They assigned Taylor responsibility to tight end Cosbie, a formidable chap at 6'6", 236 pounds. But they neglected one aspect of Taylor's growing reputation as the greatest outside linebacker ever to play the game. In this, his fourth year in the league, he's picked up some smarts. This is the way he described it:
"Normally, when I'm playing off the line I'm going to drop back into zone coverage. When I'm up tight I'm going to blitz or clamp on a receiver, man-to-man. They were reading that, and I didn't do much in the first quarter. So in the second quarter I played seven to eight yards off the line and came on the blitz at the last minute. I think I caught them by surprise. I just walked through the gaps."
Question: What gaps? How come there were gaps? Another question: Do you have leeway to pick the area you want to attack?
"Today I did, yes," Taylor said. "And the gaps were created by our defensive end forcing the tackle blocking him outside, and our defensive tackle next to him pinching inside. That made a gap, and that's the spot I chose."
"It's my fault," Cosbie said. "We'd never seen Taylor blitz from that alignment. It isn't our linemen's fault; they have to block the people over them. I was lined up outside our tackle, and a safety-man was lined up over me, and Taylor was inside, on a line with our guard. I was thinking safety blitz, but I still had to pick up Taylor. The first time, he came so fast I never saw him. On his second one, I lined up in the same spot. I knew he was going to blitz, but I'm four yards outside him. I said to myself, 'O.K., I'm going to try to block him, but there's no way, because he's so quick.' I try to do the best I can, but when you're four yards away, what can you do?"
Taylor got his third sack in the fourth quarter, a three-yarder, when Hogeboom was scrambling away from a rush and Taylor ambushed him from the outside, but by then the game was out of hand. It was decided in the opening sequence of the second half. The Cowboys' Ron Fellows fumbled the kickoff, the Giants took over on Dallas's 18, and with a 21-0 lead you'd figure the Giants would try to grind away, run time off the clock and try to punch something across. But this is a different Giant team. Adversity has made them hungry—and hostile.
They're coming off a 3-12-1 season. Parcells is hanging on to his job by a thread. Their quarterback, Phil Simms, lost his starting spot to Scott Brunner last year and he had to win it in a shootout with Jeff Rutledge this summer. Two All-Pros walked out in camp, inside linebacker Harry Carson and cornerback Mark Haynes, both of whom returned in a few days. With Haynes it was a money thing. Carson's hike was deeper, and more meaningful. "I just had to get off by myself," he said. Parcells called his conduct "despicable," and Taylor, in turn, ripped Parcells for lack of leadership.
A desperate group, right? So, with a chance to go 2-0 on the season and put the Cowboys away early in the second half, they went for the kill.
"In the old days a typical Giant series was run, run, pass, punt," Carson said, smiling. "It's different now, as you could well see."
The Giants scored on an 18-yard Simms end-zone shot to tight end Zeke Mowatt, who outjumped Dextor Clink-scale, the strong safety. It was Simms's third TD pass, his seventh in two weeks. His first two on Sunday were against the strength of the Dallas secondary, left cornerback Everson Walls.
Walls, who led the NFL in interceptions two out of the last three years, had a nightmare performance. In the first quarter the Giants tested him with a little curl pattern to Byron Williams, a 15-yard gain at most. Walls missed the tackle and the play became a 62-yard TD. In their last series of the quarter, after free safety Terry Kinard's 29-yard interception return gave the Giants a first down on the Dallas 16, they went at Walls again, this time with Lionel Manuel, who didn't play a down at wideout in the Giants' opener against Philadelphia.
"We were waiting to use him for that position on the field," Parcells said. "He's got the quickest cuts of all our receivers. It's a play we practiced all week, an inside move and then a quick outcut. Ron Erhardt, our offensive coordinator, said, 'Do you want to try it right here?' and I said, 'O.K. let's go.' "
The shocking thing wasn't that the Giants got a touchdown out of it, but how completely the rookie faked Walls, a four-year veteran. "I was surprised he overplayed me inside," Manuel said. "As soon as I made my cut I knew I had him."
The TD made it 14-0. The next Dallas series ended with Headen's scoring gallop with the fumble, and the rout was on. After the game the Cowboys seemed dazed. Maybe it was the residue from a short work week, following their highly emotional 20-13 Monday night win over the Rams. Perhaps it was the shock of getting beaten so thoroughly by a team they'd feasted on for years—15 wins out of the previous 17 games. Maybe it was the knowledge that when things start off badly, they're not always going to find a way to win, as they did against the Rams. Sometimes things just get worse.
Tom Landry seemed stunned.
"We weren't moving the ball," he said after the game. "We didn't do anything. Our whole team just flattened out."
Why hadn't the Cowboys called more safety blitzes, which had unhinged Ram quarterback Vince Ferragamo?
"I don't know," he said.
Hogeboom, who had edged Danny White in the quarterback battle heard round the world, came down to earth after his record-setting 33-completion night against the Rams. His numbers in the Giant game were 21 of 43 for 242 yards, one TD and one interception, but he never really had a chance. He was sacked five times and pressured a lot more, and his receivers dropped four of his passes.
Landry made his decision to switch to Hogeboom the week before the regular season because Hogie, an outgoing kind of guy who picks up the team around him, likes to go downfield, and his teammates could tune in more readily to this Roger Staubach-type approach rather than to White's conservative style. But against New York, Dallas went the dumpoff route, throwing mainly to the backs, and White probably would've been better at it than Hogeboom. Of Hogeboom's first 14 passes, only three went to the wide receivers, and none was caught. It was only after the Cowboys fell behind by two touchdowns that Hogeboom started looking to his wideouts. The Giants' rush didn't give him much time to go deep, but of even greater concern to Landry is the Cowboys' wide-receiver crew.
Much has been made of the rebuilt nature of this Dallas team. Sixteen Cowboys who suited up Sunday weren't with the club last year. It's the biggest turnover since 1975, when 12 rookies made the team, the famous Dirty Dozen who helped get Dallas into the Super Bowl. Nothing wrong with new blood, particularly on a team that looked as old and tired as Dallas did at the end of the '83 season, but the receiver corps has suffered a marked dropoff.
None of last year's top three is around. Drew Pearson retired; Butch Johnson was traded; Tony Hill separated a shoulder against the Rams and won't be back for a month or more. One replacement, Doug Donley, No. 4 man last year, looks like a major-leaguer. He had a one-handed circus catch in his nine-reception night against the Rams, and another one against the Giants, although his production fell off to three catches.
"I just wish I'd have been in our game plan more," Donley said. "I was open early and a lot in the third quarter. I don't know what the deal was today, if Hogie didn't have enough time or what."
Mike Renfro, who came from Houston in a trade, was acquired for his hands, not his speed. "I might not be the fastest guy in the world," he said when he arrived in Dallas, "but if the ball's there I'll catch it." Against the Giants he caught four and dropped two. "You have to cover yourself when you make a statement like that," Donley said.
The third wideout is Kirk Phillips, who was on injured reserve as a free-agent rookie last year. He replaced Hill in the Rams game, but he wasn't in the lineup Sunday. The group probably will sort itself out when Hill fully recovers, but until then, Hogeboom might be in for some tough times, assuming he's still the quarterback.
Landry gave no indication that Hogeboom would get the hook, but the kid—Hogeboom's 26, White's 32—did look overmatched at times. His one interception, on a deep post pattern to fullback Ron Springs, came on a fine play by Kinard, who was raising all kinds of hell in the secondary, knocking receivers loose from footballs. And Hogeboom did do a terrific job picking up the Giant blitzes—after the game he looked it, too, with a deep gash in his right elbow and a turf burn on the left side of his neck.
"There's no doubt in my mind that I'll be back next week," he said. "Hey, it feels good to be hurt after a game. At least you know you're playing."
At one time Landry turned a deaf ear to critics who said the Cowboys needed a more emotional approach. Preparation, not emotion, is what wins, was his belief. But after the Cowboys flattened out and lost their last three in '83, he told his scouting department to concentrate more on "competitive people" and let the best available athletes go to the Olympics.
"We redid the weighting in our computer," says Gil Brandt, the head of the scouting operation, "and added weight to competitiveness."
So the '84 Cowboys are younger and more competitive—and more prone to mistakes, at least at this stage. In two games, they've turned the ball over nine times. Their offensive line is still unsettled; players are shuttled at left guard and tackle. They're not great right now; they're not terrible. They're 1-1.
"At the beginning of the season, I'd have been happy to be 1-1," Landry said. "This [the Giant game] isn't something that surprises me. We've got a long way to go."
With 52 seconds left Sunday, the Cowboys got the ball on their 26-yard line. They had their regulars in, and they were throwing passes out of the shotgun and calling time-outs to stop the clock, but on the sideline the Giants had already begun celebrating.
Carson went around with a bucket of water and a sponge, anointing teammates, coaches, everyone. He gave Par-cells a dousing. The coach laughed. Carson laughed. The bitterness of last month was forgotten. That's what it means to be 2-0, to have won two-thirds of your total victory production of '83—before autumn even officially begins.
The big difference in the Giants is the offensive line. The juggling that produced four position switches seems to be paying off. Simms is getting time to throw, and he's putting up big numbers. The team is capable of sustaining a ground game, especially at the end of a contest. The Giants ran the last 5:37 off the clock to shut down the Eagles in their opener. They held the ball for 5:29 on a fourth-quarter drive against Dallas.
They've won their first two games for the first time in 16 years, and when Carson was asked how it feels to be in first place in the NFC East, he shook his head and said, "First place? Throw first place back in my face with two games left in the season and I'll tell you."