THE PLAY lives on, sprinkling its magic over the weeks and months. Many of the New York Giants got their first clear look at it when they returned to Giants Stadium from Arizona after their epic Super Bowl victory; shouts and screams emanated from film rooms and bounced through the dark hallways. Some of them watched it again nearly three months later at a routine, off-season video session in late April, when players split up by positions to review cutup digital video of offensive and defensive situations from the entire season. ¬∂ On that day quarterbacks and wide receivers studied plays in which the Giants used four-wideout formations during their two-minute drill. In the middle of the session—"Just mixed in with the rest of them," says quarterback Eli Manning—up popped the play that defined a game and a season, and perhaps much more. A quarterback escapes a sure sack, a wideout leaps into the night, a football is pinned impossibly against the surface of a helmet and brought safely to earth. The New England Patriots' unbeaten season ends soon after.
This is an article from the Aug. 4, 2008 issue
Just as quickly, another play pops up on the screen. But the memory lingers. "The more you look at it," says David Tyree, the wide receiver who made the catch, "the more it doesn't make sense from a logical standpoint. The velocity of the throw, the defender draped all over me, the curved surface of the ball against a round helmet, the way we came down to the ground. It just doesn't make sense."
Manning sees it in simpler terms. As he watched the video in darkness, he measured the distance between victory and defeat. "If we don't make that play," he says, "it's fourth down and at least five yards, and you don't know what can happen then. You watch that play and you realize how close we came to not winning the Super Bowl."
NFL camps opened last week, and a new season looms. Yet the wonder of Manning-to-Tyree remains. It was improvisational brilliance at best, sandlot good luck at worst. It still doesn't make sense, and that is part of its enduring beauty. "It's the greatest play in Super Bowl history," says Steve Sabol, the NFL Films president who has been chronicling the league since his father, Ed, started the company in 1962. Considering the play's stage and subplots, perhaps it's fair to see Sabol's claim and raise him: Call it the greatest play in NFL history.
62 Y Sail Union
A dull game suddenly turned riveting in the fourth quarter. A Manning-to-Tyree touchdown pass gave the Giants a 10--7 lead with 11:10 to play. After an exchange of punts, the Patriots took possession at their 20-yard line, chasing perfection against the clock with 7:54 to play. In a University of Phoenix Stadium skybox above midfield, where Giants president and CEO John Mara sat with 16 relatives and friends, two servers wheeled through the door with a huge fondue pot. "Get that s--- out of here!" shouted an incredulous Mara. "Fondue with eight minutes left in the Super Bowl!"
Twelve plays and just more than five minutes later, Tom Brady threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss, and the Patriots led 14--10. Atop the press box in a broadcast booth, Sabol made mental notes. "I was thinking, This game is going to cement Tom Brady's place as the greatest quarterback of all time. That's the story line."
The Giants stuttered downfield. Eleven yards on a first-play completion from Manning to Plaxico Burress.... A stumbling two-yard run by Brandon Jacobs for a fourth-down conversion with 1:34 to play.... A five-yard scramble, then a near-interception. The Giants faced third-and-five at their 44 with 1:15 left. The call came into Manning's helmet receiver: 62 Y Sail Union.
"It's one of our basic two-minute plays," says Manning. "We probably ran it 10 or 12 times during the season." The play calls for a four-wideout formation in a two-by-two set (a receiver split wide and another in the slot on each side), with one running back and Manning in the shotgun. Sixty-two designates the pass protection, in this case basic (as opposed to maximum). Y Sail tells the Y receiver, right slot Steve Smith, to run a corner route while the right wideout, Tyree, runs a post pattern. "A dummy route," says Tyree, "just to take the top off the coverage." (Manning disagrees slightly. "The Sail concept is to give us a shot at getting the ball down the field," he says. "We're looking for them to line up in what we call Cover 4, or quarters coverage, four defensive backs across the field.") Union means the left wideout, Burress, and left slot, Amani Toomer, run in-routes: Burress at 16 yards and Toomer at 12.
The Patriots came out in dime coverage (six defensive backs, three linebackers, two pure defensive linemen) and, sure enough, spread four DBs across the field. Manning went to the line of scrimmage and called signals: "Five-eighty, five-eighty [meaningless numbers], set, hut!"
"We all got beat."
Manning's first read was to the right, where free safety James Sanders lined up over Smith and cornerback Asante Samuel over Tyree. If Sanders sat hard on Smith, Tyree needed only to get inside of Samuel and he'd be open to the post deep. "The safety sat pretty hard," says Manning. "I probably would have thrown it to David anyway."
In fact, Sanders and Samuel appeared to bungle the coverage. "Tyree and Smith were both open," says NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell, who has watched the video many times.
Manning, however, had other concerns. At the snap Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas beat Giants left tackle David Diehl with a speed rush to the outside, forcing Manning to step up early; nosetackle Jarvis Green beat center Shaun O'Hara to O'Hara's left; and right defensive end Richard Seymour looped to his left behind Green. O'Hara tried to come off Green and cut off Seymour, and left guard Rich Seubert tried to pick up Green. Both failed.
"They ran a three-technique inside, and we all got beat," says Seubert. "The nosetackle [Green] pretty much picked me off. They did a good job. I think everybody on their defense came free to Eli. [Not entirely true: Right tackle Kareem McKenzie controlled linebacker Mike Vrabel's outside rush.] At that point in the play, when I didn't get my job done, I'm thinking, Just throw it, Eli." Manning had stepped up into a Green-Seymour sandwich. A sack was imminent.
"What in the hell happened?"
Seymour was the first to get to Manning, briefly grabbing the quarterback's jersey. Green's grip was more substantial—a meaty forearm across the top of Manning's back and then a handful of jersey as Manning tried to escape. Manning saw a flash of white shirt in front of him. "I was about to flip it to him," the quarterback says, "but then I saw it was [right guard] Chris Snee, so I thought, Don't do that."
Says Green, who is still amazed, "It was a weird play, man. At first it was a perfect pocket push, with AD [Thomas] getting pressure on the outside and then a big push in the middle. It's like it was clockwork. I know everybody in the stands was thinking, Man, this is sick. I had my hand on his shoulder, then I had his jersey, and I think I could even feel it ripping a little bit. I thought Eli was going to go down for sure. Watching film on him all year long, somebody just touches him, he falls to the ground. But he got away."
History will remember Manning's great escape, but much credit on the play goes to Giants linemen O'Hara and Seubert, who were badly beaten initially but stayed with the play, heeding the order delivered on football fields every day: Play to the whistle. As Seymour grabbed Manning, O'Hara reached across under Seymour's chin and tried to drag him off Manning. Likewise, Seubert thrust a forearm under Green's left arm, making it more difficult for Green to get leverage on Manning.
"My thing is this: Keep on trying," says Seubert, who grew up playing in Marshfield, Wis. "Don't ever give up. That's the way I was taught to play football. If something goes wrong—and just about everything went wrong on that play—do what you can to make it right."
The act of breaking free spit Manning out of the scrum and away from the line of scrimmage. He ran five steps to his right and back to the 33-yard line toward the Giants' sideline, caught a glimpse of Tyree, squared his shoulders and let fly. "If it had been the third quarter and that play happened, I would not have thrown the ball," says Manning. "You don't throw a 40-yard pass into the middle of the field, kind of up for grabs. But it was third-and-five, I almost got sacked, so you either throw it away or you give Tyree a shot. I gave him a shot."
Green turned, watched the play and heard a roar. "The whole thing was like slow motion," he says. "I said to myself, What in the hell just happened? I made big plays all year for my team, and that had to be the biggest play I didn't make." Green was raised in Donaldson, La., played at LSU and often visits New Orleans, where the Mannings are royalty. He has been hearing it since February: How did you not get him down?
Unlikeliest of heroes
At the snap Tyree had run at Samuel, planted his right foot and turned toward the middle of the field. After clearing Sanders, the safety, he looked back over this left shoulder. "Eli had just stepped up," says Tyree, "and he was obviously struggling. I drifted back toward the line of scrimmage and a little toward the middle of the field. I felt open. But I knew I wasn't going to be open long."
He was the unlikeliest of heroes. "Almost a Max McGee--type character," says Sabol, invoking the late Green Bay Packers wideout who starred in Super Bowl I after an all-night bender. Tyree grew up just seven miles from Giants Stadium, in Montclair, N.J., and in high school he was mired in a life of drugs and alcohol. "Every weekend I drank a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor and a half-pint of Jack Daniel's and smoked a blunt of marijuana," says Tyree. It continued at Syracuse and in the NFL, until 2004, when he was arrested in possession of a half-pound of marijuana. The incident scared him straight. He says he stopped drinking and smoking and reconciled with his girlfriend, Leilah, who had borne him one son and was pregnant with another. Tyree became a devout Christian. He married Leilah, and now they have four children (including twin girls born after the Super Bowl). On Dec. 15 Tyree's mother, Thelma, died of a heart attack in Florida at age 59. One day later the Giants' fourth receiver, Sinorice Moss, was injured. In five NFL seasons Tyree had established himself as a terrific special teams player but had seldom cracked the four-receiver rotation. "All of sudden, last two games of the year," he says, "I'm in the mix."
Manning's throw traveled 42 yards in the air, and it was no moon ball. "People said it hung up," says Tyree. "Take a look. It was a pretty hard throw." On the sideline Giants defensive end Justin Tuck watched the throw and cringed. "'Oh, my lord, this is just up in the air,'" he remembers saying. "I just put my head down."
Tyree went nearly straight up and got two hands on the ball. The Patriots' Pro Bowl strong safety, Rodney Harrison, first tried to bat the ball through Tyree's hands, pushing it against the receiver's helmet. Then Harrison took Tyree down by his right biceps, which had the effect of clamping the ball tighter against the headgear. "As it was happening, I almost felt like I could hear music," says Tyree. "It was fast, but it was slow, too."
Far beyond the catch, back judge Scott Helverson watched the play unfold. Football has long been his life. Helverson was a two-year starter at wideout for Iowa under coach Hayden Fry in 1984 and '85. His quarterback was Heisman Trophy runner-up Chuck Long, and he counts among his former teammates college coaches Bob Stoops and Mike Stoops. Helverson, 45, coached a year of high school football before turning to officiating: eight seasons at the high school level, five in Division III, eight in the Big Ten, five in the NFL, mostly as a back judge, the free safety of officials. "You never let anything behind you," he says. Helverson is such an officiating junkie that he is the only ref who works NFL and Arena Football League games.
Officials, like players, have keys. Helverson's first key was Smith, but when Smith moved toward the sideline, Helverson passed him off to line judge Carl Johnson and settled into a middle zone. "I remember seeing Manning throw long," says Helverson. "At that point I focus on Tyree, because the players will take you to the ball. I can see that Rodney Harrison is getting close, so the first thing that comes to mind is to watch for pass interference. The ball hits Tyree's hands, and there's no pass interference, but Rodney is all over him and the ball goes to his helmet.
"So he's falling to the ground, and I'm thinking to myself, It's going to come out, it's going to come out, it's going to hit the ground. And then it doesn't hit the ground. So I run up on the play, because I know that time is critical at that point and I figure Rodney isn't getting off Tyree anytime soon. The Giants call timeout, and at that point I look over at Larry Rose, who was the side judge, and I just do a silent 'Wow.'"
Tyree ran off the field as tight end Kevin Boss was inserted into the game. On the sideline Tyree high-fived inactive (and since released) quarterback Jared Lorenzen. The crowd gasped as the play was rerun on the stadium's huge video screens. "I knew it was a good play," says Tyree, who had endured a dreadful practice two days before the Super Bowl, dropping every pass thrown to him, at least half a dozen. "I didn't know the degree. But I would be a hypocrite to take credit. That goes to God."
Four New England players had surrounded Tyree as he made the catch: Harrison, corners Samuel and Hobbs, and free safety Sanders. In the weeks following the catch, Patriots players would privately gripe that Samuel—since departed to the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent—should have laid a hit on Tyree as the ball arrived but instead merely watched.
Four plays later Manning threw 13 yards to Burress for the game-winning touchdown, a play that was climactic and at the same time anticlimactic.
SHORTLY AFTER the game ended, Sabol boarded a private plane for the trip back to New Jersey, where work on the official Super Bowl film would begin early the next day. He fretted on the flight—"flop sweats," he says—over whether NFL Films cameras had fully captured the Tyree catch. His memory went back to 1972, when Ernie Ernst was the only NFL Films cameraman to get footage of Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception.
Sabol also ran through a mental checklist of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history: Lynn Swann's juggling catch against the Cowboys in 1976, John Riggins's 43-yard fourth-down run to carry the Redskins over the Dolphins in '83, Joe Montana to John Taylor with :34 left to beat the Bengals in '89, Mike Jones's tackle of Kevin Dyson to save the Rams' win over the Titans in 2000. He thought about Harris and Dwight Clark (the Catch that beat Dallas in '82), whose historic plays did not occur in Super Bowls. But Sabol kept seeing Tyree in the air.
He was in his office at 5 a.m. on Monday and watching video of the Super Bowl by seven. Three tape machines unspooling action. Eight people in the room. "We went right to the Tyree catch, before anything else," says Sabol. The angles were covered. The pictures were good. And the play was unlike anything they had ever seen.
David Tyree (85) runs a post pattern, Steve Smith (12) a short corner, Brandon Jacobs (27) a swing, Amani Toomer (81) and Plaxico Burress (17) in-routes. Eli Manning (10) sees Patriots FS James Sanders (36) sitting on Smith's route and realizes Tyree should be open to the post. When Tyree sees Manning getting swamped by the pass rush, he drifts back upfield and toward the middle. SS Rodney Harrison (37) reacts from the opposite side but fails to prevent Tyree from making the reception.
The Giants are in basic pass protect out of the shotgun.
The Patriots' rush quickly has Manning (10) in trouble.
Seubart (69) uses a forearm to peel Green off the QB.
Manning nearly dishes off but realizes Snee (76) is ineligible.
The QB slips through the scrum toward open space.
Manning spots Tyree downfield and lets fly.
Tyree goes up for the ball as Harrison tries to knock it away.
Tyree pins the ball to his helmet and, somehow, hangs on.