Giants, Ravens turned things around quickly
Updated: Friday January 26, 2001 8:03 PM
"No," Strahan replied.
Neither could anyone else.
When the NFL season began, the Baltimore Ravens and the Giants were longshots to make the Super Bowl, a combined 15-17 last season. Midway through the season, after two ugly losses for the Giants and a five-game scoreless streak by the Ravens, the odds were even longer.
"If you'd told me eight weeks ago we'd be here, I'd have laughed in your face," says Strahan, one of New York's defensive leaders and its highest paid player at $7.6 million a year.
Trent Dilfer replaced Tony Banks at quarterback in the second half of game No. 4. Dilfer lost his first start, again without a TD. Then came 10 straight wins, including playoff upsets at Tennessee and Oakland, that got them here to play the Giants in Sunday's Super Bowl.
Quick fixes and good luck can take NFL teams a long way these days, when the salary cap makes every team relatively equal in talent.
Conventional wisdom is that the Giants turned around with head coach Jim Fassel's guarantee that his team would make the playoffs. Fassel, who almost surely would have been fired had the team failed to make the postseason, decided to take the New York media criticism off his players and put it on himself.
The Giants, 7-4 at the time, have won seven straight games.
But the real turnaround began after a 7-9 1999 season in which the team was badly divided.
"We had to change the chemistry of this team and the starting point was the offensive line," Fassel said. "The guys we brought in hit the mark -- in personality, leadership and professionalism as well as in ability."
Brown, for example, went to defensive tackle Keith Hamilton and told him he needed to get into better shape. They worked out every day together and Hamilton had the best season of his nine-year career.
"The whole thing was fun, too," Brown said. "We'd sit around afterward playing dominoes and just shooting the breeze. It made us closer and it made the team closer."
The Giants started with three straight wins, lost to Washington and Tennessee and then won four more to reach 7-2. The running game worked well with rookie Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber, recovered from two seasons of nagging injuries.
Then came the losses to St. Louis and Detroit. As the media jumped on the team, Fassel jumped in to protect his players. "This team is going to the playoffs," he announced following the Detroit loss -- the word "guarantee" was never actually used.
Now they're here.
The Ravens started well this year, but then hit the scoring drought. On Oct. 22, the Ravens were in the fourth game of a five-game stretch without a touchdown and Tony Banks had thrown three interceptions and lost a fumble.
After a second straight interception, head coach Brian Billick finally replaced Banks with Trent Dilfer. They lost that game to Tennessee, lost 9-6 to Pittsburgh, but have won 10 straight since.
"We had to do something," Billick said. "It wasn't just Tony. We weren't getting anything done on offense. Sometimes you just stand there and do nothing. In our case, we're on a 10-0 run so our offense did what it had to do."
In truth, it was more what the offense didn't do -- turn over the ball. Dilfer, who had been run out of Tampa after six erratic seasons, was instructed to hand off to Jamal Lewis, throw it away when he had no open receivers and let the NFL's best defense get field position for him.
But Dilfer has had his special moments, particularly in the playoffs. In each of Baltimore's three wins, he combined with tight end Shannon Sharpe on one big play, including a 56-yard pass that set up the only offensive touchdown in the win over Tennessee and a 96-yard, third-and-18 play for the only score in the AFC title game in Oakland.
"With our defense, that's often all it takes," Dilfer said.
N.J. politicians punt on Super Bowl wagers
New Jersey politicians are quick to note their state is the true home of the New York Giants. But when it came time to place their bets on Sunday's Super Bowl, they punted.
Garden State lawmakers proved conspicuously less aggressive than their Big Apple counterparts in wagering with politicians from Maryland, the undisputed home of the Baltimore Ravens.
New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman and Sens. Robert Torricelli and Jon Corzine have nothing but pride riding on the game. By comparison, New Yorkers have food, drink -- even verse -- at stake.
New York Gov. George Pataki has put up a bushel of Long Island Little Neck clams in a bet with Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, who wagered a comparable amount of Maryland crabs.
If the Ravens win, New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton have promised to read from Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" from the steps of the U.S. Capitol. If the Giants win, Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes will sing "New York, New York" at the same spot.
Rep. Vito Fossella, R-N.Y., has put up four pizzas in a bet with Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Md., who wagered 12 Maryland steamed crabs.
New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani also got in on the action, wagering tickets to Broadway shows with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who ventured a serving of Baltimore crabs.
Reminded he was claiming a team that moved from his city to New Jersey in 1976, Giuliani replied, "The Giants do wear N.Y. on their helmet, last I checked."
He's right. To the consternation of many in New Jersey, the team changed its helmet logo from "Giants" to "NY" this season.
One member of Congress from New Jersey did place a bet -- Rep. Steve Rothman, a Democrat whose district includes Giants Stadium. He wagered an ethnic smorgasbord -- cannoli, kielbasa, knishes, paella and other treats -- in his bet with Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., whose district includes PSINet Stadium, home of the Ravens.
If the Giants win, Cardin owes Rothman some Baltimore microbrew beer.
"It doesn't surprise me that New Yorkers want to take credit for New Jersey's team," Rothman said. "All I ask is that New Yorkers take mass transit rather than the bandwagon to come to New Jersey's Meadowlands for the victory party."
The elected leaders of Bergen County, N.J., and Baltimore County, Md., also made a Super Bowl bet -- steaks from a restaurant near Giants Stadium versus crab cakes at the Maryland shore.
A spokesman said Corzine, New Jersey's new senator, looked into a wager of his own but found Maryland's senators were already locked into bets with the New Yorkers.
Whitman, busy preparing to be confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, opted to defer to Pataki on the wagering, her spokesman said.
Nobody suggests New Jersey has any aversion to gambling. (Down the shore is a little place called Atlantic City.) In fact, New Jersey governors offered bets on both of the Giants' previous Super Bowl appearances.
When the Giants beat the Denver Broncos in the 1987 Super Bowl, New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean won a steer from Colorado Gov. Roy Romer. Inundated with letters from animal-rights activists, Kean spared the steer, named him Jersey Giant and sent him to a living history farm, where he entertained visitors until his death in 1997.
The New York-New Jersey friction grew hot the last time the Giants reached the Super Bowl, in 1991, when they played the Buffalo Bills. New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio tried to bet New York Gov. Mario Cuomo on the game but ran into a problem: Cuomo claimed both teams as New York's.
For gamblers, Super Bowl Sunday is big temptation
The biggest football game of the season can also be the worst. For gamblers and their families, the Super Bowl can mean big bets, big losses and big trouble at home.
It is wives and sons and other family members who sometimes pay the price when a relative has big money on the Super Bowl, compulsive gambling experts say.
"They face emotional abuse and sometimes physical abuse," said Edward Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.
Last year, more than 50 percent of the 'Blue Monday' calls to the Council's helpline came from family members of compulsive gamblers.
Legal bettors wagered $71 million on last year's game, with sports books winning $4.2 million of it.
But millions more will be bet illegally on Sunday's showdown between the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants, between office pools and street-corner bookies. Offshore sports books operating Internet gambling sites are also expected to do heavy business.
Compulsive gamblers see the Super Bowl as a chance to recoup the losses they've suffered in a season's worth of pro football betting.
"Family members suffer because everything's riding on the game," Looney said. "He's disturbed because people are having fun or laughing. If it appears he's losing, he'll scream 'What are you doing in the room?'
"Kids will walk in front of a TV and the gambler will scream at them. 'You're bringing me bad luck,'" Looney said.
Pam, 58, whose problem gambler husband has been in recovery for three years, said she still suffers on Super Bowl Sunday.
"It flares him up," she said Friday. "He doesn't gamble anymore that I know of, but we've been arguing for two days now and I know the Super Bowl is why. He's always prone to mood swings, but it's worse around the Super Bowl. There's this hype, this buildup, this adrenaline. He's like a raging bull."
Bob, 59, an attorney and former problem gambler, remembers what super Sundays were like at his house.
"It'd be the third quarter and my wife would call me for dinner at a key moment and I'd have an attitude about it. At the table, I'd make excuses: I don't feel well, I gotta' make a phone call. There was a lot of lying and faking about how I had to leave the table," he said.
Jimmy, 59, a retired truck driver, remembers, too. He should: He bet $25,000 on the Baltimore Colts to beat the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. Final score: Jets 16, Colts 7.
"I'd be cursing in front of my kids. There was no church, no asking people how they are. It's all 'Who do you like?' It's a sick existence. And it turns you into an animal when you have that kind of money on a game," he said.
Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said studies have shown that the children of compulsive bettors are more prone to commit suicide or have run-ins with the law than their peers.
On Super Bowl Sunday, the danger can be close to home.
"If a gambler's having a losing season or a losing game, there's an increased risk for domestic violence in these situations," he said.
From the toilet bowl to the Super Bowl
Every time Ron Dixon visits his hometown of Wildwood, about 80 miles north of this year's Super Bowl city, he makes sure to stop by the Speedway gas station.
While pumping fuel into his Cadillac Escalade, the Giants receiver takes a long look around the place that helped him turn his life around.
Then it really hits him.
"I am living a dream," he says.
Dixon is planning to document his thoughts in a book appropriately titled "From the Toilet Bowl to the Super Bowl." He struggled to make it through college and, at times, has struggled in his first season in the NFL. Still, the Giants have high expectations -- in the Super Bowl and in the future -- for their 24-year-old rookie.
"Everybody has their struggles, but Ron's are a little bit unusual," teammate and close friend Brandon Short said. "Most guys in this situation would have given up, would have thrown in the towel. But he persevered, he kept fighting on his goal to one day be in the NFL. And now he's returning kicks for touchdowns in the playoffs and he's in the Super Bowl.
"It's amazing. I'm proud of him."
Even though Dixon, a highly touted recruit at Wildwood High, was offered scholarships in 1993 to Florida, Florida State, Miami, Penn State, Southern California and Tennessee, he didn't have the test scores to play at any of the four-year universities.
He spent the next six years bouncing in and out of smaller schools. He played two years at Itawamba (Miss.) Community College, then briefly attended West Georgia before ending up back home for two years because of poor grades.
Living with his parents, he was forced to work.
"My mom got tired of just giving me money," Dixon said.
He found a job at the gas station, scrubbing toilets, mopping floors and picking up trash. Unhappy and unfulfilled, Dixon took jotted down a list of what he wanted to accomplish. It was more or less a to-do list for his life.
Playing in the NFL was at the top, and nothing on the list had to do with where he was at the moment. So he enrolled at Lambuth University, an NAIA school in Tennessee.
"Things happen for a reason, and you have to learn from them," Dixon said.
He did. Dixon excelled at Lambuth, and the Giants drafted him in the third round last April.
Still, his rocky road continued.
He overslept for New York's walkthrough the day before the first game of the season. Head coach Jim Fassel gave him a warning.
But Dixon did it again in December before the Pittsburgh game. This time, Fassel suspended him without pay for the game.
"Sitting at home watching my team play, that was more of a wake-up call than taking the check out of my pocket," Dixon said.
After a long talk with Fassel, Dixon decided to get help. Since the second incident, he bought an extra alarm clock just in case the first one doesn't work, his parents call him every morning and so does Short.
"When you wake up in the morning with that many bells and whistles, you're ready," Fassel said. "It's not going to happen again. I said, 'You had your chance.' So he's followed through with that and I'm proud of him."
Dixon hasn't been late since.
He even played a big role in getting the Giants to the Super Bowl. Against Philadelphia, he returned the game's opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. The following week against Minnesota, Dixon caught two passes for 62 yards, including a 43-yarder that set up a touchdown.
"He always had the talent, but now it's about getting out there and showing the world," Short said. "Everyone will see."
His experiences, combined with the team's recent success, have inspired Dixon to write the book.
With his career still on the rise, he could write a sequel. If so, it certainly would include more stories from the gas station.
"I stop there every time I'm home," he said. "I don't dwell in the past, but it really reminds me of how far I've come and how close I came to missing it all."
Giants CB Stephens among Super Bowl inactives
Backup cornerback Reggie Stephens, a regular on the Giants' special teams, was among four players New York made inactive for the Super Bowl on Friday.
Stephens played in 15 regular-season games, recording three interceptions and 12 special teams tackles, both tied for second on the team. He hurt a foot in the Giants' NFC semifinal win over Philadelphia. The former Rutgers product also was inactive for the NFC Championship Game against Minnesota.
Lewis, Parker and Bober have not been active in the playoffs.
Tagliabue endorses Wilson, Levy for Hall of Fame
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue on Friday endorsed Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson and former Bills head coach Marv Levy for the Hall of Fame.
They are two of 15 finalists for the Hall voting Saturday morning.
"The coach, to me, he's one of the great assets we've had in the National Football League in many, many years," Tagliabue said. "He's demonstrated that with four Super Bowl teams in a row. He's demonstrated that in so many other ways."
The commissioner applauded Wilson as one of the founders of the AFL and said his ability to keep the Bills afloat despite their location in a relatively small city.
"The fact that Ralph has had that kind of a franchise and make such a strong contribution to the rest of the league says to me he's a Hall of Famer, too," Tagliabue said.
When asked if there was any finalist he wouldn't endorse, he said it was clear his endorsement had no bearing on the voting of 38 writers, but there was no shame in speaking in favor of Levy and Wilson.
"I know the selectors will make their decision based upon what they think entitles someone to be in the Hall of Fame, and not what I think," Tagliabue said.
Coin toss memories
Bill Parcells and Tom Flores, the winning coaches in the two previous Super Bowls played in Tampa, and O.J. Anderson and Marcus Allen, the MVPs from those games, are the coin-toss honorees for Sunday's game.
Flores coached the Los Angeles Raiders to a 38-9 victory against Washington in 1984, with Allen rushing for 191 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Parcells coached the New York Giants to a 20-19 victory over Buffalo in 1991, with Anderson rushing for 102 yards and a touchdown, helping the Giants control the ball for 401/2 minutes.
"The NBA has a seven-game series, and baseball has the seven-game World Series, but in football, it's one game," Allen said. "You either have the answers or you don't. You have the magic or you don't."
Having the Super Bowl basically in his backyard was hard enough. Then Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks saw an even more frustrating sight this week.
Making a trip to the Bucs' practice facility, Brooks realized how far removed his team was from the big game. Literally.
"It really hit home with me when I got stuck in the parade of Giants coming in and saw somebody in my locker," Brooks said. "It really [ticked] me off. But it was Michael Barrow, and he's a good friend of mine, so I just told him, 'Don't leave anything.'"
Approved tripping for Red Wings' Brown
Detroit Red Wings forward Doug Brown, the son-in-law of New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, is finally going to the Super Bowl.
Brown, his wife Maureen and their two oldest children will fly to Tampa after Saturday's Red Wings practice and return Monday morning. The Wings don't have a practice scheduled for Sunday.
Brown received permission from coach Scotty Bowman earlier in the week.
This will be the first Super Bowl that Brown has seen in person.
Super sign for Young?
George Young, the NFL's vice president for football operations, was general manager of the New York Giants the last time they played in the Super Bowl.
The Giants won that game 10 years ago, beating Buffalo 20-19 in Tampa.
Young's hotel room number this week: 2019.