It may not seem this way from their recent troubles, but the New York Giants are one of the most storied franchises in the NFL. Their history, dating back to 1925, is replete with great moments and great players who made them possible. The Giants won 4 NFL Championships in the pre-Super Bowl era and have won four Super Bowls, and they have appeared in 12 other championship games in their history. To put that into context, the rival Philadelphia Eagles, who go back to 1933, won three championships pre-Super Bowl, have won only 1 Super Bowl, and have appeared in only three other championship games.
Any team as successful as the Giants have been over the long term is going to have a lengthy list of great players. Which are the very best? Bookies.com has undertaken a project to determine the all-time four best players for every NFL franchise, which they call the “NFL Ring of Honor,” a kind of Mount Rushmore for each team. They use an objective method to choose the honorees: The Pro Football Reference Career Weighted Approximate Value and Hall of Fame Monitor score metrics for every player are averaged and the result used to rank each player for a given franchise. The individual metrics themselves are partly subjective calculations that assign importance to different aspects of a player’s career and are more or less defensible for different positions. Both metrics tend to value lengthy careers, and the HOF Monitor includes awards that are the result of humans voting. The players that appear high up on either list, though, are/were undoubtedly great players.
The New York Giants’ NFL Ring of Honor determined by Bookies.com consists of the following four players: Lawrence Taylor, Michael Strahan, Eli Manning, and Tiki Barber. There is no doubt that these four were great Giants. But were they the best?
Ed Valentine surveyed his BBV writing staff and invited the one with the most gray hair to provide a personal perspective on the all-time greatest Giants. I wish my father were still here to help. He was born in the same year as the Giants were, experienced most of the Giants’ history up to the 1981 emergence from the wilderness years under Ray Perkins and Phil Simms, and was the person from whom I inherited my love of the Giants.
My own history with the Giants goes back only to 1960, the year I first became interested in sports. That makes me unqualified to evaluate any of the Giants’ Hall of Famers who played before then: Mel Hein, Steve Owen, Benny Friedman, Red Badgro, Ken Strong, Tuffy Leemans, Arnie Weinmeister, and Emlen Tunnell. Hein and Tunnell especially were considered among the greatest ever at their positions (center and safety) and I can imagine someone old enough pounding the table for them to be included.
For the players I did have the opportunity to watch play, I decided to apply a few subjective criteria to supplement the statistics that are the basis of the Bookies.com NFL Ring of Honor:
- The player had to spend most of his career, and specifically the most impactful years of his career, as a Giant.
- NFL championships matter, especially if the player had a big hand in bringing the championship to New York.
- The player had to be someone who dominated the game when he was on the field, at least some of the time, someone I was always looking for to make a big play when it mattered.
- The Giants have been a franchise known both for defense and offense at different times in their history, so ideally I’d like my four Mount Rushmore honorees to represent both sides of the ball.
With that having been said, here is my New York Giants Mount Rushmore and the reasoning for my choices.
Let’s get the easy one out of the way first. Lawrence Taylor. Not only the best defensive player in Giants history, but the best defensive player in NFL history. He changed the way defense was played. When he burst onto the scene in 1981, the Giants became a playoff team after a 17-year drought. Fans are usually offense-oriented, but when Taylor played, you couldn’t wait until the defense came onto the field to see what he would do next. He had the strength to bully Pro Bowl caliber offensive linemen, the burst off the line of scrimmage to beat any offensive tackle, the speed to catch any quarterback who tried to escape, and lethal finishing moves that often caused the quarterback to fumble. Offenses were terrified of him, they had never seen anything like him before.
LT basically invented what we today call the “edge” position. Ed likes to remind us that the position is not “edge” or “edge rusher,” but “edge defender.” Lawrence Taylor is the perfect example of that. He was as comfortable dropping back in coverage as rushing, and he had nine career interceptions, and he blew up rushing attempts. All of his skills were on display nationally in this Thanksgiving Day game against the Detroit Lions. In a linebacking corps that included Giants greats Harry Carson and Carl Banks, he was somehow clearly the best player. All-Pro and Pro Bowl virtually every year in his first decade of play. The Giants do not win their first two Super Bowls without him.
How can you have a Giants Mount “Rush-more” without the greatest pass rusher of them all?
The Comeback Kid
Y.A. Tittle and Fran Tarkenton may have been the two best quarterbacks in Giants history. Tittle was a great passer and threw a beautiful long ball. His 1963 season with the Giants was amazing considering how important the run game was back then, with yards, TDs, and passer ratings that many present-day quarterbacks would gladly sign up for. Three-time All Pro, three-time MVP, seven-time Pro Bowler, and Hall of Famer. Tarkenton was spellbinding to watch as he scrambled around tying to find an opportunity to pass. He would have been right at home in today’s NFL. One-time MVP and All-Pro, nine-time Pro Bowler, and Hall of Famer. But both Tittle and Tarkenton played most of their careers for other teams, and neither one ever won a championship.
Phil Simms spent his career with the Giants, did win a Super Bowl, and might have won a second if he hadn’t been injured late in the 1990 season. The one Super Bowl Simms won was the crowning performance of his career: 22 of 25 passes completed and three TDs. The display he put on in the second half that day was amazing. But Simms was for the most part not a dominant quarterback. The great Giants teams of the Simms era were led by the defense. I loved what Simms did to make the Giants relevant again, but he’s not the best Giants quarterback.
Eli Manning is one of the most polarizing players in NFL history. His traditional statistics place him among the career leaders in several passing volume categories - ninth in passing yards and 10th in passing TDs as of this writing. Yet he falls short in many efficiency-based statistics, he finished his career with a .500 record, and he will not have an easy time getting into the Hall of Fame as a result.
But Giants fans know Eli’s value to the team. 27 game-winning drives. Two last-minute drives to win Super Bowls against arguably the greatest team and quarterback of the 21st Century. Numerous dominating and/or gutsy performances in the playoff games leading up to those Super Bowls. Like LT, the Giants do not win those two Super Bowls without him. In that second Super Bowl season, the Giants’ defense was poor and Eli carried the team. My personal favorite Eli moment was his last-second TD pass to Amani Toomer in 2005 to beat the Denver Broncos; this was the first time I felt he could be “the man” for the Giants, although it took two more seasons to come to fruition. Manning didn’t dominate whenever he was on the field - he just did so when the biggest games were on the line.
Invention of the middle LB position
In the early NFL defenses often stacked the line of scrimmage at a time when rushing was the dominant form of offense. When the rules were relaxed in the 1930s to promote more passing, teams faced the dilemma of trying to stop both the run and the pass. The problem came to a head in the 1950s, when the Cleveland Browns and their Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown were admitted to the NFL and ran roughshod over most teams. Giants’ defensive coordinator Tom Landry is often credited with devising a solution, the 4-3 defense, that put what we now call a “Mike” linebacker in the middle at the second level to crash downhill and stop a running back who had gotten past the line of scrimmage, while also having responsibility to drop back in pass coverage when needed. Sam Huff was the player Landry chose for this assignment.
Huff was an amazing player, agile enough to cover receivers (30 career interceptions), tough enough to bring down the most dangerous running back, and smart enough to quarterback the defense. This is common for middle linebackers today, but he was the first to do it. His battles with Jim Brown, the greatest running back in NFL history, twice every season were “must-see TV” (except for the fact that Giants home games were not televised in those days). The NFL version of Ali vs. Frazier or Godzilla vs. Kong. Two-time first team All Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler, Hall of Famer, No. 93 in a 2010 ranking of the greatest NFL players of all time. He didn’t change NFL football himself - rather he was the one with the skills that allowed Tom Landry to change it. There is no Dick Butkus, no Jack Lambert, no Ray Lewis without Sam Huff.
I can’t argue with the inclusion of Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber in Bookies.com’s Giants Ring of Honor. Both were great players. Strahan is recognized as such, Tiki less so, perhaps because of resentment among fans over things he said about the team after he retired. Strahan has a ring, Tiki has none.
I’m going to go in a different direction for my fourth choice, though. As much as I enjoyed watching Strahan and Barber play, I didn’t watch specifically to see them play. Strahan was the best in a succession of great Giants’ defensive linemen that included Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul, etc. Barber was one of many great Giants’ running backs that included Joe Morris, Rodney Hampton, Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, etc.
My choice is Frank Gifford, a unique player in Giants history. Gifford did it all. He made the Pro Bowl eight times, as a defensive back, a halfback, and as a flanker (what we would call the Z receiver today). He returned punts and kickoffs. He threw 14 TD passes, the most by a non-quarterback in NFL history. He even occasionally kicked field goals and extra points. He was first team All-Pro four times and NFL MVP in the Giants’ 1956 NFL Championship season. He lost more than a year of his career to a head injury during a vicious tackle by Eagles’ linebacker Chuck Bednarik but returned for three more seasons and was a key figure on two Giants teams that reached the NFL Championship game. Any time you watched a Giants game, it was a good bet that Frank Gifford would make a big play to help win the game.
Lawrence Taylor. Eli Manning. Sam Huff. Frank Gifford. That’s my Giants Mount Rushmore. Giants fans, who are your four players? Tell us in the comments section.