February 5th, 2008


The Game

I promised to write a few words about the SuperBowl, once I caught my breath.

It was an amazing game. Some are calling it the best SuperBowl ever played. That might be overstating it (though not by much). While it is true that all too many SuperBowls have been blowouts, there have been some other exciting ones over the years. The last Giants championship, when Scott Norwood's kick went wide right. The Rams - Titans game, when Dyson was tackled inches short of the goal line to prevent the tying touchdown. The three Patriots victories, all of them decided by field goals. The San Francisco - Cincinnati game, where Joe Montana drove the 49ers down the field to score the winning TD with seconds left. Some of the classic old Pittsburgh v. Dallas SuperBowls. And then there was SuperBowl III, when the Jets shocked the world and upset the Baltimore Colts. That one wasn't close, really, but still managed to be incredibly exciting... especially as time ran out, and you realized that the football world had just been turned upside down.

This one, though... this one was special, for a whole bunch of reasons. The Giants weren't even supposed to be in it. After their loss to Washington late in the season, it didn't even look certain that they would make the playoffs. The turn-around started in the Buffalo game the following week, maybe with the long electrifying run by Bradshaw. Beating the Bills clinched the playoff berth, but then came that "meaningless" season-ending game against the Patriots, that turned out to be one of the most meaningful games the G-Men ever played.

And then the playoffs. One and done, the pundits said, just like last year and the year before. Tampa Bay would eliminate them. But the Giants went down to Florida and beat the Bucs. That only meant they had to face the Cowboys in Dallas, however, and the Cowboys had crushed them twice during the regular season, and besides, Eli wasn't good enough to shine the Holy Romo's shoes. No way they could win that one, all the experts agreed. Yet somehow they did, and my, wasn't THAT sweet. That took the G-Men to the championship game in Green Bay, against Brett Favre, an army of cheeseheads, and temperatures that might dismay even Sworn Brothers of the Night's Watch. When their field goal kicker missed not one but TWO game-winning field goals, it seemed certain they would lose that one. Only somehow Favre threw an INT, and the kicker proved that the third time IS the charm.

And all that was only prelude. All they had won was the chance to get their asses kicked by the mighty Patriots, the unbeaten Patriots, the perfect Patriots, Evil Little Bill's team, a scoring machine that had gone through most of the season not just beating opponents, but crushing them, humiliating them, running up the scores and setting records. Vegas made the Giants two touchdown underdogs, the biggest point spread since the Jets and the Colts in '69.

Talk about your perfect Hollywood set-up.

I have heard a few people complain that the first half of the game was "dull" because the score was only 7-3 well into the third quarter. Cretins. The game was never dull, not a moment of it. There is more to football than scoring. "Defense wins championships," the talking heads will say, and that was what was on display in Phoenix, the Giants defense rising to the challenge and shutting down the highest-scoring offense that the NFL had ever seen. There have been great defenses on display in SuperBowls before -- the Doomsday Defense of Tom Landry's Cowboys, Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain, Buddy Ryan's ferocious 46 defense that knocked Patriots QB Tony Eason out the game and out of football, the defense the Giants fielded in 1986, led by Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, and my namesake George Martin. The Giants D this year was not as heralded as any of those, but after the way they played in the SuperBowl, they should be. They may not have a nifty nickname, but damn, they played with heart. Tom Brady is a Hall of Fame QB, a battle-seasoned veteran as tough as any signal caller in the NFL today, but after four quarters of trying to pass with Giants in his face and on his back and wrapped around his legs, even he was looking mortal.

The Giants D was one of the things I loved best about this game. And wasn't it strangely ironic that the defender who wreaked the most havoc on Brady and the Pats was a guy named Justin TUCK? The gods of football have a strange, quirky sense of humor sometimes.

And then there was Eli.

Okay, I confess. I didn't believe. I WANTED to believe, I really did. I wanted to think that Ernie Accorsi knew what he was doing when he traded away Philip Rivers and all those draft choices for Peyton's little brother. For four years I tried to believe. When Eli won his first victory as a starting quarterback -- against the hated Cowboys in the final game of his rookie season, in the waning seconds -- I thought it was an omen of Great Things to Come, and I've kept the game in TiVo ever since. Whenever I get down, I click it up and watch Eli call his audible at the line, and Tiki takes the ball and runs into the center of the Cowboy line for the winning TD and the Giants single season rushing record.

In the years that followed, however, those Great Things seemed awfully slow in coming, and I lost faith. Eli would have a couple good games, and I'd think he'd turned the corner, and then he'd have a long spell of mediocrity, and maybe a horrendous game or two, like the one this year against Minnesota. It was looking more and more like Ernie Accorsi had been mugged by San Diego, and I began to itch to see what Jared Lorenzen could do.

Well, I'd still like to see what the Hefty Lefty can do someday, but not if it means benching Eli. Somehow, along around that Buffalo game, or maybe during that "meaningless" season finale against the Patriots, the game slowed down for Eli, and he turned a corner. His play during the playoffs was spectacular, and never more so than in the SuperBowl, with the world championship on the line and two minutes remaining on the clock. Brady, bruised and battered as he was, still refused to turn into Tony Eason, no matter how many times the Giants D line hit him in the mouth. He had driven his team the length of the field, to put the Patriots ahead with a TD pass to Randy Moss (made easier when Corey Webster, the Giants defender, slipped and fell when he tried to make his cut). Now it was on Eli to answer.

And he did.

There have already been hundreds of accounts of the Giants' game-winning drive written and published, but none of them can capture the excitement of it, the suspense, all the heroics. It was a near thing, full of plays that balanced on a knife's edge, any one of which could have gone the other way and produced a very different outcome. Heroes and villains and desperate doings. A couple of near-interceptions that stopped my heart. The second effort by Brandon Jacobs on the 4th-and-1 run, that kept the drive alive. Steve Smith, a rookie receiver injured for most of the year, playing like he thought he was the OTHER Steve Smith, the All-Pro wideout on the Panthers. The winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress, when the genius on the enemy sideline decided to go after Eli with an all-out blitz, thus leaving Plax one-on-one with Ellis Hobbes. (For those who don't follow football, this was somewhat like sending out Tyrion Lannister to cover Gregor Clegane).

And, of course, The Play. Manning to Tyree.

If you're been anywhere near a television set the past two days, you've seen it fifty times. People are still arguing about whether it's the greatest SuperBowl play of all time, and debating what nickname to hang on it. (The Catch II was suggested, but that's too derivative, and really only refers to the reception, and not the scramble and throw that preceded it. The Great Escape is more original, but has the opposite problem; it's all about Eli escaping, and not Tyree's grab. The Play is my choice. We'll see what sticks).

To tell the truth, I don't care if it was best play ever or only the third best play ever. Michael Strahan said watching it took years off his life, and I know just how he feels. I can't imagine how Patriots fans must have felt as it went down. Both ends of it were amazing, and both could have easily turned disastrous. I have been watching football for more than fifty years, and I've never seen anything like it.

And it was David Tyree, man. Somehow that makes it even cooler than if it had been Amani Toomer or Plaxico Burress, as much as I like them. Those of you who aren't hard core Giants fans probably don't know David Tyree. He's a late round draft choice, been on the Giants for five years now, mostly as their fifth-string wide receiver and special teams ace. He's not as tall and strong as Plax, doesn't have Amani's sure hands or the blazing speed of Sinorice Moss. Every year, in training camp, Tyree is on the bubble, and there's always speculation about whether or not he'll make the cut. So far, he always does. As the fifth wideout, he doesn't get a lot of offensive plays, and even when he's on the field in a five-wide formation, the ball doesn't often come his way. Mostly he's made his living as the gunner on special teams... and he's been terrific at that, even earning a Pro Bowl nod as special teamer a few years back. Special teams aces never get much love, though. Tyree does not have the physical gifts of a Terrell Owens, a Randy Moss, or a Plaxico Burress... but whenever he has been given a chance, he plays his heart out, and I have always loved guys like that, the Wayne Chrebets and Phil McConkeys of the NFL world.

This season was especially hard for Tyree. He almost got cut in training camp, and there were some who said he'd lost a step and wasn't the force on special teams that he had been. Then he broke his wrist and missed a bunch of early season games. Later, when he came back, his mother died. He caught four passes all season... and three in the SuperBowl. One was the first Giants touchdown. The other was The Play.

And now he's immortal. If the Giants draft a young wide receiver this year, there's still a good chance that Tyree might not even make the team next season... but his heroics in the SuperBowl will be remembered as long as there is an NFL, and he will never have to pay for a drink in New York City as long as he lives.

Everyone is talking about Eli, about Tyree, about Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan, but there were other heroes too. Brandon Jacobs, the battering ram, who will NOT be denied when the Giants need a yard. Ahmed Bradshaw, kid running back, who just refused to go down. And I want to say a word about Corey Webster too. Here's another young player, a second round draft choice, highly regarded coming out of college... but halfway through the season, he sure was looking like a bust. He lost his starting job and fell so far down the depth chart it was hard to remember that he was still on the team. Late season, though, Webster worked himself back into the lineup, and since then he's been terrific. In the playoffs he was a real force, showing the quickness and sure hands the Giants saw when they drafted him. It was his interception that won the Green Bay game, setting up Tynes for his third kick.

In the SuperBowl, though, Webster came perilously close to turning back into a goat. It was him on Randy Moss when the Patriots scored their go-ahead touchdown, falling down as he tried to cut. If the Patriots had won, he would have had to live with that.

Webster redeemed himself, though. After Eli and Tyree and Plax had put the G-men ahead, the Patriots still had thirty-five seconds and Tom Brady. First play, the G-Men got a sack when Jay Alford, another of their terrific rookies, burst through the line and drove Brady to the ground. Second-and-twenty, though, Brady scrambles loose and lofts a bomb into the air that sails fifty yards downfield toward the hands of the streaking Randy Moss, who had gotten a step on both of his defenders... and there was an instant there, as the ball fell toward Moss's hands, when I could picture him snatching it from the air and streaking in for a touchdown that would have driven a knife through my heart and the heart of every Giants fan everywhere... but at the last second, Corey Webster leapt and knocked the ball aside.

No one is writing much about THAT play, but in the end it was just as crucial as Tyree's catch, or Plaxico's touchdown grab.

Defense, man. Defense wins championships.



This motley crew of hedge knights and vagabonds are somewhere on the Mother Road, moving toward Arizona and the Big Hole in Da Ground.

Beware, beware, they're armed and dangerous.