This game was another example of Giants linebackers coming up with big plays that led to victory. New York has been blessed with some of the very best sets of linebackers ever to play professional football, right from the start of the 4-3 defense that Tom Landry implemented in New York in 1956. That first linebacker group included Hall of Famer Sam Huff in the middle, flanked by All-Pros HarLand Svare and Bill Svoboda. Svare would give way to Tom Scott and Svoboda would be replaced by Cliff Livingston and then Bill Winter, but for eight seasons, Giants linebackers defined excellence.
In 1976, New York assembled another great threesome when Hall of Famer Harry Carson was converted to middle linebacker in his rookie season. He was surrounded by fourth-year veterans Brad Van Pelt and Brian Kelley. Van Pelt was a five-time All-Pro, while Kelley was an 11-year starter and the defense’s signal caller. The team was terrible, but the Linebacking was as good as anywhere in the league.
When Ray Perkins became coach in 1979, he saw the strength at the linebacker position and instituted the 3-4 defense. The transition was complete in 1981, with Bill Parcells coaching the linebackers and Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor joining the team. With Taylor on the outside, Kelley moved to the inside where he was better suited. Parcells, as head coach in 1984, wanted more youth and speed, so he replaced aging veterans Van Pelt and Kelley with Byron Hunt and Gary Reasons. Linebackers coach Bill Belichick took the 3-4 base and introduced a heady mix of variations that called for linebackers quick both of foot and of mind. As Banks once told The New York Times, “One thing we do is be around the ball. That’s demanded of us.”
The inconsistent Hunt was beaten out by ALL-Pro CarL Banks two years Later. Three years after that, ALL-Pro Pepper Johnson repLaced the retiring Harry Carson, with Reasons taking over as signaL caLLer. The Linebacking during this goLden era was so good that backups such as Hunt, Andy Headen, Johnie Cooks, and Steve DeOssie wouLd have started on many teams throughout the NFL.
Consistent across aLL eras, though, was the aggressive intensity of Giants Linebackers, best expressed by Lawrence TayLor on the sideLine during one game: “Let’s go out there Like a bunch of crazed dogs.”
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Byron Hunt picked off a Danny White pass to set up Joe Danelo’s game-winning field goal in 1981.
I was just out freelancing. I saw that White was off balance to his left, and I was covering the pass to the right, so I decided he couldn’t ever pass to my side. So I rolled to the middle. White threw, I’m not sure who he was trying to hit, but he didn’t see me. I broke on the ball. It was right to me.
Dallas 45-yard line. After converting a fourth-and-13 on a 21-yard pass to John Mistier, New York was in position for a field goal, and Danelo tied the game with a 40-yarder with 30 seconds to play in regulation.
On Dallas’s first possession in the overtime period, Dorsett bobbled another pitchout. Lawrence Taylor engulfed him and came away with the football at the Dallas 40. Brunner ran a bootleg on an audible and got all the way to the 17, but Danelo bounced another kick off the upright on his 33-yard try into the wind. Two plays later came the play of the game. On second down, Lawrence Taylor blitzed Danny White and forced him to scramble. White unwisely unloaded a weak pass toward Butch Johnson, but Hunt glided over, snagged the interception at the 31, and returned it to the 24. Three plays later, at 6:19 of the overtime period, Danelo knocked one straight and true from 35 yards out to give the Giants the 13-10 victory. Coach Perkins was so excited that he helped carry his kicker off the field.
The Giants had their winning season. The next day at the Meadowlands, the Jets beat the Packers, sending the Giants to the postseason for the first time since 1963. New York upset the defending NFC champion Eagles the next week on the road, but ran into the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers in the divisional round and were overmatched. There was still a lot of building to be done, but the 1981 Giants proved they were on the way back at last.
Lawrence Taylor and Pepper Johnson were at the center of some of the best linebacking corps in NFL history.