Friday, February 9, 2018

THE '66 GIANTS KNEW WHAT WAS COMING: They Just Couldn't Stop It

LOOKING BACK
By TJ. Troup
Allie Sherman, credit Alchertron
The title comes from a quote from outstanding announcer Jack Whitaker from the NFL Films series Game of the Week from 1966. These shows were about 25 minutes in length and detailed each team each week. Having so much film to study was/is a joy—that is if you enjoy evaluating old football film.

Why a story on the New York football Giants defense of 1966? There are legendary defenses in league history (none in today's NFL), and the names of those defenders roll off the tongue and bring to mind visuals of men who just played the game at an elite level. This will not be true of the Giants in '66. How did this team fall so far so fast? Here is the answer, and oh yes some background.

Tom Landry became one of the truly best defensive coordinators in the late 1950's. From 1956 through 1959, in 48 games, the stalwart defenders from NY gave up just 79 offensive touchdowns (35 rushing & 44 passing). Landry gets the Dallas job in 1960 and for the next four years, we begin to see cracks in the plaster of the Giants defense.

Though they have some strong games, and at times play excellent pass defense; New York allows 134 offensive touchdowns (41 rushing & 83 passing) in 54 games. The Giants usually rank among the leaders in sacks and defensive passer rating, and are more than adequate in stopping the run. Led by Hall of Famers Andy Robustelli and Sam Huff they sure could bring the Yankee Stadium faithful to their feet with chants of "Dee-fense"!

Head Coach Allie Sherman has been honored more than once, and the New York offense is superb as the Giants appear in the title game three times in a row. Sherman's creative offense is his forte and though he claims to understand defense and personnel, there is a dramatic drop-off in 1964. When a division champion plummets to 2-10-2 and looses their last six games many a coach would lose his job. Sherman does not, and New York rebounds in 1965 to climb into contention for a berth in the now-defunct Playoff bowl with a record of 7-6 but the loss to Dallas and Landry (some irony there) 38-20 at home to close the season should have been a telling tale.
Pete Gogolak 
Each August would purchase my Street & Smith's Pro Football Preview magazine (still have them all), and delight in reading the evaluation of each team for the upcoming season. Let us venture into the pages of the 1966 magazine for the write-up on New York. The write-up begins with Hugh Brown telling us about the offense and the improvement in '65, and shows a picture of Pete Gogolak the kicker (a dramatic improvement is expected in this area in '66). Quote from Sherman, "(I)f we had a kicker like Gogolak we would have won two or three more games last season" & "with Pete kicking and a year of maturity on the part of the Giants' youngsters, I expect a better season than last". What else would you expect than optimism from the man in charge?

Hugh Brown begins the next paragraph with "defense could be Sherman's biggest problem". Truer words were never written. Brown mentions changes coming to the defensive line, and then states the following, "the linebackers are sophomores Olen Underwood and Jim Carroll with veteran Jerry Hillebrand in the middle, and the best of the lot".
Now that the background is complete here we go to the dark, dismal land known as the Giants defense of '66. Opening day in Pittsburgh who has a new coach in former Giant offensive guard Bill Austin. The starters are as follows: left defensive end veteran star Jim Katcavage. He will play virtually every down all season and lead the team in sacks with at least 6 (missing a few so he might have a couple more). Playing at 237 lbs is a challenge for Jim in playing off blocks to defend the run, and over the years he has lost speed in pursuit, yet he is by far the best defensive lineman on the team.

Left defensive tackle Jim Prestel has size and strength, but he failed to keep a job with the expansion Vikings. He is not very effective as a pass rusher, and is easily blocked on many running plays. Prestel starts the first five games, then rotates in the rest of the year in his only year as a Giant. The man who plays the most at left defensive tackle is #74 Jim Moran who is coming off a season of injury. He plays hard, but also has difficulty shedding blocks and is not very effective in pursuit. He records 2½ sacks during the campaign.
Glen Condren
The opening day starter at right defensive tackle is rookie Willie Young. he comes off the bench in week two, and then moves to the offensive line. He is quick, agile, and gives an effort, yet he struggles to shed blocks thus his transition to offense. Most of the year the starter at right defensive tackle is second-year man Glen Condren. Glen also starts at defensive end during the second half of the year for a couple of games. He always gives an effort, but is not very athletic or agile. Condren records just 1½ sacks but does make the team in '67 as the right defensive end. Listed in the media guide as the starter at right tackle is #76 Don Davis in his only year (listed as #73 in the guide?). He has size, but is just not what a team needs though he does start four games the second half of the year when Condren goes to defensive end.

Second-year man Rosey Davis starts against Pittsburgh at right defensive end, and remains the starter for the first half of the year. Davis has size, and moves well, he just is not much of a pass rusher, and struggles defeating any and all blocks. Coming off the bench during the year at right defensive end is Jim Garcia (his only year) until he is injured late in the year and plays in ten games.

Film study shows he should have been the starter all year instead of Davis. He sheds blocks well, is excellent in pursuit, and always hustles. Garcia started two games. The last day of the season #84 Bill Matan starts at right defensive end (he plays three games during the year). Matan is virtually invisible against Dallas. Overall with the exception of Katcavage this is group is going to be blocked and run upon all year.

Now to the one of the worst linebacking corps in league history. There is no Olen Underwood playing for the Giants in '66, and Bill Swain is injured. Looking at the draft in '66 everyone will no doubt see that with the exception of Tommy Nobis, this is not a strong linebacker draft; thus of the 27 rookies listed on the Giants roster in Street & Smith's only one linebacker—Jeff Smith; more on him later.

Jim Carroll starts opening day against the black & gold at left (strong side) linebacker. He is sent packing after one game to Washington. What are the expectations of a first-round draft choice of the Giants in '62?
Jerry Hillebrand have been given every chance to play the strong side, and now in '66 he is again expected to play middle linebacker as a starter for the second year in a row. He has size, and excellent speed for a big man. He starts the first four games of '66 at MLB and then moves to left linebacker for the rest of the season. Total Football lists him as playing in 11 games, but I have seen him on film in at least 13 games (he did not play in the loss to Atlanta). Hillebrand is asked to blitz often and never gets to the quarterback. Centers make the difficult "cut off" block look routine when blocking Hillebrand on run plays between the tackles. Playing strong side linebacker he is much, much better, and plays the pass adequately in zone coverage. He lacks the raw speed for man coverage, and since the Giants blitz so often, he is not required to cover backs very often, yet when he is asked, he is usually out of position. This is his last year as a Giant.

The starting right or weak side linebacker is one of the most fascinating stories in Giant history in '66. Larry Vargo had played safety for both the Lions & Vikings, and lost his starting job in Minnesota. He had never played linebacker before, and though listed at 215 lbs., he sure does not look that big on film. He has enough speed, yet struggles in pursuit. Vargo takes brutally poor angles in chasing the man with the ball, and though he can put some pressure on the quarterback (he records 2 sacks), he is a liability. He plays seven games in his only year in New York.

Stan Sczurek comes to the Giants from Cleveland and though he does not start he does a creditable job in tackling during his time on the field at outside linebacker. Late in the season big, fast Freeman White is given an opportunity to play outside linebacker. He is almost always out of position, struggles in pursuit, and though he has excellent speed for a big man he cannot cover anyone. Due to his size and athleticism, he will stay with the team through 1969 and tried at more than one position. Using the old adage of "looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane".

When Hillebrand is moved to strong side linebacker, he is replaced at MLB by rookie Mike Ciccolella. Mike struggles all year, and though he blitzes much of the time, he never records a sack. He will be replaced in 1967 by Vince Costello. Ciccolella would be considered bench strength, and that is being kind. To quote Casey Stengel is there "anyone here who can play this here damn game?" Yes, Casey, rookie Jeff Smith can.

Smith plays both weak and strong side during the campaign. He blitzed very effectively, and at times is even adept in coverage. Smith has excellent quickness, and can fight off a block. Film study shows him making tackles in the opponents backfield on running plays. He even aligns as an inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, and with his hand on the ground as a defensive tackle. Though he has much to learn, the youngster from USC should have been brought back in '67, but was not?

The last line of defense; the secondary. For many seasons New York played outstanding team pass defense, with superb performances by the likes of Jimmy Patton, Erich Barnes, and Dick Lynch. Patton is at the end of the line in his 12th season. He usually plays when the opponent is knocking on the door of the end zone. Though known for his speed and toughness he just does not make many tackles. He finishes his career at home against Dallas in Yankee Stadium playing virtually the whole game. Patton just does not have it anymore, and his days as a deep centerfielder playing the pass are gone as he is never asked to do this in the current Giant scheme.
Dick Lynch wrote an interesting book detailing the season of '65, but in '66 he plays in seven games (he starts at left corner instead of right against the Rams in November). Dick has lost what speed he had, and though savvy—it is not enough to get him on the field or help his team in his last year. Erich Barnes was traded to Cleveland before the '65 season, and his replacement at left corner is the sole Pro Bowl defender on the Giants. Carl "Spider" Lockhart is a lean, combative, speedy defender. A willing tackler when asked, he has no problem with pursuit across the field. Though he is more than adequate as a zone defender; the Giants usually are in man coverage. Lockhart battles them all, and though he does give up touchdowns, he can take the ball away. The "Spider" is by far the best New York defensive player, but alas that is not saying very much.

The opposite corner for most of the campaign is Clarence Childs. Swift, and fearless, he always gives an effort either run or pass, yet he is just not a quality corner, and is does not start the last game of the year against Dallas. Childs never learns to defend a double move by a receiver.  He is replaced by the starting right safety Henry Carr. Being the free safety on a defense that is in man coverage usually tells us he has the back out of the backfield man to man, or is in deep center field. Carr has blazing speed, but many times he is out of position. He can make a play, and is an adequate tackler, yet maybe he is better served as a right corner?

Wendell Harris was given every opportunity to start for Don Shula in Baltimore, but he is now in New York attempting to play left safety. A quality left or strong safety must be a strong run defender on the "force" which is attacking the wide sweep. In man coverage he must be physical enough to handle a bigger man in the tight end, and of course he must be a demon in pursuit. Wendell H. is none of these. Amazingly he will return in '67 to start. Many times during the woeful season of '66 he is replaced by rookie Phil Harris. In fact Phil H. starts a few games, and even replaces Wendell and plays more of the game. He attempts to be physical in his only year, but is easily beaten on pass routes.

The secondary coach for New York is Hall of Famer Emlen Tunnell, and this group was sometimes referred to as "Emlen's Gremlins". The Giants finished dead last in the defensive passer rating category (97.2). The league average is 67.4.

So, who attempted to coordinate this debacle? Allie Sherman brings aboard Frank "Pop" Ivy who has failed in head coaching opportunities with the Chicago Cardinals and Houston Oilers. His background would be considered by many to be on the offensive side of the ball, and film study shows he cannot coordinate a defense. So many questions arose as I studied film? No doubt fans in Yankee Stadium had a few questions also; and maybe vented frustrations with a few boos. Ivy attempts to play an over-shifted 4-3, the standard 4-3, and move the weak side outside linebacker inside in a stack alignment. New York even aligns in a 3-4 against the Cardinals in a game they probably should have won. You even see the Giants in "nickel" coverage once in awhile (poorly, I might add). Do the opponent offensive stats tell us anything about the defense? Yes, they sure do!

In the first three games, the Giants allowed a 100-yard receiver each game. Mel Renfro gets injured playing offensive halfback after catching a 42 yard pass in week two, and is replaced by Dan Reeves. Though he is not very fast, and lacks quick moves Reeves exploits the errors in coverage as he catches 6 passes for 120 yards, and three scores. This performance convinces Landry that he can play for a contender. Opposing coaches watching film, must have thought if Dan Reeves can do this to New York, then my offensive backs with more athletic skill should be able to also.

During the campaign opposing backs caught 80 passes for 993 yards and 16 touchdowns, and if Pop Ivy ever adjusted, then I missed it? Rather than go through all fourteen games, lets go to one game in particular as this game begins the disaster. November the 13th the Giants are in Los Angeles to play rookie head coach George Allen's Rams (who really need a win). Though New York has given up 85 points the previous four games, they won their only game in this stretch, and actually played decent defense at times.

Not today in the Coliseum. The Rams in the 1st half record 23 first downs, and gain 351 yards in total offense. Watching the film you see Roman take his boys up and down the field at will. The 2nd half the Rams even with substitution record 15 more first downs to set a league record, and gain an additional 221 yards. Halfback Tom Moore of the Rams sets a league record that year in the Marchibroda offense (60 receptions), and in this game catches 9 for 81 yards. Guess no one told Pop Ivy that you have to cover halfbacks out of backfield on passes? New York allows 59 offensive touchdowns during the year (23 rushing & 36 passing). As you can well imagine Mr. Ivy will not be back as a defensive coordinator in '67. Patience is a virtue in the Mara family, and Allie Sherman is brought back even though the last three years the record is 10-29-3. The brilliance of Fran Tarkenton saved Sherman's job until the late season four-game losing streak of '68.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent in-depth analysis, Coach. I can't help but wonder how much of a difference to the Giants' abysmal 1-12-1 record a healthy Earl Morrall for 14 games would have made. Earl was terrific in 1965 bringing NY back from 1964's 2-10-2 to a 7-7 record just as Sir Francis did with the 1967 team.

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  2. Great article - I've read much stats on this team over the years but never seen things broken down like this before. John Horn - I think your point is right, this team was historically bad defensively, but that - 20 turnover differential meant the opponents got more opportunities.

    Now if someone could break down the 1981 Colts defense and compare to the 1966 Giants, that would be something!

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