There was a story floating around the Washington Redskins' locker room Sunday that the real reason the New York Giants ran the Skins out of the NFC Championship 17-0 had little to do with the arm of Phil Simms or the legs of Joe Morris or the defense that squashed everything Washington tried. It was the wind, a blustery blast from the west that gusted up to 30 mph and carried Jay Schroeder's passes into the ground or the stratosphere, pushed Steve Cox's punts earthward, even messed up the snap on the Skins' only field goal try.
If you're a Washington fan and you believe that, then read no further. Pray to the god Aeolus to give you better winds next year, and watch the Giants and Broncos go at it on Jan. 25 in Super Bowl XXI. If you believe in the big-wind theory, then you must also go along with Redskin coach Joe Gibbs, who says that the key to the game was the coin toss.
Russ Grimm called tails for the Skins. It came up heads. The Giants took the wind, not an unusual strategy when playing at Giants Stadium. The Denver Broncos did the same thing when they played the Giants in New Jersey in November. Offenses are often a bit unsettled at the start of a game, while the defense is cranked up.
Anyway, the Skins ran three downs and punted, a measly 23-yarder that gave New York instant field position on Washington's 47. Result: field goal. Next Washington series—three and out. The Giants take over on the Skins' 38 after a 27-yard punt. Result: touchdown drive, 10-0. Game over. Everybody go home.
O.K., the wind was a factor. "The worst wind I ever played in," Schroeder said, a sentiment echoed by Simms and Cox, and lots of other people. But listen to Curtis Jordan, Washington's free safety and a 10-year veteran: "We got the ball for 30 minutes with the wind and 30 minutes against it, the same as them. We scored zero both ways. They turn the ball over on their 37 [on a fumble by Morris] at the end of the first half, and we have the wind. What do we get out of it? Zero."
Now, we don't want to beat this wind angle to death, but look at the second quarter. Working into those same gusts, the Giants got off their longest drive of the day (49 yards) for the TD that made it 17-0 and iced the game. In the same period, Sean Landeta got off his two best punts—a 46-yarder (hang time 4.51 seconds) that was downed on the Skins' four, and a 39-yarder (hang time a remarkable 4.77)—into the same wind that had sent Cox's boots nosing and diving.
"Cox is usually a super punter into the wind," Landeta said, "but today he told me he couldn't buy one. I think the wind was moving his drop a little. You have to shorten your drop on a day like this, as I well know."
Yes, the wind was cruel, but you still have to operate. It's tough when it blows into Cleveland Stadium from Lake Erie, too. but just before the Giants kicked off, Denver's John Elway moved his team 98 yards into the wind for the tying touchdown in regulation time in the AFC Championship game. Elway and Schroeder have the two strongest arms in the NFL. The theory used to be that high-wind conditions favor the quarterback with the stronger arm, and Schroeder has a little more zip on his passes than Simms does. The difference on Sunday was that when they had to throw, Simms got the time and Schroeder didn't.
On the Giants' first touchdown, an 11-yard Simms-to-Lionel Manuel pass, the quarterback had time to step up into the pocket and read Manuel coming all the way across the back of the end zone. On the pass that set up the Giants' final TD, a 30-yarder to tight end Mark Bavaro, Simms had plenty of time to read his receiver on a crossing pattern in which Bavaro shed middle linebacker Neil Olkewicz. Both plays were made in long-yardage situations, third-and-10 for the Manuel pass, second-and-15 for the Bavaro play.
Both teams basically rushed four people, the Redskins four down linemen, the Giants their front three, plus an outside linebacker (Lawrence Taylor or Carl Banks), but while Simms could stand and deliver, poor Schroeder had to backpedal into oblivion. He was taking a 10-yard drop that would turn into 15 or 20. Two of his four sacks were for 19 yards apiece. The beleaguered Redskins quarterback had to throw 25-yard completions to get a five-yard net gain.
The Giants rush was better, their protection was better, their running, punting, kicking, quarterbacking—everything—was better. They beat the Redskins in all phases of the game. Wind? Hey, the Giants could have beaten the Skins under water or in a mud-wrestling pit. There was that much difference between the teams. The statistics (190 net yards for the Skins, 199 for the Giants) don't tell the story because with 29 minutes to go, the Giants started running out the clock. They threw only two passes in the entire second half, both incomplete. As they say in cricket, they "declared."
Perhaps the most stunning statistic involved third-down conversions. The Redskins were 0 for 14 on third downs and 0 for 4 on fourth. "Our defense didn't play a perfect game except in that department," Parcells said Monday. "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."
The big pregame story was the Redskins' Dexter Manley versus New York's Brad Benson, the sacker against the wall, defensive right end meets offensive left tackle. It got the heavy share of midweek hype—along with New York City's off-again on-again post-Super Bowl parade (should the Giants beat the Skins, and the Broncos or the Browns, and should someone cough up the cash to clean up the ticker tape, etc.). Benson, a worrywart type, was upset by his role as a media superstar and at the suggestion that Manley would be seeking revenge for the job Benson did on him in Washington on Dec. 7.
"Sure it started working on me," said Benson, who held Manley to two tackles, no assists and no sacks in the title game. "I'd wake up in the morning and have a cup of coffee and there he was on The Morning Program. The funny thing is that Dexter and I really get along. He's an exceptionally clean player. Please emphasize that. Never a cheap shot.
"In the second quarter we made a bet. He 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.' "
The fans at Giants Stadium got a bit brutal toward Manley, who actually had a pretty good game, hustling all over the field and forcing the running plays. They set up a powerful singsong, "Dex-terr, Dex-terr," as they bombarded the field with confetti and toilet paper and newspapers.
"I turned to Billy Ard next to me," Benson said, "and I said, 'I don't need anything like this. Things are bad enough.' "
"It was embarrassing," Manley said. "I was helpless. All I could do was play the run, and that makes you invisible."
In fairness to Schroeder, he was operating a machine that didn't have all of its parts in working order. Gary Clark, Washington's best wideout this year, was coming back from a sprained ankle. He hadn't been a factor against the Bears in the playoff the previous week, and he wasn't a factor against the Giants—no catches, three drops, including a deep one in the first quarter. Clint Didier, the Skins' long-ball tight end, played with a broken left hand. The Bears had shut him out, and he caught only one pass, for seven yards, against the Giants. Left tackle Joe Jacoby had a huge cast covering his broken right hand. In Washington, Taylor had beaten him for two sacks, and that was when Jacoby had two good hands. This time, though, he controlled Taylor. Pro Bowl guard Grimm had bruised ribs that were so painful he almost collapsed in the fourth quarter of the Bears game and had to be pulled. The Giants moved 285-pound end Leonard Marshall inside against him, and Grimm had a rough time.
"We're playing like mad right now," Gibbs said the night before the game, "but guys are dropping along the way. We can't afford another injury. The guys who are nicked are going to have to make it, and they have to play well for us to have a chance."
Perhaps Schroeder said it best: "The key to getting in the Super Bowl is staying healthy."
Even with all their offensive people functional, the Skins would have had big problems with the Giants, who were coming off that furious 49-3 pounding of the 49ers. But when Washington's offensive stars failed to produce—well, the Skins weren't even in the hunt. The last remaining hope, one that had carried them against the Bears, was for their defense to force turnovers. Since 1982, when the Skins first became a playoff contender under Gibbs, they had run up an amazing 47-1 record in games in which they committed fewer turnovers than the opposition. On Sunday the Giants committed three turnovers, the Redskins two. So much for the statistics mavens.
The aftermath: there were touches of warmth, and a bit of hilarity. Noseguard Jim Burt climbed the wall to the stands to be with his wife, Colleen, and his hometown contingent. "Being from Buffalo," Burt said, "I know all about scaling fences."
In the blizzard of paper that marked the game's dying moments, a newspaper somehow wrapped itself around the leg of Washington's defensive right tackle, Darryl Grant. He handed it to the Giants' Ard, across the line.
"Here, Billy," he said. "Read this."
The Giants firmly divorced themselves from New York City and the politics of parades when they handed out this mimeographed statement after the game:
"The only logical place for a Giants' celebration is here at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Sports Complex. We appreciate the many offers of our loyal mayors. We are grateful also to our friends and fans who would like a New York City parade. Last year, when we returned from Chicago after our playoff loss to the Bears, Gov. Tom Kean, without any fanfare, was waiting to greet us and cheer us as we got off the plane. Giants Stadium is our home and the perfect spot for a celebration."
Take that, New York! Enjoy the Super Bowl.