CLOSING IN ON THE BIG ONE

A harrowing corps of linebackers should lead the Giants to victory over John Elway's Broncos—narrowly
January 26, 1987

New York Giantscoach Bill Parcells collects elephants. Also linebackers. Sometimes it's hardto tell them apart.

When the Giantsface John Elway and the Denver Broncos in Pasadena on Sunday in Super Bowl XXI,eight linebackers will be in uniform, and never in NFL history has there been abigger, rougher, deeper collection on one team. They set the tone for a defensethat held San Francisco and Washington, two of the league's more potentoffensive clubs, to three points, total, in the playoffs. The Redskins couldn'tconvert a single third or fourth down in 18 tries. The 49ers were 2 for 14.

Two exceptionalquarterbacks melted under this defensive onslaught. The 49ers' Joe Montanawound up in the hospital with a concussion. The last view of Washington's youngJay Schroeder was of a worn and dazed battler slowly sinking to the turf inexhaustion. Now it's John Elway's turn.

The Giants' frontline is good, not great. The secondary is average. The linebackers control thetempo. They're big enough to take on an offensive guard or tackle and niftyenough to clamp on wide receivers in the short zones. They're smart and tough,working at maximum efficiency in a scheme devised by Parcells, a formerlinebacker and linebacker coach himself. But the first thing you notice aboutthem is their size.

Carl Banks, whogenerally lines up against the tight end on the outside, is the lightest at232. According to the most recent training-room figures, the weights top out at250 for the only rookie in the bunch, Pepper Johnson. Lawrence Taylor, whousually plays outside on the weak, or open, side, goes 248. So does HarryCarson, who plays the weak inside position, and his running mate at ILB, GaryReasons, weighs 245. The average for the group is 6'3½", 244½ pounds.

There have beengreat starting units in the past—Russell, Ham and Lambert on the Steelers;Nitschke, Robinson and Caffey on the Packers—but it's a game of situationsubstitution now, and the Giant linebackers attack in waves. Reasons became arookie starter in 1984 and a budding superstar in '85. Then Andy Headen, ashockingly fast 6'5", 245-pound former quarterback and defensive back,became his situation sub on passing downs. Johnson bloomed late this season. Inthe first playoff game against the 49ers, the Giants would bring in Headen onsecond down and Johnson on third.

Byron Hunt,another pillar at 6'5", 245 pounds, had a brilliant rookie season in 1981,taking over for Brad Van Pelt in the playoff run. In 1984 the Giants selectedBanks on the first round, the third player picked in the entire draft.

Banks played in afrenzy this season, especially in the stretch run. He's only a notch behindTaylor in ability. Hunt had been in the shadows but when he replaced Taylor(who had bruised his right thigh) in the Washington game, the defense didn'teven lose a beat.

Reasons, Headen,Johnson, Hunt, Banks—it's like a never-ending variety show. Bring down thecurtain on one act, raise it for the next. First the ventriloquist, then theacrobats, then the dancing poodles. Even the eighth guy on the Giants'linebacker roster, 242-pound Robbie Jones, is talented enough to start for manyother teams.

The constantfactors are Taylor, who still causes offenses to assign two, sometimes three,watchdogs to him, and Carson, the finest inside run-jammer and goal-linespecialist in the game today.

At 33 Carson isthe motivational leader, just as Joe Greene was for the Super BowlSteelers.

Carson is on hisway to his eighth Pro Bowl, Taylor his sixth. The Giants have put at least one,and sometimes two, linebackers in the Pro Bowl for the last 11 years.Linebacking is a great tradition in New York, beginning with Sam Huff in 1956.And under Parcells, collector of toy elephants and man-sized linebackers, ithas now reached its zenith.

That must be adisquieting thought for El way. It has been four seasons since he crashed theNFL scene with much fanfare, the flag-carrier for the great Year of theQuarterback parade. He showed flashes of brilliance from the beginning, 50-yardstrikes on the dead run, nifty scrambles and 20-yard sideline passes thathissed like snakes, but somehow the act never was complete. Every year peoplewould bring up his ability to lead, to inspire the confidence of his teammates.They mentioned it so many times that it became suspect.

But now the act iscomplete. He's playing the best football of his career, and the team hasrallied round him. Both Elway and the Giants' Phil Simms are at the absolutetop of their games, which adds another intriguing touch to the Super Bowl.

Elway became aDenver legend during that great 98-yard march to the Super Bowl against theBrowns in the AFC championship game. He hadn't converted a third down in thesecond half, but he was 3 for 3 on that drive, including a third-and-18. Hescrambled for yards, he bought time, and when his throws had to be perfect, hemade sure they were. It was the finest moment any quarterback has had thisseason, but it wasn't a surprise—the signs were already there.

People forgotElway's game against the Giants in November. New York had kept Denver out ofthe end zone for four straight drives in the second half, but the fifth one,the money one, which started with 5:15 to play, was a 73-yard march for thetying touchdown. Elway was 5 for 6 in that series; he threw for 336 yards andran for 51 more against the Giant defense that day, a performance that wasovershadowed when Simms pulled the game out with some last-minute heroics ofhis own.

Elway seemsexactly the quarterback you would want against the Giants' defense—overpoweringalong the front seven but not very speedy in the secondary, a unit that's wellprotected in the zone. Bold, unpredictable Elway is always looking to godownfield, and the scary thing is that he can do it with accuracy on the deadrun. Schroeder had the same kind of credentials, but the Giants' defense, andthe gusty winds, ate him up. The Skins' only moments occurred when Schroederwent deep. He got one 48-yard completion, throwing a quick-up to Art Monk. GaryClark dropped one long pass, and the rest were blown away in the wind.Afterward, Clark said the only chance you have against the Giants' defense isto hit it with the long ball when the backs are not expecting it.

"They play somuch zone," he said, "that when you do catch them in an occasional mancoverage, you've got to take the shot and come up with something deep."

If it's not thereat first, then Elway is nifty enough to scramble and shake free until somethingopens up, provided he can escape containment from Banks and Taylor, whicheverone is rushing, or from the defensive ends, George Martin and LeonardMarshall.

On passing downsthe Broncos will operate out of a four-wideout set—Mark Jackson, Vance Johnson,Clint Sampson and Steve Watson. The first three are deep threats and thefourth, Watson, is the possession receiver. Recently, though, the Broncos havecome up with an exotic new weapon, 256-pound Orson Mobley, who lines up as asecond tight end and has made some acrobatic clutch catches in theplayoffs.

The Giants are notnickel-defense-oriented. They like to leave their linebackers on the field asmuch as possible, occasionally calling on a fifth defensive back, rookie MarkCollins, but rarely going to a sixth, which is what the book says you should doagainst the four-wideout alignment. Covering the two inside, or slot, receiverscould be a problem—provided Elway has time to deliver. The key to the Giants'rush in the playoffs hasn't really been Taylor, who has been dropping back intocoverage more than at any time during the season, as much as Banks on theoutside, and Marshall and Pro Bowl nosetackle Jim Burt inside. Against the49ers, the Giants wanted inside, not outside, pressure to combat Montana'squick release. In the Redskins game, Washington was sending tight end DonWarren in motion to Taylor's side, leaving Banks with the clear lane.

Denver's offensiveline is relatively small, with weights ranging from 255 to 269. The Giants'pass rush could overrun it. The key to the Broncos' success is the precision oftheir trapping-based running game. It can lie dormant for a while and thenbreak loose when least expected—as New England found out in the first playoff.The Broncos' running backs, Sammy Winder, Gene Lang and Gerald Willhite, looklike clones, little bouncy guys who get hurt once or twice a game but keepcoming back.

On paper itdoesn't figure for the Broncos to get much of a running game going against theNFL's top-ranked rushing defense, which can bring its inside linebackershead-up against the guards and stop them cold, but who knows? Maybe they can betrapped. Any semblance of a running game, to take that little edge off the passrush, would be a boost for Elway.

Three Broncos,left corner Louis Wright, free safety Steve Foley and outside linebacker TomJackson, were part of the defense that faced the Cowboys nine Super Bowls ago.Ask them the difference between the Broncs then and now and they'll tell youthe pressure's off; the defense doesn't have to carry the offense anymore, asit did in the old days. Elway is fully capable of bailing the team out of atough spot.

After seven weeksof the season the Broncos' defenders were No. 1 against the rush in the NFL.Undersized but quick, they flew around the field like swarming gnats. Withdefensive end Rulon Jones and linebacker Karl Mecklenburg doing a lot of thedamage, they went through five games without allowing more than 77 yards on theground. They had an NFL-record six straight five-sack games. They wererelentless.

Then they woredown. Teams started pounding them. They were still effective, but therelentless quality was gone. The two-week layoff before the playoffs helped. Sowill the two-week pre-Super Bowl break. But the Giants are a pounding type ofteam, keyed by a big blocking fullback, Maurice Carthon, a great blocker attight end in Mark Bavaro, another one in Zeke Mowatt, and of course, Pro Bowlhalfback Joe Morris. The strange thing is that his long training camp holdoutprobably helped keep him fresher in the late going.

Simms is theperfect quarterback to run this kind of attack, modest enough to let the bigguys up front do the work if things are going well, but daring, too. LikeElway, he's a down-the-field passer, a streak thrower who can go 5 for 15 inthe first half but then can get hot and kill you.

For Simms and theGiants' offense, the season went through three phases. Phase 1 was the first 10games, the Vanilla Phase. Their offense was fairly basic. Phase 2 was CardiacNovember or the Coming of Phil Simms. He had to convert a fourth-and-17 on thedrive that led to the field goal that beat the Vikings in the last 12 seconds.Next week he cashed a third-and-21 on the drive that eventually beat Denverwith six seconds left. Finally there was the Monday Nighter against the 49ers,who shut down the running game and told Simms: Beat us with your arm. And thatis just what he did, turning a 17-0 deficit into a 21-17 victory in less thannine minutes.

Phase 3: theMighty Giants, overpowering, crushing, 49 points against the 49ers, 17 in thefirst half against the Skins. They could have scored 17 more in the second halfif they had wanted to. Offense working on all levels, defense rising up with afury, a mighty machine.

"The Giantsare capable of doing this to any team," 49er guard Randy Cross said afterthe 49-3 defeat. "They're like Chicago last year or us the year before.Every year a team emerges that seems capable of crushing anybody, and that'sthe level the Giants are at right now."

Parcells hasreceived a hatful of honors this season, but three years ago he was a veryshaky young coach. His first season was a 3-12-1 debacle. The team was inturmoil. Carson wanted out. Taylor signed a five-year future contract with theUSFL. At the end of the year there were strong rumors that HowardSchnellenberger would replace Parcells, whose contract had two years left.

"On Wednesday,Dec. 22, Bill and I had a talk in my office," Giants G.M. George Youngsays. "The next day I told him he was still the coach."

Changes were made.Young Johnny Parker became the Giants' strength coach. The club built a specialweight room. Young and Parcells played the USFL market, bringing in Carthon andright guard Chris Godfrey and center Bart Oates, all key figures in theresurgence of the Giants' running game. From the Philadelphia/Baltimore Starscame Sean Landeta, a Pro Bowl punter this year. The pieces fell into place. TheGiants had an offense to go with their traditionally strong defense.

The irony in theGiants-Denver matchup is that Bronco coach Dan Reeves was once a seriouscandidate for the New York job, losing out to Ray Perkins on the final pick in1979.

"I told him hewas eminently qualified," Young says, "but I'd worked with Ray atBaltimore and I preferred to go with someone I'd known. I told him not toworry. It would only be a matter of time before he'd be a head coach—and a goodone."

Reeves has hadfive winning seasons in his six years in Denver. He has produced two divisionchampions, and now he has a quarterback who has reached the threshold ofsuperstardom. The Giants are the overwhelming favorite on Sunday, but you can'tforget the way Elway gathered his teammates around him for that 98-yard driveagainst Cleveland. Inspiration against raw power. It's an intriguingprospect.

In the preseason Ipicked New York to beat Denver in the Super Bowl. I liked the way the Giantsloaded up on defense in the draft, and I figured the extra depth would givethem fresher legs for the playoffs. I also liked the feeling of hunger the clubprojected, the sense of mission. The Broncos swung my vote after a Friday nightpreseason defeat of the Rams. Elway looked sensational. So did Vance Johnson,who caught 11 passes for 195 yards. I thought they would be 1986's most dynamicpassing combination, strong enough to carry a defense that was certainly goodenough. I thought that when they got cornerback Mark Haynes from the Giants,they had that one great cover guy they needed. Well, I blew that one. Hayneshasn't done anything, but the Broncos have managed just fine without him. Mypick—the same as it was in September—Giants 20, Denver 17.

THE WAY IT WAS IN NOVEMBER
Here's how the Giants came away with a squeaker

BRONCOS 3 3 3 7-16
GIANTS 0 10 3 6-19

QUARTER

TIME

SCORING PLAY

DRIVE

SCORE

1

8:14

B. Karlis, 40-yard field goal

50 yards, 13 plays

B 3-0

2

0:03

G. Allegre, 31-yard field goal

63 yards, 16 plays

3-3

2

12:22

B. Karlis, 32-yard field goal

58 yards, 8 plays

B 6-3

2

14:17

G. Martin, 78-yard int return (Allegre kick)

 

G 10-6

3

5:14

G Allegre, 45-yard field goal

47 yards, 9 plays

G 13-6

3

13:07

B. Karlis, 42-yard field goal

52 yards, 9 plays

G 13-9

4

4:53

G. Allegre, 46-yard field goal

14 yards, 9 plays

G 16-9

4

13:05

B. Winder, 4-yard run (Karlis kick)

73 yards, 9 plays

16-16

4

14:54

G. Allegre, 34-yard field goal

55 yards, 8 plays

G 19-16

TEAM STATISTICS

 

BRONCOS

GIANTS

FIRST DOWNS

26

14

Rushing

6

7

Passing

16

6

Penalty

4

1

THIRD DOWN EFFICIENCY

8-15

5-15

FOURTH DOWN EFFICIENCY

0-0

1-1

TOTAL YARDS

405

262

Plays

72

59

Average Gain

5.6

4.4

YARDS RUSHING

80

143

Rushes

22

36

Average Yards Rush

3.6

4.0

YARDS PASSING

325

119

Completed/Attempted

29-48

11-20

Average Yards/Pass Play

6.5

5.2

Sacked/Yards Lost

2-11

3-29

Had Intercepted

2

0

PUNTS/AVERAGE

3-34

6-49

RETURN YARDAGE

148

189

Punts/Returns

4-43

1-2

Kickoffs/Returns

5-105

5-99

Interceptions/Returns

0-0

2-88

PENALTIES/YARDS

4-60

9-89

FUMBLES/LOST

2-2

2-2

TIME OF POSSESSION

31:03

28:57

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

DEFENSE

BRONCOS

TACKLES

ASSISTS

SACKS

GIANTS

TACKLES

ASSISTS

SACKS

Hunley

7

3

0

Carson

9

1

0

Mecklenburg

7

2

1

Banks

8

3

0

Gilbert

5

0

1

Kinard

6

1

0

Woodard

4

1

0

Williams

6

0

0

Smith

3

1

0

Reasons

5

3

0

Harden

3

0

0

Burt

3

3

1

Ryan

3

0

0

Taylor

3

2

0

Jackson

3

0

0

Hunt

3

2

0

Wright

2

2

0

Welch

3

1

0

Foley

2

1

0

Lasker

2

1

1

Comeaux

2

1

0

Patterson

2

1

0

Haynes

2

1

0

Hill

2

0

0

Dennison

2

0

0

Martin

2

0

0

Fletcher

2

0

1

Marshall

1

2

0

PASSING

BRONCOS

COMP

ATT

INT

YDS

Elway

29

47

2

336

Johnson

0

1

0

0

GIANTS

Simms

11

20

0

148

RECEIVING

BRONCOS

NO

YDS

GIANTS

NO

YDS

Winder

6

31

McConkey

2

54

Willhite

5

42

Morris

2

16

Mobley

4

49

Carthon

2

13

M. Jackson

3

47

Johnson

1

24

Johnson

3

47

Bavaro

1

15

Kay

3

34

Robinson

1

15

Watson

2

38

Galbreath

1

7

Lang

2

17

Anderson

1

4

Sampson

1

31

RUSHING

BRONCOS

ATT

YDS

GIANTS

ATT

YDS

Elway

8

51

Morris

23

106

Winder

13

24

Simms

5

20

Willhite

1

5

Rouson

2

9

 

Galbreath

3

7

 

Carthon

3

1

INTERCEPTIONS

BRONCOS

GIANTS

None

Kinard, Martin

MISSED FIELD GOALS

BRONCOS

GIANTS

Karlis, 48 yds

None

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWith Taylor breathing down his neck, Elway will have to get his passes off with dispatch. PHOTORONALD C. MODRA Bankshad a big hand in stopping Winder when the Giants took the firstmeeting. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERCarson, an eight-time Pro Bowler, has become the Giants' motivational leader.
PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIf Mecklenburg (77) can cool Morris (20), the Broncos might very well buck the odds. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERIt was sack-specialist Jones who downed the Pats' Eason for a safety on Jan. 4. CHART

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)