"It was," Svare says, "a gradual education. One department would improve, but another would be swimming around hopelessly. The key to a good defense is knowing what the other players with you will do in certain situations. It was going to take time to get this into our system, but we had time."
Sure enough, the defense has improved gradually, despite injuries to Lockhart, Carr and Moran. "Last year and for a while this year I was not playing a game out on the field," says Condren, the Giants' defensive right end. "I was getting a lesson. Now I've learned enough so the backs run my way."
Throughout this period of defensive adjustment, the offense, pro football's most explosive, managed to maintain its potency. Frederickson played as he had in 1965 until he injured his other knee two weeks ago and was lost for the season. Koy mysteriously developed into the power back he was supposed to be. Morrison, the versatile handyman, played everywhere with great effectiveness, and soccer-style Place-kicker Pete Gogolak returned. If you remember, he almost ruined the AFL-NFL merger when he jumped from the Buffalo Bills to the Giants before the 1966 season. Gogolak, in the Army, flies to New York every Friday night to kick for the Giants on Sunday. He missed the Giants' first five games, and they lost two of them partly because of faulty kickoffs and missed field goals. "It's not how many field goals someone kicks," says Sherman, "it's when he kicks them. When you need a field goal and don't get it, it completely disrupts momentum. Gogolak gets field goals when we need them." He kicked three against Philadelphia, one when the Giants, leading 7-0, were stopped on a march. In came Gogolak. He hooked the ball across the goalposts from 17 yards and the rout was on.
But it was Tarkenton-to-Jones, currently the most feared combination in the NFL, that the Eagles worked all last week on stopping. "We'll try to do what the Bears did to Tarkenton," said Coach Joe Kuharich. "The best way to stop Tarkenton is to pressure him from the outside, force him around the middle and cut off his escape routes."
Sometimes the best laid plans go wrong. On the game's first play, Tarkenton, operating as though he had guessed Philadelphia's evil intentions, threw a screen pass to Morrison. The play would have gone for 20 yards had Morrison not mishandled the ball, and it was an indication of things to come.
On the next play, with the Eagles set to storm in with seven men, Tarkenton faked to Morrison and sent Koy on a trap over the unprotected middle—everyone was tackling Tarkenton—for 45 yards. The Eagles pressed Tarkenton again, and this time he hit Morrison on a screen pass for another first down. On the Giants' fifth offensive play of the game, Tarkenton and Jones combined perfectly on a typical Tarkenton scramble. The play called for Jones, who was spread to the left, to take one step out, cut at a 45� angle toward the middle of the field and then—three strides later—slant across and down. Tarkenton was pressured by the Eagles' defensive charge, so he rolled back and then to his right. Jones, noticing this, continued across the field. Instantly Tarkenton hit him with a pass just inside the out-of-bounds chalk, and the Giants had another first down. They scored their first touchdown a few plays later.
When Tarkenton does what his impulses—not the planned play—tell him to do, he is almost impossible to defend against. But when he relies on a disciplined, ball-control game, as he has had to do at times this year because of the inconsistent Giant defense, he is much less effective. Against the Eagles he played his type of game all day.
It was a help that the Eagles sometimes double- and triple-teamed Jones. They not only failed to stop him, they also permitted Tarkenton to hit Crespino and Thomas, who were often left uncovered on third-down situations. To cover Jones, the Eagles sent a linebacker against him at scrimmage, then had a corner back pick him up almost instantly and the safety ready to help. Jones beat this easily, once for 63 yards and his second touchdown of the game.
Now the Giants are in second place in the Century Division of the NFL's Eastern Conference, a game behind the Cleveland Browns, whom they play this Sunday in Cleveland. Under the old conference setup, both the Giants and the Browns would be hopelessly chasing Dallas. This year, though, Dallas is in the Capitol Division and, in fact, only a game away from that championship. If the Giants, who beat the Browns a few weeks ago, can win against Cleveland again, they conceivably could take their division championship and advance to the playoff against Dallas. And maybe the NFL championship? And maybe the Super Bowl? Crazy? Sure is. But so is the Giants' offense. And now the defense is getting that way.
"I don't think," said Condren last Sunday, "we'll be reading any more funny headlines about the, ahem, Giant defense." Seems not.