‘In your face’: How a humble nose tackle saved the Giants and wrecked Montana’s 49ers

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For much of his 13-year N.F.L. career, Erik Howard basically did the same thing on every play, and nobody noticed. As the nose tackle in the Giants’ 3-4 defensive scheme, his role was as important as it was unglamorous: Play after play, he would engage the offensive linemen in front of him in a furious, split-second sumo wrestling contest. Winning this mini-contest would enable his more famous teammates to succeed on the portion of the play that was actually visible to fans.

By 1990, Howard, then 26, was universally acknowledged as a very good player, a solid contributor to the best defense in the league. But his importance was spoken of in general terms. For fans watching at home, he blended into the blur of the scrum. In the days before high-definition television, you’d have a hard time picking him out even if you tried.

He briefly escaped his anonymity early in the week of that year’s N.F.C. Championship game, between the Giants and San Francisco 49ers. After a weight-lifting session, he was chatting with reporters at his locker. He wasn’t the type to make waves, but he lost himself in a moment of guileless honesty when a reporter asked him if it was possible to “rattle” superstar 49ers quarterback Joe Montana.

“Sure, any quarterback can be rattled,” replied Howard, innocently. “You hit him enough, he’s gonna get rattled.”

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“HOWARD: MONTANA CAN BE RATTLED,” said a headline the next day.

That Sunday, in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the Giants may or may not have rattled Montana. But they thwarted him and his offense, and even knocked him out of the game late in the fourth quarter.

The problem was that they were still trailing, 13-12, with less than three minutes remaining, and with the 49ers driving to run out the clock on the game and the Giants’ season.

The defense had performed admirably, just as it had when the teams played during the regular season. But that game had ended with a frustrating 7-3 loss for the Giants, and this was shaping up to be a stellar defensive performance nullified by the Giants’ own inability to score.

And the Giants defense, which allowed the fewest points in the league that year, finally appeared to be cracking. Steve Young, Montana’s backup who would later go on to become a Hall of Famer, completed a 25-yard pass to Brent Jones. Then Roger Craig rushed for five yards, then six yards, moving the ball into Giants territory.

“What I remember most of all is that feeling of desperation, that it was slipping through our grasp,” recalled Howard, now a 47-year old land developer in Texas specializing in the new construction of vintage-style homes.

“I remember having a conversation in my head, with myself, that somebody has to make a play.”

Howard was a five-year veteran at that point, savvy enough to ascertain which play was coming “around 85, 90 percent of the time,” he estimated. From his position head-to-head with the other team’s center, he would consider the game situation, the offensive formation, the “splits” of the offensive linemen, and the subtle ways in which the linemen were distributing their weight.

The situation here was obvious: The 49ers were in clock-killing mode, which meant another run was more likely than a pass. Howard next took stock of where the 49ers’ offensive linemen were. He noticed that left guard Guy McInture was just a foot and a half away from center Jesse Sapolu, a foot or two less than normal.

“So I knew the double-team was coming from that side,” he said. “And they were real heavy on their hands, so I knew a run was coming.”

At the snap of the ball, Howard fired his hands directly into Sapolu to prevent Sapolu from getting his own body into his. In practically the same motion, he turned his shoulders from right to left while lowering his right knee to the ground, in order to give McIntyre, who was coming from Howard’s right, less of a surface to hit, and to give himself a chance of knifing through the two blockers.

“You sort of make yourself small,” Howard explained.

Both men hit him, but Howard squeezed between them.

“You’re being pushed from two different directions, so it kinda pushes you out,” he said.

He was losing his balance as Sapolu drove him to the ground, but he had successfully positioned himself directly in the hole in which the 49ers had designed the play. Before he knew it, Roger Craig, San Francisco’s running back, was upon him. With as much force as he could muster, Howard put his helmet “in the bread basket. And the ball just happened to be there.”

The ball popped out directly behind Craig, and into the arms of Lawrence Taylor, who was crashing down from the outside on the play. The Giants had gained possession of the ball and an improbable new lease on life.

“Everyone in that stadium was convinced that it was over, and the 49ers were heading for that ‘Three-Peat,’” said Howard, evoking the newly coined term of that era. “And man, I’m telling you, when we got that fumble, you could have heard a pin drop.”

The Giants took possession and, in seven plays, drove into field goal range. That set up kicker Matt Bahr to sneak a 42-yarder just inside the right upright as time expired. The Giants had knocked off the champions.

Howard had grown up in the Bay Area and went to several sparsely attended 49ers games in the late 1970s, before the franchise’s dynastic period in the 1980s and 90s. When he returned to Candlestick as a visiting player, he found the 49ers fans, who were stationed close behind the Giants’ bench, to be among the most belligerent in the league.

“I remember walking down the sideline, looking at the fans, just kinda grabbing my face, and just being like, ‘In your face!” he said (recalling another popular phrase of the era).

It wasn’t until the team was on the bus to the airport that coach Bill Parcells approached Howard. Parcells had just found out it was Howard who had caused the fumble.

“Typical of a nose tackle’s career—he didn’t even know it was me until long after the fact,” Howard said.

“You play hundreds of games in your career, and really, I have to be thankful for being universally remembered for just one. You know, a lot of guys don’t get that. You can have a good, steady career, but to have a play with that one play with that kind of impact, it’s something to be thankful for.

“Even though that was something I did all the time, thousands of times, I was just lucky that everything came together that one time.”