THE PLAY lives on, sprinkling its magic over the weeks and months. Many of the New York Giants got their first clear look at it when they returned to Giants Stadium from Arizona after their epic Super Bowl victory; shouts and screams emanated from film rooms and bounced through the dark hallways. Some of them watched it again nearly three months later at a routine, off-season video session in late April, when players split up by positions to review cutup digital video of offensive and defensive situations from the entire season. ¶ On that day quarterbacks and wide receivers studied plays in which the Giants used four-wideout formations during their two-minute drill. In the middle of the session—"Just mixed in with the rest of them," says quarterback Eli Manning—up popped the play that defined a game and a season, and perhaps much more. A quarterback escapes a sure sack, a wideout leaps into the night, a football is pinned impossibly against the surface of a helmet and brought safely to earth. The New England Patriots' unbeaten season ends soon after.
Just as quickly, another play pops up on the screen. But the memory lingers. "The more you look at it," says David Tyree, the wide receiver who made the catch, "the more it doesn't make sense from a logical standpoint. The velocity of the throw, the defender draped all over me, the curved surface of the ball against a round helmet, the way we came down to the ground. It just doesn't make sense."
Manning sees it in simpler terms. As he watched the video in darkness, he measured the distance between victory and defeat. "If we don't make that play," he says, "it's fourth down and at least five yards, and you don't know what can happen then. You watch that play and you realize how close we came to not winning the Super Bowl."
NFL camps opened last week, and a new season looms. Yet the wonder of Manning-to-Tyree remains. It was improvisational brilliance at best, sandlot good luck at worst. It still doesn't make sense, and that is part of its enduring beauty. "It's the greatest play in Super Bowl history," says Steve Sabol, the NFL Films president who has been chronicling the league since his father, Ed, started the company in 1962. Considering the play's stage and subplots, perhaps it's fair to see Sabol's claim and raise him: Call it the greatest play in NFL history.
62 Y Sail Union
A dull game suddenly turned riveting in the fourth quarter. A Manning-to-Tyree touchdown pass gave the Giants a 10--7 lead with 11:10 to play. After an exchange of punts, the Patriots took possession at their 20-yard line, chasing perfection against the clock with 7:54 to play. In a University of Phoenix Stadium skybox above midfield, where Giants president and CEO John Mara sat with 16 relatives and friends, two servers wheeled through the door with a huge fondue pot. "Get that s--- out of here!" shouted an incredulous Mara. "Fondue with eight minutes left in the Super Bowl!"
Twelve plays and just more than five minutes later, Tom Brady threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss, and the Patriots led 14--10. Atop the press box in a broadcast booth, Sabol made mental notes. "I was thinking, This game is going to cement Tom Brady's place as the greatest quarterback of all time. That's the story line."
The Giants stuttered downfield. Eleven yards on a first-play completion from Manning to Plaxico Burress.... A stumbling two-yard run by Brandon Jacobs for a fourth-down conversion with 1:34 to play.... A five-yard scramble, then a near-interception. The Giants faced third-and-five at their 44 with 1:15 left. The call came into Manning's helmet receiver: 62 Y Sail Union.
"It's one of our basic two-minute plays," says Manning. "We probably ran it 10 or 12 times during the season." The play calls for a four-wideout formation in a two-by-two set (a receiver split wide and another in the slot on each side), with one running back and Manning in the shotgun. Sixty-two designates the pass protection, in this case basic (as opposed to maximum). Y Sail tells the Y receiver, right slot Steve Smith, to run a corner route while the right wideout, Tyree, runs a post pattern. "A dummy route," says Tyree, "just to take the top off the coverage." (Manning disagrees slightly. "The Sail concept is to give us a shot at getting the ball down the field," he says. "We're looking for them to line up in what we call Cover 4, or quarters coverage, four defensive backs across the field.") Union means the left wideout, Burress, and left slot, Amani Toomer, run in-routes: Burress at 16 yards and Toomer at 12.
The Patriots came out in dime coverage (six defensive backs, three linebackers, two pure defensive linemen) and, sure enough, spread four DBs across the field. Manning went to the line of scrimmage and called signals: "Five-eighty, five-eighty [meaningless numbers], set, hut!"