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Bill Parcells kept saying the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park was a long time ago, his New York Giants against the two-time defending champion San Francisco 49ers, and the more Parcells said it the more the memories came back to him in an all-out blitz.
Suddenly he was describing a play on the phone Monday, Ottis Anderson heading for the right sideline on that January day in 1991, and Anderson's coach sounded like he was describing something he'd just seen five minutes earlier.
"I saw Ottis stiff-arm Ronnie Lott five yards downfield," Parcells said, "and understand that I've always thought of Ronnie Lott as one of the greatest players in NFL history. And here I'm watching Ottis knock Lott flat with that stiff-arm. I had to say to myself, 'You know, we are really trying to win this game.'"
|On Jan. 20, 1991, Bill Parcells and the Giants ended the 49ers' quest for a three-peat.|
Parcells was only seven days away from winning his second Super Bowl title in another upset, and yet he might've been watching his signature triumph as a head coach. The Niners were 14-2 in the regular season, an apparent death-and-taxes lock to make history as the NFL's first three-peat Super Bowl winner, and to do it with the incomparable Joe Montana and the incomparable Jerry Rice.
Montana and Rice on one side, Lawrence Taylor on the other, maybe three of the five greatest players pro football has ever seen. "Some great athletes were playing in that game," Parcells said. "Montana, Rice, Roger Craig, Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley. Great players, Hall of Fame players."
The Niners were so good, Steve Young was their idea of a backup. "But we had a couple of pretty good guys ourselves," Parcells said.
Yes, there were reasons why years later the longtime ref, Jerry Markbreit, would tell the old Giants coach, "I've refereed 467 games, and that was the greatest game I've ever officiated."
Parcells was on the phone a day after watching his former assistant, Tom Coughlin, lead the Giants to a stunning victory over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field and back to another NFC title game at Candlestick Park. Coughlin was by Parcells' side in San Francisco 21 years ago, and the Giants' wide receivers coach then pulled off a similar upset Sunday of a seemingly immovable defending champ.
"It was like watching the first 'Rocky' movie," Parcells said of Giants 37, Packers 20, "where Apollo Creed gets knocked down early and his corner man says, 'You see that SOB over there, he doesn't know it's a show; he thinks it's a fight.'
"I don't want to say anything bad about Green Bay, and I'm prejudiced of course. But it's quite apparent the Giants knew it was a fight and not a show, and maybe Green Bay didn't know it was a fight like the Giants did. It's human nature. They were 15-1 and cruising along."
In the winter of '91, the Niners were cruising along, too.
"We'd lost our quarterback," Parcells said of the injured Phil Simms, "and the big question mark centered around Jeff Hostetler. No one had ever gone to a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback. We were such an underdog, and everything was about them three-peating, and I wanted my players to know that I had confidence in them, which I did."
Parcells didn't play any "Rocky" music at practice, but he pushed a couple of human buttons to inspire his own band of longshots.
"I told the press that Jeff Hostetler is not going to be the reason we lose," Parcells said, "Jeff later told me he read it and that it was very important to him that I believed in him. And with the Super Bowl only one week after the game in San Francisco that year, I told my players, 'You can either pack for two days, or pack for 10. I'm packing for 10.'"
Some Giants later told Parcells he'd hit the right note there, too.
It turned out to be a vicious game. Leonard Marshall knocked out Montana in the fourth, just as Jim Burt had knocked him out four years earlier, and Roger Craig fumbled in the final minutes when the ball he was carrying was struck by Erik Howard's helmet, making Howard's the most significant Giants helmet in their pre-Tyree days.
Craig's fumble landed in LT's hands, and soon enough Giants kicker Matt Bahr was attempting to go 5-for-5 and send his team to Tampa, from 42 yards out. Bahr had been cut from the Cleveland Browns, and signed by the Giants in September only because Raul Allegre had gotten hurt.
But Bahr was the brother of a Super Bowl champion kicker, Chris, and the son of an American soccer legend, Walter, the captain of the 1950 U.S. team that defeated England in the World Cup for a Lake Placid moment 30 years before Lake Placid.
"Matt Bahr was rock solid," Parcells said. "He never practiced a kick unless he was in full uniform with his chin strap on. I've had a lot of very good field-goal kickers in my career, but for just one kick, Matt Bahr, that's my guy right there."
As his guy lined up on the final play of the game, and as some of his Giants knelt in prayer, Parcells fretted over San Francisco's rush. "They had a very good scheme," he said. "If we didn't have perfect timing, they would've blocked it."
The Giants had perfect timing. Bahr put the ball inside the left upright, and a beaming Parcells jumped into the arms of his defensive coordinator, Bill Belichick, before racing onto the field.
The moment he realized his Giants had just toppled a dynasty, Parcells said, "is a moment I can't really put into words. It's euphoric. It's why you do this for a living. It's why you tolerate all the other things that aren't so good.
"When you get a moment like that, it bonds the people you shared it with forever."
Parcells and every other Giant who had packed for 10 days boarded their plane and headed straight for Tampa, Fla., and a date with another unbeatable foe, the Buffalo Bills. At 30,000 feet, the coaches and players drank beer, played loud music and savored the time of their lives.
"This night is yours," Parcells told his team on that flight.
"And everyone who was there will tell you the same thing," Parcells said Monday. "Without question that was the greatest plane ride we ever had. I'm sure Coach Coughlin remembers it."
Coach Coughlin also remembers the party after Scott Norwood went wide right in Tampa. The wide receivers coach was practically in a trance, muttering "world [bleeping] champs" over and over, and Parcells made sure that expression was stitched into Coughlin's souvenir Super Bowl blanket, much to Judy Coughlin's dismay.
Those Giants had lost in San Francisco during the regular season, just like these 2011 Giants did. Parcells sees similarities in the physicality and toughness of his team and this one. And sure, he'll be pulling hard for the visiting side Sunday.
In his mind, despite his time coaching and GM-ing here and there and everywhere, Parcells is a Giant, and he'll go into the Hall of Fame as a Giant.
"Of course," he said. "It's a transient business, but I grew up a couple of miles from Giants Stadium. In my heart I'm a Giant, and maybe in Tom Coughlin's heart he's a Giant, too.
"Our styles and philosophies and appreciation for physical football are very compatible, but I would never say he's doing it the Bill Parcells way.
"He's doing it the Tom Coughlin way, and that's been plenty good enough."
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.