Today’s NFL fans have grown accustomed to the New York Giants as a perennial contender, with their four Super Bowl titles, five NFC crowns and numerous playoff appearances over the last three decades. But the early part of the Super Bowl era didn’t go quite as well. The 1981 New York Giants were the team that ended a long run of franchise ineptitude and made it into the playoffs.
New York had last seen the postseason in a 1963 NFL championship game loss, three years prior to the birth of the Super Bowl. In the ensuing eighteen years that posted only two winning seasons and never made the playoffs. The 1981 team was coming off a 4-12 year and there was nothing suggesting this season as a breakthrough year.
Phil Simms was a young quarterback, still trying to find his footing and he played with efficiency. The 54.4% completion rate was pretty good, given the standards of the era and he only threw nine interceptions in ten starts, a reasonable pace. Scott Brunner would fill in for Simms after an injury in November and was considerably more erratic, at 41.6% and just 5.1 yards-per-pass.
The Giants relied on the running game, with Rob Carpenter running for 748 yards. Johnny Perkins was the top receiver at 858 yards. It was overall, a relatively talent-less offense, with no Pro Bowlers and they finished 22nd in the league in points scored.
It was defense that made it happen and in the process starting defining an entire generation of Giants football. Harry Carson made the Pro Bowl from his inside linebacker spot. A young corner, 23-year-old Mark Haynes, would have a good career and was growing into his role.
But no one made the impact of a rookie out of North Carolina by the name of Lawrence Taylor.
Taylor took his place at outside linebacker and it’s not enough to say he was Defensive Rookie of the Year or 1st-team All-Pro or even that he won NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Lawrence Taylor completely revolutionized football, that rare player big enough to play close to the line and defend the run, quick enough to drop into coverage and an absolutely devastating pass rusher. He would become known as simply “L.T” and he became the standard for outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme.
L.T. wasn’t the only member of the defense that would change football. The coordinator was Bill Parcells and the staff included Bill Belichick. The 1981 New York Giants might have come from nowhere, but the benefit of hindsight makes it easy to understand how this defense ranked third in the NFL in points allowed, or to forget the Ray Perkins was actually the head coach.
The way season started in Philadelphia, against the defending NFC champion Eagles. The Giants were outrushed 178-55, dropping a 24-10 decision. A trip to Washington, to face another team that would be better at the end of the year than at the beginning produced an ugly game.
Neither team ran the ball, but this time New York forced four turnovers, the last a fumble recovery by defensive tackle George Martin at the Redskins 8-yard line who returned it for a touchdown and a 17-7 win. Simms played well in a home win over lowly New Orleans, going 28/41 for 324 yards, as both Perkins and Gary Shirk had 100-yard receiving days in a 20-7 win.
Simms made some big plays in Dallas, but also threw three interceptions as the Giants lost 18-10 to the Cowboys. So far though, there was reason to be happy. No one expected New York to compete with Philadelphia or Dallas, the class of the entire conference, and the Giants had beaten the two teams that were seen as more on their level. But there was no explaining away a bad performance at home against Green Bay. The New York defense was pounded on the ground by an offense not known for its running game, they dug themselves a 20-0 hole and lost 27-14.
The sluggish play carried over into a home date with the mediocre St. Louis Cardinals and the game was scoreless into the second quarter. Finally, Simms hooked up with Perkins for a touchdown pass and the offense got rolling. Simms threw for 208 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, spreading the ball to nine different receivers. Carpenter ran for 103 yards and the 34-14 win was the most balanced offensive effort of the young season.
If St. Louis was the most balanced game, the 32-0 win at lowly Seattle was the most complete all-around game. The Giants ran for 213 yards, led by Carpenter, and held the Seahawks to 29 yards rushing. New York then went to Atlanta and won an overtime thriller. Simms played another good game, going 19/32 for 256 yards and no interceptions, while Perkins caught five passes for 126 yards. It was enough to escape 27-24.
The Giants’ five wins were against teams that would finish 1981 with a losing record, but beating them all indicated that New York was at least rising above that level.
It was time for the Battle of the Big Apple, as the Giants faced the Jets. At the time, the Jets still played their home games in New York City itself, at old Shea Stadium, so the trip to the Meadowlands made it a true home game for the Giants, or at least as much as possible given their locations.
It didn’t help. The Jets were surging toward a playoff berth and dominated in a 26-7 win. The Giants rushed for just 55 yards and their only touchdown came on defense.
Another bad performance at Green Bay followed, as the Giants again dug a 20-0 hole against the Packers and turned it over seven times. This time New York made a strong rally, but still came up short 26-24.
The reason for two Giants-Packers games was that, prior to the realignment of 2002, the schedule format called for the two teams that finished last in each conference’s five-team divisions (the NFC East & NFC Central in this case, with the NFC West having just four teams) to play each other twice. The Green Bay sweep would have a surprising impact on the playoff picture, as they joined New York in rising to contention.
Any thought of the playoffs probably seemed to be fading badly when the Giants lost their third straight game, this one a heartbreaker to the Redskins. New York had a 20-10 lead on their home field in the third quarter and when this defense, that should have been lights out. But they gave up 184 yards rushing and were not able to run it themselves to control the clock. The Redskins tied it 27-27 and then won in overtime.
To make matters worse, Simms injured his shoulder and would miss the balance of the season. The hope now rested with Brunner—which is to say, New York needed to run the football and play defense like they never had before.
That’s exactly what happened in Philadelphia. The Giants and Eagles were tied 10-10 in the third quarter, but Carpenter pounded out 111 yards and after getting a go-ahead field goal, Terry Jackson picked off a Ron Jaworski pass and brought it 32 yards to the end zone. New York had the 20-10 win and no one could have guessed this represented two teams that were ships passing in the night in the 1981 season.
The San Francisco 49ers were having a big year in the first season of success under Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. New York dug a 14-0 hole and while the defense settled down, Brunner was no match for Montana. The Giants’ quarterback went 13/34 for 162 yards and threw three interceptions in a 17-10 loss.
At 6-7, New York wasn’t out of it. There were seven teams bunched up with six or seven wins. But with only one playoff berth left, there certainly wasn’t any room for error and help was still needed.
The winds were swirling at 28 mph on the first Sunday of December against the Los Angeles Rams, who had fallen hard to 6-10 this season after a decade of being among the NFL’s best. The Giants were outrushed and Brunner only threw for 67 yards. But Brunner took care of the ball, the rest of the offense followed suit and a three-zip margin in turnovers swung the game to New York, 10-7.
In the meantime, results elsewhere fell New York’s way and all contenders for the final NFC playoff berth were tied at 7-7. The Giants continued to take care of business in St. Louis, as Carpenter ran for 117 yards and even with Brunner only throwing for 86 yards, the defense delivered a 20-10 win.
Four teams were 8-7, but two of them, Tampa Bay and Detroit, would play head-to-head for the NFC Central title. That left the Giants and Packers—and Green Bay had the edge going into Week 16, thanks for that head-to-head sweep. New York also had one other hope—unbelievably, Philadelphia had come back to the pack and were 9-6. The Eagles still had the first of what was two wild-card spots, but if they lost and the Giants won, New York could move ahead on the divisional record tiebreaker.
These scenarios were all well and good, but they presumed a Giants’ victory—and New York had to face NFC East champ Dallas. The Cowboys still had a shot at the #1 seed if the 49ers lost their regular season finale. And the Giants-Cowboys game would take place on Saturday, in advance of all other NFC games.
The weather was again brutal in the Meadowlands, with 20 mph winds. The first half went by scoreless, the teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, but then Dallas got a field goal to get the lead and had the ball late in the game in positon to run out the clock.
New York’s defense was shutting down Dallas’ star running back Tony Dorsett and they forced a Dorsett fumble, recovered by Martin. It looked like the offense would miss the opportunity, but Brunner completed a 4th-and-13 pass and kicker Joe Danelo tied the game with a 40-yard field goal. We were going to overtime.
Dorsett fumbled again in overtime and the Giants took over at midfield. A 23-yard run by Brunner off a bootleg set up a Danelo field goal. But he missed, one of three missed field goals on the afternoon.
The defense delivered one more time, as rookie Byron Hunt intercepted a pass and set up another field goal try. This time, Danelo delivered. The 13-10 win kept New York alive.
Now the Giants needed help from an unusual source—the Jets were hosting the Packers and the crosstown rival also needed to win to make the playoffs. It made for a Sunday when two long-suffering fan bases in the Big Apple were united together. And the Jets made it look easy, crushing Green Bay 28-3. New York was going to the postseason.
The Eagles had arrested their late slide with a blowout win over the Cardinals, so New York traveled to Philadelphia for the wild-card game. A team built on defense and controlling tempo with the running game would like nothing more than some gift points and that’s exactly what the Giants had waiting for them two days after Christmas.
New York recovered a fumble off a punt and Brunner found running back Leon Bright with a nine-yard touchdown pass. A missed PAT kept the score 6-0. Brunner then hit wide receiver John Mistler with a ten-yard touchdown pass to make it 13-0. On the ensuing kickoff, Philadelphia botched it and Haynes recovered in the end zone. The crowd—indeed the entire country was stunned as the seven-point underdog Giants took a 20-0 lead into the second quarter.
Philadelphia scored a touchdown, but Brunner answered with a touchdown pass to Tom Mullady for a 27-7 lead. When the Eagles scored on the first possession of the third quarter, it was time to get a little nervous, as that missed extra point now seemed to loom large. The Giant defense stayed in control of the game, but the offense was unable to get that one field goal that would have put the game away in the era prior to the two-point conversion in the NFL.
The Eagles finally cut the lead to 27-21 with 2:51 left and they logically kicked it deep, trusting their defense. But Carpenter, who rushed for 161 yards, was never bigger than he was right now. He moved the chains and New York never gave up the football, preserving the win.
New York’s magical ride finally ended in San Francisco. Montana threw for 304 yards and Brunner wasn’t going to keep up in a game like that. The Giants trailed 24-7 and ended up losing 38-24.
It’s still tough to imagine a sweeter ending for Giants fans. They had their long-sought playoff appearance and they closed the year by beating Dallas to make the postseason and then knocking Philadelphia out once they got there. Not a bad legacy for the 1981 New York Giants.