Early Sunday morning, New York Giants coach Bill Parcells was well into his second cup of coffee, killing the last few minutes before he would leave for Veterans Stadium and a game against NFC East rival Philadelphia Eagles. Most weeks, Parcells finds something to worry about before a game; usually he wonders if his team will be ready to play. Not this day. Not against the Eagles. "I don't worry about my guys today," he said, staring straight ahead. "They'll be ready."
But being ready to play the Eagles, the Giants have found in recent years, is not the same as being ready to play the Washington Redskins or the San Francisco 49ers. There's something different about playing Philly, something similar to what happens in a feeding frenzy. The Eagle defense forces a turnover, the offense capitalizes, the defense swarms, the defense scores, the Philadelphia fans become delirious, with a bloodthirsty glee. "If you let us get any confidence or get ahead of you, we'll kill you" is how defensive tackle Jerome Brown puts it. Well, that was sort of what happened Sunday.
Philadelphia's offense outhit the New York defense, the best in the NFC. Its 4-4 defense rattled the league's top-rated quarterback, Phil Simms. Its blockers rendered Lawrence Taylor, once the most-feared player in the game but now on the decline, virtually invisible. And its quarterback, the unstoppable Randall Cunningham, beat the Giants every which way in a 31-13 victory that punctured New York's dream of an undefeated season.
Memo to Paul Tagliabue: Can the Giants, who were 10-0 going into Sunday's game, take a mulligan? This was their hook into the deep rough, their way of ruining their half of Super Bowl XXIV½, that much-heralded meeting of unbeatens that was to take place in San Francisco this Monday night. Now, of course, it will be a much-less-heralded meeting of once-beatens, what with the 49ers having lost on Sunday too (page 40).
Now all New York can do is tee up another ball and try to forget the one it shanked against the Eagles. Even though Simms said in the locker room after the game, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "Yeah, we're 10-1 now, and we're one of the worst teams in the league," this was an alarming loss for the Giants, because they looked so unlike the team that had won 10 straight. O.K., it might have been a fluke showing by New York. We'll see. But for a day, the Eagles were the beasts of the NFC East, and the Giants were beastly.
The worrisome points New York now will have to address:
•Against the Eagles, the Giants didn't do the things that had kept them unbeaten. Their credo under Parcells always has been: You know what we're going to do; now try to stop us. The Giants dictate. In this game, they were dictated to. During their 10 wins, their run-pass ratio was 58% running plays to 42% passing plays. In the first 33 minutes against Philly, only nine of New York's 35 plays were rushes. Even though those nine runs yielded an average of 4.2 yards, Parcells said afterward, "I didn't think we could sustain the rushing game against them."
•Taylor is not the dominating player he was. Once the premier pass rusher in the game, LT has had 1½ sacks in the last eight games. His mere presence forced teams to make adjustments in their offense, and then on game day he would go out to his linebacking spot and ruin whatever plans had been made to stop him. Now the 31-year-old Taylor is getting smothered regularly on game day. Three times on Sunday he got into footraces with Cunningham, and twice Cunningham blew by him. Taylor nailed Cunningham the third time—with a shoe tackle. LT's totals against the Eagles: no sacks, one solo tackle and one assist. "I felt heavy today," he said after the game. Huh?
•The New York defense is flawed. A good secondary has helped to obscure short-comings in the Giants' pass rush. But on Sunday, New York cornerback Everson Walls was outraced on a 49-yard touchdown pass from Cunningham to rookie wideout Fred Barnett. And the Eagles had two Giant-like drives—16 plays for 80 yards in 9:22, and 15 plays for 84 yards in 8:48—that ended in touchdowns.
•New York lost its poise. The Giants were shouting at the Eagles and getting into shoving matches with them, and New York tight end Mark Bavaro was thrown out of the game after being flagged for pushing an official. "We lost our composure several times, and that's not like us," Taylor said. "The game turned into a street fight instead of a football game."
"Mentally, this has to take a lot out of us," said Pepper Johnson, the Giants' budding star at inside linebacker. "We need to go home and stare at the walls for a few days to forget something like this."
The odd thing about this game was that the Giants and the Eagles seemed to have exchanged on-field personalities. This day, the Eagles established the run and the Giants went to the long pass. This day, the Giants made dumb mistakes and the Eagles, after two early turnovers, were the efficient team. This day, the respected gentleman, Bavaro, was ejected and the notorious bad boy, Eagle strong safety Andre Waters, did not draw a flag.
There was an omen of these changes in Parcells's having assistant coach Tom Coughlin tell the receivers in their last meeting Saturday night, "Coach Parcells has been reading in the paper that you guys are saying you have to make the most of your opportunities. Well, you're going to get your opportunities in this game."
When it came to passing, the Giants had been playing it safe. Indeed, Simms had built his league-leading 108.0 quarterback rating by focusing on tosses to backs Dave Meggett and Rodney Hampton at the expense of the downfield passing game. The offensive plan was working, obviously, but Parcells wanted to throw the Eagles a changeup because he was well aware that Philadelphia could stuff his running game.
In their previous five meetings with the Eagles, the ground-hugging Giants had averaged 79.8 rushing yards, and they had lost four times. For this game, Parcells wanted Simms to revert to the way he had played in 1984, his first full season as a starter. That year Simms threw bombs to his wideouts, and passed for 4,044 yards. It seemed like good strategy, especially in light of the defensive schemes Philly was hatching for the game.
Eagle defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher planned to insert an extra linebacker, Britt Hager, into the lineup for cornerback Eric Allen on most first-down plays and all goal-line situations, the theory being that it's almost impossible to run against an eight-man front made up of so many large people. The way Philadelphia figured it, when New York tried to run into the gut of the Eagle defense, tackles Mike Golic (275 pounds) and Brown (295) would be there to stonewall them; and when Meggett and Hampton ran routes out of the backfield, the Giants wouldn't be able to isolate them in single coverage because of all those linebackers lurking about. The clogging effect of the 4-4 defense would force the Giants to throw deep. "It's worked pretty well for us," Fisher said after the game, "but you're never quite sure how it will work, because football is such a chess game."
The Giants were in position to make the first move, though, when Johnson recovered a fumble at the Philly 43. But on second down, wideout Mark Ingram, in traffic, dropped a pass at the five, and instead of leading 7-0, New York had to punt. Johnson struck again minutes later, when he sledgehammered the ball out of running back Keith Byars's hands and the Giants recovered at the Eagle 18. This time Ingram hung on to a Simms pass at the goal line, and New York led 7-0.
It took Philadelphia only three plays to catch up. On second-and-seven from his 37, Cunningham scrambled past Taylor and gained 14 yards. Then he threw a per-feet spiral to Barnett, who beat Walls for the 49-yard touchdown.
On the next series, the Giants moved to the Eagle 38, and again Simms looked for Ingram near the end zone. Philly corner Ben Smith pinned Ingram's right arm behind his back, but there was no pass-interference call. New York punted again, frustrated that it was in a 7-7 tie, when it might have been ahead 21-7 and killing the Eagles with the deep pass.
The rest of the day belonged to Philadelphia. Cunningham outsmarted Taylor on a one-yard TD sneak on fourth-and-one in the second quarter. It was the play that put Philadelphia ahead for good. In the huddle, Cunningham called, "Tough Brown Right Zip Quarterback Sneak Left," which in layman's terms meant Cunningham was going over the left guard. But Taylor set up as a middle linebacker, shading in the direction that Cunningham wanted to go. When the ball was snapped, Cunningham changed his mind and went over right guard. Touchdown.
Philadelphia led 14-13 at the half and struck again on its first possession of the third quarter. Facing a blitz on third-and-15 at the Eagle 15, Cunningham dumped the ball in the flat to Byars, and there wasn't a Giant within 15 yards. It turned into a 54-yard gain for Byars—he had eight catches for 128 yards on the day—and led to a Roger Ruzek field goal. Eagles, 17-13.
More Giants mistakes: They couldn't convert a second-and-one or a third-and-one on the next series, and then, within 22 seconds early in the fourth quarter, the rout was on. An unnecessary-roughness call against Johnson during that Eagle drive that would cover 84 yards put the ball at the New York five. Three plays later, Cunningham fired a bullet to Barnett in traffic in the end zone. The ball ricocheted high off Barnett, and Giants safety Myron Guyton and Eagle wide-out Calvin Williams went up for it. Williams got it. "Luck," he said later. Eagles, 24-13.
Now, with 13:12 left, Philadelphia could put an all-out rush on Simms, knowing he had to pass to get New York back in the game. Simms had a pass blocked into the air by defensive end Clyde Simmons, and linebacker Byron Evans pulled the ball in and ran 22 yards for the final score.
The Giants' lead in the NFC East is safe—they have a three-game advantage over 7-4 Philly, with five to play—but what happens if they have to play the Eagles again in the playoffs? In the last three regular seasons, New York has been 1-5 against Philadelphia and 31-6 against everybody else. "We feel we have the Giants' number," Waters said.
Clearly, the Eagles frustrate the Giants as no other team does. Simms, who had thrown two interceptions in the season's first 647 minutes, finished this debacle with two in the last 13. And when he tried to get out of the Vet with some pride, all sorts of invectives were hurled at him by the crowd hanging above the tunnel leading to the New York locker room. Simms paused, pointed at the crazies, and gave them the finger. Both fingers, actually. A little revenge for a day gone very, very bad in a season that still could be very, very good. But not perfect.