1984 New York Giants: Bill Parcells’ First Playoff Trip

The Bill Parcells era in New York would be the greatest in the franchise’s Super Bowl era, producing Super Bowl trophies in 1986 & 1990. But after a 3-12-1 start to Parcells’ head coaching career in 1983, the heat was on to produce. The 1984 New York Giants made it into the playoffs and paved the way for all the good things that would follow.

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Phil Simms was working to establish himself at quarterback and took a big step forward in 1984. He threw for over 4,000 yards, and even though the completion percentage of 53.7% was a little lower than ideal, it was manageable and the 7.6 yards-per-attempt made up for it.

There weren’t great receivers to stretch the field. Simms spread the ball amongst Bobby Johnson and Earnest Gray, along with tight end Zeke Mowatt, but nobody that struck fear into a secondary. The running game was similarly respectable without providing a “wow” factor. Rob Carpenter rushed for 795 yards and shifty Joe Morris began to get playing time, going for 510 yards.

New York’s offense still ranked just 19th in the NFL in points scored, so the burden shifted to the Lawrence Taylor-led defense. L.T., now in his fourth year, was a 1st-team All-Pro at outside linebacker with 11 ½ sacks. Cornerback Mark Haynes picked off seven passes and was another 1st-team All-Pro.

Harry Carson was a Pro Bowler at inside linebacker, and other key contributors to the #8-ranked defense in the NFL were nose tackle Jim Burt and defensive end Leonard Marshall, who combined for 13 ½ sacks.

New York opened the season at home with Philadelphia, a subpar team. You wouldn’t have known from this game that the Giants would be a defense-first team. Simms lit it up, going 23/30 for 409 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Johnson caught eight passes for 137 yards and they compensated for a shaky defensive outing, 28-27.

Simms came out firing again the next week at home against Dallas, hitting Byron Williams on a 62-yard strike to get the scoring started, and then hit Lionel Manuel on a 14-yard toss. The defense forced four turnovers and the Giants got another NFC East win, 28-7.

A third straight divisional game was the big one, two-time defending NFC champion Washington. In a late afternoon kick from old RFK Stadium in D.C., the Giants led 14-13 in the third quarter, but only rushed for 47 yards. Simms threw for 347 yards, but without a running game was both erratic—22/45—and threw three interceptions. The Redskins took over the fourth quarter and won 30-14.

The turnovers got cleaned up against a weak Tampa Bay opponent and were the reason New York survived an otherwise sluggish outing, 17-14. Another sluggish game, this one at the playoff-bound Los Angeles Rams caught up to them. The Giants mustered just eight yards rushing, while L.A’s, Eric Dickerson went 120. More astonishing stats worth italicizing came in that the Giants allowed three safeties, two of them off blocked punts. The ugly performance ended in a 33-12 loss.

New York came home to play San Francisco on Monday Night and the 49ers, en route to a great 15-1 season, were too much, grabbing a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and handing the Giants a 31-10 loss. New York was 3-3 and while the record had them in contention, they had seemed out of kilter since the fourth quarter of the Redskins game.

A road trip to a terrible Atlanta team was what the defense needed. They got three interceptions, four sacks and keyed a 19-7 win. But the Giants immediately gave it back when they dumped a game in Philadelphia. Tied 10-10 after three quarters, New York got no running game, allowed five sacks and Simms was erratic when he could get a pass off. They cracked in the fourth quarter and lost 24-10.

There was reason to be encouraged at 4-4, given what a disaster the 1983 season had begun, but no indication that this was a playoff team. That changed when Washington came to the Meadowlands on the last Sunday of October. The Giants, a (+6) home underdog, got a great game from Simms, who went 18/29 for 339 yards with no interceptions. Gray caught seven of the passes for 128 yards. The Giants were up 23-0 by the second quarter, didn’t allow a touchdown until the fourth quarter and delivered a shocking 37-13 win.

Another big win came at Dallas, this one as a (+7) underdog. Simms was only 16/37 and New York trailed 7-6 at the half, but Simms was making big plays, getting 244 yards from those completions. The defense got five sacks and they won 19-7.

Just when it seemed like New York was rolling, they turned in a clunker at Tampa Bay. The Giants and Bucs, by virtue of having finished last in their divisions in 1983, played twice this year, in the schedule format that existed prior to 2002. New York only ran for 65 yards and lost 20-17.

The St. Louis Cardinals were in the pre-2002 NFC East, along with the division’s four current teams and they had a good team with a strong passing attack in 1984. The Giants needed this win in the Meadowlands and they got it, with Haynes picking off two passes, part of a six-turnover effort from the defense in a 16-10 victory.

New York was now 7-5 and squarely in the middle of a packed division race. The Redskins and Cowboys were also 7-5, while the Cardinals were 6-6. There were two wild-card spots available and the Rams, also at 7-5, were the only contender outside the NFC East. The playoffs were within Parcells’ reach.

The Kansas City Chiefs, an average team, but one that would score big wins against contenders in Denver and Seattle down the stretch, came to New York and nearly did the same to the Giants. Down 27-14 in the fourth quarter, Simms found Johnson on a 22-yard touchdown pass and then hit Mowatt on a 3-yard flip to pull out a 27-2 win.

1984 was the first season the New York Jets moved to the Meadowlands to share a building with the Giants and the two teams played on December 2. The Giants got a break in that the game was considered one of their road games and they beat a mediocre team 20-10. Simms went 18/28 for 2502 yards.

New York wasn’t the only team winning though—all the other contenders, in the division and in Los Angeles, had also kept winning and the fundamental landscape had not changed. It set up a big battle in St. Louis in the penultimate game on December 9.

Morris had his best game of the year, rushing for 107 yards and the game was tied 21-21 after three quarters. But Simms did not play well, going 13/31 for 175 yards and two interceptions. His counterpart, Neil Lomax, threw for 300 yards, did not make any mistakes and put ten fourth quarter points on the board. The Giants lost 31-21.

Dallas had also lost, so New York was in a three-way tie for second with the Cowboys and Cardinals. St. Louis was going to Washington for the finale and that game would settle the NFC East. But the Giants were still in pretty good shape in the tiebreakers—they had beaten Dallas twice, so while New York did not completely control their destiny, the odds would be in their favor if they beat New Orleans.

It was a home game on a Saturday afternoon and with so much at stake, the Giants laid a complete egg as a (-10) favorite. Simms was sacked seven times and they lost 10-3. Now they needed a lot of help.

St. Louis and Dallas both needed to lose. If that happened, a three-way tie for second in the NFC East at 9-7 would be the result and New York would win that tiebreaker and gain the second wild-card berth, alongside the Rams, who had finished the season 10-6 after playing a Friday night game to end the regular season.

The good news was this—the Cardinals would be on the road in Washington, and Dallas would be on the road in Miami on Monday Night, where the Dolphins were 13-2 and playing for the top seed in the AFC behind eventual MVP quarterback Dan Marino.

All of New York watched as St. Louis lost a nailbiter in Washington. On Monday Night, the Cowboys and Dolphins were tied 21-21, when Marino delivered a touchdown pass that won it. The Giants hadn’t been pretty and they had messed up their share of chances, but they were going to the playoffs.

When you’ve lost two straight going into the playoffs, have no recent postseason history and go on the road, expectations are going to be modest. They were for New York when they went to Anaheim on the Sunday before Christmas to face Los Angeles, as a (+4.5) underdog.

What the Giants would do was capitalize on Ram mistakes. New York got an early field goal and then recovered a Dickerson fumble, setting up Carpenter’s short touchdown run for a 10-0 lead. Los Angeles got a field goal in the second quarter to make it 10-3 at the half.

Another Giant field goal was answered by a Dickerson touchdown run to make it 13-10. Simms was grinding away in the passing game, going 22/31 and staying underneath, throwing for 179 yards, while avoiding the big mistake. Mowatt and Carpenter combined for 14 catches, underscoring the short-range nature of the passing game.

New York took a 16-10 lead going into the fourth quarter when Dickerson, who finished with 107 yards, got rolling and keyed a drive that got the Rams to 2nd-and-goal on the 4-yard line. Los Angeles made their share of mistakes in this game—there was the aforementioned turnover, Dickerson lost another fumble and the Rams committed ten penalties. But perhaps nothing was more costly than the strategic error of giving the football to a back not named Eric Dickerson in this situation.

Dwayne Crutchfield got the ball and was stuffed for a three-yard loss. A short pass to Henry Ellard was quickly swarmed by the Giants. There was still seven minutes to play, so there was really no choice but for LA to cut the lead to 16-13 with a field goal.

But New York closed it out without further drama. They held the ball for 34 minutes and in spite of rushing for just forty yards, the turnover-free effort and only five penalties keyed the 16-13 upset win.

The Giants went on to face the 49ers in the divisional playoffs the following Saturday. As it had been in the regular season, this was too much to handle. Simms couldn’t get any protection, being sacked six times, and was marginally effective when he did. The defense played well, forced a couple turnovers to create ten points and the score was only 14-10 in the second quarter.

But San Francisco scored again before the half and the second half was quiet both ways, ending in a 21-10 game. If nothing else, the Giants covered the (+12) spread and rewarded their financial backers with a 2-0 record in Las Vegas for the playoffs.

More than that, the Giants had rewarded their fans with hope. And that hope would be fulfilled. They returned to the playoffs as a wild-card in 1985, again winning one game and again being eliminated by the future Super Bowl champion. In 1986, they took the next step and became the Super Bowl champion. The Parcells era was underway.