It has been said that the 1981 game between the Giants and Cowboys was the most significant game in Giants Stadium history. Granted, the Giants did play 11 playoff games there, including 2 NFC Championships, as well as several other big games with the division title on the line (such as 2011 vs. Dallas). But this 1981 game really signaled the re-birth of the Giants as a franchise. They had been out of the playoffs for 18 years, and never really got a sniff of success, let alone the playoffs in the time that they moved to play in East Rutherford in 1976. Look at the records since they moved to the new stadium: 3-11, 5-9, 6-10, 6-10, 4-12.
1981 was a big year for the Giants. It was Year 3 of the George Young era, which coincided with Year 3 of the Ray Perkins era. Their first two seasons saw little success, as noted above, a 10-22 record. The Giants finally started to round into shape in their traditional way, defense. There was talent to work with on the defensive side of the football, Harry Carson, Brian Kelley, Brad Van Pelt, and George Martin were in place. Perkins brought back Bill Parcells to the Giants, taking him from New England where he was their LB coach, and promoted him to Defensive Coordinator. Meanwhile, George Young had a fantastic 1981 draft, bringing in NT Bill Neill and LB Byron Hunt. And probably the most important draft pick in Giants history (rivaled only by the Eli trade when you think of it), with the Giants were sitting at #2 in the draft order. The New Orleans Saints decided to pick RB George Rogers with the #1 pick. The Giants took LB Lawrence Taylor from North Carolina. Suddenly the Giants had a defensive unit which was hard hitting and dangerous.
As also was the Giants tradition, the defense carried the offense. Phil Simms hurt his shoulder in an OT loss to the Redskins in Week 11 and the QB duties were turned over to Scott Brunner, who was in his second year. The Giants best player was a fullback, Rob Carpenter, who was acquired from the Houston Oilers earlier in the 1981 season. The Giants were having a mediocre season, with a record of 5-6 after the Redskins loss. But with Brunner at the helm, the Giants defense locked in, and the Giants went into Philly and beat the defending NFC Champs 20-10. The Giants would win 3 of their next four games, including the Eagles game, with their only loss coming 17-10 at San Francisco to the eventual Super Bowl Champs.
That set up their showdown with Dallas. The Tom Landry led Cowboys were still filled with big names in 1981, Randy White, Danny White, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Drew Pearson, Tony Dorsett, among others. They had just clinched their 6th straight NFC East title and were 12-3 entering the game. In order to gain homefield advantage in the playoffs, the Cowboys needed to win and hope that the 49ers (who blew out Dallas 45-14 earlier in the season) would lose on the road to the hapless New Orleans Saints.
Meanwhile the Giants, now at 8-7, also needed help to get into the playoffs. The Giants had to win this game and hope that the NY Jets, of all teams, would beat the Packers at Shea Stadium. The Jets were motivated on their own, as a win would put them in the playoffs. As the Giants game was on a Saturday, both the Giants and Cowboys wouldn't fully know their fate until the following day.
The Game Highlights
On a cold Saturday afternoon game, with the temperature 26 degrees, but the infamous Giants Stadium winds blowing at 20 mph and a wind chill of 13 degrees, the teams took the field. The Giants decided to play with their road whites at home, noting that Dallas didn't play as well record wise in their blue uniforms. The Giants would win the toss and decided to kick off and play with the wind at their back. The opening kickoff was returned by Dallas to the 35, with the tackle being made by Pro Bowl rookie Lawrence Taylor, playing on kickoff coverage (think this wasn't a big game?). Tony Dorsett was stuffed on his first two carries of the game and that set up a 3rd down passing situation. Danny White, the Dallas QB, hadn't been sacked in the 2 previous games and was rarely touched, but on 3rd down, he was sacked by George Martin at the 10 yard line. White, who also doubled as the Dallas punter, kicked it away to Leon Bright, who returned it to the 46.
The Giants meanwhile, started the game by hammering in with Carpenter, who ran 3 straight times and converted a 3rd and 1 to get the ball to the Dallas 42. Scott Brunner then completed a pass to rookie TE Dave Young out to the 27. Two short runs by Carpenter and Leon Perry set up a 3rd down conversion on a pass from Brunner to Earnest Gray to the 6 yard line. With first and goal, the Giants again try 2 runs with Perry and Carpenter with little success. Brunner then threw to Johnny Perkins, who was hit in the end zone by a Dallas defender and dropped the ball. That brought out Joe Danelo, who joined the Giants in 1976 as their kicker and should have known the Giants Stadium winds as well as anyone in the NFL.
Yikes, that was a brutal shank on what should have been a chip shot. Dallas had dodged a bullet. They started out by trying to again establish the run. Dorsett started with a 7 yard burst up the gut, but was stopped for a loss on the next play by Byron Hunt. On 3rd down, the Giants defense yet again came in waves after Danny White, as White was pressured by Hunt first and then sacked by Martin, forcing yet another punt, which Leon Bright (eschewing a fair catch) returned to the Dallas 37.
On first down, Carpenter played the role of the fullback battering ram, plowing ahead up the middle, bouncing off several Dallas defenders to the 15 yard line. The drive would stall as Randy White stonewalled Carpenter on the next play, and after an incompletion, Brunner's pass in the end zone to Gray was knocked away by Ron Fellows. Out trotted Danelo again to make amends for his earlier miss with a 28 yard attempt.
Well, so much for that. And Danelo even got a second chance after "Too Tall" had jumped offsides. The Cowboys yet again dodge a bullet and the Giants were blowing their chances with the wind at their backs to take an early lead vs. the high powered Cowboys offense.
Dallas took the ball on the 20, a 3 yard run by Dorsett and a dropped pass by Tony Hill, set up a 3rd and 7 for White, who this time hit Ron Springs for a first down to the 31. Dorsett would lose 5 on a tackle by Bill Courrier and Mark Haynes, but Dallas would get a first down on a draw up the middle by Springs. The rest of the drive would sputter for the Cowboys, and after a Giants time out, would be forced to punt one last time into the wind, and the Giants would get the ball on the 12 yard line at the start of the 2nd quarter.
The Giants would go to the ground again, with runs by Carpenter and Perry, and then converted the 3rd down on a Brunner pass to Danny Pittman to the 23 yard line. Brunner would fumble the snap, and he would recover, and 2 plays later would drill a pass in to Gray out to the 40. Three more Carpenter runs got it past midfield and Brunner hit Young out to the 37, which was just short of a first down. Carpenter was stopped short of a first, and rather than give Dallas any new life, Perkins chose to play field position with his defense and brought on Dave Jennings to punt, but Jennings just got the ball past the goalline for a touchback.
Dallas' first play was to go to the air, with White targeting his Pro Bowl TE Doug Cosbie, but LT knocked the ball away (and just missed an INT). Dorsett was stuffed by Gary Jeter on 2nd down and a false start set Dallas back to 3rd and 14, and the Giants defense went to work again
Gary Jeter registered the Giants 3rd sack of the half vs. the Cowboys. White, who was not used to being touched, let alone pressured, was under duress thanks to Parcells' defensive schemes. White again had to punt from his end zone and Bright took it to the Dallas 41. This time around, the Giants offense would not get very far, as Too Tall knocked down a pass and a dump off pass to Carpenter gained only a few yards, so Jennings came on to punt it back to Dallas, where it was downed at the 10 yard line.
The defenses really began to settle in at this point. Dallas again failed to establish a running game, and a deep pass was dropped by Hill, setting up yet another White punt. This time, Bright was drilled by a Dallas player before he could field the punt and had to be carted off. The 15 yard penalty moved the ball to the Dallas 37 and the Giants seemed to be in business. Ike Forte got the ball to the 30 and Carpenter powered ahead for more yards at the 2 minute warning. Just as it seemed the Giants were going to get into scoring position, disaster struck again
The seldom used Forte, who carried the ball a grand total of 17 times on the season for the Giants, was hit by Dennis Thurman and fumbled the ball, where Dallas DT Harvey Martin fell on it at the 22 yard line. Yet another blown opportunity by the Giants.
Dallas first play was nearly a gift back to the Giants, as Brian Kelley dropped a would be INT-TD. A drop by Pearson and then a screen to Dorsett was just short of a first down and White prepared to punt. A slight hesitation in his punt set up worked to White's advantage, who decided to pull it down and run with it for a first down. With new life, the Cowboys drew a pass interference on Terry Jackson to get the ball to the 41 and a pass to Cosbie put the ball on the Giants 43. A short pass to Springs got the Cowboys closer, and after a missed deep pass to Hill, Landry sent out Rafael Septien to attempt a 60 yard FG with the wind at his back. The kick wasn't close and the Giants and Cowboys went into the half tied at 0-0. Considering that Dallas had been held to 41 total yards, including 2 yards passing along with 3 sacks, the Cowboys were lucky not to be down 9-0, if not 21-0.
The Cowboys got the ball to start the 3rd quarter, and after a touchback, they quietly went 3 and out and punted back to the Giants. The Giants would get the punt at the 43, though they didn't go much farther and were forced to kick it back to Dallas, where they fielded it on the 7....and promptly punted it back to the Giants who got it at their 37.
Both offenses were sputtering, both punters getting a work out. Leon Perry got things going though, with a run out to the 45. Carpenter followed up by getting it into Dallas territory. Brunner hit Young again, this time down the seam to the 39. The next play was one of the strangest flea flickers I have ever seen, Carpenter flipped the ball back to Brunner, who was hit on the pass and the ball fluttered to Perry just beyond the line of scrimmage, and he took the ball out to the 23 for a first down. A Carpenter run got the ball to the 20, and the Giants would finally break through
Brunner to Mullady might not have been a big combination, but you wouldn't know it on a beautiful touch pass by Brunner into double coverage and a great catch by Mullady, who held on despite the hit and just got it across the plain of the goal line for a 20 yard TD. Danelo barely got the extra point, and the Giants had gotten their 7-0 lead.
The ensuing kickoff went into the end zone for a touchback. Giants Stadium was a madhouse as the fans were completely into the game, finally able to cheer with a lead. Dorsett was stopped by Haynes for a short 2 yard gain. Dallas though, filled with plenty of firepower, started to get moving. White threw to TE Billy Joe DuPree for a first down to the 32. After 2 short runs, White hit James Jones to the 43. 2 more short runs by Dallas set up their first real big play on offense, a 43 yard pass to Hill, who had burned Haynes and got the ball to the 11 yard line to end the 3rd quarter. Two more Dorsett runs got it to the 4 yard line, and the Cowboys would finally answer the Giants score
White was under pressure by LT, and made a nice pass to the 6'6" Cosbie, who did a good job to stay in bounds and tie the score at 7-7.
The crowd was now anxious, and they'd be feeling worse as the Giants botched the return and Beasley Reece fell on it at the 1 yard line. Carpenter ran it out to the 5 and a Dave Young drop set up a 3rd and 6 for the Giants.
Brunner flung it up down the field to rookie WR John Mistler, but it was picked off by Dallas' Michael Downs at the 43. As Pat Summerall would say, it was essentially as good as a punt, considering that Jennings would have to kick into the 20 mph wind. Dallas went right to work, with White hitting DuPree to the 31 and then to Crosbie to the 17. After a fumbled handoff, Dallas took two shots at the end zone, but the balls were knocked away, and that brought on Septien, who did what Danelo could not, and drilled a 37 yard FG to put the Cowboys up 10-7.
All the hopes and dreams were fizzling before the fans eyes. Leon Bright would get them back into the game, with a big return out to the 45. Carpenter followed that up with a catch for 8 more yards and then plowed forward for a first down conversion. The drive would then falter, and a Too Tall sack would bring on Jennings for another punt, in which he buried Dallas at their own 5 yard line.
Dallas' first two runs by Dorsett and Springs were short gains in which LT made the tackles. On 3rd down, White hit Jones for a conversion out to the 20. Two more plays to Dorsett set up another 3rd down, which Dallas again converted on a pass to Pearson out near the 45 yard line and the Giants were forced to call at time out with 2:14 to go in the game. The Giants were in big trouble, but for the first time in 18 years, the fates smiled on the Giants
Amazingly, in looking to run out the clock, the Pro Bowler Dorsett bobbled the pitch back to him and George Martin recovered at the 45. A hold on first down made it 1st and 20 at the Giants 45. The two minute warning and 2 incompletions made it 3rd and 20. Brunner hit Mistler for 7 yards, which would set up a huge 4th down and 13.
In 1986, Phil Simms hit Bobby Johnson to convert a 4th and 17 in Minnesota which lead to Raul Allegre's game winning FG during the Giants championship season. Well, lost in comparison to that was the Brunner to Mistler pass, who caught the ball and got it down to the 27 for a first down with 1:35 to go, one of the most underrated 4th down conversions in Giants history. A run by Perry got the ball to the 20 and after another run by Carpenter and a failed deep throw to Gray, Danelo came back on to the field with :35 to go and 40 yards for the tie.
Danelo, who shanked 2 previous field goals and nearly blew an extra point, used the Giants Stadium winds and hooked in the pressure FG to tie the game at 10-10. Dallas got the kickoff to the 27, and White went to work. Hitting Hill and Dorsett and got the ball past mid field. However, Dorsett was tackled in bounds by Carson, and in 1981, only 2 players were designated as being able to call a time out (unlike today) and they couldn't get the official's attention in time and the clock ran out, so the game went to OT.
In the OT, the Cowboys won the toss, but Landry chose to kick off and take the wind. The Giants offense couldn't keep up the momentum from the end of game drive and went 3 and out, punting back to Dallas, who got the ball at the 45, however a penalty set them back to their own 40.
After an 8 yard run by Springs, Dorsett had his problems holding on the ball again
For the second time, Dorsett couldn't handle the pitch back and as he tried to fall on the ball, LT jumped on him and ripped it away and got up to run it past the 40. A Carpenter run went for no gain, and on 2nd down, Brunner fooled everyone on a naked bootleg around left end for 23 yards down to the 17 yard line. A short run by Perry and a dive to the middle by Carpenter set up Danelo for a game winning 33 yard FG. It was all there for a story book ending
Now this was getting insane. Danelo, who was down from the 2 misses and then hits the 40 yarder to tie the game, doinks one off the upright and with it a chance to stay alive to clinch a Wild Card berth. Out trotted the Giants defense again, who was determined to get the ball back to the offense. After a 2 yard Dorsett run, the defense went into overdrive
Now this is Giants defense and what we as fans have come to love. On 2nd down, a safety blitz by Courrier hit White and forced a fumble, but it was recovered, somehow, by Dallas. On the very next play, LT pressured White and forced him to throw the ball, where rookie Byron Hunt, playing in the game due to an injury to the usual starter Brad Van Pelt, stepped in front of the pass to pick it off in OT. [Full Disclosure- I worked with Byron on a few projects back in the early 2000s and still stay in touch with him to this day. He's a good guy and it's pretty sweet to go back and see this footage of what was probably the biggest play of his career]
The Giants got the ball on the 24 yard line. Two Carpenter runs and then a pass to Mistler got the ball to the 17 yard line. Joe Danelo would come out for his 5th FG attempt of the day, and he'd make this one count.
Danelo came on and this time drilled the 35 yard FG right down the middle and was carried off the field by his teammates. The Giants and their fans celebrated a huge victory over their rival Cowboys, 13-10 in OT. The Giants would go to bed that night with a 9-7 record and wait to see what would happen the next day to know what their playoff fate would be.
Post Mortem/Interesting Tidbits
- As it would turn out, the Giants did get that fairy tale that they were hoping for. The Jets destroyed the Packers the next day, 28-3 and the game was never in doubt. The Giants would make the most of their new playoff pedigree, going into Philly and jumping all over the defending NFC Champs in the Wild Card taking a 20-0 first quarter lead and winning the game 27-21. They would lose to the Niners in the divisional round, after holding their own to a 7-7 first quarter tie, the Niners would pull away in the 2nd quarter and eventually beat the Giants 38-24.
- Which set up the Niners own showdown with Dallas. The Cowboys easily crushed the Bucs 38-0 in the divisional round and headed to San Francisco in the NFC Championship game. In what was a textbook changing of the guard moment, the old dynasty of Dallas was facing the up and coming new power on the block in the Bill Walsh/Joe Montana 49ers. The 49ers won 28-27, highlighted by the immortal "Catch" when Montana hit Dwight Clark over Everson Walls on 3rd and 3 with :51 seconds to play. The Niners would go on to win the game and beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.
- For as bad as the Giants were, this win was actually their second straight over the Cowboys at Giants Stadium. In 1980, they beat the Cowboys 38-35 in a game in which the 1-8 Giants faced the 7-2 Cowboys. George Martin caught a TD pass from Phil Simms in this game.
- Speaking of George Martin, he had a huge game, with 2 sacks and the big fumble recovery, not to mention a number of QB pressures. However, the NFL didn't recognized the QB sack as an individual statistic until 1982, so his sacks in this game didn't "count" towards his career total.
- Scott Brunner would face the Cowboys 4 times over the course of his career. This game was the only one he would win.
- Brunner's 23 yard run would be the longest of his career. In fact, he never totaled more than 17 yards in a game running the ball, let alone on a single carry.
- Bryon Hunt's INT was the first of his career. He would only have one more interception in his 8 year career, a pick against the Redskins in a loss at Washington in 1984.
- Rob Carpenter's 29 carries would be his career high. The next highest total carries in a game was 28, which he did twice in 1983 (@ Atlanta and home vs. Green Bay)
- Tom Mullady's TD catch would be his only one in the regular season. He would follow that up with another TD catch the next week in the playoff victory at Philly.
- Tony Dorsett had a brutal game, 20 carries for 39 yards and 2 critical fumbles lost. The 1.95 yards per carry would be the 5th lowest of his career in a single game with at least 10 carries. His lowest overall in his career came in 1987, also vs. the Giants when he carried 14 times for 3 yards (0.21 ypc). For good measure, his 4th worst of his career also came vs. the Giants in 1980, when he had 15 carries for 26 yards (1.73 ypc). To give the Hall of Famer some credit, all his games weren't duds vs. the Giants. He did run for 183 yards in their other matchup of 1980, good for the second highest total of his career (bested only by 206 vs. Philly in 1977)
- This would be the Giants 3rd OT game of 1981. The previously won in Atlanta in Week 8 on a Danelo 40 yarder. They would lose at home to the Redskins in Week 11.
- Danelo's game winning FG would be his final game winning OT kick for the Giants. He'd kick one more season with them and in 1983 moved on to kick for Buffalo, where he did kick one OT game winner, to beat the Dolphins and rookie Dan Marino in the Orange Bowl.
- This was Dallas' only OT game for them in 1981. They wouldn't face the Giants again in an OT game until the famed 1993 showdown between the 11-4 Giants and the 11-4 Cowboys, with the NFC East and home field advantage on the line. Emmitt Smith, playing with an injured shoulder, ran for 168 yards on 32 carries (had another 61 receiving) and helped beat the Giants 16-13 on an Eddie Murray 41 yard FG. I was at that 1993 game and I can say that Emmitt's effort was the best performance by an opponent that I had personally watched against the Giants since I have been going to games in 1987.
- Since that 1993 game, the Giants would face the Cowboys twice more in OT in Giants Stadium, in 2001 (Giants won) and 2003 (Cowboys won, thanks mainly to a brutal Matt Bryant kickoff out of bounds allowing the Parcells' led Dallas team to tie the game at the end of regulation). It wasn't until 2005 that they would actually play an OT game in Dallas, which the Cowboys won 16-13 on a Jose Cortez 45 yard FG.
- There was an eerily similar set up in 1994, which matched closely to this 1981 game. The 1994 season finale was the 12-3 Cowboys vs. the 8-7 Giants. The Cowboys had clinched the NFC East and were locked in as the #2 seed behind the 49ers, thanks mainly to a head to head win during the season by the Niners. The Giants had gotten hot late in 1994 and were in the mix for a playoff berth if they had beaten the Cowboys and gotten help from another team who needed to beat the Packers in order to get the Giants into the playoffs. And like in 1981, it was a low scoring game, which was tied at 10-10 at one point. The Jimmy Johnson lead Cowboys, unlike the Landry group, decided to rest Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, also pulled Troy Aikman after the half. A Rodney Peete fumble out of the end zone for a safety and a Daluiso FG helped steer the Giants to a 15-10 win. Unfortunately for the Giants though, they didn't get help from the Packers' opponent, as the Sam Wyche Tampa Bay Bucs, playing for nothing but pride at home, fell behind 14-0 early and lost 34-19.
- And thanks go out to Giants fan sgm3332 who was able to get me a copy of this game to review. He's got a a great channel on Youtube with a number of Giants highlights. Feel free to check it out: http://www.youtube.com/user/sgm3332