1981: My Favorite Year In Giants History
When Giants fans are asked ‘What is your favorite Giants’ team of all-time?’, you’ll get different answers from different age groups. The elders will point to the glory days of the 1950’s of Sam Huff and Frank Gifford. The Baby Boomers will tell you about Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor, while the youth will rattle off more current names such as Tiki Barber, Michael Strahan, and Eli Manning.
When I was a kid, the Giants were doormats. From 1964 through 1980, “Big Blue” did not qualify for the postseason. "So what?" you say. Many teams were doormats during that period...Yes, but the Giants had traditionally been contenders.
During the 1978 season, fan frustration had reached its pinnacle. “The Fumble” was the final stake through the hearts of Giant fans. They began to demand changes.
They boycotted games, burned tickets in the parking lot and even had a plane fly over the stadium towing a banner behind it that read “15 Years of Lousy Football—We’ve Had Enough”. It was time for co-owners Wellington Mara and his nephew, Tim, to put their personal differences behind them and work together to salvage the family business.
That happened in 1979 with the assistance of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. He suggested the Giants hire an overlord to rebuild their club, both on—and off—the field. The man they brought in was George Young, who had achieved success at every level of the football business.
He came in and shook the dust of the rugs, so to speak. He hired a new coach—Ray Perkins—a disciplinarian he knew as a player from his Baltimore Colts days. Perkins began to shape up the club while Young started to accumulate talent.
1979 and 1980 were not the successful campaigns the franchise and the fans had hoped they would be. They finally had a franchise quarterback—Phil Simms—but he could only do so much. He was literally thrown to the wolves and it would be years before he would develop.
The offense had very few playmakers. The defense had several. The best—and most valuable—player on the team was punter Dave Jennings.
My Favorite Year
Entering the 1981 season we were all painfully aware that the Giants had not been to the playoffs since 1963. That was the season that President Kennedy was assassinated. When Ronald Reagan was shot on March of 1981, Quija-board toting Giants fans came out of the woodwork and began to predict good things for the team.
The Giants had the second overall choice in that April’s NFL Draft by virtue of their 4-12 record in 1980. When the Saints took the Heisman Trophy winner, RB George Rogers of South Carolina, with the first selection, the Giants wasted no time in taking North Carolina linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
“Another linebacker?” we asked. We already had Brad Van Pelt, Harry Carson and Brian Kelley. "What do we need him for?" Defensive coordinator, Bill Parcells, who was back in the fold after a year in New England, made the most of what he had and switched the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4.
It was the right move. Taylor started from day one and made an immediate impact. Giant fans were elated. We finally had something going for us. "Pass that thermos full of Kamikazes down this end of the row, will you?"
Even with Taylor, the Giants were still an average team. Ten weeks through the season, they were 5-5, but the level of play was rising. With six weeks to go, the team began to make a run for the playoffs. This time it wasn’t a pipe dream.
The 1981 Giants were a combination of hard-nosed players and budding stars, unlike in years past when the team was chock full of has-beens, nobodys and rejects. It had been an eternity since the team had a player that even resembled an NFL quarterback.
Simms' guile and talent evoked high hopes amongst the faithful. The running game finally got some oomph, as well, when Young traded for Houston’s Rob Carpenter in October. He single-handedly revived the team’s offense with his smashmouth style. WR Johnny Perkins, a five-year veteran of little accomplshment, suddenly emerged as the main receiving threat.
Then there was RB Leon Neon Bright, an explosive, daring player who caught the ball out of the backfield and returned punts. You might recall that Bright prided himself in not calling for fair catches. He paid the price many a time. Needless to say, fans did not leave their seats during a punt play.
The core of the defense was the linebackers, but there were other talented players as well, such as DE George Martin, NT Bill Neill, CB Mark Haynes, S Bill Currier and Beasley Reece, and LB Byron Hunt. They were playing the Parcells way, too. They would finish the season ranked third in the NFL in total defense.
The key player would end up being the place kicker—Joe Danelo—who made clutch kick after clutch kick and was proficient at denying opponents the opportunity to return kickoffs by kicking the ball through the back of the end zone.
The 11th game of the season was at the Meadowlands against the Washington Redskins. The game was a close one, as usual. Joe Theismann was not an easy man to pin down. He consistently tied the aggressive Giant defense in knots with his elusiveness.
In the second half, Simms was sacked and left the game with a shoulder injury. Scott Brunner, the tall, lanky, second-year man out of Delaware, relieved him. Brunner managed to put the Giants ahead 27-24 in the fourth quarter on a TD pass to rookie WR John Mistler. We went wild. "Hey, we can win this one!"
But it wasn’t meant to be. Theismann rallied the Skins to tie the game on a 49-yard field goal by the last of the traditional straight-on kickers, Mark Moseley, who would then repeat the feat in overtime. The Giants lost, 30-27. Later, we learned that Simms would miss the rest of the season with a separated shoulder. We were 5-6. Hope was fading.
Optimism was hard to find going into week 12. A trip to Philadelphia to play the 9-2, defending NFC Champion Eagles loomed ominously. Brunner would get the start at QB. The season had suddenly fallen squarely on his shoulders. Perkins played it close to the vest and asked the defense to set the tempo.
They responded. The score was tied through three quarters. With Brunner under pressure and looking rusty, Perkins took the air out of the ball. Carpenter banged through Eagle defenders to the tune of 111 yards.
The Giants shut the Eagles out in the second half, icing the game on Terry Jackson’s interception of a Ron Jaworski pass for a TD. The 20-10 victory pulled them back to .500 at 6-6. Optimism made a comeback.
Week 13 sent the Giants across the country to Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The 49ers were 9-3 and enjoying a renaissance under former Stanford coach Bill Walsh and Notre Dame star Joe Montana.
The Niners took control of the game early and never relinquished the lead. The Giants played admirably, and held Montana in check. He didn’t throw a TD pass, but he still cracked the boxscore with a 20-yard scramble for a TD. The final was 17-10. The Giants’ playoff hopes took a nosedive. They needed to win the next three games or the season would be over. No problem, right?
If you’ve ever been to the Meadowlands in December, you’ll know it’s not pleasant. The Rams were facing their first losing season in a decade, and the last place they wanted to be was in the chilly swamps of Jersey.
The wind wreaked havoc on both passing games. Brunner was just 5-22. Los Angeles’ Pat Haden went 8-21. The 14th game of the season was a war of attrition. The Giants thankfully came out on top, 10-7. My feet are still cold from that day.
The 7-7 Giants traveled to St. Louis to take on the red-hot Cardinals, who were on a four game winning streak. After the Cards broke the ice on a Neil O’Donaghue field goal, the Giants scored 20 unanswered points, highlighted by George Martin’s fumble return for a TD.
Carpenter carried the mail again for the Blue, racking up 147 total yards, while the defense terrorized Cardinal QB Neil Lomax. The Giants’ 20-10 victory brought them to 8-7 after 15 weeks. If only they could beat the division-leading Cowboys at home the next week, they would go to the playoffs.
The Meadowlands was abuzz in Week 16. All hands were on deck for the first meaningful game in almost two decades. Not one seat was vacant. The Cowboys were playing for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. For that to happen, they needed a victory combined with a San Francisco loss.
No matter the stakes, Dallas coach Tom Landry always played to win. The weather was similar to the Rams game a few weeks before, but with the stakes so high, the cold seemed almost unnoticeable for most of the game. Halftime came quickly. Neither team had managed to score. In the third quarter, Scott Brunner hit TE Tom Mullady, from little Rhodes College, for a TD and the only score of the period.
As the sun set over the stadium, Dallas responded with TD pass of their own—Danny White to Doug Cosbie, and then took the lead 10-7 on a Rafael Septien FG. The crowd slunk back as if they should have known better.
"We can’t beat Dallas" was the sentiment. Only this time the team didn’t falter. The Giants drove down the field and tied the game on a Danelo 40-yard FG. In overtime, Danelo was good again from 35 yards and the Blue was finally on their way to the playoffs.
In the Wild Card game, the Giants traveled to Philly again. Most fans felt it was just nice to have a 17th game for once. Expectations were low, as we would get an 18th game as well.
The Giants caught the champs flatfooted and built a 27-7 lead by halftime and held on to stun the Eagles, 27-21 to advance to the NFC Divisional Playoff round. Giant fans who, had been living in caves, or were in comas, began to sprout up everywhere.
The next opponent was the 49ers. It would be the first of many memorable games the two teams would play throughout the decade. Montana was a bit sharper this time around (20 for 31 for 304 yards and 2 TDs). Brunner looked like a pro, too, tossing three TD's.
It wasn’t enough. The Niners led the whole game and knocked the Giants out of the tournament, 38-24. San Francisco would go on to win the NFC Championship on Dwight Clark’s catch the next week, and then top Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI.
The Giants were embarking a stellar decade, too, but it was that first taste of playoff football that was the most exciting for me. After 18 years, we were finally in the conversation.
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