The immortal Bill Parcells and the game that defines him

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Bill Parcells, who is about to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, recently told reporters that his all-time favorite game was the 1990 NFC Championship, in which his Giants beat the San Francisco 49ers 15-13 on a last-second field goal.

Of course it was. This punishing, operatic game was perfectly aligned with Parcells’s macho football sensibilities. It exemplified his belief that at their best, football games are contests to determine which team is toughest. And it fulfilled his hope that the winner of such a contest would be the team coached by him.

Start with the fact that the Giants won this game by kicking five field goals, going the whole game without the joy and self-congratulatory relief of scoring a touchdown. Each one of their points, save for the final three, was tempered by the frustration that they could have had more. The Giants trailed for the entire second half. They played the game in a perpetual state of discomfort and dissatisfaction, forever trying to overcome.

In other words, they played with the exact mindset Parcells was always trying to instill in his players. The famous Parcells “needle” will likely be mentioned many times at his Hall of Fame ceremony this weekend, referencing his smart-ass, psychologically piercing, Jersey Guy way of keeping his players perpetually on edge and motivated. His coaching style was predicated on making his players feel that they always had something to prove and that their work was never done. That day in San Francisco, the Giants’ work wasn’t done until the very end.

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The game was a pressure-cooker for a coach whose reputation as one of football’s all-time great philosophers. (Surely, he is no less than that, his stature having far outstripped his record.) And it was his ardent belief that pressure was the only thing that could bring out the best in people. Years later, after two Super Bowl victories and another successful stop with the Jets, he told the Harvard Business Review that any leader, in any field, must constantly “apply pressure—that’s the only thing any of us really responds to.”

From this perspective, Roger Craig’s critical fourth-quarter fumble, which enabled the Giants to win and Parcells to label this game as his favorite, didn't result from the fluke circumstance of Erik Howard’s head being in precisely the right place to cuase it. Rather, it was an expected result from the accumulation of pressure the Giants defense had applied to the 49ers all game. The Giants kept applying force; eventually, Craig cracked and the ball spurted out.

Being under pressure is a state we’d all rather not be in if given the choice. Parcells’s gift was his to inject that pressure under his players’ skins, puncturing the complacency he felt was endemic to human nature.

Give the man credit, this didn’t just apply to his players. Billy Ard, an offensive lineman on the 1986 Super Bowl-winning team, told me that Parcells put a pebble in his own shoe during training camp of 1984. The year before, his first as head coach, Parcells felt that his new, plush job had softened him. The result was a 3-12-1 disaster, after which the Giants allegedly tried to fire him by bringing in University of Miami head coach Howard Schnellenberger. Schnellenberger, if rumors are to be believed and dots connected, turned down the job. Parcells showed up the next year with a rock in his shoe and a lesson learned: If you’re serious about playing or coaching football, you’d better not get too comfortable.

THOSE FIVE FIELD GOALS REPRESENTED a triumph of incremental, hard-earned victories, a reverence for which lay at the heart of the Parcells code. The offense of 1990 Giants, much more than the relatively potent offense of the 1986 Super Bowl winners, was classic three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust attack. They had the best defense in the league, but only the fifteenth-best offense. They averaged 3.8 yards a carry, just 24th in the league. Their leading rusher was Ottis Anderson, a plodding 32-year-old whose best year had come during the Carter Administration for a team, the St. Louis Cardinals, which no longer existed.

And this was what Parcells wanted. Since ’86, he had proactively remade the running game to better reflect his slobberknocking tastes. That ’86 team featured athletic, crafty blockers and a zip-fast running back, Joe Morris. It was a more explosive running game (11th in yards per attempt) and a better offense overall (8th in points). But it wasn’t Parcells’ bag. By ‘90, Morris was out and Anderson was in. On the line, the technicians were out and the road graders were in. All you really need to know is that Brad Benson, the Hyundai salesman best known to local sports fans today for his outlandishly hammy radio ads, was replaced in the lineup by a man named Jumbo Elliot. The in-space, wall-off blocking assignments were replaced by a simple directive: Overpower the guy across from you.

No, it wasn’t an offense that would light up a scoreboard, but at least it would take the fight to the defense. Proof of this, bronzed by NFL Films slo-mo and syncopated soundtracks, occurred the week after the San Francisco game in the Super Bowl, when Anderson, carrying the ball with one hand, literally wound up and threw an uppercut at a tackler with the other.

A great offense? No. But a grinding one, yes. Sure, Parcells deviated from this the week before in the divisional playoff game against Chicago, when he indulged quarterback Jeff Hostetler’s improvisational talents in a surprising 31-13 blowout. But the Giants were back to grinding in San Francisco.

Against the 49ers, Giants running backs rushed 32 times for 111 yards, averaging around 3.5 yards per carry. That’s strikingly similar to their season totals, when they averaged 30 running back attempts per game and an average of 3.75 yards. So if the ‘90 Giants’ running game was the apotheosis of Parcells’ offensive style, then its performance in the ‘90 NFC Championship game was the apotheosis of that apotheosis.

Take a look at the cover of Sports Illustrated from after that game. Anderson is pictured next to the headline “Giant Steps.” It’s trite, yet evocative for a runner whose low-gear, thunderous steps suggest a bass drum and a tuba accompaniment. In the picture, Anderson isn’t so much running as he is trudging through a field of felled soldiers. The cover is a perfect memento for this war of attrition.

SOMETHING ELSE CHANGED BETWEEN '86 AND '90: PARCELLS himself.

The Parcells who will accept his Hall of Fame enshrinement on Sunday is, in the popular conception, a spiritual and coaching descendent of Vince Lombardi, a ruler through intimidation, one of sports history’s all-time Guys You Don’t Wanna Fuck With.

Everyone knows that there’s more to the guy, of course: He’s quick-witted, charming and has an electric smile that borders on the effeminate. (His players at Texas Tech, where he coached linebackers in the mid-‘70s, called him “Coach Pretty.”)

Back in ’86, Parcells was known more for these charming qualities than his mean streak. Believe it or not, he was known as a “player’s coach,” in an early iteration of that term. No doubt much of this owed to the Gatorade dunk Parcells ritualistically endured after every game, which, he told me “kinda took on a life of its own” and presented an inaccurately chummy picture of his relationship with his players. It also owed to his rapport with the Giants writers, who he would invite into the dungeonous reaches of Giants Stadium every week for off-the-record bull sessions, and who were, then as now, eating out of his hand.

But the perception of the coach, and the man himself, changed between the first Super Bowl and the second. The players strike hardened him and made him more mistrustful of his players. He grew increasingly bitter over his constant power struggle with Giants general manager George Young. After seven years on the job, it’s fair to say that the player’s coach seen in the mind’s eye peeling away from a Gatorade dunking with a laugh and joshing shove for Harry Carson had faded from memory, replaced by the intimidator we know today. His wise-ass edge took on more venom. His toothy grin became more of a sneer. Whatever brown hair remained in ’86 had turned gray by ’90.

The Giants, too, had a more severe edge that season. If the latter part of ’86 was a joyful romp, marked by playoff blowouts and the crescendoing realization among fans that they were finally witnessing The Year, then ’90 was a grim struggle. The Giants backed into the playoffs after a lousy end to the regular season, having lost two games to the teams they would have to play in the playoffs: the 49ers and Bills.

They were heavy underdogs to those teams, each of which was more offensively explosive and, of course, aesthetically pleasing than the Giants. The 49ers had their West Coast offense, long the standard-bearer for offensive elegance, and the Bills had their newfangled and seemingly unstoppable no-huddle attack. The Giants were the buzz-kill foil to those teams. They played with indignation born of the sense that their style of play was being disrespected.

More broadly, the ’90 title game can be seen as the culmination of an era-long battle between two teams, the Giants and 49ers, who represented philosophical opposites. No doubt, this defense vs. offense, finesse vs. power dichotomy is somewhat overstated: By that season, Bill Walsh, the 49ers coach during the ‘80s and the innovative mind behind the West Coast offense, had been retired for two years. His replacement, George Seifert, presided over a team whose defense (2nd in points allowed) was actually better than its offense (8th in points scored).

But the bones of the old rivalry remained: Walsh designed a complex pass-happy offense that, if executed perfectly, was unstoppable; Parcells favored the run-oriented, meat-and-potatoes offense, and saw Walsh’s reliance on the pass as an end-run around the manly essence of the sport. Walsh’s 49ers played in warm weather on the West Coast. Parcells’s Giants played in cold weather on the East Coast. Walsh let his players practice in shorts, the better to focus on the precision needed to run his finely tuned system; Parcells ran physical practices designed to toughen his players up. Walsh afforded his players a collegial respect, compelling the cliché, “He treats us like men.” Parcells took after Lombardi, about whom a player famously said, “He treats us all the same, like dogs.”

Parcells respected Walsh, but didn’t care much for his legions of imitators in the coaching ranks, those narcissistic mad-scientist types who, he once told me, “are concerned with being viewed as ‘gurus.’” Nor did he care for the media types who fell over themselves to label Walsh a “genius.” After the Giants smothered the 49ers 17-3 in the 1985 playoffs, Parcells faced down a pack of reporters who had been peppering him with questions about Walsh all week. He couldn’t help himself, and he sneered, “What do you think of that West Coast Offense now?”

Thus, the term “West Coast Offense,” which branded Walsh’s system and burnished his legend. But Parcells didn’t mean it as a compliment. He intended it to carry the contempt of an East Coast traditionalist toward flighty California trends, not unlike Archie Bunker’s dismissal of the Golden State as “the land of fruits and nuts.”

So it must have given Parcells a special satisfaction to knock off these 49ers, to watch his overlooked “boring” team ruin the anticipated Super Bowl between high-flying offenses, to puncture the 49ers California assuredness in themselves and the inevitability of their "Three-Peat." Adding to the thrill, one presumes, was the fact that the Giants accomplished this task with their backup quarterback.

But it was only after the following week, when Parcells’s team won the Super Bowl by beating another heavily favored (7 points) offensively innovative team, that Parcells let himself crow.

“Power wins football games! Power wins football games!” he bellowed repeatedly in the locker room after the Super Bowl, according to Paul Zimmerman’s Sports Illustrated account.

When a reporter asked him if the Giants’ victory had “vindicated” their style of play, Parcells shot back, “It’s always been vindicated. It’s that new stuff that has something to prove.”

FOR ALL HIS REVERENCE FOR STRAIGHT-UP FOOTBALL, PARCELLS RESERVED a special place in his heart for trick plays. He was a well-known gambler back when coaches were more reflexively risk-averse than they even are today. This seems like a contradiction, until you realize the common thread between the smash-mouth style of play and the willingness to call a trick play at the most crucial moment: both are proclamations of having large balls.

It figures that Parcells’ favorite game of all time would include some trickery: Gary Reasons’s fake punt, which allowed the Giants to kick a field goal and pull within one point in the fourth quarter.

But that wasn’t his first high-stakes gamble in such a huge spot. That occurred in the ’86 Super Bowl: With the Giants trailing 10-9 during their first drive of the second half, Parcells switched out of punt formation on 4th and 1 and picked up the first down with a quarterback sneak. The Giants took the lead with a touchdown later that series, and basically didn’t stop scoring for the rest of the game en route to a 39-20 rout.

That call was pivotal. But the call against the 49ers was even more important in terms of giving the Giants the points they needed to win the game.

It’s instructive to think about what precipitated the fake punt: A failed conversion on 3rd-and-short the play before, on which an up-the-gut run by Ottis Anderson was blown up for a loss by 49er nose tackle Michael Carter. After the play, the CBS cameras showed Parcells on the sideline. His chest moves and down; he's visibly huffing with wounded pride as he watches his team lose this force-on-force confrontation. Finally, he angrily grabs the mic of his headset, covers up his mouth, and barks out the ballsiest call of his life.

IT WAS REVEALED LAST YEAR THAT MATT Bahr was concussed when he kicked the game-winning field goal. Somehow, it’s appropriate that the hero of Parcells’s favorite game was injured at the time, because it would be dishonest to suggest that injuries had nothing to do with this game’s romance.

In the NFL Network “America’s Game” documentary about the ‘90 Giants, narrator Alec Baldwin reverently calls it “one of the most physical games ever played.” His pronouncement is followed by a montage of mic’d up grunts and comic-book-style “POW!” sounds, accompanied by players delivering big hits. It’s a classic example of how NFL Films used to market the league before matters were complicated by the brain injury crisis.

Of course, “physical” is a sanitized way of putting it. “Brutal” is more like it.

In the fourth quarter, Hostetler was temporarily knocked out of the game by a submarine, head-to-knee blow by ex-Giant Jim Burt, a member of the ’86 championship team. Burt’s hit, which is illegal under today’s rules, was a negative image of his takeout shot of Joe Montana in the ’86 playoffs, which knocked Montana out of the game and still serves as the most enduring site of the Giants’ 49-3 blowout of the 49ers that day.

Hostetler would come back from Burt’s hit, but not before the Giants’ defense vowed to avenge him by taking out Montana.

“I remember [Carl] Banks saying, ‘Ok, Burt took his shot. One of us gets a shot at Montana. We gotta end it. It’s gotta be like, ‘Lights out Irene,’” remembered defensive end Leonard Marshall.

Marshall, of course, delivered a shattering blindside blow to Montana several plays later that fractured Montana’s rib, bruised his sternum, and broke his hand. Montana has said, without campy exaggeration, that he thought he was going to die right there on the field. (Montana claimed Marshall snapped his hand back after they hit the ground to intentionally break it, a charge Marshall denies.) Montana didn’t recover from his injuries in time for the next season, allowing Steve Young to supplant him as the starter and never give the job back.

In practical terms, Marshall’s hit wasn’t any more significant than a garden-variety sack. Even in Montana’s absence, the 49ers would have won the game but for Craig’s fumble, which had nothing to do with who was playing quarterback. But Marshall’s hit is remembered in lore as the moment when the brute force of the Parcells Giants broke the exquisite 49ers machine.

ALL OF THAT WAS PROLOGUE TO BAHR'S FIELD GOAL, which looked like it had been hooked left off Bahr’s foot and along most of its path, but somehow straightened out at just the right moment to sneak inside the left upright. The Frisco partisans were shocked into silence, stricken with the profoundly strange realization that the wrong team had won. Pat Summerall definitively intoned, “There will be no Three-Peat!” The Giants, clad in their pajama-like all-white uniforms, rushed the field and ran toward Bahr. Long snapper Steve DeOssie, who had sensed something wasn’t quite right with Bahr, urgently told them to refrain from congratulatory head-slaps.

Parcells leapt in the air, flashing the old jauntiness and smile. His first move when he came down was to hug Bill Belichick, because if you’re choosing your favorite game, it might as well come from before you had a falling out with your top lieutenant, and from when Belichick was just a gifted stripling and not the glowering face of the joylessness of the contemporary coaching profession. Crossing in front of Parcells and Belichick in the NFL Films shot is Maurice Carthon, the Giants fullback, one of Parcells’ favorite all-time players, and later an assistant coach under Parcells. It’s a portrait of Parcells’ football family at its happiest moment.

There was of course another game to play, which meant Parcells wasn’t finished being Parcells. He couldn’t let his players get too big for their britches. He knew that Jeff Hostetler, who had morphed in the past two weeks from a no-name backup into an overnight sensation, was doing a nationally broadcast interview with John Madden while the rest of the team sat on the airport-bound bus.

Parcells told the driver to leave without Hostetler.

Greg Hanlon is the author of Our Town: The Giants Who Won a Super Bowl and a Battle for New York.