November 19, 2009

1978: Giants Fumble Away Win to Eagles

For Eagles fans, it’s “the Miracle of the Meadowlands”. For Giants fans, it is more odiously referred to as “The Fumble”. By whatever name, it remains one of the most astounding plays to decide the outcome of a game in pro football history.

Philadelphia, in its third season under Head Coach Dick Vermeil, came into the November 19, 1978 matchup at Giants Stadium with a 6-5 record; New York was struggling at 5-6. The Giants broke out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to touchdown passes by QB Joe Pisarcik of 19 yards to RB Bobby Hammond and 30 yards to WR Johnny Perkins.

RB Wilbert Montgomery finally put the Eagles on the board in the second quarter with an eight-yard touchdown run, but the extra point was missed. Joe Danelo added a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter to extend New York’s lead to 17-6. FB Mike Hogan narrowed the score to 17-12 in the fourth quarter with a one-yard run, followed by another unsuccessful PAT attempt (with placekicker Nick Mike-Mayer on injured reserve, his punter-cum-placekicker replacement, Mike Michel, proved woefully inadequate).

It looked as though that would be the final score when a last-ditch Eagles drive ended with QB Ron Jaworski throwing his third interception of the day. The Giants took over on their own 21 yard line with just 1:23 left to play. Philadelphia had no time outs remaining, so it was just a matter of running out the clock. Fans began filing out of the stadium and Giants players on the sideline were beginning to celebrate.

On the first play, Pisarcik handed off to FB Larry Csonka for an 11-yard gain. On the next play, he took a knee and received some rough treatment from frustrated Eagles linebackers Frank LeMaster and Bill Bergey. The clock was down to 28 seconds as the Giants came up to the line again for what all assumed would be a final kneel-down by Pisarcik to end the game. The broadcasters for the telecast were making their parting comments and the credits were rolling down the screen.

But instead of taking a knee, instruction came from the offensive coordinator, Bob Gibson, to run the ball. While several Giants urged Pisarcik to ignore the call from the sideline and just kneel, the play proceeded. The snap was rushed and the quarterback never had control of the ball as he tried to hand it off to Csonka, instead hitting him in the hip. The ball bounced away from the sprawling Pisarcik, directly into the hands of Eagles CB Herman Edwards, who ran it 26 unmolested yards into the end zone.

Michel kicked the extra point and the final score was 19-17 in favor of Philadelphia. For Edwards, there was redemption since he had been badly beaten on one of the Giants’ touchdown passes. For the Eagles, it was a miraculous win that helped lift the team to a 9-7 record for the season and a wild card spot in the playoffs – the first postseason appearance since winning the 1960 championship (excluding the meaningless Playoff Bowl), and only the third season over .500 since then as well.

For the Giants, it also marked something of a turning point. Gibson was fired the next day (although the call resulting in the fumble was not given as the reason), and after New York finished out the season with three more losses in the last four games, Head Coach John McVay was let go as well. The Mara family, which owned the team, made a decision to hire a new general manager, who turned out to be George Young. A turnaround for the franchise in the 1980s would be forthcoming.

While the bizarre ending has long overshadowed the rest of the game, there were solid performances for the Eagles by RB Montgomery, who had 88 yards rushing on 22 carries with the one TD, and WR Harold Carmichael with five receptions for 105 yards.

The question of why the Giants ran the play has long been a subject of speculation and argument. Many Eagles believed that the rough handling of Pisarcik by either LeMaster or Bergey caused Gibson to send in a running play both to protect his quarterback and to give the offensive line one last chance to tee off on the Eagles defense. Others have suggested that bad feelings among some of the coaching staff caused Gibson to stubbornly insist on a running play.

Whatever the reason, the play long ago entered the realm of pro football lore. And it has left a lasting imprint on the game to this day – every time an offense is running out the clock and the quarterback is preparing to take a knee, a teammate is lined up about 10 yards behind the play, just in case the ball goes bouncing away.