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The making of a Super Bowl champion: The 1990 New York Giants

Flexibility in game plans is a virtue of great coaches

1984 NFC Divisional Playoff Game - New York Giants vs San Francisco 49ers - December 29, 1984 Photo by Arthur Anderson/Getty Images

We tend to associate different philosophies of offense and defense with particular teams and coaches. Bill Walsh created the sideline-to-sideline West Coast offense with short crossing routes that stretched out defenses. The Air Raid offense, often attributed to Mike Leach, floods the field with wide receivers thrown to by a quarterback in shotgun formation. Arthur Smith is an anomaly in today’s NFL with a run-first offensive philosophy. On defense, Vic Fangio uses two-high safety zone coverages and 3-4 fronts with defenders disguising their intentions but rarely blitzing. His polar opposite is Wink Martindale, who runs man coverage and blitzes more than anyone while disguising who is rushing and who is dropping into coverage.

All of these approaches are great...when you have players who can execute them and when they work. Sometimes, though, an opponent has the personnel to exploit your weaknesses. Then you can either go down with your ship or adjust in the interest of winning.

In the 1990 NFL season, the New York Giants won a Super Bowl they had no business winning even though they were an excellent team. Let’s go back and remember how they did it, and see whether there are any lessons for the current team.

Building a Super Bowl champion

The Giants had the misfortune to become a good team during a decade of NFL labor-management conflict. In 1982, after their first playoff appearance in 18 years, they lost almost half the season to a strike, came back to a new head coach, and didn’t regain their form until 1984. In 1987, after two losses to open the season, another strike led to games played by replacement players for three weeks. The Giants’ replacements went 0-3 and the defending Super Bowl champions could never get out of that 0-5 hole, missing the playoffs.

The following year the Giants finished 10-6 but missed the playoffs when the Jets’ Al Toon caught a last-minute TD pass. In 1989, the Giants went 12-4 to capture the NFC East title again. Unfortunately, a good Los Angeles Rams team eliminated them on Flipper Anderson’s TD reception in overtime. Two wasted opportunities.

Suffice it to say, by the start of the 1990 season, the bloom was completely off the rose of that 1986 Super Bowl team. It’s easy to think of the 1990 team as just an evolution of the 1986 group. Many of the same faces were still starting: Phil Simms at QB, Mark Bavaro at TE, Maurice Carthon at FB, Bart Oates at C, Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks at outside LB, and Mark Collins at CB. So in one sense, there wasn’t much “making” of the 1990 Super Bowl champions needed. If not for the excruciating ends to the 1988 and 1989 seasons, the 1990 Giants might well have been seen as a budding dynasty.

Some new faces were reasons for optimism. Harry Carson had retired by then but Pepper Johnson had been drafted in 1986 as Carson’s eventual replacement. 1990 was Johnson’s coming-out season: 3 forced fumbles, 3.5 sacks, 115 tackles, and an Approximate Value of 20 (the Pro Football Reference measure of overall quality of play - Patrick Mahomes’ highest AV was 22 the season he threw 50 TD passes). Johnson made the Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro. Ottis Anderson was now the starting running back, coming off a 1,023-yard 1989 season, supplemented by rookie first-round pick Rodney Hampton and occasionally by speedster Dave Meggett, a 1989 fifth-round pick who led the NFL in punt return yardage. Tight end Howard Cross had been added in the sixth round in 1989 as well, while the receiving corps had further been bolstered in 1987 with first-round draftee Mark Ingram and third-rounder Stephen Baker.

The Giants had notably re-tooled their offensive line, as well, since their first Super Bowl. Giants fans, you’ll love this: In 1988 they had used their first and second-round picks on guard Eric Moore and tackle Jumbo Elliott. Not enough for you? They came back in the 1989 draft and took center Brian Williams out of Minnesota in the first round. Fix the OL once and for all, indeed.

On the defensive line, Leonard Marshall was still wreaking havoc with opposing quarterbacks (as Joe Montana would learn), but George Martin was gone, with 1986 draftees Eric Dorsey (Round 1), Erik Howard (Round 2 - if one Eric is good, two must be better, even if he spells it with a k), and John Washington (Round 3). Yes, three defensive linemen in the first three rounds of one draft. Fix the DL once and for all, I guess. The secondary also had been upgraded with cornerback Mark Collins (1986, Round 2) and veteran Everson Walls, who signed as a free agent and split time at cornerback and safety. All told, in the 1986 draft the Giants used every one of their six picks in the first three rounds on defense.

The 1990 season

Maybe it was the inspired idiosyncratic draft philosophy of GM George Young. Maybe the players were just ticked off at their premature exits from the 1988 and 1989 playoffs. Whatever, they came out in 1990 on fire, starting 10-0, including 5-0 against the NFC East. The division title was all but locked up with six games to go. The offense wasn’t a juggernaut, but it scored between 20 and 31 points in every one of those games.

1990 was the first NFL season with a bye week. The Giants had their bye after week 4, and they needed it. Many players were banged up. Little noticed was an originally diagnosed ankle sprain suffered by left tackle Elliott in week 4. It was later found that Jumbo had fractured the ankle instead. He missed eight games.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. With LT Elliott sidelined, the Giants decided they didn’t have a swing tackle they trusted enough to replace him. Instead, they moved right guard Eric Moore to left tackle. It worked well enough in a victory against Washington. The next week, against the Cardinals, that particular chicken came home to roost. Dropping back to pass, Simms was hit low and injured his ankle on a blindside sack by outside linebacker Ken Harvey, who beat Moore badly. At the same time, cornerback Cedric Mack blitzed from the opposite side and hit him high, giving him a concussion (you can watch it here). Who knew that the 2023 week 5 Josh Ezeudu - Andrew Van Ginkel - Daniel Jones fiasco was just a 1990 redux? Jeff Hostetler relieved Simms, but Harvey did the same to him later in the game. Fortunately, Hostetler was not injured, and eventually, Matt Bahr kicked a last-second winning field goal. Simms was able to return the next week, but this game was a harbinger of what was to come.

The wheels began to come off for the Giants in game 11, where their 10-0 start ground to a halt with a 31-13 thrashing in (where else?) Philadelphia. They lost three of four starting that day, the last loss coming in a tightly fought game at Giants Stadium against the 11-2 Buffalo Bills. There was bad blood brewing because Bills star defensive end Bruce Smith, leading the league in sacks, had declared that he had eclipsed Lawrence Taylor (watch the game here; the Smith clip begins at 0:3:38). Both quarterbacks were injured in the game. Bills’ QB Jim Kelly suffered an MCL and knee cartilage tear. He missed the final three games but returned for the playoffs. Shortly thereafter Simms suffered a broken bone in his foot (at the 1:29:08 mark) and missed the rest of the season including the playoffs. Hostetler guided the Giants to narrow victories in their final two games, but things looked ominous for the playoffs.

The 1990 playoffs

As NFC East Champion and No. 2 NFC seed (behind the 14-2 49ers), the Giants got to lick their wounds during the bye week. In the Divisional Round, they faced NFC Central champion Chicago, a chance to finally avenge their 1985 embarrassment at Soldier Field. This time the game was at Giants Stadium. The Bears had lost starting quarterback Jim Harbaugh to a third-degree shoulder separation, so it would be a battle of second-string QBs, Mike Tomczak against Jeff Hostetler.

1990 NFC Divisional Playoff Game - Chicago Bears vs New York Giants - January 13, 1991 Getty Images

The final score, 31-3 Giants, made it look like a rout, but this was a hard-fought game in which the Giants just methodically ran the ball down the throats of the formidable Bears defensive line, piling up 194 yards on 48 carries, about half of them by Anderson. Hostetler only threw for 112 yards to Tomczak’s 205, and there were few explosive plays. The Giants’ defense prevented Tomczak from doing any real damage, though, and intercepted him twice, while Hostetler threw for 2 TDs without an interception.

Next up was a trip to San Francisco and the two-time defending NFL Champion 49ers, who had defeated the Giants 7-3 in the regular season. The game was a battle of field goals, the only touchdown being a 61-yard Joe Montana to John Taylor pass play in the third quarter.

The fourth quarter of this game was packed with memorable plays. With San Francisco ahead 13-9 and 10 minutes left, Montana dropped back on 3rd-and-10. No downfield receivers were open. Montana scrambled to his right and set up to pass but was delayed by an onrushing Lawrence Taylor. Leonard Marshall, who had been blocked to the ground, hustled toward Montana, laying a vicious hit on him from behind. The Giants got the ball back but Ottis Anderson was stuffed for a loss on 3rd-and-1. The Giants lined up to punt but snapped the ball instead to the upback, Gary Reasons, who ran untouched to the San Francisco 24. Matt Bahr eventually kicked a 38-yard field goal to narrow the deficit to 13-12.

On the ensuing possession, with Steve Young at QB in place of Montana, the 49ers drove into Giants territory. On a handoff to Roger Craig, Erik Howard knocked the ball loose, and Lawrence Taylor recovered. The Giants got the ball to the San Francisco 24, and Bahr’s 42-yard field goal sent them to the Super Bowl.

1990 NFC Championship: New York Giants v San Francisco 49ers Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

Defusing a dangerous opponent in the Super Bowl

Unlike the Giants, who got in by the skin of their teeth, the Buffalo Bills had been playing like an unstoppable force. In a playoff loss to Cleveland the previous year, head coach Marv Levy had almost come back from a big fourth-quarter deficit by going to his no-huddle, two-minute offense much earlier. According to the Bills’ website, Levy decided to adopt this as his regular offense on Dec. 2, 1990. Called the “K-gun,” it was an 11 personnel grouping, which was not common at the time, with quarterback Jim Kelly in the shotgun calling his own plays. Receivers would flood the short and intermediate levels and Kelly would hit them with quick crossing routes that nullified the pass rush and got talented (and future Hall of Fame) receivers like Andre Reed, James Lofton, and RB Thurman Thomas the ball in space, where they could gain copious amounts of yardage after the catch. Not huddling after the play, the Bills would march down the field in short order.

The first time they tried it, they put up 229 yards and 3 TDs in the first quarter on the way to a 30-23 victory over Philadelphia. Once the playoffs arrived, Buffalo put 493 yards of offense up in a 44-34 win over Miami. Then they steamrolled the Los Angeles Raiders, 51-3, in the Conference Championship, with 500 yards of offense.

The Giants, who had run a 3-4 defense since Ray Perkins arrived as head coach, continued to do so under Parcells, who ran the defense for several years without a defensive coordinator. Finally, in 1985 he elevated Bill Belichick, who’d been at various times a special assistant, special teams coach, and linebacker coach, to defensive coordinator and let him run the show on that side of the ball.

In 1990 the Giants had the best (in points allowed) or second-best (in yards allowed) defense in the NFL. No one would have blinked an eye if they had decided to run their usual 3-4 and gone mano a mano with the K-gun. Belichick must have realized, though, that his personnel matched up poorly with Buffalo’s the way they were playing. The Giants’ defensive backs were good, but the heart of the defense was the linebackers. Combined with a stout defensive line they had stopped the run all season and figured they could do that to Thurman Thomas too (they held him to 60 yards on 21 carries in their regular season meeting), but it would do little good if the receivers were running wild. So Belichick went against his usual defensive instincts and drew up a new plan for this game:

“I think the running game was the least of our concerns in that game,” Belichick said. “Thurman Thomas is a great back. We knew he was going to get some yards. But I didn’t feel like we wanted to get into a game where they threw the ball 45 times. I knew if they had some success running the ball, they would stay with it. And I always felt when we needed to stop the run, we could stop it. And the more times they ran it, it was just one less time they could get it to Reed or get it to Lofton, or throw it to Thomas, who I thought was more dangerous as a receiver because there’s more space than there was when he was a runner.”

The Giants threw defenses at Buffalo they hadn’t shown all season. They played most of the game with just two linemen, Erik Howard and Leonard Marshall.

“We played a 2-4-5, or a 2-3-6,” coach Bill Parcells said. “Besides Lawrence (Taylor) and Carl Banks, we had Johnie Cooks there, so we could use him on the outside, too. Johnie made a good contribution to that team.”

“So we started the game with a lot of defensive backs,” Belichick said. “I was trying to entice them into calling more runs because they could see that we didn’t have many defensive linemen on the field. But they still didn’t really run the ball that much.”

The players thought Belichick was crazy, but they went along with the plan:

These were nickel and dime defenses that are common today but were a rarity 30+ years ago. With linebackers and cornerbacks flooding the under routes and two-high safeties discouraging the deep ball, Kelly completed passes, but fewer than usual and for fewer yards, as the Giants’ defenders hit them every chance they got, sometimes dislodging the ball, and because the windows were small enough to limit their YAC. (Watch the full game here.) Thomas got his yards on the ground as expected (135 on 15 carries) but the offense only put up 10 points in the first half. Still, Buffalo finally began to adjust to what the Giants were doing and took a 10-3 lead in the second quarter.

In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Parcells was at his motivational and strategic best. The biggest worry he had about the Giants’ offense was Buffalo’s fierce pass rush and especially Bruce Smith, who had 19 sacks that season. Parcells wanted to ensure that tackle Jumbo Elliott, who would be lining up opposite Smith, was mentally ready. As described in Newsday (recounted in The Sachem Report, which documents the history of the town on Long Island that Elliott was from):

Giants coach Bill Parcells assigned Lawrence Taylor to essentially fight Elliott in practice while imitating Smith in various plays.

“I said, ‘Listen, I want you to get into a fight with Jumbo,’ ” Parcells told Taylor, as quoted in a recent article in Newsday. “ ‘It’s going to give me a chance to make a point with the team.’ ”

I give [Taylor] the wink, and he goes after him,’” Parcells told Newsday. “He’s yelling at LT . . . So I say, ‘Hey, Jumbo, maybe he’s just worried about Bruce Smith winning the Super Bowl for them.’ Jumbo said, ‘Don’t worry about Bruce Smith. I’ll take care of him.’ ”

Strategically, the fact that Hostetler, a more mobile QB than Simms, was playing might have been an advantage in this one sense. Hostetler rolled out all night to the opposite side. The outside linebacker on that side, Cornelius Bennett, was disruptive all game, but Elliott managed to mostly neutralize Smith, allowing the Giants’ offense to operate.

Despite that, the Bills’ defense started to dominate the Giants’ offense late in the first half. Smith beat Elliott and Ottis Anderson and sacked Hostetler in the end zone for a safety and a 12-3 lead late in the second quarter. With 3:49 left in the first half, though, Hostetler led the Giants on a beautiful 87-yard drive. His limitations as a passer were on full display, but the drive culminated in a perfect pass to Stephen Baker, “The Touchdown Maker,” in the corner of the end zone to cut the lead to 12-10 at the half.

When the Giants came out in the third quarter, with the ball, they engineered perhaps the greatest drive in Super Bowl history. At the time it was the longest in history (9:29). Much of the drive consisted of running plays by Dave Meggett and Anderson, with Ottis adding a little uppercut to Mark Kelso on one of them:

The passing game was just as critical, though, with Meggett breaking a tackle on third-and-1 to keep the drive alive early, and then Mark Ingram making one of the greatest YAC efforts ever on third-and-13:

Finally, Hostetler rolled out left to Smith’s side, and with the Bills overplaying to the opposite side, he was able to pass over Smith to a wide-open Howard Cross to set the Giants up yards from paydirt. The eventual TD on a rush by Anderson gave the Giants a 17-12 lead they would not surrender. The back-to-back drives in the 2nd and 3rd quarters meant that the Buffalo offense had not seen the ball for 13:18 of game time, on the way to the Giants controlling the clock for 40:33. The Giants only managed a field goal after that as Buffalo scored a TD and drove for a winning field goal, but they of course did not get close enough to make it easy for kicker Scott Norwood and the Giants prevailed, 20-19.

What made this a championship team?

Bear Bryant was credited with the saying, “Defense wins championships.” It was certainly true that evening against Buffalo. The 1990 Giants were a veteran team that had won it all before, especially the defense, and the key defensive players saw themselves as the cream of the crop in the NFL. After all, they had just done it against two other elite veteran teams in the Bears and 49ers, both of whom had been Super Bowl champions in the past five years. Yet they agreed to set aside what they did best - stop the run - to stop an offense that had been looking unstoppable.

Amidst the noise in the Martindale - Brian Daboll dustup that led to Martindale leaving the New York Giants, there were hints that Daboll was frustrated with Martindale’s refusal to adjust when his defense was ineffective in particular games. The Giants’ 49-17 loss in Dallas, when the Cowboys racked up 640 yards of offense and the two were seen in extended animated discussion on the sideline, might be one example. Belichick and Parcells weren’t wedded to their time-tested defensive scheme so much that they wouldn’t abandon it to confuse a dangerous opponent in a big game.

It wasn’t the last time Belichick would do that. In the 2019 Super Bowl against a Los Angeles Rams offense that had put up 30 points or more in 10 of its first 12 games, Belichick noticed that Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had held them to 6 points in game 13 with his disguised two-high safety zone defenses. Belichick concocted something similar for the Super Bowl, confused Jared Goff all night, and the Patriots won 13-3.

As the Giants seek a new defensive coordinator, they would do well to try to find someone willing to scrap his preferred game plan for something different when the opponent dictates it, before the game gets out of hand. That seemed to be missing in 2023, although Martindale did vary his reliance on man vs. zone coverage from game to game.

1990 also shows us that it is essential to have a viable backup quarterback. Jeff Hostetler wasn’t a great QB, but he was good enough. After Hostetler left the Giants, he had two seasons with over 3,000 yards passing for the Raiders as their starter. The Giants aren’t Super Bowl champions in the 1990 season if Mike Glennon is the primary backup. Finding a truly capable backup QB (assuming that Tyrod Taylor, who personifies the role, does not return) will be a low-key crucial task for Joe Schoen in March.

Another lesson for the Giants from this game is that, although passing is king in the NFL, rushing still matters, and depending on the opponent, you’d better be able to do both. San Francisco and Kansas City are both multi-dimensional offenses, and they are the two teams left standing. Lost in all the hand-wringing over the Giants’ execrable pass blocking is that they were an awful run-blocking team as well, so the offense could rarely just wear a team down with running plays, which can ultimately take pressure off the passing game and make it more effective. Looking at you, Carmen Bricillo and Joe Schoen.

Poll

Giants fans, which call from this memorable playoff run is most iconic to you?

This poll is closed

  • 37%
    Pat Summerall, NFC Championship: "There will be no-o-o threepeat."
    (137 votes)
  • 62%
    Al Michaels, Super Bowl: "No good. Wide right."
    (227 votes)
364 votes total Vote Now