The 2007 New York Giants won 11 straight on the road and became known as the Road Warriors. Their last game on the road, Super Bowl 42, against the undefeated New England Patriots, produced one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
Our story begins with the 2006 NFL playoffs, In the wild card round, The New York Giants lose to the Philadelphia Eagles on a field goal as time runs out. 23-20. Giants fans and management are frustrated and focus their frustration on head coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning.
Coughlin writes in his memoir,
“In the seventy-two hours after the game, the hysteria to fire me and get rid of Eli Manning -- and really, all the players -- is at a fever pitch. The newspapers are looking for blood. What are the headlines? Coughlin Must Go. Ax Can’t Fall Fast Enough. Coughlin Should Be Through with Little Blue.”
Manning had been a disappointment since the Giants drafted him in 2004. He had a knack for throwing untimely interceptions and his flat unemotional demeanor raised doubts about his leadership ability.
Coughlin was 60 years old and had coached at three colleges and five NFL teams. The Giants had hired Coughlin in 2004. Now, Three years into his tenure his teams had yet to win a playoff game.
Coughlin is given- a one-year contract extension for 2007 and put on notice. He has one more chance.
Coughlin writes in his memoir:
“There is the unspoken cloud hanging over everything that we do. I am a one-year coach whose job rests on the wins and losses in 2007.”
To save his job Coughlin turns inward. Introspection and self-awareness are not easy for him -- he tends to be systematic and regimented. But introspection and self-awareness are the lifelines Coughlin grabs onto.
The head coach looks inside of himself, much the same as Buddhists in meditation, or alcoholics at an AA meeting.
In this episode of That Championship Season we’ll take a look at how Tom Coughlin saved his career and how the New York Giants pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NFL history. Join us, won’t you, for That Championship Season.
After the 2006 season Tom Coughlin took stock of himself. He wrote:
“I wasn’t the most beloved figure in the Giants organization. In fact, most players seem to avoid me at all costs, often looking down as we pass in a hallway or the locker room. Apparently the players believe they have to walk on eggshells for fear of my wrath.”
Defensive end Michael Strahan was so fed up with Coughlin he pondered retirement. Said Strahan:
“He was one impossible person to deal with. He was set in his ways and that was the way it was gonna be.”
Coughlin blamed himself for the tense atmosphere. He had failed to show a human side to his coaches and players because he had not wanted to appear weak.
Coughlin decided to change. He would scrap his gruff exterior and show his colleagues and players the warmth he reserved for his wife and kids at home. He would be more patient with the media.
“The truth is, if 2007 is going to be my last season with the Giants, I just want to be the real me, not the football coach with the façade.”
“...I need to open up to more fully connect with the players. I need to make it obvious that I do care and that the caring is sincere. I am going to enjoy the 2007 journey, and I want the players and coaches to enjoy it as well, regardless of where it takes us”
Early in training camp Coughlin sent a message. He cancelled afternoon practice and took the team to a bowling alley. Players and coaches spent the afternoon bowling. Coughlin joined in and showed his players a softer warmer side.
Coughlin’s attitude wasn’t the only change. He hired Steve Spagnolo to coach defense and Kevin Gilbride to coach offense. Chris Palmer was hired to tutor Manning. The Giants draft brought in corner Aaron Ross, receiver Steve Smith, linebacker Zak DeOssie, and running back Ahmad Bradshaw. Guard David Diehl moved to tackle, and defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka moved to linebacker.
The Giants had a lot of stability, too. Four-time All-Pro Michael Strahan had considered retirement because he was unhappy playing under Coughlin. Then he decided to play one more season, his 15th.
Wide receivers Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress and tight end Jeremy Shockey were back. The offensive line had Shaun O’Hara, Chris Snee and Rich Seubert. The defense had Osi Omenyiura, Justin Tuck, Antonio Pierce, and Sam Madison. Special teams had punter Jeff Feagles and placekicker Lawrence Tynes. David Tyree was on coverage.
And then there was Eli Manning, back for his fourth season at quarterback. Eli was thought to be a pale imitation of his older brother Peyton, who had quarterbacked Indianapolis to victory in Super Bowl 41.
Dan Shaughnessy wrote in the Boston Globe, “Eli Manning's path to greatness has been blocked by interceptions, poor decisions, and a perception that he lacks leadership and toughness. “
Paul Schwartz wrote in the New York Post: “Let's get this straight right away: Eli Manning is never going to be big brother Peyton. Eli is developing into an upper echelon player at his position, but don't expect him to carry this team. His command of the huddle is definitely more pronounced, but he's held back by lapses in accuracy.”
Schwartz picked the Giants to finish third in the NFC East with an 8-8 record.
Two games into the season it appeared 8 and 8 was optimistic. The Giants lost on the road to Dallas, 45-35, and at home to Green Bay, 35-13.
After the Green Bay loss, Harvey Araton wrote in the New York Times: “It may sound like a stretch to say that the Giants were good at something yesterday, but who can quibble with their clock management? They sent thousands of fans home early, making for an orderly traffic flow out of a depressing Giants Stadium.”
Steve Serby wrote in the Post: “There is no defense for the New York Giants today. Who would have thought Eli Manning would become the least of the franchise’s problems this quickly?”
That’s when U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Greg Gadson entered the picture. The Giants went to Washington to play their third game against the Redskins. The night before the game, Tom Coughlin invited Greg Gadson to speak to the team. In the late 1980s Gadson had been a linebacker at West Point and a teammate of Giants receivers coach Mike Sullivan. In 2007, serving in Iraq, Gadson had lost both legs to an explosion. Gadson lost his legs not quite six years after 9/11, at a time when America was bitterly divided over the war in Iraq.
Gadson told the Giants:
“You have to play the game for one another,” “For your teammates. You have to fight for the guy on your left, on your right. Truly great teams form a bond by going through something together, and whatever you are going through right now, no success ever comes easy. Nothing is promised to anybody in this life, starting with tomorrow.
Gadson’s words riveted the Giants. Players and coaches stood up and gave him a long ovation. All of the players shook Gadson’s hand. Plaxico Burress and a few others stayed around to talk with him.
The next day Gadson and his family were on the Giants sideline. The Giants spotted the Redskins a 17-3 lead at halftime. In the second half the Giants took control and went ahead 24-17 on a 33-yard TD pass from Manning to Burress. With a minute left the Redskins had the ball on the Giants one yard line. But the Giants mounted a magnificent goal line stand, led by Kawika Mitchell and Justin Tuck.
The Giants had their first win. Coughlin wrote:
“And it is at that moment, on that field, that our season seems to turn around. We came together to fight for the men on our right and our left, and we finally found a way to finish.
“I hand the game ball to Greg Gadson. He smiles. We are honored to consider him one of us.”
The win over the Redskins ignited the Giants. They won six straight. They won the first regular season game in London, where they beat the Dolphins 13-10 in a downpour on a muddy quagmire of a field.
Then they hit some speed bumps. Of their next eight games they won four and lost four. Oddly enough, the four they lost were at home and the four they won were on the road.
The losses at home included a 41-17 drubbing by the Vikings. The Vikings arrived at Giants Stadium with the worst pass defense in the NFL, and proceeded to pick off four of Manning’s passes and return three for touchdowns. Manning told reporters. “It wasn’t good. When you throw four interceptions, it is never a good day.”
John Branch wrote in the Times: “The result is sure to fuel the omnipresent discussions about Manning's ability to carry the Giants and rekindle doubts about the Giants' ability to finish a season strongly.”
The Giants followed up with road wins against the Bears and Eagles and a home loss to the Redskins. They went into Buffalo with a 9-5 record and a chance to clinch a wild card berth for the playoffs. On a cold wet windblown day the Giants fell behind 14 zip to the Bills.
Paul Schwarz wrote, “they would have to hitch up their pants, strap on their helmets and simply run the football either into the playoffs or into infamy.”
Led by Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, the Giants amassed 291 yards rushing, scored twice on interceptions, and beat the Bills, 38-21. When it was over Tom Coughlin was doused not once, but twice, with ice-cold coolers of Gatorade.
Steve Serby wrote of Coughlin: “He was everybody’s favorite lame duck in the summer, after a season when too many viewed him as The Ugly Duckling.... now Tom Coughlin had turned into a beautiful, albeit wet, swan.”
Six days later, on December 29th, the Giants were at home for the regular season finale. They played the New England Patriots, who were 15-0 and intent on being the NFL’s first undefeated team since the 1972 Dolphins.
With the wild card clinched, Coughlin made a controversial decision to start his regulars and play for the win. While several playoff bound teams rested their starters, Coughlin kept his in the entire game. At one point in the third quarter the Giants led 28-16. But with Tom Brady throwing to Randy Moss, the Patriots came back to win, 38-35. Two Giants starters, Shaun OHara and Kuhveeka Mitchell, were lost for the first round of the playoffs. But Coughlin stood by his decision. He said:
“I don’t know of any better way to prepare for the playoffs. This is the momentum we were looking forward to.”
The Giants opened the post-season in Tampa Bay with an easy 24-14 win over the Buccaneers, the weakest team in the playoffs. Eli Manning passed for 185 yards and two touchdowns and won his first playoff game. He won it in his fourth season -- two years ahead of the pace set by big brother Payton.
Gary Myers wrote in the Daily News: “The Giants were more relieved than ecstatic after winning their first playoff game since 2000 to avoid going one and done for the third straight year. It was a crucial victory for the franchise, guaranteed Tom Coughlin a long-term contract extension and eliminated the stigma from Manning that he could not win a playoff game.”
The Giants advanced to the division championship against Dallas. The Cowboys had beaten them twice and had scored a total of 76 points in the two games. In the lead-up to the game 12 Cowboys were named to the Pro Bowl team, while just one Giant was named. Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce likened the matchup to an All-Pro team versus an all-Joe team.
But the all-Joe team, the Giants, seemed more determined. During the Cowboys bye week, quarterback Tony Romo had taken his celebrity girlfriend Jessica Simpson to the beach at Cabo San Lucas. Sally Jenkins wrote in the Washington Post:
“The trouble with going to Cabo San Lucas before the NFL playoffs is that when you come back, you'd better win. While Tony Romo went to the beach, the New York Giants went to work.”
They played in Dallas. Another road game for a team that loved the road. Two TD passes from Manning to Amani Toomer and a one-yard TD by Brandon Jacobs put the Giants ahead early in the fourth quarter. Reserve corner R.W McQuarters intercepted Romo in the end zone with nine seconds left to secure the win, 21-17.
When it ended, Mike Lupica wrote in the Daily News: “Michael Strahan was yelling up in the stands, "How 'bout them Cowboys?" Then Strahan was yelling at Cowboys fans to go home and get the popcorn ready for an NFC Championship Game that does not include Romo or Terrell Owens or Jerry Jones, but sure includes Strahan and one of the most amazing Giants teams instead.”
The Giants took their road show to Green Bay for the conference championship. Game time temperature at Lambeau Field was minus one, with a wind chill of minus 23. Amani Toomer later said, “Breathing in the air would burn your lungs. It was ridiculous.”
For the third straight playoff game Eli Manning did not throw an interception or fumble the ball. Plaxico Burress had 11 catches for 154 yards. At the end of regulation the game was tied at 20. The Giants lost the toss for overtime. On the second play, Corey Webster intercepted Packers quarterback Bret Favre and brought the ball back nine yards to the Packers' 34. The Giants advanced the ball five yards to the 29. Now Tom Coughlin had a huge decision: go for it on fourth down or let Lawrence Tynes try a 47 yard field goal. In regulation Tynes had missed attempts of 36 yards and 43-yards. Now Tynes made his own decision -- he ran out onto the field and set up to kick. Tynes later told reporters: “I knew I could get it there. He was going to have to pull me off that field.”
Coughlin let Tynes go for it, and was rewarded with a 47-yard game winning kick in overtime. The 23-20 win was the 10th straight on the road for the Giants -- an NFL record. Next stop was Glendale Arizona for Super Bowl 42. Their opponent -- the New England Patriots.
The Patriots had won three Super Bowls in six years and were on the verge of a dynasty. Not only were they good, they were notorious. In the first week of the 07 season the Patriots were caught videotaping the defensive signals of their opponent, the New York Jets. The Patriots argued that their actions were within the rules. But the NFL deemed it a violation of fair play and honest competition. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was fined five hundred thousand dollars, the league maximum. The Patriots were fined $250,000 and stripped of their first round draft pick for 2008. The incident became known as Spygate.
Spygate stigmatized the Patriots as cheaters and lit a fire under them. They proceeded to win 18 straight games. Quarterback Tom Brady threw a record 50 TD passes. Wide receiver Randy Moss caught a record 23 TD passes. The Patriots scored a record 589 points. Then they breezed through their first two playoff games to reach the Super Bowl. If the Patriots won Super Bowl 42 they would finish undefeated with 19 wins and would go down as the greatest team in NFL history.
The Patriots commanded respect, but unless you were a fan of theirs, they provoked envy and contempt. Success had made them enviable. Spygate had made them contemptible. They were the proverbial bully in the schoolyard. The Giants were their next victim, or so it seemed.
Paul Schwarz wrote of the Giants, “they will hear for the next two weeks how they are heading into Mission Impossible trying to keep the Patriots from a historical 19 and 0 season and perfection.”
Statistically the Giants were one of the worst teams ever to reach the Super Bowl - in the regular season they outscored their opponents by just 22 points and had a turnover differential of minus 10. Those were a couple of reasons the Patriots were 12-point favorites.
But there was something unusual about these Giants. They played better on the road than at home. Ten of their wins had come on the road and they had become known as the Road Warriors, a team of fellow travelers. The Super Bowl in Glendale Arizona was another road game.
The key was stopping Brady. When Brady beat them in December he had thrown for 356 yards, directed seven scoring drives, and was sacked just once in 43 dropbacks.
Peter King wrote in Sports Illustrated that that the Giants needed to blitz more. They needed to mix their rushes, show multiple looks, use Justin Tuck on every play, bump and jostle Brady even when he’s not sacked, and even risk offside penalties.
King wrote: “It adds up to a Giant task. If New York finds a way to hold Brady in check and win this game, it’ll be one of the great accomplishments in NFL history.”
Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy suggested that the coaching matchup between Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin featured Old School vs. Ancient School. Shaughnessy wrote: “Belichick is known as humorless, disciplined and hard on his players. Coughlin makes Belichick look like a stand-up comic. The second-oldest man to coach a Super Bowl, Coughlin, 61, made an effort to lighten up this season and his players responded positively.”
Michael Strahan described the change in Coughlin to the media: “He’s really changed for the better. His demeanor has changed -- he's a different person in the lockerroom.”
To the media, Coughlin emphasized the Giants underdog status. “We’ve been underdogs for much of this season. And now we’re underdogs against the Patriots. Nothing wrong with that.”
The Giants were first onto the field and were cheered by the crowd of 71 thousand plus.. then Brady and linebacker Teddy Bruschi led the Patriots onto the field.
The Giants won the coin flip, took the kickoff, and controlled the ball for almost 10 minutes. They settled for a 32-yard field goal from Lawrence Tynes and a 3-zip lead. The Patriots got field position on a 43-yard kickoff return by Laurence Maroney. Brady led a 12-play, 56-yard drive that climaxed with Maroney’s one-yard TD. The Pats led 7-3 at halftime.
Third quarter was scoreless. Early in the fourth quarter Manning connected with tight end Kevin Boss on a 45-yard pass. Five plays later, Manning hit David Tyree with a 5-yard pass to give the Giants a 10-7 lead. Brady then drove the Patriots 80 yards in 12 plays. He completed eight passes and capped the drive with a 6-yard pass to Randy Moss for a 14-10 lead.
Michael Strahan paced the sideline and rallied the Giants offensive unit. “17 -14. 17-14 is the final fellas. One touchdown and we are world champions.”
The Giants got the ball on their own 17 with 2:39 left. Manning notched a first down on the 28. On third and 10 he hit Amani Toomer for nine yards. On fourth-and-one, Brandon Jacobs got the first down. Manning scrambled for five yards, then missed David Tyree deep on second down. The clock showed one minute 15 seconds.
In his memoir Coughlin described what happened as Manning scrambled to avoid a sack, and unleashed a pass to Tyree downfield across the middle.
Coughlin wrote: “Then the type of play that is reserved for only the greatest of all games occurs.
“ As David leaps for the ball, smothered by Patriots defenders, it appears that he won’t be able to catch it, or at least won’t be able to hold on after Rodney Harrison either hits him or rips the ball away. Somehow Harrison misses the ball; still, David barely gets his fingers on it. But now I am thinking he is going to break his back.
“ He hits the ground as Harrison tries to disrupt the catch, desperately trying to knock the ball from David’s hands. I scream into the headset, “Did he have possession? Did he have it” The coaches upstairs respond ‘Yes”. Yes, a football miracle has occurred.”
Tyree’s legendary catch was good for 32 yards and a first down. At the Patriots 24, on third-and 11, Manning found Steve Smith by the right sideline for 12 yards.
Thirty nine seconds left. The Giants had no timeouts. Belichick called for a blitz and put his secondary in single coverage. Plaxico Burress faked a slant route and cornerback Ellis Hobbs bit. Wide open, Burress faded into the left corner of the end zone and gathered in a 13-yard TD pass from Manning.
Brady got the ball back with 29 seconds, took his fifth sack of the game, missed on a Hail Mary, and that was that.
Final Score: Giants 17, Patriots 14.
An upset for the ages. The New York Giants won Super Bowl 42. The NFL championship was theirs.
Dan Shaughnessy wrote: “It is an alternate universe. It does not compute. It’s like hearing Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart in Ashtabula”, or seeing a photo of Mitt Romney with his hair messed up.”
John Branch wrote in the New York Times: “Signs were there all along the way, beginning last summer, that the Giants could be Super Bowl champions. But who really thought they would? It took until the end of the game, or close to it, for hope to be spun into belief, and for belief to turn into reality, and for it all to be covered with the confetti that falls onto champions.”
ESPN anchor Josh Elliott called it “arguably the greatest upset in sports history”.
Two days later the Giants celebrated with a victory parade in lower Manhattan, a ceremony at City Hall, and a rally at Giants Stadium.
Coughlin wrote: “Standing on the stage at the center of such wonderful enthusiasm, I think about how far we have come. Here we are, more than a hundred coaches, players and staff, who came together for one purpose. We believed. We believed in ourselves when others didn’t. We did what no one thought we could do. We did it for anyone who has ever been told, “You can’t.” But most fundamentally, we did it. We reached our destination. And what an incredible journey it has been.”