A Near-Miss For The 1988 New York Giants
After winning the Super Bowl with a dominant year in 1986, the strike-torn 1987 season had been a difficult one for Bill Parcells and the Giants. They finished 6-9 and missed the playoffs. The 1988 New York Giants were looking for a comeback season. For the most part, they got it. But a heartbreaking ending still left them out of the money come the postseason.
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Defense led the way for Big Blue in this era and that defense was led by the all-time great outside linebacker, Lawrence Taylor. Only two years removed from being the last defensive player to win MVP honors in ’86, LT delivered another vintage year in 1988. He rang up 15 ½ sacks and was 1st-team All-NFL.
Taylor’s presence made life easier for defensive end Leonard Marshall, who added eight sacks. The linebacking corps included Harry Carson and Carl Banks. Terry Kinard had a Pro Bowl season at free safety. With a young defensive coordinator named Bill Belichick calling the shots, the Giants ranked ninth in the league in points allowed.
Parcells’ offense, eighth-best in the league at scoring points, was built on game management and that’s reflected in the numbers of quarterback Phil Simms. With a 55 percent completion rate and 7.0 yards-per-attempt, Simms was mediocre to below average. But he was only intercepted on 2.3 percent of his throws and that was second-best among NFL quarterbacks.
Simms’ key targets started with Lionel Manuel who went over 1,000 yards receiving and stretched the field at 15.8 yards a pop. Stephen Baker was another good big-play target, with his 40 catches averaging better than 16 yards each. And tight end Mark Bavaro was reliable underneath.
Joe Morris keyed the running game with a 1,000-yard season. But Morris only averaged 3.5 yards-per-attempt. This wasn’t the vintage power running attack that marked so many Giants teams during their run under Parcells. The big reason was that the offensive line was having a rough year. They didn’t clear holes consistently and pass protection was awful—something that would prove decisive in the season’s biggest moment.
New York opened the season at home on Labor Day night against the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins. It was a great opportunity to set the tone for a comeback.
For the first half, the Giants were still futzing around and trailed 13-3. But they pulled even 13-13 by the end of the third quarter. And in the fourth quarter, the defense and special teams delivered. A punt block for a touchdown put New York up front. Nose tackle Jim Burt later sealed the 27-13 win with a fumble return for a score.
The schedule makers did New York no favors and sent Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers into the Meadowlands for Week 2. The Giants were outrushed 181-112, the second straight game they lost the rush yardage battle. Even so, they led 17-13 in the fourth quarter. But the secondary let the great Montana-to-Jerry Rice combo get loose with a 78-yard touchdown pass and New York lost 20-17.
A late Sunday afternoon road trip to lowly Dallas produced a grinding 12-10 win. Morris ran for 107 yards, but it took him 28 carries to get there. Manuel was the big producer with 142 receiving yards on nine catches. It wasn’t an inspiring win, but in an early schedule stacked with playoff perennials, it was still a win the Giants had to have.
The Los Angeles Rams were like New York—a steady playoff team in the 1980s who had been undone by the weird year that was 1987. The Rams were next in the Meadowlands. The Giants were completely outclassed. The secondary was lit up by quarterback Jim Everett and New York trailed 28-3 by the second quarter. The final was 45-31.
At 2-2, a road trip to Washington was set up to be a big game. This year’s edition of the Redskins would prove to be the worst during the great run the franchise had under Joe Gibbs from 1981-92. New York went to RFK Stadium and played their best game of the young season. Odessa Turner, a big, young receiver caught eight passes for over 100 yards. The defense forced three turnovers. The Giants led 24-9 in the third quarter and in the days before the two-point conversion was allowed, it was a mammoth lead. The eventual 24-23 win wasn’t as hair-raising as the score might indicate.
A Monday Night date in Philadelphia was next. The Eagles had been dormant for the past six years, but in their third year under head coach Buddy Ryan, were poised for a breakout. Simms got into a passing war with Philly quarterback Randall Cunningham. Even though Simms played well and threw for 324 yards, this wasn’t Giants football. Cunningham went for 369 and New York took a 24-13 loss.
They were back to .500 at 3-3. But a particularly soft part of the schedule was ahead. Over the next five weeks, the Giants would play the lowly Lions twice–the scheduling format prior to 2002 had the last-place teams from the previous year in the NFC East and old NFC Central—the four current teams of the NFC North, plus Tampa Bay—meet each other twice. New York would also play Atlanta, Dallas and go west to play the Phoenix Cardinals, as they were then called. It all added up to a terrific chance to get to 8-3.
The Giants didn’t look ready to grab the opportunity during the first half at home against the Lions, trailing 10-7. But Simms got loose. He went 23/32 for 320 yards and no mistakes. Baker caught five balls for 98 yards. Bavaro added eight catches for 80 yards. New York pulled away to an easy 30-10 win.
Simms was uncharacteristically sloppy in Atlanta, throwing three interceptions and digging his team a 16-6 hole in the fourth quarter. Comeback football wasn’t the ideal place for this Giants offense to be. But Simms rallied the team with ten straight points to tie. Then Banks intercepted a pass on the Falcon 15-yard line and took it in for the winning touchdown.
The offensive line played poorly in Detroit, allowing five sacks, and failing to create room for any kind of running game. But Simms went 22/36 for 227 yards and made no mistakes. It was enough to get out of Motown with a 13-10 overtime win.
Dallas came to the Meadowlands. This would prove to be the final year in the great career of Cowboy coach Tom Landry and his final team was a disaster. Simms threw a couple second-quarter touchdown passes to Baker and the Giants led 26-0 at half before the final score became deceptively respectable at 29-21.
The Giants were on the verge of sweeping their soft five-game stretch. But out in the desert, they let what was a potent QB-WR combo of Neil Lomax and Roy Green get rolling. Phoenix put New York in a 14-0 hole and the Giants were chasing the rest of the way in what ended as a 24-17 loss.
This wasn’t a great New York team by any stretch, but in a soft NFC East they still led the way and had only Philadelphia to beat out. The Eagles-Giants game at the Meadowlands was the late afternoon feature on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving with the legendary broadcast duo of Pat Summerall and John Madden on the call.
It was the kind of back-and-forth game you would hope for from two rivals who had first place on the line. Simms played well and went 17/28 for 253 yards. But he was also knocked out and had to be replaced by Jeff Hostetler. If we fast forward the calendar two years, we know that Hostetler was able to lead the Giants to a Super Bowl win in 1990 after a Simms injury. Not so much today. He threw three interceptions. The game was tied 17-17, went to overtime and Philadelphia was lined up for a potential 32-yard field goal to win it.
New York blocked the kick. They were still alive. Only the ball stayed behind the line of scrimmage, meaning it was still live. Eagle lineman Clyde Simmons scooped it up and raced for the pylon. He got there. The Giants took a devastating 23-17 defeat.
The Eagles and Giants were both 7-5, but Philadelphia now had the head-to-head tiebreaker. The playoff format and divisional alignment of the day only allowed for two wild-cards and one was all but sewn up with Chicago and Minnesota having big years in the NFC Central. The NFC West had the Saints in control at 9-3, but the Rams and 49ers were both 7-5 and both with head-to-head wins over New York. The Giants needed help.
A Sunday Night visit to New Orleans was a good place to start. Simms was still out, but this time Hostetler threw an 85-yard touchdown pass to Baker in the second quarter. In a battle between two really good defenses built on great linebacker play, that was the only touchdown, and it was the difference. New York won 13-12.
Simms was back in the lineup for a home date with the Cardinals and this one went easy. Morris ran for 122 yards and the final was 44-7. Meanwhile, the Eagles were falling to the Redskins. The Giants were 9-5 and a game up in the NFC East.
Lowly Kansas City came to the Big Apple. Amidst 21mph winds, Simms could only throw for 93 yards. But Morris had his best game of the year and rolled up 140 yards on 31 carries. New York clung to a 14-12 lead after three quarters but pulled away with a couple fourth quarter touchdowns to win 21-12.
Philadelphia had kept the pressure on, so going into the final week, you had the Giants at 10-5 and the Eagles at 9-6. Over in the NFC West, the 49ers had surged into first place. The Rams and Saints were both 9-6. Unfortunately for New York, it was LA who held the tiebreaker in the divisional standings. Meaning that when it came to the second wild-card berth, Los Angeles could clinch it with a win.
Either way, the Giants had three paths into the playoffs. Win their finale with the crosstown rival Jets, hope the Eagles lost in Dallas or that the Rams would lose Sunday Night in San Francisco.
The Jets were a mediocre team and stood at 7-7-1 for this finale, out of the picture. Simms delivered an efficient game, 18/30 for 230 yards for three touchdowns and no interceptions. Morris carried twenty times for 97 yards.
But the offensive line—and there is no nice way to say this—was atrocious. They allowed eight sacks. The Giants trailed 20-7 in the third quarter. Simms stepped up and delivered a nine-yard touchdown pass to Baker. Simms added another nine-yard scoring pass to Manuel in the fourth quarter. With a 21-20 lead, the Giants were ready to escape. But the Jets drove down the field and reached the five-yard line. With everyone assuming they would position for a game-ending field goal, NYJ quarterback Ken O’Brien threw a five-yard touchdown pass.
The 27-21 loss was coupled with Philadelphia’s win in the same early afternoon time slot. The NFC East went to the Eagles. All that was left was to hope the Rams lost.
But there wasn’t a lot of hope. San Francisco was locked into the 2-seed and played like a team that had nothing on the line. Los Angeles rolled to an easy 38-16 win, taking the final playoff berth, and sending New York into the offseason.
It was an extremely difficult way to see the season end. But the Giants had gotten themselves back on the board as a contender. They strengthened the offensive line going forward. In 1989, even with the NFC East being stronger, they won the division title. And in 1990, they won another Super Bowl title.