The 1991 New York Giants were at a crossroads. Bill Parcells retired after a Super Bowl championship season in 1990, ending a seven-year stretch where the Giants made the playoffs five times and won it all twice. New York had qualified assistants ready to step up. The defensive coordinator, Bill Belichick, had already made a name for himself as a rising star. The ranks of position coaches also included Tom Coughlin. And they included Ray Handley—the backfield coach who got the coveted promotion to coach the defending champs.
The decision naturally meant that Belichick and Coughlin both left the organization entirely and the defense suffered. The proud unit led by Hall of Fame outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor had been the cornerstone of the Parcells era.
But the combination of age and coaching changes saw 1991 turn into a year of decline. No one on defense made the Pro Bowl, as LT, Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks all showed signs of age in the linebacking corps. The defense finished 12th in the NFL in the points allowed. Not bad—but not what it once was.
Jeff Hostetler had made for a terrific story the previous January, when he stepped in for the injured Phil Simms and then led the Giants through the playoffs, including the big upsets of the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills in the conference championship and Super Bowl respectively.
Simms, now 36-years-old, wasn’t ready when the season began and Hostetler kept the job. He played credibly, as a high-percentage passer who steered clear of mistakes. But he didn’t make the big play and now the defense wasn’t doing that either.
More change took place in the backfield where Ottis Anderson, the 34-year-old back who had been Super Bowl MVP, was phased out for 22-year-old Rodney Hampton. The move paid off as Hampton rushed for over 1,000 yards behind an offensive line anchored by Pro Bowl center Bart Oates.
The receivers were led by Mark Ingram, who caught 51 balls and averaged better than 16 yards a pop. Stephen Baker caught 30 passes for 525 yards, while shifty Dave Meggett came out of the backfield to catch fifty more. Overall though, the Giants offense just didn’t have finishing power and they ended the year 19th in a 28-team league in points scored.
A rematch with San Francisco started the season on Monday Night Football. The 49ers were also in transition, with Joe Montana being the most notable name missing from the lineup. Hostetler outplayed Steve Young in the opener, going 17/31 for 228 yards and leading a 16-14 home win to start the season.
The MNF opener was right in line with how the Giants had closed 1990—winning close games with efficient football. But the tide turned against them for the balance of September. They turned it over three times and lost 19-13 at home to the mediocre Los Angeles Rams. In spite of a good game from Hostetler at the playoff-bound Chicago Bears—25/35 for 209 yards, the Giants gave up a late touchdown and lost 20-17.
Belichick came back to the Meadowlands as head coach of the Cleveland Browns in Week 4, but his team wasn’t ready to compete with the Giants. Hampton and Lewis Tillman led a ground attack that produced 212 yards in a 13-10 win. But a road trip to Dallas swung the pendulum back the other way. Hostetler played another good game against another future playoff team—this time he went 28/34 for 368 yards. But the Giants bogged down in the red zone, twice ending deep drives with field goals. They allowed a Cowboy touchdown off a turnover. And they lost 21-16 to close the month at 2-3.
The old formula returned at home the next week against the Phoenix Cardinals. Hampton got the rock 22 times and gained 137 yards. Hostetler was 14/18 for 200 yards. There were no mistakes and a 20-9 victory was the result. A Monday Night visit to mediocre Pittsburgh saw Hampton gain 96 yards, the Giants grab a 20-0 lead, then give it all back and finally survive 23-20 on a late field goal from Matt Bahr.
New York had reached the bye week at 4-3. They were very much in the hunt, but the NFC race would be brutal this year and the Eastern Division in particular was setting a high bar for excellence. The Washington Redskins were still undefeated and that’s who was coming to the Meadowlands on the final Sunday Night of October.
On the same night as a dramatic Game 7 of the World Series, the Giants jumped out to a 13-0 lead at halftime and looked every bit like the team that had gone 6-0 in games against Joe Gibbs’ Redskins from 1988-90. Then it came undone in the second half and New York lost 17-13. Another prime-time game against another tough divisional rival went worse—a 30-7 loss on Monday Night in Philadelphia, where the running game was non-existent and Hostetler struggled enough that Handley let Simms dip his toe back into the water for the first time.
There was no margin for error with two more divisional games immediately ahead. New York went to Phoenix (prior to 2002 the Cardinals were in the NFC East along with the division’s four current teams), got 99 yards from Hampton, stopped the run and won 21-14. In a high-profile home game with Dallas, played in the late Sunday afternoon national TV window, the Giants got a badly needed 22-9 win. In a reversal of the previous Dallas-New York game, this time it was the Giants who got the red zone stops.
A third straight win followed at lowly Tampa Bay. After a slow start, Simms got his first meaningful playing time of the season, going 10/14 for 100 yards and throwing a 30-yard touchdown pass to Baker that broke a 14-14 tie and won the game for New York.
The NFC playoff race was packed heading into December and the final four weeks. The Giants, Cowboys, Eagles and Falcons were all 7-5 and there were two wild-card spots available to this group. The Redskins were running away with the division and even though there were three wild-card teams from 1990-2001, the loser of the Bears/Lions divisional race had dibs on the first one.
A road trip to a subpar Cincinnati Bengals team seemed an ideal way to start the stretch drive. Especially when Simms went 26/44 for 296 yards and no mistakes, finding Ingram seven times for 116 yards. But New York special teams gave up a touchdown, and the defensive softness continued in a devastating 27-24 loss.
In the packed race, that single defeat made playoff hopes slim. They dropped to non-existent after Simms struggled to a 7/23 for 100 yards performance at home against Philadelphia. The Giants couldn’t protect Simms nor could they run the football. They lost 19-14 and the playoff bid was over.
One more bad performance against an NFC East team came the next week in Washington for the late Sunday afternoon audience. Simms was sacked four more times, the Giants were outrushed 151-78 and lost 34-17.
The Giants still showed some pride six days later in an early Saturday afternoon finale with the Houston Oilers. A lot was on the line—the Oilers were playing for the 2-seed and first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. Simms was brilliant—15/17 for 200 yards, while Hampton rolled up 140 yards on the ground. New York jumped out to a 24-6 lead, hung on to win 24-20 and badly damaged Houston’s playoff hopes—the Oilers had to settle for the 3-seed and lost a close game at 2-seed Denver in the divisional round.
But playing spoiler wasn’t what the New York Giants had been about during the Parcells year. 1991 was a rude awakening and 1992 got worse, as the record fell to 6-10. And that was the end of the Ray Handley era.