Phil Simms claimed the MVP, but the linebacker owned the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI
A Date To Remember is an occasional series Big Blue View will be running through the Super Bowl, highlighting the glory of the Giants’ past and celebrating the biggest playoff wins in franchise history.
The sounds of victory
Jan. 25, 1987
Super Bowl XXI
Giants 39, Broncos 20
The game film practically played on a loop for three straight days.
Carl Banks sat back and just took it in, absorbing the Denver Broncos as the plays unfolded before him.
He had already diagrammed their offense. Scouted their tendencies. Charted their plays and formations.
But then he went further.
In the days leading up to Super Bowl XXI, Banks was no longer watching the film as much as calibrating himself to it. To John Elway. To the Broncos’ two-headed rushing attack of Sammy Winder and Gerald Willhite. To their offensive line.
He compares that preparation to his appreciation of jazz: If you listen long enough, closely enough, you move beyond the riffs and chords and notes to find the very essence and soul of the music — or the opposing offense.
“When I watch film at times beyond what my normal scouting would be, I watch it like I listen to jazz,” Banks told Big Blue View. “I’m a big jazz fan. I love classical jazz.
“And if you listen to jazz long enough, you pick up on something you hadn’t heard ever or you just feel the groove.”
Banks played the game of his life in the Giants’ 39-20 victory in Super Bowl XXI — the franchise’s first Super Bowl win and first championship since 1956 — because he says he transcended his thorough, yet routine film study and found the rhythm of the Denver attack.
The linebacker read their plays from the snap, and in the rare moments he did not, he instinctively snuffed them out just the same. Even if he didn’t recognize them, he practically felt what the Broncos were trying to do.
Banks had 14 tackles, including 10 solo stops and four tackles for loss. But the statistics do not describe the disruptive force he was in front of a crowd of 101,063 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
He was utterly dominant.
One of the best linebackers in Giants’ history — a vaunted history at that position — penetrated deep into the Broncos backfield play after play and shut down their rushing attack.
His supreme performance on the biggest stage in American sports often gets lost in the near perfection of quarterback Phil Simms, who justly won the MVP award after completing 22-of-25 passes — an eye-popping 88 percent completion rate — for 268 yards and three touchdowns.
But you’ve heard that story.
The story of the most dominant defensive player on the field that day — just as dominant in his responsibilities as Simms was in his — is not as well known.
That day, Banks was better than all of them. Lawrence Taylor. Harry Carson. Leonard Marshall. George Martin.
Simms would have stared at a 10-point or even 13-point deficit at halftime if not for Banks’ inspired play. As it was, the Giants trailed, 10-9 — and only after Martin sacked Elway for a safety late in the second quarter and Denver kicker Rich Karlis missed two chip shot field goals.
In fact, Banks’ tackle near the goal line midway through the second quarter was the pivotal play in the game, despite the wide final margin of victory.
They almost get forgotten.
They certainly get overlooked.
Banks and Marshall were selected to three Pro Bowls between them. They would have earned several more invites had they not played in the era of Taylor, Reggie White, Chris Doleman, Charles Haley and other Hall of Famers.
They also get lost in the remembrances of the 1986 team.
After all, they lined up with Taylor, the most feared pass rusher in NFL history. They lined up with Carson, the undisputed team captain and leader. And they played for Bill Parcells, the larger than life head coach exuding swagger, Jersey attitude and quotable bons mots, usually at the expense of players he was trying to motivate.
All that talent sometimes pushed the critical accomplishments of Banks and Marshall to the edges of the narrative.
But they were indispensable. There would have been no Super Bowls without them, even with Taylor and Simms and Parcells.
Banks, the third overall selection in the 1984 draft out of Michigan State, helped change the face of the defense almost immediately.
He was a fierce run stuffer. He and Carson allowed the Giants’ ferocious pass rushers to run wild.
“Banks can destroy a tight end like no linebacker I’ve ever seen,” Denver linebacker Tom Jackson said in 1987. “People are so afraid of Taylor, they tend to overlook Banks. Big mistake.”
Banks was so disruptive in Super Bowl XXI, the Broncos abandoned their running game in the second quarter, despite their lead. They would not hand off again until midway through the fourth, when the game had already been decided.
The Broncos’ four running backs combined for just 25 rushing yards on 13 carries.
And Taylor, Marshall and Co. took advantage, teeing off on Elway each time he dropped back to throw. They sacked him four times.
In 1986, Banks recorded 113 tackles and 6½ sacks. The next season he was an All-Pro, registering nine sacks and 101 tackles in just 12 games in the strike-shortened season.
Meanwhile, Marshall would have been a legend on almost any other team.
Raiders owner Al Davis described him as the steal of the 1983 draft, when he was the Giants’ second-round pick out of LSU. After overcoming an early weight issue, he blossomed into a feared pass rusher.
Marshall recorded 15½ sacks in 1985 and 12 in 1986. He registered at least eight sacks each season from 1985 to 1991, with the exception of 1990, when the Giants took away his starting job after a contract dispute.
The defensive end was also a clutch player.
He twice sacked Elway in Super Bowl XXI. He had another sack in Super Bowl XXV — the only time the Giants got to the Bills’ Jim Kelly in the revolutionary K-Gun no-huddle offense.
“Leonard was a hard-nosed player,” Taylor wrote in his 2016 book, My Giant Life, co-written with William Wyatt. “Nobody worked harder than Leonard Marshall. …
“You could count Leonard among those rising to the occasion.”
They only reached that Super Bowl thanks to Marshall’s devastating sack of Joe Montana in the fourth quarter of the 1990 NFC Championship game. It was more than just the turning point in the Giants’ comeback. The San Francisco 49ers held the lead and the ball at home with only about 10:00 remaining.
Montana would not play in a regular season game for almost two years after that vicious hit.
In 12 seasons, Marshall recorded 83½ sacks.
Of course, Banks and Marshall did not do it alone in Super Bowl XXI.
Simms helped. A little.
The not-so golden boy
The 1986 Super Bowl was not just a career game for Simms.
It was redemption.
He may have been blond, but he was no fair-haired boy — at least not in New York, not in his first four seasons.
Simms was plagued by injuries. Then he lost his starting job when Parcells became coach in 1983. At that point, he asked to be traded. But the Giants ignored the request.
Questions swirled: Was the Morehead State product really worth the first-round selection general manager George Young spent on him in 1979? Was Simms tough enough to play in the NFL?
Then came 1986. Then came Super Bowl XXI.
All the questions were answered. For good.
“This ought to dispel any myth about Phil Simms because he was absolutely magnificent today,” Parcells told reporters after the game. “That was about as good as a quarterback has ever played.”
Simms went 10-of-10 in the second half for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
”I didn’t feel ignored this week,” Simms said. “When you think of the Denver Broncos, you think of John Elway. When you think of the New York Giants, you don’t think of Simms.
”The only thing that bothered me all week was that everybody ignored our passing game.”
Simms led the Giants to 30 second-half points, 17 in the third quarter. He described that quarter as feeling “like playing golf where you know every putt will go in.”
The onslaught began with Simms’ 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Bavaro on the first series of the second half, giving the Giants a lead they would never relinquish, 16-10.
After a 21-yard Raul Allegre field goal, Simms hit Phil McConkey with a 44-yard flea-flicker. Joe Morris followed with a 1-yard touchdown run on the next play.
Meanwhile, Banks and the defense held the Broncos to just two net yards in the third.
In the fourth, McConkey caught a deflected pass off Bavaro’s helmet for a 6-yard touchdown. And Ottis Anderson then finished the Giants’ scoring with a 2-yard touchdown run, making it 39-13.
Parcells had pulled out all the tricks to ensure victory.
In that initial series of the third quarter, the Giants ran a fake punt on fourth-and-1 at the Giants’ 46. Punter Sean Landeta broke formation and went in motion, and upback Jeff Rutledge — the backup quarterback — moved behind center.
Denver was not fooled. The Broncos had sniffed out the fake and left their first-team defense on the field.
Rutledge had the option of running the play or aborting and accepting a delay of game penalty. But the Denver linebackers had not stepped up behind their linemen in a short-yardage alignment.
So Rutledge looked over at Parcells, who nodded, took the snap and dove over right guard for two yards and the first down.
”It was just a gut feeling,” Parcells said. “Every time I’ve challenged these guys with something like this, they’ve come through. We’re five-for-five on fourth-down plays this year. And Rutledge is a real heady guy, perfect for making that kind of decision.”
The images of celebration remain indelible.
The exuberance of Bavaro and McConkey, celebrating their touchdowns.
Bart Oates and Brad Benson dousing Simms, and Carson once again drowning Parcells in Gatorade.
Jim Burt toting his son on his shoulders around the field, then climbing into the crowd to high-five fans.
And the conga line around the field led by Pepper Johnson and William Roberts.
They were moments of victory and pride and pure joy.
The goal-line stand
But before the celebration came the play of the game.
The Banks play.
The game was far from decided.
The Broncos held a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter and were on the verge of scoring another touchdown. They held a first-and-goal at the Giants’ 1.
Taylor tackled Elway for a loss of one yard on first down. Carson then brought down Willhite for no gain.
On third down, Winder took a pitch and ran to his left, eluding Perry Williams and Carson.
But Banks read it immediately, breaking through the Denver line and swallowing up Winder for a loss of four yards.
In 2016, The Washington Post ranked it one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history.
Karlis then missed a 23-yard field goal attempt to complete the goal-line stand.
“By the time I got to the game, there was nothing I didn’t recognize,” Banks said. “And even if I didn’t recognize it, there was nothing that could happen that I wouldn’t stop.
“I was just so in-tune with everything and anything about the Denver Broncos that I just knew it was not going to work.”
Banks knew reading plays at the snap was vital given the slashing style of the Broncos’ running game. Decisions had to be made in a split-second or creases would turn into chunk plays.
And Banks did just that, thanks to his film prep.
The goal-line tackle is a moment that will always be synonymous with the linebacker.
“That moment on the goal-line I definitely own,” he said.
But there was another moment — on the game’s opening drive — that might have been evem more impressive.
“There was an outside run, and they had I think two or three blockers coming at me,” Banks said, narrating the play slowly, as if reliving it. “Somehow I defeated all three and made the tackle.
“Getty has a photo of it where I’m flipping [WIllhite] in the air. He’s coming by, and I just knew how I was going to make the play.”
It all started with his preparation. And jazz.
”It was a game I spent a lot of time studying, and it just became jazz to me,” Banks said. “I just watched it like I listened to jazz.
”Once you get in-sync with the rhythm of what they do, it just becomes your game.”
And Super Bowl XXI was Banks’ game.