November 25, 2011

1982: Taylor’s Long INT Return Lifts Giants Over Lions

Following a promising 1981 season that had seen the New York Giants qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1963, the club was struggling in ’82. As with all of the teams, the 57-day players’ strike had been a disruption. FB Rob Carpenter, who had been a big part of the resurgence in ’81, held out and injuries plagued the club, starting with QB Phil Simms, who missed the entire year with a knee injury. Head Coach Ray Perkins’ team came into the Thanksgiving Day game at the Pontiac Silverdome on November 25 at 0-3. In addition, star second-year LB Lawrence Taylor (pictured above) was originally expected to be out due to a knee injury suffered the week before in the first post-strike game, a loss to the Redskins.

The Lions (2-1), coached by Monte Clark, had won their first two games of the season prior to the strike and lost their first post-strike contest by three points at Chicago. The Lions had an outstanding defense against the ground game and were at their best running the ball on offense, especially with RB Billy Sims. Eric Hipple had taken the starting quarterback position away from Gary Danielson in ’81.

Hipple started at quarterback for the Lions but was ineffective in the first half, completing just 3 of 12 passes for 39 yards. However, Detroit took the early lead in the first quarter following an interception of a pass by Giants QB Scott Brunner (son of Lions offensive backfield coach Joe Brunner) by LB Garry Cobb. It led to a 46-yard Ed Murray field goal. It was 6-0 at halftime after Brunner was intercepted again, this time by LB Jimmy Williams, and Murray finished off that possession with another field goal, from 44 yards.

Danielson took over at quarterback for the second half, but things got off to a rocky start early in the third quarter when his second pass was intercepted by New York LB Harry Carson. It resulted in a 34-yard field goal by Joe Danelo.

Moments later, Sims fumbled and LB Brad Van Pelt recovered for the Giants. Following the pattern established by both clubs thus far, the turnover was converted into another Danelo field goal, this time from 40 yards. The score was tied at 6-6.

The Lions drove into New York territory in the fourth quarter, but in a third-and-goal situation, Danielson tried a pass to RB Horace King in the flat to his left. Lawrence Taylor, playing despite the injured knee, had been burned on a similar play earlier in the year, but on this occasion intercepted the throw at his three yard line and ran 97 yards for a touchdown with just over ten minutes left in the game. It would prove to be the decisive play of the contest.

There was an injury delay when HB Leon Bright was hit in the throat by the elbow of Detroit WR Leonard Thompson while fielding a punt and had to be taken off the field on a stretcher. Afterward, Coach Perkins blasted the officials for not adequately protecting the kick returner by exacting penalties or ejecting players who hit defenseless return men, although Bright, who had played in the Canadian Football League where fair catches were not allowed, rarely signaled for one and had taken several such hits since coming to the NFL.

There was plenty of time remaining and Detroit still had a shot late in the game as the Lions again drove into Giants territory. But CB Terry Jackson intercepted a Danielson pass to preserve the error-filled 13-6 win for New York.

The Lions outgained the Giants (321 yards to 206) and had more first downs (19 to 10). Detroit turned the ball over four times, leading indirectly to two field goals and directly to a touchdown, while New York suffered three, two of them resulting in a total of six points.

Scott Brunner had an ordinary day as he completed 12 of 28 passes for 136 yards and was intercepted twice. Rookie RB Butch Woolfolk led the running game with 87 yards on 21 carries and also caught four passes for 28 more yards. WR Johnny Perkins had 5 pass receptions for 80 yards.

For the Lions, Billy Sims (pictured below) was, except for the one costly fumble, the key player on offense as he rushed for 114 yards on 26 carries and had 6 receptions for 38 yards. Gary Danielson was successful on 12 of 19 passes for 125 yards but was intercepted three times. WR Mark Nichols had the most pass receiving yards with 49 on his three catches.

“The game highlights were that we won,” said Ray Perkins afterward. “That’s the bright spot - plus the fact that our defense played much better than it has.”

“The situation was similar to the one Green Bay had against us earlier in the season,” Lawrence Taylor explained about the key interception for the TD. “They called a time out and when they lined up, I recognized the formation as one similar to the Packers’. I was supposed to cover the man out of the backfield (Horace King) and when he went into the flat, I cut in front of him and got the pass.”

Meanwhile, an angry Monte Clark, frustrated with the performance of the Detroit offense, responded by calling a practice the next day and canceling a scheduled day off from practice on Monday. It would ultimately not resolve the Lions’ offensive woes.

Both clubs ended up at 4-5, although the Lions just qualified for the postseason tournament that replaced the usual playoff structure for the abbreviated season while the Giants came up short (despite New York winning the head-to-head matchup with the Lions, Detroit had the better conference record, and that was preeminent). Detroit was decimated in the first postseason round by the top-seeded Washington Redskins. The Giants also suffered the distraction in the last few weeks of the season of Coach Perkins announcing that he would be leaving the club to replace the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant as the head coach at his college alma mater, Alabama.

Lawrence Taylor was not only a consensus first-team All-Pro selection and named to the Pro Bowl, but was also named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press for the second straight year – an amazing affirmation of how quickly the 1981 first round draft pick’s impact was felt. The interception against the Lions was his only one in ’82 and one of two that he returned for a touchdown during his Hall of Fame career.

Billy Sims ranked fifth in the league with 639 yards rushing on 172 carries with four touchdowns, although his average gain of 3.7 yards-per-carry was his career low. He also gained 342 more yards on a team-leading 34 pass receptions on his way to being chosen to the Pro Bowl for the third time in three years, having quickly established himself in 1980 when he was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.