The 49 Steps
Published in

The 49 Steps

When The Tuna Returned (Again) and Faced Big Blue

Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants, Week 2, September 15, 2003 (MNF)

Parcells’ first big test was on his old stomping ground against the team with whom he enjoyed his greatest successes. The New York Giants won two Super Bowls on the Tuna’s watch, but had been back to the big game just once since Parcells left following the 1990 season.

Big Blue spent most of the next decade-plus being usurped by the Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. That was until the Cowboys hit the skids at the start of the 2000s.

Both franchises were in rebuilding mode when Monday Night Football came to the (old) Meadowlands in Week 2 of the ’03 season. What followed was a seesaw NFC East tussle featuring opportunistic defense, a duel between erratic quarterbacks and some pretty nifty coaching at various times.

The game also took in one of the most unlikely and exciting finishes in the history of this series.

Game In Context

It was supposed to be a Super Bowl year for Gang Green, but Vinny Testaverde’s season-ending injury against the New England Patriots in Week 1 put paid to those hopes. Parcells squeezed a .500 finish with Ray Lucas at quarterback, but then he was done. Definitely. Unequivocally. For real this time.

Of course it didn’t last. Maybe partly because of the Bill Belichick-centric fiasco that followed Parcells’ initial departure. “Little Bill” took his contractually obligated place as Parcells’ immediate successor, only to flip-flop and bolt for the Pats where Belichick formed an unholy alliance with the Tuna’s nemesis, Robert Kraft.

Parcells spent one year playing general manager and oversaw a bountiful draft for the Jets that yielded John Abraham, Shaun Ellis, Chad Pennington and Laveranues Coles. Life in the front office didn’t agree with the Tuna, though, and he stepped away after the 2000 season and into a full-scale exile from Pro Football.

Then a funny thing happened. Jerry Jones came calling.

The bombastic owner who fancied himself a King-maker but couldn't share the credit with Jimmy Johnson in the '90s, had grown weary of his reputation as a meddler. So Jones decided to hand the reins to a coach who would brook no interference.

Enter Parcells, who arrived in the Lone Star State to form one of the more unlikely marriages of head coach and owner in league history. Few, if any, believed Parcells and Jones would stay in lockstep for long.

The immediate concern for Parcells wasn't co-existing with the owner. It was how to retool a roster of never-beens that had finished 5-11 in each of the previous three seasons.

Just as he did at other stops, Parcells reunited with some familiar faces. They included wide receiver Terry Glenn and fullback Richie Anderson.

Parcells also engaged in a typical purge of big names who no longer fit what he wanted. There was none bigger than Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time rushing leader who was jettisoned to the Arizona Cardinals.

If Parcells faced a mammoth task getting the Cowboys back on track, Jim Fassel had as much to do just to keep the Giants competitive. Fassel actually got his coaching break in the pros thanks to Parcells, who hired him as quarterbacks coach in 1991, shortly before the Tuna walked away from Big Blue.

Stints as an offensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos and Cardinals followed before Fassel returned to the Giants in 1997. He quickly won Coach of the Year accolades after guiding the G-Men from 6-10 to 10-5-1 and a division title.

Two non-playoff years followed and Fassel was at a crossroads midway through the 2000 season, until he made this famous guarantee:

The Giants made good on Fassel's boast thanks to an awesome defense led by Michael Strahan, Cornelius Griffin, Jessie Armstead and Jason Sehorn. Big Blue advanced to Super Bowl XXXV where they were hammered by the Baltimore Ravens and an even better defense.

Not deterred, Fassel had the Giants back in the playoffs two years later, this time on the strength of a high-powered offense led by Kerry Collins (yes, really), Tiki Barber, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey. This playoff run ended after just one game, but it was no less memorable than that of 2000.

Sadly, the memories concerned an epic collapse from a 38-14 lead over the San Francisco 49ers with less than 20 minutes remaining. The Niners rallied to win 39-38 and irreparably damage Fassel's team.

No damage was obvious when the Giants beat the St. Louis Rams 23-13 to begin the '03 season. Ironically, the Cowboys blew a lead of their own by allowing 17 third-quarter points during a 27-13 defeat at home to the Atlanta Falcons.

All the omens appeared to favour the Giants when they welcomed the Tuna back to East Rutherford under the full glare of Monday Night Football.

1st Quarter

Rookies Beaten, Hall of Fame Oversight and a Pick-Six

A swift return underlined how the division lifer never lost his knack for being productive in multiple phases of the game. Mitchell's a should-be Hall of Famer, and the longer Canton keeps him outside the building, the less credibility the voters have.

The Giants had decent field position, but the Cowboys' defense held sway early. It started with a dominant run stuff from tackle Willie Blades.

One of Parcells many finds from the nether regions of the league's talent pool, 6'3″, 315-pound Blades was one of the few allowances Parcells made for his bigger is better philosophy on defense. Most of the other members of the Cowboys' unit were lightweight speedsters, a strategic holdover from the Johnson era.

It didn't matter when Greg Ellis got in to sack Collins and force a punt. The Giants quickly answered in kind after a three-and-out from the Cowboys, and things were looking up for Collins when Toby Gowin shanked the punt to give the hosts the ball at their own 41.

Taking advantage of the advantageous starting spot wasn't easy when Collins was playing behind a makeshift offensive line populated by rookies:

ABC/NFL

As Al Michaels pointed out during the ABC broadcast, it had been over two decades since a team had started three first-year blockers in the trenches. By a quirk of fate, that team also plied its trade in the East:

ABC/NFL

These young Giants were never going to be the Hogs, but David Diehl did at least make the grade. He went from a fifth-rounder playing guard to starting left tackle when the Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowls 42 and 46.

That's how Diehl's career played out, but it started with him and the rest of a threadbare front being mauled by the Cowboys. Ebenezer Ekuban was the next to get his arms around Collins.

While the Giants' signal-caller was having a tough time, Parcells had pinned the Cowboys' hopes on the shoulders of Quincy Carter. He was an intriguing natural athlete the Cowboys felt worthy of a second-round pick, their top choice, in 2001.

Carter started just seven games in each of his first two seasons, but Parcells still chose him ahead of Chad Hutchinson and undrafted Tony Romo. The decision looked ill-advised when Carter threw a pick-six to nickelback Ralph Brown for the game's first points. Brown was sitting in zone, but Carter expected man coverage.

Cowboys 0-7 Giants

Good Quincy Emerges

Smith, a sixth-round pick in 2003, was yet another of example of Parcells finding hidden value to contribute on special teams. He had '97 fourth-rounder Leon Johnson with the Jets and undrafted Phil McConkey with the Giants.

In between, Parcells used an eighth-round pick in 1993 to put Troy Brown onto his first Patriots roster. Brown had graduated from return man to lead receiver for the Pats and Belichick by 2001, having taken the place of Terry Glenn.

Parcells famously balked at drafting Glenn in the first round in 1996, only to be overruled by Kraft and his handpicked personnel minion Bobby Grier. The coach let his ire show when he dubbed the rookie wideout "she" during that year's training camp:

Ironically, Glenn became a Parcells favourite and a highly-productive player. The Tuna brought him to Dallas after the Patriots and Green Bay Packers had given up on the mercurial pass-catcher.

Glenn started repaying the faith by snaring a quick strike from Carter on the Cowboys' next drive. Parcells was using three-wide receiver sets as his base offense after promising Michaels and John Madden "something different."

The ploy not only put the talented trio of Glenn, Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant at Carter's disposal. It also spread out the Giants' defense for the run, something Troy Hambrick took advantage of for a nice gain behind a punishing block by backup tight end Dan Campbell playing H-Back.

A smart mix of run and pass let the Cowboys roll into the red zone, where Carter finished things off by running in from eight yards. Just another example of the athletic prowess that temporarily made Parcells a believer.

Cowboys 7-7 Giants

Tiki Coughs It Up

Regardless of the coach's complaints, the '03 Cowboys boasted considerable talent at linebacker thanks to Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen. Parcells added Al Singelton from the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the latter blitzed to thump Barber, before Coakley rushed and forced Collins to throw incomplete.

The Cowboys' all-out attack soon yielded a turnover when Ellis stripped the ball from Barber. Ball security was a career problem for the otherwise gifted running back, until Tom Coughlin, a coach Tiki didn't even like, came to town.

Coughlin, a Parcells acolyte, added discipline to Barber's game and solved the fumbling problem by preaching technique, according to Dave Anderson of The New York Times:

More often than not in past seasons, Barber's extended arms enabled tacklers to knock the ball from his grasp. But as soon as Coughlin arrived early this year as the Giants' coach, he ordered Barber to hold a football across his chest.Even before the minicamps began, Barber had to walk around holding a football that way.Over the years, other coaches have had fumblers hold a football as they walked to meals at training camp, even hold a football as they slept. Anything to make a fumbler more aware of holding on to it.But in Barber's case, every so often as he walked around the Giants' locker room with a football across his chest, an assistant coach would sneak up and try to slap the ball away.Sometimes they succeeded. Mostly, they didn't.

This was pre-Coughlin, so Barber's sloppy technique gave Carter the chance to take the lead.

2nd Quarter

The overthrow wasted a slick design that had Anderson as a wing and Carter run a bootleg pass off of play action. Hesitation led to the QB missing Witten, something symptomatic of Parcells' main problem during his tenure with the Cowboys: not enough talent and consistency at football's most important position.

Cowboys 10-7 Giants

Shockey Eats His Words

Hilliard would enjoy a big night, but he wasn't the intended target on the next 3rd-and-long. Collins went to Shockey instead, but the divisive tight end couldn't complete the catch when he was belted by safety Tony Dixon.

The hit damn near de-cleated Shockey and served as a measure of revenge of sorts after the player never short of an obnoxious remark called Parcells " a homo " in a magazine article that offseason: "Let's see how much Parcells wins this year. I'll make him pay when we play them. The homo."

What a charmer.

Hambrick was the next to take a wallop, this one on 2nd-and-6, in a game that had a fair bit of hittin' going on! Even rewatching this 19 years later, I was surprised by the intensity and physicality from both teams.

The jarring hit on Hambrick didn't prevent him from moving the sticks, but the gain was wiped out by a holding penalty on tackle Flozell Adams. Unlike Barber, Adams would never shed his career-long bad habit. He retired as one of the game's true penalty kings.

Adams' latest infraction didn't prevent the Cowboys adding to their lead via a 49-yard field goal from Cundiff.

Cowboys 13-7 Giants

"Small" Linebackers Come Up Big

It was a good start to a crucial drive for the home team, but the Dallas defense soon made a splash play thanks to a rookie and some of those linebackers Parcells deemed too small. His first draft pick with the Cowboys fetched cornerback Terence Newman, who dislodged the ball from Tim Carter to force another Giants punt.

Newman was a classic Parcells pick, an unheralded player from Kansas State, who became a solid and skilled pro and performed at a high level for years. The fifth player taken in '03 also went on to play for the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings before calling time on his career after the 2017 season.

There was no avoiding Newman on the Giants' next drive when the DB pounced and almost snatched a pick-six of his own. Collins didn't heed the warning and saw his next pass intercepted by Singleton, who returned it 41 yards for a TD.

The Cowboys had rushed three and dropped eight, playing a 3-3-5 defense, with Singleton and Coakley bailing to cover the hook zones, while Nguyen stayed over the top of Shockey. Nguyen's presence forced Collins to throw underneath, but the QB had Ellis, who enjoyed a monster half, in his face as he released the ball.

Cowboys 20-7 Giants

Toomer the Record-Breaker

Collins finally snapped his miserable streak when the coverage broke on 3rd-and-10, leaving Toomer behind the Cowboys' two-deep structure. Newman's fellow corner Mario Edwards bumped Toomer and released his post route deep to safety Roy Williams, who inexplicably played the slant underneath.

Toomer broke to the corner and adjusted brilliantly to make a diving catch of an awful pass from Collins. It was worth the effort on two levels, because Toomer's grab not only put the ball at the Dallas 33, it also helped him break a franchise record long held by Giants royalty Frank Gifford:

ABC/NFL

Setting the new mark was a remarkable achievement for Toomer, who spent his first season in the pros as a dynamic punt returner. Fassel's arrival elevated the 1996 second-round pick's role in the offense, but it wasn't until '99 that he became a go-to receiver.

The fact it only took four-and-a-bit seasons for Toomer to surpass Gifford's marks was a testament not only to his talent, but also to Fassel's underrated expertise as a play-caller.

Fassel couldn't do much about Collins missing his next two throws. Those errors were compounded by a holding call against Diehl. It was a classic rookie mistake, holding on a screen pass. Why hold on a play where you're inviting the rush and want to get blockers into space? Madness.

The flag left the Giants facing 3rd-and-20, a bad situation made worse when Newman picked off Collins' next wayward pass. Dallas blitzed cornerback Pete Hunter and Nguyen, while the end on that side of the field bailed underneath. There was combo coverage behind the pressure, with Newman sitting in zone, while Coakley locked up Shockey in man.

Parcells made sure not to waste the takeaway, turning to Hambrick. Smith's heir apparent ran well behind a beefy Cowboys O-line that was beating up the Giants' defensive front. Predictably, Larry Allen was leading the charge and he pushed end Kenny Holmes back a good eight yards, a drive block that still pops when seen through today's eyes.

Allen had a point to prove after Parcells had needled the perennial All-Pro and Pro-Bowl behemoth. The Tuna dubbed Allen "Secretariat" amid clashes over how Allen should train during the offseason programs, with ESPN's Jean-Jacques Taylor describing both sides of the argument:

Allen was Superman strong, once bench-pressing 700 pounds. Disbelievers can check it out on YouTube, where the video lives forever.Parcells, who had two Super Bowl victories with the Giants on his résumé, wanted Allen to train his way. Parcells wanted clean and jerks - not bench presses - because they're exercises that work the entire body while increasing strength and power. Parcells' teams had always used clean and jerks as the foundation of their offseason workouts.

Here's Larry raising 700 off the ground. Just because:

Allen was bossing the trenches on this Monday night, but that didn't stop Parcells from letting Carter put the ball in the air again. The QB wisely looked Glenn's way, completing two clutch connections off play action to move the ball to the Giants' 25.

Glenn found space because the Giants were still playing run inside the final two minutes of the half. It looked like a curious decision at a point in a game where you expect an offense to go into hurry-up mode and throw to score quickly.

In Fassel and D' coordinator Johnny Lynn's defence, the Cowboys didn't need to press things with a 13-point lead. It was reasonable to expect them to run to kill the clock. Either way, this is a tougher coaching debate than Michaels and Madden made it sound.

Ultimately, strategy didn't matter when Allen's holding penalty turned Cundiff's 43-yard attempt into a 53-yarder. He missed, but the Cowboys remained in a commanding position at the half.

3rd Quarter

Parcells' Eye for Talent Spots Another Gem

Carter showed he hadn't left his mojo in the locker room at halftime by hitting Bryant for 25 yards on 2nd-and-9. It's still surprising to look back now and see how loaded the Cowboys were at wide receiver with Bryant, Glenn and Galloway. Tough to remember any other rebuilding team having a trio of playmakers this dynamic.

What's more, Bryant and Co. weren't the only terrific pass-catchers at Carter's disposal. He next rolled out and found Witten for a big gain. Parcells always had a keen eye for talent at the tight end position and his instincts didn't fail him when he used a third-round pick to take Witten, who would go to eight Pro Bowls and be named All-Pro twice in a career worthy of enshrinement.

Witten joined Zeke Mowatt, Mark Bavaro and Ben Coates as tight ends who broke out and become stars on Parcells' watch. Carter would never reach the same status, largely because of mistakes like his costly fumble to stymie this drive. The Cowboys recovered but had to settle for another Cundiff kick, this one from 42 yards.

Cowboys 23-7 Giants

Hilliard Takes Over

Lining up at fullback became common for Mitchell in 2003. It was yet another example of a complete football player who delivered the goods on special teams, at running back, as a blocker and even playing quarterback. Just put him in the Hall already...

Fassel needed somebody else to match Mitchell's intensity, so he turned to the first player he drafted as Giants head coach. Hilliard never quite lived up to the billing as the seventh player drafted in 1997, despite obvious talent after the catch.

When Hilliard was good, he could be awfully good and he was on song early in the third period. Collins found Ike for a big catch and run over the middle, before Fassel crafted a little trickery.

It started with a handoff to Barber, who then handed to Hilliard on the reverse. The wideout pitched back to Collins, who heaved a deep ball to Toomer. All of that resulted in a pass interference penalty when Williams flat out tackled his man in the end zone.

Williams' gaffe set the stage for a play typical of Shockey's career. The gifted tight end dropped a sure touchdown. Shockey in a nutshell. All the talent in the world, not enough of the concentration.

Shockey's drop offered the Cowboys a reprieve they looked like taking when Nguyen wrapped up Barber for a loss. Collins wasn't about to be deterred, however, and he wisely went back to Hilliard for a five-yard score.

Fassel oddly declined to go for two when failing to convert would have had the same outcome as kicking the PAT. Making it a two-score game instead of one. Why not roll the dice on getting two?

Cowboys 23-14 Giants

Not wanting to be outdone by Hilliard, Glenn made a huge catch and run to get the Dallas offense rolling again. Further progress was helped by an utterly bogus PI call against Will Peterson, who was flagged against Bryant, despite the latter getting away with a clear push off.

There was some poetic justice when Carter squandered the good fortune by missing his next two throws from the 11. The Cowboys could at least rely on Cundiff, who made no mistake from 21 yards.

Cowboys 26-14 Giants

One of the reasons the Cowboys were moving so effectively was the absence of defensive tackle Keith Hamilton, who left the game with a pulled hamstring in the first half. Although Strahan deservedly got most of the plaudits, the Giants' defense was a different beast with the man called "The Hammer" on the field.

The Cowboys attacked the Hamilton-less void by running at his replacement, Holmes, who slid over from his end spot. Key passes from Carter to Glenn and Bryant, with the latter found on another rollout, also sustained a clock-eating march.

4th Quarter

Cowboys 29-14 Giants

Penalties Kill

Edwards was the next offender, committing pass interference against Tim Carter on 3rd-and-4 to gift the Giants another chain-mover. Collins wasn't about to reject the gift, and he hit Toomer twice to move the Giants to the goal-line. Fassel had begun to isolate his record-breaking receiver against rookie Newman.

Now it was Shockey's turn to make amends. He didn't disappoint when he snagged Collins' play-action pass with 9:54 on the clock.

Cowboys 29-21 Giants

What was strange about this rewatch was noticing how gassed the Cowboys defense appeared in the final period. You'd think lighter guys would have more energy to pursue sideline to sideline for 60 minutes. Perhaps those with slighter frames struggle to stand up to the impact of a game, while bigger players can absorb more punishment. That weakness may have been compounded by Parcells' notoriously physical and padded practices.

Whatever the reason, the Cowboys' inability to finish was showing up again after they'd allowed the Falcons to rattle off 20 second-half points a week earlier.

The flagging defense put the pressure on Carter to match Collins in a shootout. He looked primed to answer the call after hitting Bryant for 22 yards to the Dallas 41 on the next drive, but things quickly fell apart after linebacker Dhani Jones sacked Carter following a miscommunication between the QB and his split backs.

Collins took over at his own 36 and went straight to Hilliard for a six yards then 38. The next throw was travelled 20 yards into the end zone where Toomer made a juggling catch.

Cowboys 29-27 Giants

It'd been too long since the Cowboys' defense had been flagged, so Williams duly obliged with PI against Hilliard on the two-point attempt. Not satisfied with the ball moving to the one-yard line, Williams took another flag for interference while covering Shockey.

The back-to-back blunders perfectly personified the limitations in Williams' game. He was always a feared hitter, but as useful as a cat flap in an elephant house when it came to coverage.

There wasn't much use for a short-yardage, power back in the Giants' offense, but Fassel needed one from the half-yard line. Injured Ron Dayne missed the season, while Dorsey Levens was talented and versatile, but a "fullback" in name only.

Keeping it simple, Fassel called Barber's number and #21 went over with Mitchell leading the way to tie the game.

Cowboys 29-29 Giants

Carter suddenly needed to produce something special, but the Giants hit the blitz button to keep him under wraps. Micheal Barrow, one of the best free-agent signings of the Fassel era, teed off on Carter then Hambrick, before Will Allen decked Galloway to force a disastrous three-and-out for the Cowboys.

Things looked even worse when Mitchell returned the punt to the Giants' 40. It was gut-check time for the tiring Dallas defense with 4:33 remaining.

Fassel Dissects Parcells Favourite

It was basic stuff but also classic for a reason. The art of good defense is simply keeping the ball in front of you, something two-deep coverage does better than most. As an added bonus, it's easy to teach and lets players play fast without being slowed down by too much thinking.

That's not to say there aren't weaknesses in a Cover 2 defense, and Fassel began dissecting those sore spots at will late in this game.

He thought he'd drawn up a beaut' to Tim Carter, who had gotten behind the cornerback on a post-corner route. The concept let Collins throw deep to the outside against the two-deep shells.

Cornerbacks have to pass off vertical routes to the inside, so Carter was released when he ran the post, but his break to the corner put him outside the deep safety. The ploy worked over and over again during the final quarter, but this catch didn't stand even after the Giants challenged and lost a vital timeout in the process.

It was that time again for the Cowboys to help the Giants with a penalty, and La'Roi Glover promptly jumped offside. Collins took the reprieve and hit Toomer on another in-breaker on 3rd-and-5 to move the ball to the Dallas 39. Toomer was even better than Hilliard running the slant.

Unfortunately for Fassel, Collins wasn't anywhere near as precise when he missed his next two throws. The Cowboys had tightened up their Cover 2 against the second of those attempts, with Hunter knocking the ball away from Hilliard, who had run another post and was belted by Dixon playing safety over the top. Just how every Cover 2 connoisseur would draw it up.

The Giants didn't want to give the ball back to the Cowboys, but the sting was taken out of the disappointment when Jeff Feagles pinned Carter's offense at the Dallas 9 with 3:20 to play. Things got even better for the G-Men when Jones planted Carter on another blitz, this one on 3rd-and-4, to make Gowin punt from his own goal-line.

Gowin did his best to angle his kick, but the Giants still took over a yard shy of midfield. Fassel smartly kept the ball in the hands of his primary playmakers, with Barber scampering for 10 to start the drive before Shockey made a clutch catch.

Toomer also came up big by snagging a seven-yarder to move the sticks on 3rd-and-3. It was another Cover-2 beater between Newman and Williams.

Tim Carter lacked Toomer's savvy when he went out of bounds after an eight-yard catch. His mental slip helped the Cowboys preserve their final timeout.

It didn't seem to matter once Barber ran the clock down to 0:14 before Fassel called time and sent Bryant on to seal the victory. He had no problem converting from 30 yards, but things weren't as settled as they appeared with 11 seconds still on the board.

Cowboys 29-32 Giants

The Giants had the lead, but they also still had another timeout left when Fassel sent Bryant into the fray on second-and-five. It would've been smarter to run another play and use the final TO on third down with three to four seconds remaining. There wouldn't have been any ticks on the clock once Bryant's kick cleared the uprights.

Bryant Goes From Hero to Villain

Bryant's attempt to squib a kick came up trumps for the Cowboys when the ball rolled out of bounds at the 1 yard line instead of crossing the plain. When you're luck's in...

Armed with a timeout, Carter quickly went for broke, finding Bryant on a deep corner route to the Giants' 34. The irony must have stung Fassel to his core because this was the same play he'd used to beat the Cowboys' Cover 2 throughout the quarter. Probably no consolation in the phrase "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

Parcells swiftly made the timeout sign and dispatched Cundiff for the sixth time. The kicker didn't disappoint, making the improbable game-tying kick from 52 yards.

Cowboys 32-32 Giants

Incredible. Unbelievable. Now for sudden death.

Overtime

The Giants started at their own 20 but went three and out because Collins couldn't avoid Ellis, who tipped two passes. One thing I'm certain about after watching this game again, Ellis was better than I remembered.

In fact, he was easily the best of the slew of defensive ends drafted in the post-Johnson era. Shante Carver and Ekuban were the busts, but Ellis, taken sixth overall in 1998, delivered and the stats back him up:

Ellis' chief contribution here was to get the Cowboys the ball back at their own 43. The field position became better when Allen drew a flag for holding Galloway. It wasn't Allen's biggest mistake on the drive.

The Giants' top pick in 2001 dropped a sure interception in front of Galloway on the next play. Like several first-round picks of the Fassel era, Allen struggled to play up to the hype. It didn't help that Ernie Accorsi, who became GM in 1998, didn't spot talent in the collegiate ranks as well as George Young.

Parcells didn't always relish working with Young, but the Tuna would have enjoyed Carter running for six to set up a 3rd-and-4 then finding Glenn for eight yards to convert. Glenn so often played his best football for Parcells and he didn't disappoint here, taking his tally to eight catches for 113 yards.

Glenn's latest catch let his reticent mentor turn the offense over to the running game. Hambrick responded by powering for nine and three quarters behind a great block from Anderson.

Like Mitchell, Anderson was another do-all player who rarely let his coaches down. Anderson became a Parcells fave with the Jets and while he wasn't always rated as a blocker, the de facto FB nailed his assignment on this play.

The Cowboys now faced 3rd-and-1 at the New York 32. Parcells' team was already in field-goal range, but he and offensive coordinator Sean Payton made a ballsy call.

They had Carter fake a handoff to Hambrick, who ran a sweep off left tackle, while the quarterback rolled right and hit Campell (yes, the Lions coach) for 23 yards. Campbell was in there to block for short yardage and snuck out into space after faking a down block.

The call must have made Payton smile. He'd been Fassel's coordinator during the Giants' Super Bowl run in 2000 but was stripped of play-calling duties two years later in a fairly public shaming.

Going pass here was an incredible call when the Giants were rightly playing the run, thinking the Cowboys merely wanted a few extra yards for an easier kick. Now, Parcells had created a mere chip shot from 25 yards for Cundiff.

Taking the risks at crucial moments was a hallmark of Parcells' coaching career. He had the instincts for when to go all in every successful gambler possesses.

More success was the Tuna's reward when Cundiff settled the game with his seventh field goal.

Cowboys 35-32 Giants (OT)

Aftermath

Dallas returned to the Meadowlands following a bye week to beat another of Parcells' former teams the Jets. The Cowboys would finish 10-6 and return to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

It was another masterful and swift rebuild from Parcells, and watching this game again it's easy to see why he was the King of the turnaround. Few coaches have ever gotten more from less than the Tuna.

He did it by maximising what his players could do and not focusing too much on their weaknesses. If that meant letting Anderson catch passes out of the backfield and playing Campbell as a traditional fullback because he was a better blocker, then so be it. If winning required letting Carter throw on the move more often, rollouts and bootlegs became staples of the playbook.

Parcells used every bit of talent at his disposal and refused to put players in positions where their weaknesses would be exposed consistently. A great example was how the Cowboys played defense in 2003.

The Parcells blueprint for defense was a 3-4 front manned by planet-sized athletes across the front seven. Not the slight and speedy, college-style 4-3 Johnson had made a fixture for the Cowboys.

Parcells knew Glover, Coakley and Nguyen couldn't play his defense, so he let them run what they knew well. That also involved keeping defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, despite Parcells' fondness for overhauling coaching staffs.

The results turned the Cowboys into instant winners on the strength of a defense that allowed the fewest yards and second-fewest points in the league. That's coaching. Not stubbornly forcing a dogmatic strategy onto unwilling and ill-fitting players.

Parcells explained his ability to adapt in the excellent and succinctly titled, Parcells - A Football Life, co-written by the coach himself and Nunyo Demasio:

The sign of a good coach is one who will fit the scheme to the personnel available, at least temporarily, until he can begin to integrate people more in line with his philosophy. What are you going to do? Say, 'Okay, none of these guys are any good for what I want?' Well, who's going to play? You have to play them. They're under contract. You can't build a driveway if you don't have any cement.

That's how things worked in Dallas, where Parcells spent two years building toward a 3-4 defense. He got the right pieces in an excellent 2005 draft, allowing the Cowboys to put a terrific defense on the field a year later.

What Parcells couldn't get right with the Cowboys was the quarterback position. Carter lasted just one season, although this was HIS night, thanks to a 321-yard passing perfomance.

Parcells still wasn't convinced and tried to make things that were old new again by giving Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe chances before finally settling on Romo during the 2006 season:

Romo's ascension is the perfect rebuttal to the critics who would have you believe Parcells' time in Dallas was a flop. He only had one losing record in four years and went to the playoffs twice. Certainly preferable to 5-11 three seasons running, right?

More than the wins and losses, Parcells laid the foundations for the Super Bowl-worthy roster his successor Wade Phillips inherited in 2007. It was Parcells who acquired Romo, Witten, Newman, Marcus Spears, Jeremiah Ratliff, Marion Barber III, Chris Canty, Patrick Crayton, DeMarcus Ware, Bradie James, Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher.

I've probably missed somebody out, but you get the point.

Coughlin also inherited his share of talent when the Giants fired Fassel following a 4-12 finish. His team never recovered from this setback on Monday night, but it was a shame to see the Fassel era end on such a weak note.

He'd restored pride after the dank days of 1995 and '96. Fassel also developed youthful potential into established stars. Strahan and Toomer both became franchise greats on his watch. So did Barber, a second-round pick in '97 who finished as the Giants' all-time leading rusher.

Fassel surprisingly never got another chance to be a head coach in the NFL, but he deserves to be remembered fondly by all Giants fans. Parcells' place among Big Blue's faithful will always be secure, but his Super Bowl success with the Giants shouldn't obscure the fine work he did turning the Patriots, Jets and Cowboys into winners again.

Originally published at http://playactionpast.wordpress.com on September 26, 2022.

--

--

Arsenal, NFL History and Film Analysis from James Dudko

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
James Dudko

Films, Footie and Gridiron, with the emphasis on Arsenal, NFL history and analysis of cinema from years past.