clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The making of a Super Bowl champion: The 1986 New York Giants

A surprising first-round draft pick finally leads the Giants out of the wilderness...with some help

Super Bowl XXI - New York Giants v Denver Broncos

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. - George Santayana

Now is the winter of New York Giants fans’ discontent. Will it ever be made glorious summer by another Super Bowl Championship? OK, enough with the literary references, but seriously, as we go through the coming week watching, hearing, and reading ad nauseum about the two best teams in the NFL going head to head once again for a ring, where can we find slivers of hope?

It turns out that the Giants’ own history may have some lessons worth remembering. Today, let’s put on our Sony Walkmans (Walkmen?) and revisit the first of four Giants’ teams that won it all, the 1986-87 Giants.

Building a Super Bowl Champion

Finding a quarterback...eventually

In 1978, the Giants were in their 15th consecutive year of being in the wilderness, with no playoff appearances and only two finishes above .500 in that time. The futility was punctuated by “The Fumble,” a devastating end to a game the Giants had won and the writing on the wall for Giants’ head coach John McVay (Sean’s grandfather ICYDK) and the Giants front office. Commissioner Pete Rozelle intervened between a feuding Wellington and Tim Mara and got them to accept George Young as general manager. Young in turn hired Ray Perkins, a former San Diego assistant, as head coach.

In Young’s and Perkins’ first draft, they selected Phil Simms in Round 1 with the No. 7 pick. From the outside, Simms seemed to be a strange choice: A small school quarterback with a losing record and anything but imposing stats:

Yet both Perkins and San Francisco 49ers’ head coach Bill Walsh traveled to Kentucky to work Simms out. Walsh supposedly wanted Simms but had no first round pick that year, and Young and Perkins grabbed him with the No. 7 pick, to the surprise of almost everyone. Walsh settled for a third round QB, Joe Montana, instead. Ed Valentine wrote a great BBV piece on this a few years ago. Giants fans were not pleased, having hoped for QB Jack Thompson, “The Throwin’ Samoan,” who was considered the top QB prospect and went No. 4 to Cincinnati. The Giants passed on Ottis Anderson (taken with the next pick) and Kellen Winslow (taken six picks later) to draft Simms.

Simms didn’t immediately step in as a rookie. Despite authoring “The Fumble,” Joe Pisarcik started the first four games, all losses, in 1979. Perkins finally turned to Simms in game 5 and after one loss, Simms ran off four straight victories, finishing the season 6-6. The Giants gave Simms a good receiver, Earnest Gray, in Round 2 of that draft, and they had a solid if unspectacular offensive line. On defense Hall of Famer Harry Carson, fellow linebackers Brad Van Pelt and Brian Kelley, and defensive end George Martin were there. The full season 6-10 record was no better than 1978, but the arrow seemed to be pointing up with a solution at QB in place.

It was a false spring, though. In 1980 the Giants got little out of the draft except cornerback Mark Haynes...and a seeming afterthought QB pick in Round 6, Scott Brunner. The team regressed to 4-12. Simms went 3-10 in 13 starts before separating his right shoulder and missing the last three games. In 1981, he did it again, missing the final six games of a season in which the Giants finally came out of the wilderness to reach the playoffs at 9-7 and even win a Wild Card game against Philadelphia before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion San Francisco. And he missed all of 1982 after he tore ligaments in his left knee in the pre-season.

By 1983, Perkins had left for Alabama to replace Bear Bryant as head coach. New Giants head coach Bill Parcells chose Brunner, who had started during the 1982 4-5 strike year, as starter over Simms. By game 6, Parcells finally turned to Simms. On his third drive, Simms injured his thumb throwing when it hit a defender’s helmet, and he missed the rest of the season.

That’s four out of five years that the Giants’ first-round QB pick missed significant time with injuries. During most of this time, the Giants didn’t draft any other QBs except Brunner in the sixth round. They didn’t even keep a veteran backup until 1983, when they traded for journeyman Jeff Rutledge (who wound up starting four games).

If this sounds a lot like the Daniel Jones saga...well, it is. We don’t know how Jones’ story will play out in 2024, but if you want to see another parallel, consider this. Simms was named the starter by the second pre-season game in 1984, but Parcells wasn’t happy with how cautious he was throwing to receivers:

We played the Steelers in the last preseason game and I didn’t throw a pass to Zeke Mowatt. I said, ‘He’s covered,’ and I can remember this like it was yesterday. Parcells goes, ‘Simms, you got to remember, when he’s covered he’s really open.’ That was his big thing. I tell quarterbacks in the league things that Bill would say to me and I know they don’t believe it. He’d say, ‘You have to take more chances. Don’t worry. You’re going to make a mistake. Don’t try to be perfect.

“His greatest line to me ever was during the opening game in 1984 and we’re walking out of the locker room. He said, ‘If you don’t throw two interceptions today, you’re not taking enough chances.’ If a coach said that now, they’d be struck by lightning. Coaches say, ‘Turnovers are the biggest cause of winning and losing in the NFL. I want our team to take a lot of chances and be very dynamic, but we can’t turn the ball over.’ It’s funny. That wasn’t part of the mantra with him then and God, did I make some of the most unbelievable turnovers in history. I’d come to the sidelines and he would be so mad he couldn’t even talk and he would just hold it in and go, ‘Okay, it’s alright. That’s what I’m telling you. Take some chances.’ ...He’d say it through clenched teeth. Hey, you’re the one who told me to take chances, big guy. ...In practice sometimes I’d throw the ball and complete it for five or six yards and they’d literally stop practice and yell at me. ‘Why are you throwing it there?’ Well, because the guy down the field was covered. ‘Hell, give him a chance. What are you worried about? Your completion percentage? Your quarterback rating?’

Simms finally got the message to throw receivers open and trust them to make contested catches when they weren’t. That season - year 6 of his career - he finally became entrenched as starter, played all 16 games, led the Giants to a 9-7 record and a road Wild Card victory over the Rams before being eliminated in San Francisco. The following season Simms made his first Pro Bowl, got the Giants to the playoffs again, and got revenge on the 49ers in the Wild Card round before losing to the juggernaut 1985 Chicago Bears.

Simms’ passer ratings his first four seasons were 66.0, 58.9, 64.0, and 56.6. From 1984 onward it was never lower than 74.6 and exceeded 90 twice. The stage was set for something special in 1986.

Building an opportunistic defense

The Giants’ offense was in the lower half of the league in points during Simms’ tenure through the 1984 season, before finally becoming top 10 in 1985 and 1986. They never had an elite wide receiver: The Giants’ receiving leaders during those years were Gray, Johnny Perkins, Bobby Johnson, and Lionel Manuel, until tight end Mark Bavaro joined the team in 1985 and became Simms’ favorite target in the 1986 Super Bowl season. Most of the time they had solid but unspectacular running backs (Billy Taylor, Butch Woolfolk, Rob Carpenter) until Joe Morris took over as lead back in 1985.

The defense, though, got there sooner. Aside from the 1982 strike-shortened season, the defense ranked in the top 10 every year from 1981-1986 after having been middling to poor for the previous decade. It’s no coincidence that the first year of that run was Lawrence Taylor’s rookie season. The Giants had the second pick in the draft and had the amazing good fortune to be behind New Orleans, whose new head coach, Bum Phillips, had been fired by Houston. Phillips wanted his own Earl Campbell for the Saints and he convinced them to draft running back George Rogers with the first pick. A poll of NFL GMs before the draft had indicated that 26 of 28 GMs would take Taylor No. 1.

The Giants didn’t need a linebacker but took Taylor anyway. In his first scrimmage Taylor sacked the quarterback four times and it was clear the Giants had something special. Parcells once took him out of a scrimmage because he was so disruptive he made it impossible for the offense to practice its plays. Taylor was a dominant force almost as soon as the real games began. The Giants had no other notable draft picks that year except for guard Billy Ard, but the defense went from 27th in points allowed in 1980 to third in 1981. Sometimes it was because Taylor didn’t always follow the script:

As great as Taylor was, he had Harry Carson clogging the middle and tackling everything in sight to help out with the more mundane aspects of second-level defense. By 1983 the Giants had shored up the secondary with defensive backs Terry Kinard and Perry Williams, and the front line with Leonard Marshall, another excellent pass rusher. In 1984 they added Carl Banks with the No. 3 pick to complement Taylor at the other outside LB position. Banks added some pass rush juice of his own, but his calling card was the way he set the edge on running plays and pursued when the ball went to the other side. With Gary Reasons joining the team in 1984 and Pepper Johnson in 1986, the Giants had the deepest linebacking corps in the NFL. That talent played a pivotal role in the Giants’ first Super Bowl.

The 1986 season

After being shut out by the 1985 Super Bowl champion Bears on a frigid, windy day in Soldier Field, the Giants entered the 1986 season on a mission. Things didn’t get off to a great start with an opening 31-28 road loss to Dallas. The Giants reeled off five straight wins after that, though, before losing a hard-fought 17-12 game in Seattle on October 9. It would be their last loss of the season. Most of their nine subsequent victories on the way to 14-2 were close games - the first six were all by seven points or less. Four times they gave up over 300 yards passing, while Simms only exceeded 300 yards once. It wasn’t until their final two games that things began to click on defense, with 20- and 31-point victories in which the defense allowed fewer than 200 passing yards.

Were they good or just lucky? Maybe somewhere in between. They were certainly opportunistic. The defense had two games with 7 turnovers, another with 4, and 43 on the season. As a result, only twice during their 9-game streak did they give up as many as 20 points until a season-ending 55-24 blowout of Green Bay.

As top seed in the playoffs the Giants got a bye in the first round for the first time in the Super Bowl era and thus had only to navigate two home games to reach the Super Bowl. They began with a 49-3 dismantling of San Francisco, their tormentor. The Giants caught an early break when a patented Joe Montana slant to Jerry Rice that was going to be a sure touchdown was inexplicably fumbled and recovered by the Giants. After that the defense completely stuffed the 49ers running game (29 yards for the day) and battered Montana, eventually driving him from the game. The Giants’ rushing game (216 yards) controlled the clock, and the game was more or less over by halftime.

The NFC Championship Game, played in 35 mph winds at the Meadowlands, was almost as one-sided. The Giants won the toss, let Washington receive, and took the end of the field that would force them to throw into the wind. The defense and the wind kept Washington QB Jay Schroeder from mounting a sustained passing attack, and the defense was allowing nothing in the running game (40 yards on the day). The offense was methodical, operating mostly on the ground in the inclement conditions (117 yards rushing to only 82 passing), something Washington could not do. A field goal, a short TD pass from Simms to Lionel Manuel, and a 1-yard rushing TD by Joe Morris later, and it was 17-0 by halftime. For all intents and purposes the game was over, and the Giants were headed to their first Super Bowl.

In the Super Bowl the Giants faced the 11-5 Denver Broncos, led by golden boy quarterback John Elway. The teams had played a tight defensive struggle at the Meadowlands in November in which only one offensive touchdown was scored (by Denver on the ground; the Giants’ only TD came on a 78-yard interception return by George Martin). Elway did torch the Giants secondary for 325 yards but came away a 19-16 loser because the Giants defense forced four turnovers. In the AFC Championship Game in Cleveland, Elway had burnished his credentials with the defining moment of his career, “The Drive.” Down 20-13 with 5:32 left, Elway drove his team 98 yards in 15 plays to tie the game and send it to overtime, where Denver won it with a field goal. This is the closest the Cleveland Browns have ever come to the Super Bowl.

The Giants entered the Super Bowl (you can watch the full game here) knowing that the defense was going to have to limit the Broncos’ passing game. They weren’t very successful in the first half, as Denver took a 10-7 head and was driving for another score late in the second quarter. But with first and goal at the Giants’ 2-yard line, on successive plays: Lawrence Taylor tackled Elway for a loss on a rollout/keeper; Harry Carson and Erik Howard stuffed Gerald Willheit on a run up the middle; and Carl Banks came around from the opposite side to tackle Sammy Winder in the backfield. That changed the tone of the game. Before the half ended, George Martin tackled Elway in the end zone for a safety, and the Giants breathed a sigh of relief, going to the locker room down only 10-9 rather than 17-7.

In the second half Phill Simms took over the game: A 13-yard TD pass to Mark Bavaro, a drive ending in a Raul Allegre field goal, another drive culminating in a Joe Morris 1-yard rush for a TD, and a 6-yard TD pass to Phil McConkey, and by early in the fourth quarter the Giants were running away at 39-13. The game finished 39-20, with Simms having perhaps the best Super Bowl ever by a QB: 22 of 25 for 268 yards, 3 TDs, and 0 INTs. He was only sacked once.

What made this a championship team?

What lessons can we learn from this Super Bowl champion that might apply to today’s team? The 1986 Giants were a good but balanced offensive team, more dangerous with their rushing game that could control time of possession but potent in the passing attack when they needed to be, as they showed in the Super Bowl.

The defense is what carried the 1986 team, though. It wasn’t as good as the 1985 Bears defense that had terrorized the NFL the previous year. In fact in 1986, the Bears defense was still No. 1 by a wide margin in both points and yards allowed. The Giants’ defense was second in both categories, though, and had a top 10 offense to complement it, something the 1986 Bears didn’t have.

More to the point, the Giants had players who made plays at the most important times. They may have had collectively the best linebacking corps ever seen in the NFL. Linebackers have become somewhat devalued in the modern NFL. The statistics say that drafting a linebacker in Round 1 is not good value, that they can be found throughout the draft. That is true, but it does not follow that linebackers are not an important part of team defense. This year’s Super Bowl participants get attention mostly for their prolific offenses, but the defense largely won the conference championship for Kansas City and set the stage for the second half comeback for San Francisco, and these teams have some of the best linebackers in the NFL in Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Leo Chenal, Drue Tranquill, and Nick Bolton.

If you’re looking for a silver lining in a depressing 2023 season for the Giants, the emergence of Bobby Okereke, Micah McFadden, and Isaiah Simmons comes to mind. They’re not Harry Carson and Carl Banks - few are. They are a net asset rather than a liability, though, and off-ball linebacker is no longer a pressing need for the Giants if Simmons is re-signed. No Giants linebacker or edge defender (the position he effectively created) is Lawrence Taylor. The question is whether Kayvon Thibodeaux or Azeez Ojulari can become more effective under a new defensive coordinator. This surely is a position that Joe Schoen will try to address in free agency or the draft, because in today’s NFL, a pass rush is probably the most important component of defense.

Phil Simms is not a Hall of Fame quarterback and probably will never be because his career stats do not match up with the best. Simms was possibly a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback, though. His injury-plagued first five seasons prevented him from reaching his potential sooner, and although he was the QB for the Giants’ second Super Bowl team, he doesn’t get credit for two Super Bowls because he was injured before the playoffs. Had those things not happened, he might be in Canton.

No one will accuse Daniel Jones of being a Hall of Fame candidate, but his first five seasons are remarkably similar to Simms’ in many ways. If Bill Parcells had a better alternative to Simms on his roster than Scott Brunner, Simms might have been gone by 1984, before he ever had the chance to show us his best. With the short fuse on NFL head coaches and GMs these days, Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll don’t have the luxury of a sixth year of Jones without having a viable alternative on the roster. The only questions are whether that will take the form of a high-end veteran, a first round draft pick, or a later draft pick (or two of those). Whatever happens, it seems at the moment that Jones will get one more chance to show that 2022 was not a fluke, just as Simms got the chance to show that 1981 was not a fluke. Will Jones learn to throw downfield more often, and can he be effective doing so on a regular basis? The sand in the hourglass is running out.

One surprising aspect of those mid-80s Giants Super Bowl contenders was that they didn’t have a great pass-blocking offensive line. Simms wasn’t the most mobile QB (he never had 200 rushing yards in any season) but he wasn’t a statue either. Yet he was sacked 477 times in 164 regular season games, a rate of 2.9 sacks per game. Jones has been sacked 179 times in 60 regular season games, a 3.0 rate. In the Giants’ 3-year playoff ascent to their first Super Bowl Simms was sacked 55, 52, and 45 times, while in Jones’ one playoff season he was sacked 44 times. Considering how mobile Jones is (perhaps too mobile, one criticism of him is that he flees the pocket too soon), that suggests that the OL in front of Simms was more effective in pass blocking than that which Jones has had in front of him.

This is just one more way of saying: Fix the offensive line once and for all...whoever the quarterback will be in 2024.