Bill Belichick’s Super Bowl XXV game plan disrupted the Bills’ fast break, K-Gun offense
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 Evil Genius
Jan. 27, 1991
Super Bowl XXV
Giants 20, Bills 19
The deliberate printing came from a disciplined hand.
The writing was scrawled in black ink and felt-tip marker, filling dozens of sheets of loose leaf paper.
There were hand-drawn formations and plays. There were dummy calls to recognize. There were situational adjustments for defending two-tight end sets and the no-huddle while in the nickel and dime.
Occasional splashes of color — the touch of a florescent yellow highlighter here and a brief comment in red ink there — punctuated the odd diagram. And it was all bound in a blue, three-ring binder.
Bill Belichick’s defensive game plan for Super Bowl XXV sits behind glass in Canton, its impact resounding loudly enough to earn a place on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Belichick’s unorthodox but ingenious scheme was the foundation for the Giants’ 20-19 upset victory over the Bills, a win that became official when Buffalo’s Scott Norwood sent a kick sailing wide right into the Tampa night from 47 yards out.
The innovative game plan limited Buffalo’s revolutionary K-Gun, no-huddle offense. And it helped compensate for the Giants’ offensive limitations, playing behind backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler.
“Belichick was that special,” Carl Banks told Big Blue View. “He was a blank canvas on the sideline. He could take information that you give him and devise a plan or make an adjustment like that.”
But when the coordinator stood in front of his defense in January 1991 and unveiled his game plan six days before the Super Bowl, the concept at its very heart was greeted as treasonous.
“We almost lost it,” Banks said.
The dominant unit, the backbone of two title runs in five years, prided itself on smothering opponents’ ground games. Yet here was the young assistant telling the NFL’s No. 2 defense that it was going to allow Thurman Thomas to just … just… run wild?
Yes, Belichick said.
That’s exactly what you’re going to do.
In fact, that was the essence of his game plan.
“He said, ‘We’re going to let Thurman Thomas run for 100 yards,’” said Banks, an All-Pro linebacker for the Giants from 1984 to 1992 and an analyst on the team’s radio broadcasts. “Then he explained why.”
Belichick needed to do something different because the Giants were facing something the NFL had never witnessed before.
He had seen the threat the Bills posed on film. They all had. And what they saw concerned them.
Buffalo boasted the NFL’s top-scoring offense, run by a Hall of Fame quarterback in Kelly and loaded with Hall of Fame skills players Andre Reed, James Lofton and Thomas coming out the backfield.
In 1990, it scored at least 26 points in 12 games. The Bills put up 44 points on the Miami Dolphins in the Divisional round, then embarrassed the Los Angeles Raiders, 51-3, in the AFC Championship game.
Buffalo wasn’t just playing at a different speed than everyone else in using the no-huddle and hurry-up — then cutting edge ideas. It was practically playing a different game.
”We walk into Tampa, and we put the film on,” Banks said, “and they just looked like they were running fast break basketball against the Raiders.”
The Giants were loaded with talent, coming off a 13-3 regular season. They had just dethroned the two-time defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers the previous week in the NFC title game. And they had won the Super Bowl themselves just a few years before.
But they were nearly touchdown underdogs.
How could the Giants stop an inventive offensive juggernaut driven by four Hall of Famers?
One man had a radical idea.
They called him Doom.
Belichick did not see in black and white. He just saw shades of disaster.
Everywhere he looked, the bold, 38-year-old defensive coordinator found worst-case scenarios: how his defense would be exposed, how that offense would beat him, how that coverage would fail.
It was his gift. He saw all that possibly could go wrong, and then worked to prevent it.
Highly intelligent, Belichick was in many ways the same dour personality he is today. But when he spoke in his infamously dry monotone, the Giants listened, or at least they tried to as they fought off sleep.
Everyone, that is, but Lawrence Taylor.
“He used to tease me about falling asleep in his meetings,” Taylor wrote in his 2016 book, My Giant Life, co-written by William Wyatt. “My response to that would always be the same: I had to sleep in his meetings because I couldn’t sleep in [Bill] Parcells’.”
Belichick was also known as “Little Bill,” top lieutenant to “Big Bill” — Parcells.
Belichick arrived with the Giants in 1979 as a special teams coach before being promoted to linebackers coach, and then in 1985, defensive coordinator. He was the architect of the elite 1986 and 1990 Super Bowl defenses.
In fact, the defense carried him off the field following their shutout victory over Washington in the 1986 NFC Championship game.
Belichick had gained the Giants’ respect.
But it wasn’t easy.
He wasn’t a former player — at least not at the pro level. Belichick played football at DIvision III Wesleyan and also played lacrosse — something general manager George Young famously found distasteful.
Just after Parcells promoted Belichick to coordinator, Taylor stormed into the head coach’s office demanding a change.
It was not working, he said. Belichick was not one of them. He didn’t get it.
“I asked Bill if he was f—— crazy,” Taylor wrote in his book.
But Parcells convinced Taylor he was wrong. He told him most of the successful defenses the Giants had run in 1984 were designed by Belichick.
In the coordinator’s first season, they finished No. 2 in total defense, behind only the hallowed 1985 Chicago Bears. They finished No. 2 again in 1986.
By 1990, Belichick was viewed as a defensive savant who soon would have his own team to mold, escaping Parcells’ prodigious shadow.
”He’s smart,” said Tom Coughlin, who served as the Giants receivers coach from 1988 to 1990 on the same staff as Belichick. “He’s good. He’s thorough. He’s detailed. He’s disciplined.”
Belichick was not yet the five-time Super Bowl champion and eight-time AFC winner, a genius on par — and possibly superior to — Vince Lombardi.
But his players knew they had something special.
“How good was Bill Belichick? All you have to do is check out the game plan he came up with before we played the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV…” Taylor wrote. “They scored points like they were playing a video game. Most of the experts didn’t give us a chance to win against them. I couldn’t blame them. … None of the teams in the league could handle it.
“[But] Belichick came up with a plan.”
The plan was a calculated gamble.
Belichick essentially designed a trap, trying to entice Marv Levy and the Bills to run far more often than normal and turn their high-powered offense over to Thomas.
The more he ran, the less opportunities Kelly would have to throw to Reed, Lofton, Don Beebe and Thomas out of the backfield.
The scheme also kept those pass catchers in front of the defense, preventing big plays and slowing the Bills’ fast-break attack.
To do that, Belichick played only two defensive linemen — nose tackle Erik Howard and defensive end Leonard Marshall — instead of three. Then depending on the situation, he would use three to five linebackers and four to six defensive backs.
”We committed to stopping the passing game,” Banks said. “We wanted to make sure that we shut that passing game down.”
As usual, Belichick was a step — or a generation — ahead.
Decades before anyone was thinking about analytics in football, Belichick broke down the Bills well beyond his film work.
”That game plan speaks to a lot of what is in vogue now,” Banks said. “We talk about analytics in sports. The analytics of that situation were the guy basically realized, ‘Their passing game is their running game.’
“He knew the percentage of everything Thomas did. We had the data that proved it.”
Thomas did rush for 100 yards — 135 to be exact, and on only 15 carries.
But the tradeoff — and the offense’s stellar performance in hogging possession for a Super Bowl record 40:33 — worked.
The Bills were out of rhythm for much of the game. Confusion had much to do with the Giants’ victory, given their ever-changing defensive looks.
“Had they thought about it more, they probably could have won the game,” Banks said.
Kelly threw for only 212 yards and no touchdowns, far less than the 339 yards and three touchdowns he compiled against the Dolphins and the 300 yards and two touchdowns he had against the Raiders.
The Bills converted just one of eight third-down opportunities. And maybe most crucially, only one of Kelly’s 30 passes gained more than 20 yards — Lofton’s 61-yard reception in the first quarter.
There was of course another wrinkle: Belichick wanted every receiver punished, especially those coming across the middle.
Crossing routes were a big part of the Bills attack. When they ran them in Super Bowl XXV — especially when the Giants were in a five-linebacker set — they paid for it.
“We hammered everything,” Marshall said in 2012. “We hammered their receivers. We hammered their back. We didn’t care who it was.”
The physical toll impeded their uptempo offense.
“When they caught the ball, we needed to hit those guys,” safety Greg Jackson said in 2015. “All of us had to hustle to the football as fast as we could and strip the ball. It made a huge difference.
“If you look at that game, we did slow them down.”
The rare moments when Belichick has shown emotion in recent years have almost always involved him discussing his Giants days.
And each time he does, he deflects credit back to those players.
“[We] really had a special group,” Belichick said of the 1990 unit. “I know they worked well together and had a lot of leadership in the secondary from Everson Walls …
“Our front had a lot of good days defensively that year and strictly in the postseason. I’m proud to have coached that group. … It was an amazing year.’’
Of Whitney, F-16s & payback
The pageantry before the game was unique, even for the Super Bowl.
The Gulf War had injected added significance to the patriotic-tinged pregame.
Whitney Houston performed her celebrated version of The Star-Spangled Banner. Then came the flyover of four F-16 fighter jets.
“One of my most vivid memories was waiting to be introduced in the tunnel and looking around at the American flags and realizing how big this game really was and what it meant at the time,” Hostetler said in 2016. “To have Whitney Houston singing the national anthem, and to see everybody with their flags in the stands and then the flyover, it’s stuff you don’t forget.”
But the Giants were already motivated.
Their underdog status was one thing. The urge to solidify their legacy after failing to reach the playoffs in 1987 and 1988 and then suffering a stunning home loss to the Rams in the 1989 playoffs was another.
But there was also something more personal.
The Bills didn’t just come into the Meadowlands in Week 15 — just six weeks earlier — and beat the Giants, 17-13. They broke the foot of starting quarterback Phil Simms, ending his season.
The Giants may not have sought redemption, but they earned it anyway.
The defense held up its end of the bargain in Super Bowl XXV.
So did Hostetler, who exceeded expectations, completing 20-of-32 passes for 222 yards and a 14-yard touchdown pass to Stephen Baker with 25 seconds remaining in the first half. It cut Buffalo’s 12-3 lead to two points, and shifted momentum to the Giants.
And Ottis Anderson did his part, earning MVP honors by rushing for 102 yards on 21 carries and helping the Giants drain the clock.
His 1-yard touchdown run finished a marathon-like 14-play, 75-yard drive to start the second half that lasted 9:29 — the longest in Super Bowl history.
It gave the Giants a 17-12 lead — their first since they led, 3-0, 7:46 into the game.
Matt Bahr’s 21-yard field goal with 7:20 remaining gave the Giants the lead once more, 20-19.
It was a lead that the defense — with a little help from Norwood and his missed field goal from 47 yards out with four seconds remaining — would make stand up.
And all thanks to an Evil Genius who played lacrosse in college.
”We bought into the game plan,” Banks said, “and we won.”