Miracle at New Meadowlands still stings
Giants look back on the DeSean Jackson punt return that ruined their 2010 season
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They say they have seen it. They say they've overcome it. And they say they've moved on from it.
But deep down they know they are a part of history. A part of history that has been well-documented and will be scrutinized, dissected and second-guessed for years to come.
Deep down they know it hurts, stings and eats at them.
Because even though the Miracle at The New Meadowlands didn't take just 14 seconds, it's those final 14 seconds that will live in New York Giants' infamy -- and stay with the 11 players on the field at the time -- forever.
Matt Dodge will always be the goat on DeSean Jackson's electrifying 65-yard punt return for a touchdown with no time remaining that gave the Philadelphia Eagles a stunning 38-31 come-from-behind victory on Dec. 19, 2010.
After all, the rookie had specific instructions from head coach Tom Coughlin to punt the ball out of bounds.
But to the disbelief of everyone -- from Coughlin to Eagles head coach Andy Reid to Jackson to any of the 81,223 witnesses inside the stadium that Sunday afternoon -- Dodge didn't.
A bad snap, a shanked punt, a muffed catch, several missed tackles, an open seam and 14 seconds later, Jackson was waltzing his way into the end zone and Dodge was receiving a tongue-lashing from an irate Coughlin.
While one franchise was erupting into euphoric celebration, another one was reeling, stunned, feeling like it had just been hit by a million bricks.
And that season, it never recovered.
"You see it all over the place. It sucks, pardon my expression," said sixth-year special teams coach Tom Quinn, who called those 14 seconds the worst of his coaching career, which began in 1991 when he was the linebackers coach at Davidson.
"You feel like you let the team down. I let the organization down. I let everyone down. You take it hard and it sticks with you and you try to get better."
A little more than nine months later, only five of the 11 players on the field for Jackson's touchdown remain on the Giants' roster.
Dodge lost a training camp competition with Steve Weatherford and was cut. He worked out with the New England Patriots but is still without an NFL job. Brian Jackson was cut by the team two weeks ago, while Phillip Dillard and Duke Calhoun were among the final casualties at the end of camp. Chase Blackburn and Gerris Wilkinson weren't brought back after the Giants failed to qualify for the playoffs last season despite a 10-6 record.
ESPN New York decided to interview four of the five remaining players -- Jonathan Goff, currently on injured reserve after suffering a season-ending injury, wasn't available -- and get their take on the play that for many of them has, like it or not, defined their careers.
DeOssie was the last line of defense, the one player separating DeSean Jackson from pay dirt.
His team's last hope.
After getting off a dismal high snap -- which Dodge had to reach for right before he was about to punt -- DeOssie started down the field to perform his assignment of middle coverage, but had to veer off his path after he saw the vaunted Eagles return man zooming up the right sideline.
DeOssie got in position to make the tackle at the New York 46-yard line. And then ...
Avant delivered a bone-crunching blind-side block on DeOssie, The violent collision sent both players falling to the turf as Jackson continued on his path to victory. In fact, Avant hit DeOssie so hard the Eagles wide receiver ended up suffering a concussion on the play.
"I knew I was the last hope," DeOssie said. "And no, I never saw him coming. I was going left. All I saw was DeSean Jackson on the sideline."
DeOssie could only turn after being drilled and watch with the game's imminent outcome.
"I can only assume it was the same feeling a cornerback gets when a receiver catches a touchdown," DeOssie deadpanned.
Despite seeing the play a myriad times, DeOssie said he's moved past it.
"Yeah, you're right. The play has been all over. It's one of the biggest plays in the history off football," DeOssie said. "There's nothing I can do about it.
"It's not the best feeling in the world, but [expletive] happens, you know?
"I've seen it. I've seen it a lot. I've seen it all week when we've watched it on film to analyze it. You always hear about it. But again, we've moved past it, those things happen, and that's it."
To this day, Deon Grant maintains he would've tackled Jackson -- that is, if he wasn't blocked in the back ... by his own man.
Grant, the up man, thought he was going to bring down Jackson at the Philadelphia 31-yard line. But as he was about to dive and make the play, Grant got hit in the back by Dillard -- the result of a domino effect -- changed course and missed Jackson, who eventually took it to the house after the seam opened.
Seconds before, Eagles linebacker Omar Gaither delivered a blow to Wilkinson nine yards up field. Wilkinson then collided with Dillard, who collided with Grant back at the 31.
"I got knocked out of my shoes," Grant, now in his 12th year in the NFL, said. "Somebody hit me in the back. Somebody hit my own man, and my own man went flying. I would've made the tackle on DeSean. He cut right beside me."
Grant said the play kills him because he knows he would've made it had he not been blocked in the back by Dillard.
"It killed me. It killed me because I had the play made. And as soon as I was about to make the tackle, I got hit."
Grant said he's perfectly fine watching the play.
"You can watch that and live and keep it moving," he said.
Give Danny Ware credit. He never gave up on the play.
Ware chased after Jackson all the way until he reached the end zone. He even got to watch the flamboyant Eagle do a little showboating -- or, in his words, just waiting until the scoreboard clock read 0:00 before he crossed the goal line.
Ware was lined up as the right wing on the play. He was running downfield after the ball was kicked and trying to "get the width of the kick."
"When I got the width I saw him drop the ball, so I figured, oh we're about to tackle him right here," Ware said. "And next thing you know he stepped back and came through and, umm, he's cutting across the field.
"So I'm coming from the other side of the field. It's just a wild thing."
Ware appeared to have Jackson in his sights after the hole opened up at the Philadelphia 35-yard line, but he turned on the jets at the 40, gained separation and was gone.
Ware chased him as Dodge's feeble diving tackle attempt at the 45 went for naught, and jumped over DeOssie after he was crushed by Avant nine yards later. But Ware wasn't going to catch Jackson. Not this time.
Asked if the punt coverage unit lost lane integrity after Jackson muffed the low line-drive punt at the 35, and was therefore out of position when he quickly scooped it up and retreated three yards before he started proceeding forward, Ware replied:
"I don't think so. I think we kind of out-kicked the coverage at the time and we weren't down there by the time he caught the ball and dropped it. So he had plenty of time to pick it up, make a move and do whatever he had to do before he even started the return, so it was just a bad play. We should've fixed it. We should've had it taken care of [it]. But we didn't. It's over with now."
Despite all the criticism Dodge received, Ware said it's unfair for pundits and fans to place the team's collapse -- the Giants were ahead 31-10 with 8:17 remaining in the fourth quarter -- squarely on the rookie punter's shoulders.
"We're still a team. We're still a unit out there," Ware said. "It's our job to make him right when he's wrong. And we didn't, so the whole team looked bad on that. It wasn't just Dodge."
Bear Pascoe was on a collision course with Jackson, a course that would allow Pascoe to bring Jackson down.
But then, in a flash, he wasn't.
Pascoe went straight, but Jackson juked to Pascoe's left at the Philadelphia 38-yard line.
Pascoe had absolutely no chance. Zero. Jackson was too shifty, too quick, too fast.
You know when a batter swings at a 98-mph fastball after it hits the catcher's glove? That's what it looked like watching Pascoe diving to tackle Jackson after he'd already passed him.
"My first assignment was to protect Dodge, let him get the punt off," Pascoe said. "And then, if it landed inbounds, go down and get [Jackson] tackled.
"I was playing wing, so I had the fold and fill," Pascoe said. "I had a chance to fill and get him down, but I missed him. I kinda got rocked back on my heels a bit and just couldn't make it happen."
Asked if Dodge punting the ball inbounds instead of out-of-bounds threw off the punt coverage unit, Pascoe replied:
"No. It didn't throw us off. But I don't think it was something [Dodge] did on purpose. Why would he? I just think it was a mishit. It came off his foot wrong, and ended up landing inbounds [the punt traveled just 36 yards]. Sean dropped it. He muffed it. We had a chance to bring him down."
What about the fumble? Any impact?
"I don't know if it had much of an impact at all," Pascoe replied. "He was on it. It wasn't like he muffed it and fumbled it for a minute. He muffed it, picked it up and went."
Pascoe said the play still stings.
"It was tough. It was tough. Coaches talk about that 'gut-wrenching play or feeling,' that's what this is right there," Pascoe said. "You have a chance to get a guy down and give yourself a chance for overtime, and you let it slip away.
"It definitely sits there. It stays with you for a while, but in this league you've gotta have a short memory."
Did he know that only five players remain on the Giants roster from the 11 that took part in that play?
"I had no idea," Pascoe said. "But that's part of the league. That's part of the business."
For more than half of the members of the infamous 11, a cruel one at that.
But for the remaining five -- including the four that will play on Sunday in Phiadelphia when the two teams rekindle their NFC East rivalry -- the Miracle at the New Meadowlands fuels their fire, and reminds them just how much can be lost or gained a single play.
Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.