The New York Giants are back on top of the world of schizophrenia. There will be no call for the coach to be fired or the quarterback to be replaced. Everyone is safe—at least for this week. A 22-9 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at Giants Stadium on Sunday produced all the euphoria. The Giants put away an opponent the way they did last year en route to a victory in the Super Bowl, and the defense forced two fumbles and made a goal-line stand.
Gone for the moment were the memories of the fourth-quarter collapses earlier this season, when the offense was three-plays-and-out. This time New York hammered its lead home with more than 11 minutes of possession time in a fourth quarter during which only two of its 19 plays were passes, including one for a touchdown. This was Giants football: Squash the life out of the other guy, and don't give him the ball.
In the locker room afterward, there was talk of the long voyage home, of a return to glory. Except the players weren't the ones saying those things. They wore the wary look of fighters who had gotten the decision but had taken a lot of shots. "Taking 'em one at a time.... Positioning ourselves for a wild-card spot" was the kind of stuff you heard from the players.
They wore wistful smiles, because 1) a 6-5 record meant they were still struggling, and 2) the same guys who were crowning the Giants kings had buried them only two weeks earlier. That's when New York hit its low point, a 30-7 Monday night drubbing in Philadelphia. It was a savage affair, as these things can be in the Vet when the Eagle defense is on a rampage. Even last year's Giants, who were 10-0 when they visited Philly, went through one of those days (31-13 was the score then) but this time the loss had dropped New York below .500 for the third time this season, and the local press came down hard, DEFENDING CHUMPS was the headline in the Daily News, WE WANT SIMMS the New York Post hollered and STATUS WOE cried the News, both in a reference to coach Ray Handley's decision to stick with Jeff Hostetler over Phil Simms as his starting quarterback.
November 25, 1991
So where does the truth lie? Are the Giants really chumps masquerading as champs this week? Or is this a proud team that has at last gotten itself together and is ready to make a run at...well, not the undefeated Washington Redskins, who have a five-game lead in the NFC East, but a wild-card playoff spot, joining that gray blob of 9-7, even 8-8, teams that eke out a place in the postseason?
Yes, New York is a playoff-caliber team, and three wins in its five remaining games, two of which are against the 2-9 Tampa Bay Bucs and the 1-10 Cincinnati Bengals, ought to get the Giants into the postseason. After that, who knows? Can New York defeat New Orleans in the Dome, once the Saints have their banged-up offense, including quarterback Bobby Hebert, healthy again? Possibly. Can the Giants beat the Skins in Washington? They almost did it last month. New York manhandled Washington on both sides of the ball in (he first half, but the Skins kept their poise and chopped the Giants down after the intermission.
Can New York get by a team that has less talent but more fire? On Sept. 8, the Los Angeles Rams beat the Giants on giddyaps and breaks, getting the right bounces on fumbles and favorable calls on close plays—the kind of breaks that New York specialized in last year and that perhaps helped create an aura of greatness that wasn't really there. "The myth of 1990," George Young, the Giants' general manager, calls it. In that game at the Vet earlier this season, the Eagles, with a hobbling quarterback, Jim McMahon, and zilch for a running game, knocked New York off the ball and kept possession most of the second half.
Defense, the Giants' cornerstone, has been the area of concern. Former coach Bill Parcells drafted big, sturdy players for his front seven, and he protected his secondary by using a two-deep zone. His grind-it-out offense was keyed to a crushing defense. The system worked, and that's what Handley inherited.
Then the cracks started showing. With noseguard Erik Howard nursing a bad back and finally going down after the third week of the season, the big push up the middle was gone, and opposing quarterbacks could step up into the pocket, scan the field and complete long passes. Injuries came in bunches. At one point the Giants were down to three healthy defensive linemen, two of whom had been picked up on waivers. Then the secondary got racked, and New York didn't even have enough healthy defensive backs to put a decent nickel package on the field in the second half against Washington. On the 20-play Redskins drive that turned that game in Washington's favor, the Skins were stuffed on every first down but converted all six third downs.
Now the Giants defense is well again, except for Howard, but something still isn't right. "Too much thinking, not enough emotion," says linebacker Steve DeOssie. Former defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, who left New York for Cleveland after last season, used game plans that ran maybe four pages; the plans of his replacement, Al Groh, run 10 or 11. Groh is a first-year coordinator, so he wants to cover all possibilities. That's understandable, but he has created a static situation. "I don't mean this as a criticism," says linebacker Carl Banks, "but there used to be more gimmick defenses, more situations where LT and Pepper Johnson and I would line up and the other teams wouldn't know who was rushing and who was dropping back. Now things are more predictable, and sometimes it puts the handcuffs on you."
Then there's the offense, which has produced more yards and first downs so far this year than at the same time in '90, but fewer points, long passes and TD throws. Hostetler is certainly among the league's top 10 quarterbacks, but he doesn't have Simms's gambling mentality, his willingness to go deep on third down. After 11 games last season, Simms had thrown four touchdown passes on third down; Hostetler has none on third down. He's playing within the system, which is based on a crushing defense that simply isn't there. When Hostetler completes an eight-yard pass to Dave Meggett on third-and-10, people start hollering for Simms.
Coming on the heels of the fiery Par-cells, Handley has been ripped for being unemotional. "I seem to recall a guy in Dallas named Tom Landry who received the same criticism," says Young. "And he never wore the loud shirts Ray wears. Ray is emotional, but he doesn't show it."
On Sunday the Giants got the breaks, and the Cowboys made the mistakes. The iffy calls by the officials went New York's way, and the ball bounced into the Giants' hands. It hasn't been that way this season. Maybe that has changed.