Giants wide receiver and special teams ace Phil McConkey goes airborne in New York's victory.
A Giant Step
January 25, 1987
After spending the first eight years of his career shaded by the clouds of injury, inconsistency, anonymity and controversy, Phil Simms certainly had earned his day in the bright Southern California sun that towered above Super Bowl XXI.
Simms was booed even before he first put on his New York Giants uniform. When his name was announced as the team's first pick in the 1979 National Football League draft, New York fans were stunned. "Phil who?" they asked. Their downtrodden Giants had taken a little-known hick from Morehead State. The fans couldn't believe it, they sure didn't like it -- and they let Simms know it. Again and again and again.
It took Simms eight often-stormy seasons to finally eliminate the sting of those boos. Before Super Bowl XXI, he had enjoyed some shining moments, but he never was completely accepted by Giants partisans, who still were searching for a reincarnation of Y.A. Tittle or Charlie Conerly. Simms could make the Pro Bowl or pass for 4,000 yards in a season, but until he quarterbacked the Giants to an NFL championship, nothing he did was good enough.
Simms, of course, wasn't the only Giant plagued by ghosts from the past.
"You get tired of hearing all the time about 23 years of suffering," linebacker Harry Carson said. "We'd like to make our own history, so maybe everyone could start talking about the present, not the past."
But since their last NFL championship game appearance in 1963, the Giants had done little to eliminate the ghosts. The proud franchise became tarnished by inept play, front-office feuding, horrible drafts and lackluster coaching. For a span, the Giants -- at one time the toast of Manhattan, where the players were the glowing winter celebrities at Toots Shor's -- were the worst team in the league. The Giants had even moved to New Jersey, of all places, the crowning blow in the club's downfall.
Nothing summed up the Giants' demise more graphically than a picture of Tittle, bloodied and bowed, kneeling on the turf near the end of their 1963 title loss to Chicago. That image, produced year after year in publication after publication, was etched painfully in the minds and hearts of all New York fans. When can we stop remembering, they kept asking?
Simms finally provided an answer in Super Bowl XXI. Instead of recalling Tittle's pain, the Giants' faithful could now recount the joy on Simms' face as he pumped his fist into the air, celebrating yet another touchdown in New York's 39-20 romp over the outclassed Denver Broncos. The brightly colored Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., became Simms' stage, and no Broadway star could have sparkled any brighter than he did on January 25, 1987.
Considering the importance of the game, it is hard to imagine any quarterback ever playing better under pressure. His numbers alone
give the reason: 22 completions in 25 attempts for 268 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He set Super Bowl records for consecutive completions (10) and highest completion percentage (88 percent) despite throwing against one of the league's more fearsome defenses.
"This might be the best game a quarterback has ever played," Giants Coach Bill Parcells said.
Even Simms, a genial, humble man who managed to keep his sanity despite the slings and arrows of playing in New York, was stunned by his performance.
"I have to admit he's a hell of a quarterback," Simms said about himself. "There ain't no doubt about it. I can't deny it anymore."
Do you think you are underrated?
"Hell yes, I think I'm underrated."
Does this wipe out "Phil who?" for good?
"You damn well better believe it does."
Ironically, Simms received more individual recognition in other seasons, when the team was struggling and he had to pass time and again. But in the 1986 season, when New York emerged as easily the best team in the NFL, Simms didn't earn All-Pro or Pro Bowl recognition. He and the rest of the offense, even running back Joe Morris, were overshadowed by a savage defense that terrorized opponents and dominated games.
But in the biggest moment of his football life, Simms seized the spotlight and made the Giants' first NFL title victory since 1956 look incredibly easy.
Of course, that's the way the game figured to go anyway. The Broncos had a nice team, no doubt, but not in the class of the Giants. Denver quarterback John Elway was the only reason New York had emerged as no more than an eight-point favorite prior to kickoff. Could Elway, the talented ad-libber with so many impressive offensive skills, be good enough to overcome his team's deficiencies? It was the only question that kept the prognosticators guessing.
But what Elway had to face was truly impressive. The Giants' defense, anchored by one of the game's best-ever linebacking units, had dominated San Francisco and Washington in the opening games of the playoffs, shredding two of the league's best offenses with an awesome display of strength and determination. In those victories (49-3 over San Francisco and 17-0 over Washington), the Giants held the league's No. 3 and No. 5 ranked offenses to just three points.
Denver couldn't match either Washington or San Francisco in offensive talent. The Broncos could only hope that Elway was capable of the same kind of miracle he produced against Cleveland in the American Football Conference title game, when he drove the team 98 yards in the final moments to send the game into overtime.
The pregame buildup centered around Elway and Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, the league's Most Valuable Player. Simms was a bit player, coming along for the ride.
"I really didn't mind," Simms said. "John's a great player. And it took the pressure off of me. But I really thought I was better than I was being credited for. People didn't talk about our passing game, even though we've been coming up with a lot of big plays."
Parcells began Super Bowl week by putting the Giants through what center Bart Oates termed "one of the hardest three or four practices of the year." Parcells finally had to back off by Thursday, when he figured his players realized he wasn't going to let them drift through preparations.
The Broncos also worked out so intensely that Coach Dan Reeves was afraid they'd hurt each other. On Friday, he toned down the practices. But his players remained puzzled by their role as decided underdogs against an opponent they had almost beaten (19-16) on the road in November.
"It just ticks you off," guard Keith Bishop said. "I don't know what everyone is basing their reasoning on. You don't get this far unless you are a darn good team."
Still, the teams had some fun. Reeves was given a birthday cake (he turned 43 early in the week) and Giants players either went fishing or played golf in their free time. Two days before the Super Bowl, they ate pizza supplied by Simms' favorite pizza joint, which happens to be located in Manhattan.
Mark Bavaro, the league's best tight end in 1986, normally doesn't talk to the press, but he relented under a league edict. He did his best to enhance his Rambo nickname, although he said he finds that notoriety so demeaning that he asked his teammates to drop it altogether.
Still, Sylvester Stallone he is. Here's a partial transcript of one interview:
Q. What do you like about football?
A. It's a job.
Q. Why did you go to Notre Dame?
A. Good school.
It got worse after that.
Taylor, who didn't want to talk to reporters any more than Bavaro did, was much more flamboyant.
"I can be an SOB," he explained. "Nasty, lousy, mean people are the guys who get the farthest . . . I love the contact. It makes the game real enjoyable. I can go two or three games without a kill shot. That's when the snot comes from his (a quarterback's) nose and he starts quivering on the ground. You want to run the film again and again."
Maybe Taylor was kidding, but who was going to ask?
Certainly not Elway, the glamour boy from that quarterback-happy class of 1983. The best way to shut up Taylor, he reasoned, was to outplay him. And that's what the Broncos did in the opening half of the game, showing New York, as Elway put it, "everything we had."
It almost was enough. The Broncos carved out a 10-9 intermission lead, which could have been so much more if they had capitalized on Elway's stunning start (13-of-20 passing for 187 yards).
On Denver's opening possession, a 24-yard pass from Elway to wide receiver Mark Jackson set up a 48-yard Rich Karlis field goal, which equaled the longest in Super Bowl history. Simms promptly drove the Giants 78 yards to a go-ahead touchdown on a six-yard pass to tight end Zeke Mowatt, but the Broncos regained the lead when Elway countered with a four-yard quarterback draw for a score, capping a 58-yard drive. After the Denver defense held New York on its next possession and forced the Giants to punt early in the second quarter, Elway eluded the rush on third-and-12 and found wide receiver Vance Johnson for a 54-yard reception ahead of free safety Herb Welch.
This early inability to contain the elusive Elway frustrated the proud Giants. They had worked all week in practice on keeping Elway in the pocket or at least forcing him to throw quickly. Welch, who was starting his fifth game in place of injured Terry Kinard, even had a nightmare in which he saw Elway running around and his receivers breaking free in the secondary.
"The worst part," Welch said, "was he's still running around and my man is out there and I'm behind him and I can't catch up."
That nightmare was coming true. Six plays after the completion to Johnson, the Broncos had a first down at the Giants' one-yard line. But in one of the critical series of the game, Denver couldn't get a touchdown. Karlis then inexplicably missed a 23-yard field goal, the shortest failure in Super Bowl history.
In the earlier game between the teams, Denver had scored from inside the 10 by running, so the Giants were prepared this time for similar tactics. On first down, Elway rolled to the right but was dropped by Taylor for a one-yard loss. On second down, the Giants stuffed a trap play and Carson stopped running back Gerald Willhite for no gain. On third down, running back Sammy Winder took a pitch and ran to the left, but linebacker Carl Banks, a standout all game, met him in the backfield for a four-yard loss, forcing the field-goal try.
The Giants had called defensive line slants on all three plays, and all three times Denver had run into the strength of the defense.
"How many times do you guess right on three straight plays with slants?" said an amazed Bill Belichick, the Giants' defensive coordinator.
Instead of leading, 17-7, Denver walked away from the goal-line stand ahead by just three, 10-7. The Broncos were staggering, but they still were outplaying the Giants -- at least for a while.
The Giants took over at their own 20-yard line, but the Broncos again prevented them from crossing midfield, forcing another Sean Landeta punt. Denver had the ball on its own 15 with 3:33 left in the half.
But by this time, the embarrassed New York defense was warmed up. On third-and-12, veteran defensive end George Martin, who had returned an interception 78 yards for a touchdown against Denver in November, sacked Elway in the end zone for a 13-yard loss and a safety.
That safety marked the game's biggest turnaround. One play earlier, an apparent reception for a first down by tight end Clarence Kay had been ruled incomplete, a decision upheld by replay official Art McNally, who said the replays he watched "were inconclusive."
An aggravated Reeves complained that Kay had clearly made the catch, "and I wear glasses," he said. Indeed, a replay angle that was unavailable at the time of the ruling was shown later in the game, and this one indicated that Kay had caught the ball cleanly. By then, however, it was too late to help the Broncos.
The safety cut Denver's margin to 10-9, but Elway refused to surrender. After New York was forced to punt for the third consecutive time, the Broncos took over on their own 37-yard line with 65 seconds left in the half. On second down, Elway threw deep and across field to an open Steve Watson (who had beaten cornerback Elvis Patterson) for a 31-yard gain. The Broncos eventually advanced to the New York 16, where Karlis, who had been the hero of their overtime AFC title victory, failed on a 34-yard field-goal attempt.
"The key was being only one point behind at the half," Giants nose tackle Jim Burt said. "I figured they had played about as well as they could and we hadn't played very well at all."
Mowatt agreed. "If (Karlis) had made those two field goals, it could have been Denver sitting here as the world champs," he said.
A disconsolate Karlis wasn't sure why he missed the kicks. "I don't think I lost concentration," he said. "I just felt I didn't hit 'em as well as I hit the 48-yarder. I think sometimes, on a shorter kick, you have a tendency to steer the ball, and I know better than that."
The Giants didn't need to make any major adjustments at halftime. They already had changed slightly on defense by playing more man-to-man coverage in order to reduce Elway's effectiveness on short passes over the middle. The players were convinced they had been tentative and had worried too much about Denver's finesse offense and its changing formations. Taylor, who was limited to five tackles for the day, told his teammates to stop thinking "and kick some butt, then we'll be
Simms merely pleaded for his offensive line, which Parcells called the "Suburbanites," to give him time to exploit Denver's man-to-man coverage. Simms had seen only one zone defense in the first half, and he was certain that if his receivers would run their routes at full speed and he had enough time to scan the secondary, the Broncos couldn't possibly cover all his options.
"They hadn't shown us any respect (with their man-to-man coverage) in the first game," Simms said. "We talked all week about how people were always running down our receivers. We wanted to show them they were wrong."
The Broncos had been confused in the opening half when the run-oriented Giants came out passing on opening downs. Nine of Simms' 15 first-half passes came on first down, and the Giants had run just three times on first down.
"We didn't know if we should put our pass defense in on first down and our run defense in on second," Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg said. "They were outguessing us."
Even though the game plan had been to challenge the Denver secondary, Parcells didn't like what he was seeing, calling it "too helter-skelter." He ordered a return to the Giants' bread-and-butter offense: Morris running, Bavaro catching and Simms throwing off play-action.
It was a wise decision. In the second half, the Giants became more physical and unpredictable against the outmanned Broncos. Morris, who had gained 36 yards on seven carries in the first half, opened the second with a three-yard run. He gained two more yards on third down, leaving the Giants with a fourth down and half a yard to go at their own 46-yard line.
Parcells, who had made bold moves with his special teams all season, decided to go for a first down with some trickery. He sent in reserve quarterback Jeff Rutledge with the punt team. The Giants shifted from punt formation and Rutledge moved from upback to quarterback. He waited and waited, trying to decide whether or not to run a play, then took the snap and sneaked for two yards.
The Broncos claimed they recognized Rutledge's presence and countered with most of their regular defense. But they still couldn't thwart the Giants' gamble.
"It was a big field-position swing for them," Reeves said, shaking his head.
Simms, thrilled with Parcells' decisiveness, took off. With ample time to pass, he threw to Morris for 12 yards and to running back Lee Rouson for 23. On third-and-six from the Denver 13, Bavaro ran a slant pattern against strong safety Dennis Smith, who got hung up in traffic in the end zone. Bavaro, who finished with four catches and picked particularly on Smith, grabbed Simms' bullet strike for a touchdown. The Giants had the lead for good.
Denver's first possession of the quarter ended quickly with its first punt of the game.
"You could see the whole team pick up after we drove for a touchdown and they had to punt," Simms said. "The defense had been embarrassed when they realized they (the Broncos) hadn't punted."
Phil McConkey returned Mike Horan's punt 25 yards to the Denver 36 and Simms went to work again. After Morris picked up 14 yards on three straight carries and Rouson ran for a yard, Simms connected with wide receiver Lionel Manuel for nine yards. Three more runs, including a five-yard scramble by Simms, set up Raul Allegre's 21-yard field goal, which made it 19-10.
Elway couldn't match the drive and Denver had to punt again. This time the Giants needed only five plays to cover 68 yards, with Morris scoring from the one on his third first-down carry of the march.
The key play had been a 44-yard flea flicker. Simms handed off to Morris and the running back pitched back to Simms, who waited patiently until McConkey came open at the 10. He was knocked down at the one.
"We run those flea flickers in practice, and we've never run the damn things in games," Simms said. "When I hit McConkey, I thought, 'That's it; we've won it.'"
The third quarter ended with Elway recovering his own fumble after getting sacked by defensive end Leonard Marshall. It was an appropriate finish to a dismal period for Denver. In the quarter, the Giants had gained 163 yards, the Broncos two. The Broncos, who had abandoned their running attack after being stopped at the goal line in the second quarter, called for passes on every third-quarter play. But in a wicked 19-minute stretch beginning late in the second quarter, Elway neutralized his great start by going four for 14 for 55 yards, having a pass intercepted by Patterson and getting sacked three times, including the safety.
In contrast, Simms' third quarter had been exquisite. He completed eight straight passes for 123 yards, throwing for one touchdown and setting up another 10 points to give New York a 26-10 lead.
"I was like a fastball pitcher," Simms said. "I had great location all day. Almost every pass landed exactly where I wanted it to. I've never played better. I told 'em before the game I was smoking."
Simms remained on fire into the fourth quarter, when his 36-yard completion to wide receiver Stacy Robinson set up another Giants score. Simms bounced an end zone pass off Bavaro and into McConkey's hands for yet another touchdown and a 33-10 lead.
That pass marked Simms' 10th straight completion and his last attempt for the day. Though Elway bounced back, completing his first five attempts on Denver's next possession and leading a drive that culminated with Karlis' 27-yard field goal, the Giants had a 20-point lead with 6:01 to play. It was time to run out the clock.
The Giants ate up 2:43 as they moved 46 yards for their last tally, a two-yard TD run by running back Ottis Anderson. Elway responded with a 47-yard TD pass to Johnson just before the two-minute warning. Karlis' conversion made it 39-20 and completed the scoring.
Buoyed by its running success in winning two playoff games, Denver had hoped for some success on the ground against New York. But the Giants gave up just 52 yards rushing, and the Broncos were reduced to relying on Elway's vast abilities. It was too much to ask, even of that gifted athlete.
"One guy isn't going to beat us," Taylor said. "But he never gave up. I'll give him credit for that."
Elway wound up passing for 304 yards and led Denver runners with 27 yards on six carries.
"They just got up by so much that we really didn't have the opportunity to do much offensively," Elway said. "They just seemed to sit back and play zone in the second half."
The Broncos also played more zone defense in the second half, but that was because Simms was shredding their man-to-man coverage.
"In the second half, Denver started to play some two-deep zone, which is contrary to everything they believe in on defense," Simms said. "I said to myself, 'They finally respect us.'"
And the stigma of "Phil who?" finally was erased. When the game was over and the TV cameras in the Giants' festive locker room were focusing in on the MVP of Super Bowl XXI, the man in the spotlight was Phil Simms.