- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

What do you get when the NFL's best offense collides with its best defense in the Super Bowl?
If history repeats, you get one of the closest, most compelling games ever.
The Oakland Raiders this season gained more yards than any team in the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers yielded the fewest. Tomorrow, the No.1 offense meets the No.1 defense for the first time in the Super Bowl.
But going into Super Bowl XXV a dozen years ago, the scenario was practically the same.
The game is remembered mainly for two things the unprecedented security at Tampa (Fla.) Stadium and Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood. It was 11 days after President George H.W. Bush sent troops into battle against Iraq, and there was genuine concern about a terrorist attack. Parties were canceled. Snipers were placed on the roof. Metal detectors screened the fans, who were prohibited from carrying in just about anything.
Then, in the closest Super Bowl ever, Norwood barely missed a 47-yard field goal with four seconds remaining, allowing the New York Giants to hang on for a 20-19 victory. The kick has probably been shown more than any other Super Bowl play.
There was, however, more to it than that.
Buffalo had the NFL's most explosive, innovative offense during the 1990 season; the Giants had the best defense. Much of the pregame hype and speculation was similar to that of Super Bowl XXXVII tomorrow, when Tampa Bay and Oakland play at Qualcomm Stadium as military jets patrol the sky, 90 surveillance cameras scan the crowd and a second President Bush considers attacking Iraq once again. As part of the post-September 11 security called "Operation Game Day," several foreign-born residents with access to the stadium have been arrested.
The atmosphere was even more tense in Tampa (then-ABC commentator Dan Dierdorf said the TV crew was briefed on what to do in case of a terrorist takeover), but the game superseded the apprehension and lived up to the hype.
Explosive offenses
The Bills did not gain the most yards during the 1990 season, but they did score the most points, one of two teams to crack the 400-point barrier. Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly led the league in passing, deftly guiding a no-huddle, hurry-up offense that featured three wide receivers.
Buffalo was every bit as dangerous as today's Raiders, perhaps more so. In addition to Kelly, the Bills had running back Thurman Thomas, who led the AFC in rushing, and wide receivers James Lofton and Andre Reed. Their credentials make them all worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.
"It was the best offense I've ever been around," said Ted Marchibroda, the Bills' offensive coordinator that year whose NFL career as a player and coach spanned nearly 50 years.
Said former Bills player personnel director John Butler, now the San Diego Chargers general manager: "We had a totally different offense. No huddle, hurry-up. And we had special people doing those things.
"We were such a fast-paced offense, so quick. It was really difficult for other teams to substitute, and we wore them down. Jim ran it so well. We had great people and a quarterback who ran it perfectly."
The Buffalo offense "was a little ahead of its time," former Bills receiver and special teams ace Steve Tasker said. "But it was great players who made it work."
Oakland has some great players on offense, too. Quarterback Rich Gannon led the NFL in passing and was voted the league's MVP. Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, past their primes but still effective, are two of the three players in history to catch more than 1,000 passes. Jerry Porter, the third receiver, might be better than either. Running back Charlie Garner is a nimble, elusive threat running and catching. The line is agile and huge.
The Raiders lack the Bills' overall speed, but their scheme compensates. Whereas Buffalo liked to spread things out, the Raiders do it even more. "I think they've taken it to the next level," Marchibroda said.
Punishing defense
In 1990, the Giants, under the direction of defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, now the New England coach, led the NFL in fewest points allowed and was second in fewest yards allowed. Outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who would make the Hall of Fame, was the focal point. It was a physically strong, intimidating unit. "Power wins football games," coach Bill Parcells said after what would be his final game with the Giants.
The Bucs, by comparison, rely more on quickness and speed. "The fastest defense I've ever seen," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said this week. But the result is the same. "It's a very unforgiving defense," Gruden said.
Former Giants linebacker Carl Banks said the Bucs' defense is "tenacious, punishing." In other words, he said, it's a lot like the defense he helped anchor 1990.
"They have a passion for it," Banks said. "They believe they can win the game by themselves if they have to. They have a great attitude."
Tampa Bay stormed into the Super Bowl after beating San Francisco at home and upsetting Philadelphia on the road in the NFC playoffs. Both wins were convincing, and the Bucs gave up just 16 points.
The 1990 Giants also yielded 16 points in their two playoff games and, like Tampa Bay, had to pull off a road upset to get to the Super Bowl. But it wasn't as easy as the Bucs' win over Philly. Jeff Hostetler had replaced the injured Phil Simms at quarterback, and the Giants needed Matt Bahr's 42-yard field goal as time expired to beat San Francisco 15-13 at Candlestick Park. The week before, New York crushed Chicago at home 31-3.
Buffalo, meanwhile, won a 44-34 shootout with Miami in the divisional playoff and blasted Oakland 51-3 in the AFC Championship (The 2002 Raiders scored 71 points in home playoff wins over the New York Jets and Tennessee). Both games were at Buffalo's Rich Stadium, where the Bills were unbeaten in 1990.
The Bills beat the Giants during the regular season, on the road 17-13 in December. Simms was knocked out with a sprained arch, but the Giants held the Buffalo offense in check and knew they could do it again.
"They scared every team in the league but us," Banks said. "When we broke down the films, we saw they had abandoned the running game the last six games of the season. Their running game was a swing pass to Thurman Thomas. We said we were gonna play the pass and basically try to intimidate the receivers, punish them every time they got the ball. They ran a lot of crossing routes, similar to what the Raiders do."
The Giants' base defense employed just two down linemen, yet Kelly still came out firing, throwing on nine of the Bills' first 12 plays. In the first half, during which the Bills passed 21 times and ran 12, Buffalo receivers were constantly being mugged and dropped several passes.
"We made them work hard for everything they got," Banks said. "We created a no-fly zone, so to speak. They came across the middle, we punished them."
Controlling the game
The Bills got off to a good start and led 12-3 after Bruce Smith tackled Hostetler for a safety in the second quarter. But the Giants came back. Slowly. The key was their offense. Controlling the ball a Super Bowl-record 40 minutes, 33 seconds, New York pounded the Bills' defense, putting together drives of 58, 74, 75 and 87 yards. Power wins football games.
"I've never been so tired after a game in my life," Bills linebacker Shane Conlan said afterward.
Said Tasker, now a CBS commentator: "We had the ball for 20 minutes and scored roughly a point a minute. We just couldn't get on the field."
And Banks: "We were fresh every time we stepped on the field."
The Giants used two long drives to take a 17-12 lead early in the third quarter, but Thomas' 31-yard run in the fourth quarter put the Bills ahead 19-17. New York regained the lead 20-19 on Bahr's 21-yard field goal with 7:40 to go. Then it was up to Norwood.
The Bills ran more in the second half. Running almost exclusively out of the shotgun formation, Thomas rushed for a game-high 135 yards on just 15 carries. Who knows what might have happened if he had more touches? Kelly had a modest 212 passing yards and only one long completion, a 61-yarder to Lofton off a deflection. Giants running back Ottis Anderson ran for 102 yards and was named MVP.
All of which leads Banks to believe that the team that runs more effectively tomorrow will win.
"We had to run," he said. "In a game like this, you have to run the football. No two ways about it. Or you've got to give the impression you're going to run the football. That's what hurt Buffalo."

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