Now, that was a watershed year, 1978. The Year of the Fumble. The Giants were a respectable, for them, 5-6 entering the 12th game of the season, against Philadelphia in the Meadow-lands. With just 31 seconds left they actually had the game won, 17-12. Quarterback Joe Pisarcik had only to fall on the ball and let the clock run out. Incredibly, the Giants called a running play. Pivoting to make the handoff, Pisarcik lost control of the center snap. The ball squirted free and bounced into the arms of the Eagles' Herman Edwards, who ran 26 yards for the winning touchdown. "There were about 30 seconds left when I called the play," Pisarcik recalls, "and some of the guys in the huddle were saying, 'Just fall on the ball.' I said, 'Let's just run this play and get the game over with.' And then it happened. The play was sent in by our offensive coordinator, Bob Gibson, and you know, it's funny—after that afternoon, I never saw him again." Gibson was, in fact, fired the next day, a scapegoat for Giant ineptitude.
That loss, relatively meaningless though the game was, cracked it for the suffering spectators. Two weeks later, one Ron Freiman organized a public burning of about a hundred tickets outside the stadium before a game against the Rams. The next Sunday a group calling itself the "Committee Against Mara Insensitivity to Giant Fans" sent a small plane over the stadium during the Giants' final home game with a banner that read, 15 YEARS OF LOUSY FOOTBALL...WE'VE HAD ENOUGH!
But they hadn't. The '81 season, under coach Ray Perkins, seemed to be some sort of aberration; the Giants made the playoffs. But in the strike-truncated '82 season, the team slipped back to 4-5, and Perkins quit to become head coach at his alma mater, Alabama. Bill Parcells, hired a year earlier by Perkins as defensive coordinator, took over in '83, and probably wished he hadn't. This was a truly catastrophic season. Its redeeming feature was that it represented the end of the downward spiral and the start of a new cycle. The team finished 3-12-1 and led the league in turnovers with 58 (31 interceptions and 27 fumbles) and probably in injuries (25 players on the injured reserve fist). On an ABC Monday night game, the Giants and the Cardinals came up with a stinker the likes of which even that show has seldom endured. Neither team won. Neither could. But the 20-20 tie went into overtime, in which, if anything, the teams played even more abominably than they had during regulation. The Giants had actually blown a 17-10 lead late in the fourth quarter when quarterback Jeff Rutledge and wide receiver Floyd Eddings fouled up a reverse and converted it into a St. Louis fumble-recovery touchdown. In overtime, Cardinal kicker Neil O'Donoghue missed three field goal attempts, any one of which could have ended the dreadful affair, and one of them was from 19 yards, which is about as close as a kicker can get. The rematch at the Meadowlands six weeks later drove away a league record 51,589 no-shows.
There was genuine tragedy that year, as well. Assistant coach Bob Ledbetter died in October, and former running back Doug Kotar died in December. And late in the season Parcells' mother and father died within six weeks of each other.
By then, there had been 20 years of drift and disorder, bad luck, misjudgment and decline. Players came and went with bewildering frequency on a team that considered itself one big happy family. From 1973 to 1980, the Giants had eight starting quarterbacks—Norm Snead, Randy Johnson, Jim DelGaizo, Craig Morton, Randy Dean, Jerry Golsteyn, Pisarcik and Phil Simms. The draft choices during an 11-year talent drought were, if nothing else, original, although chances are such names as Bruce Tarbox, Joe Don Looney, Dave Lewis, Frank Lasky, Dick Buzin and Eldridge Small will not appear on many Hall of Fame ballots. In 1971, coach Webster and his staff had insisted that defense was the team's most pressing need. In the draft that year, Jack Youngblood, Jack Ham, Phil Villapiano and Jack Tatum were all available. The Giants chose one Rocky Thompson, a running back from West Texas State. He lasted all the way to 1973.
Was management not paying attention? Quite the opposite, thank you. It was, in fact, alert to even the most minor details of the operation. In 1977, for example, Tim Mara, Wellington's nephew and co-owner of the team, demonstrated his leadership by issuing a pronunciamento prohibiting secretaries from bringing coffee and sandwiches to their desks and instructing all employees to display proper parking credentials on their cars in the company lot. The parking-sticker command was handed down, unfortunately, only minutes before the start of a game. "There we were, ready to go out on the field," defensive coach John Symank told SI at the time, "when, all of a sudden, everyone's running out to the parking lot to take care of their cars. Players were out there in uniform, with kids climbing all over them for autographs...and the kickoff was coming up in five minutes."
But all that—the Fumble, the ticket burning, the draft choices, the revolving coaches and players, the pettiness—seems at this remove part of a distant, unseemly past. The Giants haven't been out of the playoffs in three years now, and they are at present within one game of achieving a goal they haven't approached in 30 years. "There is a certain confidence that comes, that builds up like a muscle, when you've come through in clutch games," Allie Sherman said recently. "The Giants are now of that mentality. They talk about it now."
There was a time, though, when the Giants were in the running for the title almost every year. They were both a pioneer and a premier franchise, the NFL's anchor in the league's biggest market. From 1933, when divisional play started, through 1963, their last title game, they won 14 Eastern division or conference championships and were NFL champs in 1934, '38 and '56. In the '30s alone, they won five division and two league titles. They won three division championships in each of three decades—the '40s, '50s and '60s. From 1956, when they won their last league title, through '63, they took their division six times. And they have been involved in some of the most famous games in history, including one in 1958 that many authorities call "the best game ever played."
The Giants lost to the Bears, 23-21, in the first title game between division winners, in Chicago in 1933. They were matched again for the championship the following season at the Polo Grounds. It was a bitterly cold Dec. 9, with a punishing wind that raked the field. The turf was frozen solid even before kickoff. Ray Flaherty, the Giants' end and captain, observed that when he stabbed the ground with his cleats, he scarcely scratched the surface. Then he remembered something from his college days at Gonzaga University in Spokane. Faced with similar playing conditions, that team had once switched from football cleats to basketball sneakers and discovered far superior traction. Maybe on a day like this one, he suggested to coach Steve Owen, the team should consider the optional footwear. Owen nodded disinterestedly.
The Giants, comically sliding on the ice, were trailing 10-3 at the half when Owen recalled Flaherty's counsel. He asked trainer Gus Mauch if he knew where he could quickly get enough basketball shoes to supply the team. Mauch, who also happened to be the trainer for the Manhattan College basketball team, sent locker-room attendant Abe Cohen on the rescue mission, and Cohen returned as the second half began with "about 30 pairs of sneakers of all sizes," as Hall of Fame center Mel Hein recalled years later. The Bears were leading 13-3 entering the fourth quarter, on a Bronko Nagurski touchdown and two field goals, but the freshly shod Giants blew the game open in the last 10 minutes, scoring 27 points. Ken Strong had two touchdowns in that amazing stretch on surefooted runs of 11 and 42 yards. This title match has been known ever since as the Sneakers Game.