Legendary Days: The 1990 NFC Championship Game – The Death of Camelot

There is an old axiom when it comes to boxing when you hear someone say “styles make great fights” meaning opposing styles colliding provide great theater. Never was this more evident when it came to the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants of the 1980’s. The identity of the men from Gotham was a blood thirsty defense led by Lawrence Taylor, arguably the greatest defensive player ever. Joe Montana had ascended to legendary status as he led the NFL’s most efficient offense to 4 Super Bowl titles that decade. They would meet in a fitting crescendo that still has ramifications to this day.

Leonard Marshall clobbers Joe Montana and knocks him out of the 1990 NFC Championship Game. He doesn’t return to action until the final game of the 1992 season against the Detroit Lions.

If you travel to 1978 the Giants and 49ers met in what was a forgettable season for both. New York won 27-10 out in Candlestick during the season’s 4th week. They only won 3 games the rest of the stanza while San Francisco only won twice. Both began by hiring coaches in 1979 in Bill Walsh and Ray Perkins which set the course as each regime rose to prominence in the decade to come.

The next step was the selection of franchise quarterbacks, first Phil Simms in New York in round one then Joe Montana in the third. Each turned to the draft for the same spark on defense a few years later when the Giants selected LB Lawrence Taylor and Walsh’s selection of FS Ronnie Lott both in the 1st round in 1981. Both would later be enshrined in Canton.

Walsh and company ended an 8 year playoff drought with a 13-3 record and homefield advantage as Montana and company had come of age. New York defeated Dallas 13-10 to earn their first trip to the NFL postseason in 18 years. Then after a 27-21 upset of the defending NFC Champion Eagles in the wildcard round, New York was one step away from the NFC Championship Game and traveled west to face San Fran.

Going into the game the question was could NFL Defensive Player of the year Lawrence Taylor get to Joe Montana?? Could the finesse passing game take down the Giants’ hard rock defense??

Walsh’s team was shattering the NFL paradigm by passing first to set up the run. Contrary to popular belief was the fact it was San Francisco’s defense ranked #2 to the Giants at #3.

Montana was 20 of 31 for 304 yards for 2 TDs in a 38-24 win under the lights in Candlestick. Next came the NFC Championship with Dallas & The Catch, then a Super Bowl XVI victory and all the prestige that came with it. Walsh became the toast of the league and christened with his “genius” label. Joe became one of the faces of the NFL and would be one for the decade of the 1980’s.

The vanquished?? Well New York Defensive Coordinator Bill Parcell’s unit collapsed giving up a season high 38 points. They had only given up 30 once the entire year up to that point. As is the case when teams come up short in the playoffs, they’re knocked off kilter for a couple of years.

Parcells succeeded Perkins after a 4-5 season in ’82 and was nearly fired after a disastrous 3-12-1 rookie year in ’83. Yet all the while Walsh was one of the NFL’s marquee coaches and his 49ers bounced back and came within a couple penalties from winning the NFC Championship a 2nd time in 3 years. They fell to Washington 24-21 yet the media further spread the moniker they anointed Walsh with….”genius.”

Parcells bristled at the attention Walsh and the 49ers “finesse” approach to the game was getting. It only intensified in ’84 as they went 15-1 and threatened to go undefeated. New York rebounded as Phil Simms finally emerged from the shadows and became a 4,000 yard passer and the Giants returned to the playoffs. Another NFC playoff loss to Joe and the Niners 21-10 relegated the Giants to the NFL’s jr varsity as Walsh and Joe went on to hoist another Lombardi trophy.

However over the years Parcells kept building a team of brute force. Although they had been effective he drafted 6-4 250lb OLB Carl Banks who was a blue chip strong side ‘backer. Brought in 288 lbs DE Leonard Marshall to replace a 259lb Gary Jeter. He kept building upon his defense and relying on a straight forward power rushing attack.

Finally in the 1985 playoffs, the Giants #2 ranked defense held Montana and the 49er offense out of the endzone for the first time in a 17-3 Wildcard win at home. For the first time ever Parcells and the Giants beat the Niners in the 80’s and in the locker room he scoffed “What do you think now about that west coast offense?” In a bit of irony he wound up coining the name Walsh’s offense would come to be known forever.

However the Giants were manhandled in Chicago 21-0 to the eventual champion Bears. Both teams were built in the same old school fashion. You win with brute force on the line of scrimmage with a heavy front 7 and a strong offensive line with an offense that relied on the run. Yet the Giants sent alarm bells off all around the NFL when they already had a strong defense yet spent their first 6 picks in the first 3 rounds all on defense.

They fortified their defensive line with 6’4 280 lbs DE Erik Dorsey, NT Eric Howard who stood 6’4 275, 250 lb ILB Pepper Johnson along with crafty CB Mark Collins who was nearly 5-10 200 lbs. Collins turned into one of the Giant defense’s greatest assets as he blanketed Jerry Rice and was the best in history covering him. This gave the Giants a tremendous advantage for years to come.

Jim Burt knocking Joe Montana out with a concussion in their 49-3 rout in the ’86 playoffs.

In the ’86 playoffs the Giants defense had come of age and starting with a 49-3 devastation of San Francisco in the NFC Divisional Round, it became clear the pendulum had completely swung. Jim Burt knocked Joe Montana out with seconds to go in the 1st half as Taylor returned an interception 34 yards to balloon the score to 28-3. In an embarrassing fashion Walsh’s squad was hammered into submission. Physically beat down unlike any game they had seen since they became one of the league’s elite a few years before.

This forced the 49ers to finish what they started in the ’85 draft fortifying their lines with bigger players to deal with the Bears and Giants. It came to fruition as the Niners went on to win Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV after the ’88 and ’89 seasons. Walsh had stepped down after the XXIII championship and former DC George Seifert took over head coaching duties. Offensive Coordinator Mike Holmgren began to be recognized as the 49er offense elevated their play to one of near perfection. Walsh’s legend only grew even in his departure for creating the offensive system which allowed his 49ers to become the team of the decade.

Going into 1990 pundits were debating not only were the 49ers the best ever team but was Joe Montana the best ever quarterback?? The same could be said of Jerry Rice as he had assaulted the record books and also had been a Super Bowl MVP. On their way to back to back championships they had set the NFL record with 18 consecutive road wins. Now they had the chance to win 3 straight Super Bowls where it would leave no doubt. They began the season with a 10-0 record and…

Waiting for them who also began 10-0 was the Giant team that had learned how to win from the 49ers and had taken it up a level. Now the more powerful rebuilt 49ers who had a 2-3 record (0-2 in the playoffs since ’85) staring them down. Were they lucky they hadn’t met the Giants in the playoffs in both ’88 and ’89?? Would they even have won back to back had New York had a shot at them??

The Chancellor definitely doesn’t think they would have.. yet I digress

In week 12 each team was 10-1 when they met in San Francisco on a Monday Night. In the 2nd highest watched MNF in history the 49ers beat the Giants 7-3 in a slugfest where the Giants inability to score a touchdown on offense did them in. In 3 shots inside the redzone they could only score 1 field goal. Yet to a man the Giants relished another shot at San Francisco. Finally they would have their chance in the NFC Championship Game. For the decade the playoff record between the two stood at 2-2 and they would meet in the last chance to halt “Camelot’s” greatest procession into history.

In the collective gasp after the Leonard Marshall hit you knew everything had changed. The silence that befell Candlestick Park as Montana writhed in pain for several minutes was palpable. Unlike most games where the network would take a commercial break, a nationwide audience sat glued to the football version of a tragic event. The greatest quarterback whose nimble feet that deftly dodged trouble in and out of the pocket forever in January’s past had been viciously taken down. The Camelot Bill Walsh so eloquently stated of that era ended in that moment.

The final kick by Matt Bahr for the 15-13 win was just icing on the cake made by a ferocious defense in one of the greatest games in NFL history.


A more visceral look:

The era closed with the Giants holding a 3-2 edge in postseason games although the Niners were team of the decade. Over the next 27 years coaches from both sides made it to the Super Bowl 15 times with Bill Belichick (9) Tom Coughlin (2) Mike Holmgren (3) and Jon Gruden (1). This doesn’t include Bill Parcells’ 2nd Super Bowl triumph 1 week after this game vs Buffalo in XXV. Much has been made of the Bill Walsh coaching tree but take a look at the one stemming from Parcells’ group. Its second to none and it all started with a championship win over Camelot in 1990.

Looking back each team had elevated the other and by the time the decade concluded they were head and shoulders above other teams. However the two contrasting styles made for great theater and one where most people forget who finished with the upper hand.

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NFL.Com Bracketology: 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers v. 1990 New York Giants

Roger Staubach ran for his life in Super Bowl X as Dwight White and the Steelers sacked him 7 times in the game.

Neither of these teams have cheerleaders. If they did they would have to wear shoulder pads for this one for it would be a bloodbath.  A game of nothing but hitting. The smashmouth Giants from the NFC East which began 10-0 and finished13-3 and the 12-2 defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers at the height of their power. Each had to endure physical conference championship games and Super Bowls to make it to this game.

In Pittsburgh’s scenario, they had to beat the revenge minded Oakland Raiders 16-10 to make it to Super Bowl X. However George Atkinson gave the Steelers a going away present by knocking out Lynn Swann on an icy field. Yes, we mean a boxing ten count! Joe Greene had to come take him off the field. Then hold off the Cinderella Cowboys 21-17 in the best of the first 10 Super Bowls. In that one, K Roy Gerela wound up with bruised ribs after tackling Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson on a kickoff return.

Did we mention knockout??

Well Terry Bradshaw was in the locker room for the last 6:24 of the game after suffering from a concussion after being hit by Cowboy Larry Cole. However the Steeler defense did most of the hitting during this era and in 1976 were so strong the league had to put in rules to legislate them out of dominance. In that year during a 9 game stretch, they gave up only 28 points while shutting out 5 of their last 9 opponents!! Yikes!! But alas we have to talk about the 1975 edition…

Leonard Marshall clobbers Joe Montana and knocks him out of the 1990 NFC Championship Game. He doesn’t return to action until the final game of the 1992 season against the Detroit Lions.

The ’90 Giants had to bludgeon their way through two time defending champion San Francisco on the road in the NFC Championship Game. In what was one of the most physical games in NFL history, each team had their quarterbacks knocked out of the game. For the Giants, Jeff Hostetler made it back onto the field to lead a game winning drive. As for Joe Montana?? Giant DE Leonard Marshall hit him with what NFL Films narrator Harry Kalas called “The Shot Heard ‘Round the Football World”. After evading a charging Lawrence Taylor, Montana sidestepped into a hit that would knock him out of football for nearly 2 years.

The injury list compiled on that play for Joe? A bruised sternum, bruised ribs, a concussion, and a broken bone in his hand. If you were a fan of hitting, it was the game of the century. Then the Giants outlasted the Buffalo Bills 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV with a defensive masterpiece. They only employed 2 linemen and proceeded to funnel Bills receivers to the linebackers and started punishing Andre Reed crossing the middle.

Ottis “OJ” Anderson falling forward for positive yards was the tough runner that powered the Giants.

Each team was a run first team with Super Bowl XXV MVP Ottis (OJ) Anderson (The [[_]]) who would gain maybe 70 yards rushing to somewhat offset Franco Harris with about 95 yards. A young Terry Bradhshaw throwing to first time starters John Stallworth and Lynn Swann would have trouble with Mark Collins and Everson Walls. Collins was the best CB ever to cover Jerry Rice so putting him on Swann wouldn’t be an issue. Lankier Everson Walls on lanky John Stallworth would be a fun matchup.

What would keep the Giants in the game was the fact that they were the first team in NFL history that averaged less than a turnover a game. Only 13 in a 16 game season. Even in Super Bowl XXV, they didn’t commit a single turnover. Steeler DT Joe Greene and the late Ernie Holmes would jam the middle closed on C Bart Oates and Gs William Roberts and Bob Kratch. After all with Greene (Hall of Famer) we’re talking of the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year from 1974.

His play at “Stunt Tackle” would kill the Giants ability to call blocking audibles in this game. LT Jumbo Elliot would be able to handle the late Dwight White but RT Doug Riesenberg would struggle with LC Greenwood.  Hall of Fame linebacker’s Jack Lambert and Jack Ham would battle Anderson on running situations but were agile enough to track of Dave Meggett on 3rd downs. The “Tampa 2” defense really started in Pittsburgh with a 220lbs. Lambert who could get 20 yards downfield early in his career.

Hall of Fame member and 2 time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Joe Greene would wreak havoc on the Giants interior line.

With 3/4 of the Steel Curtain wreaking havoc on a backup in Giant QB Jeff Hostetler the Steelers would pull away 27-15. Lawrence Taylor and Leonard A. Marshall could run stunts on LT John Kolb who was smallish for a tackle and would struggle with double teams on Marshall and would flat struggle with Lawrence rushing hard upfield. LB Carl Banks at 250lbs. would manhandle Steeler TEs Larry Brown and Randy Grossman.

However with a few inside traps Rocky Bleier would flash for a few inside gains to keep Steeler drives alive. If Hostetler had more experience, the Giants would stand to win this but the Steel Curtain would get to him on passing downs. Joe Greene would easily be the MVP of this game. For that reason you have to go Steelers.

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