The 1978 NFL season was the 15th season without a postseason berth for the New York Football Giants dating back to the 1964 campaign. During Week 12, the Giants would find themselves on the wrong end of one of the signature plays in their rivalry with the Philadelphia Eagles.
On Nov. 19, 1978, the 5-6 Giants and 6-5 Eagles met for just the third time at Giants Stadium. Each team had head coaches in their third season on the sideline: John McVay for the Giants, Dick Vermeil for the Eagles.
Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik was questionable entering the game. He was dealing with a sore knee and fighting the flu. Pisarcik threw two touchdowns in the first quarter to give the Giants a 14-6 lead at the half in spite of his injury/illness.
Jurgensen marveled at Pisarcik’s performance.
“He may be a little under the weather, but I’ve never seen him throw better,” Jurgensen said on the broadcast.
The Giants held a 17-12 lead in the fourth quarter when running back Doug Kotar fumbled deep in Giants territory to give the Eagles a chance. Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski was picked off by Odis McKinney with 1:23 remaining in regulation. The Giants were headed to victory…or so it seemed.
On first down, Pisarcik fell to the ground. Eagles linebacker Frank LeMaster came flying at running back Willie Spencer and shoved him into Pisarcik. The linemen on both sides began smack talking each other and getting physical before the officials calmed everyone down.
The Eagles used their final timeout with 1:11 left. On 2nd-and-13, Giants offensive coordinator Bob Gibson called for a handoff to halfback Larry Csonka. Csonka carried the ball up the middle for a 12-yard gain. Gibson called for another handoff on 3rd-and-1.
Csonka questioned the call but Pisarcik refused to change it. Pisarcik was read the riot act a week earlier for changing a play.
As the Giants broke huddle, Eagles defensive back Herman Edwards noticed Pisarcik and Csonka looking at each other. Edwards suspected the Giants wouldn’t be taking a knee and crept closer to the line.
The rest is NFL history. Pisarcik takes the snap but loses control of the ball before he can hand it off to Csonka. The ball falls to the turf, bouncing into Edwards’ hands. Edwards takes a 26-yard scamper for the go-ahead touchdown.
“I don’t believe it!” Criqui said on the CBS broadcast.
Final score: Eagles 19, Giants 17.
“When I saw the ball being bobbled, my curiosity kinda rose,” Edwards said. “Once it hit his hip and I saw the ball getting ready to hit the ground, my thought process was I’ve gotta get it on the first bounce. You do these drills that the coaches teach you, like fall on the fumble. That was never even a thought. I just thought, get it on the first bounce and run it in for a touchdown.”
The victory formation wasn’t allowed until the 1987 season. Quarterbacks had to drop back and fall to the ground to kill plays. The quarterback still had to be touched by a defender thanks to one of the NFL’s unwritten rules.
This game, a Week 12 contest between division rivals with nothing on the line, has two nicknames. Eagles fans (and NFL fans in general) refer to this game as The Miracle at the Meadowlands. The Giants and their fans simply call it The Fumble.
“It’s a miracle,” Vermeil said when recalling his thoughts from 40 years ago. “That’s why they call it The Miracle at the Meadowlands. You know as a coach that should never happen, but it did.”
Harry Carson, the Giants’ Hall of Fame linebacker, was in his third season. He sat on the bench on the Giants sideline and did not move for 15 minutes. He also noticed the fans inside Giants Stadium were also in a state of shock.
“I was stunned,” Carson said. “All we had to do was run out the clock. And the think I remember is that I was so stunned that I could not get up from the bench when the game was over. Players walk off the field, walk across the field to congratulate the other team. I was stuck in my seat and could not move.”
Carson also can’t remember the Giants’ final four games of ’78. He does remember the prevailing sense of trepidation over the team.
“The coaches knew they were dead men walking,” Carson said.
The Miracle at the Meadowlands/Fumble changed the direction of the New York Football Giants.
Gibson was fired the day after the game. McVay and his staff were let go after the Giants lost three of their final four games. General manager Andy Robustelli and his staff were also given pink slips at season’s end.
Giants owners Wellington Mara and his nephew Tim couldn’t agree on a new general manager. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle played the role of mediator and got them to settle on a candidate neither one of them was particularly fond of: George Young.
Carson didn’t like Perkins but admitted he was just what the Giants needed.
“While I hated Ray Perkins at the time because he was really hard-nosed, a hard-ass coach,” Carson said. “In retrospect, he was probably the best coach we could have had to install a sense of discipline in the players.”
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In 1981, the Giants selected North Carolina linebacker Lawrence Taylor with the No. 2 overall pick. Taylor’s impact was immediate. The Giants defense improved from 24th overall in 1980 to third in ’81. Taylor won the Defensive Player of the Year award as a rookie. The Giants made their first postseason appearance since losing the 1963 NFL Championship Game.
Perkins left the Giants after the 1982 season to succeed Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama. Perkins, a former Crimson Tide wide receiver, was named head coach just 42 days before Bryant’s death. Young needed to find a head coach for the second time in three seasons. He settled on linebackers coach Duane “Bill” Parcells.
The Giants turned into one of the NFL’s most successful franchises, reaching five Super Bowls (XXI, XXV, XXXV, XLII, XLVI) in 26 years with four victories (XXI, XXV, XLII, XLVI). Would this turnaround have occurred if The Miracle at the Meadowlands/Fumble never happened?
The Giants would have been 6-6 had they won in Week 12 of ’78. They would have had a bit of momentum going into the last quarter of the season. There is no telling if they would have blown up the team the way they did if that play never happened.
“I’ve heard some over the years say The Fumble turned around the fate of the franchise, and I agree with that,” Simms said. “It just made the Giants change how they run their football team, and it definitely made them better.”
Wellington and Tim Mara did not get along. Tim inherited half of the team when his father, Jack, died in 1965. There were separate owner boxes at Giants Stadium. Wellington Mara had been the hands-on, day-to-day owner while Tim Mara and his family watched from a distance. This was until Nov. 19, 1978.
“Everything changed,” Criqui said. “The side that was quiet about running the Giants said, ‘Now it’s our turn to start making decisions’.”
Simms was the MVP of Super Bowl XXI. Taylor became the second (and most recent) defensive player to win league MVP. He also won three Defensive Player of the Year awards in his Hall of Fame career. Carson was one of the few players on the Giants team that won Super Bowl XXI that Young didn’t bring in.
“But I don’t think George Young would have been part of the equation had it not been for The Fumble, had it not been for the difference in opinion between the Mara family and that whole 50-50 split of the organization,” Carson said.
McVay accepted the vice president of football operations position with the San Francisco 49ers a year after he was fired by the Giants. McVay played a key role in assembling five Super Bowl winning teams (XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV, XXIX).
Week 12 of the 1978 season also had an impact on the Eagles as well.
The Eagles split their final four games, finishing 9-7 and earning a Wild Card berth. They made the postseason for the first time since winning the 1960 NFL Championship. If the Eagles hadn’t won against the Giants, their Wild Card berth would have gone to the 8-7-1 Green Bay Packers.
“When you’re a losing team, every win is a building block—and a win like that is two or three blocks,” Vermeil said. “It’s a great way to make sure your players always know they still have a chance to win.”
The Eagles lost to the Atlanta Falcons in the Wild Card round. The following season, they won 11 games and made it to the Divisional Round, losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 1980, the Eagles won 12 games and advanced to Super Bowl XV. They were defeated by the Oakland Raiders.
Pisarcik signed with the Eagles in 1980, primarily serving as Jaworski’s backup. He retired after the 1984 season.
Edwards was one of 12 Eagles players on the Super Bowl team present for The Miracle at the Meadowlands/Fumble. He finished his 10-year career with two defensive touchdowns, both against the Giants.
He went on to head coaching positions with the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs and a broadcast gig at ESPN. Edwards’ NFL career as a player and coach can best be summed when he succinctly said “You play to win the game!” in a 2002 press conference with the Jets. It was the same thought running through his mind when he scooped up Pisarcik’s fumble. Edwards is currently the head coach at Arizona State.
Vermeil took a 15-year hiatus from coaching after the 1982 season, citing burnout. He spent that time working as a broadcaster for both CBS and ABC. He returned to the NFL sideline with the St. Louis Rams in 1997.
Vermeil led the Rams (powered by the Greatest Show on Turf) to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV and was named NFL Coach of the Year in 1999. He also was head coach of the Chiefs (2001-05). Vermeil was succeeded by Edwards as Chiefs head coach.
The Miracle at The Meadowlands/Fumble changed the foundation of the NFL landscape.
“I don’t think people realize the enormity of that one play on the National Football League,” Criqui said. “A lot of people think, ‘Gee, it cost the Giants the game and they fired some people because of it’. But it was groundbreaking…it is far more significant than people think it is. Looking back, in large measure it changed the whole structure of the National Football League in its most important market: New York.”
– Curtis Rawls is a Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage and covers the NFL, the New York Giants, and the NBA. Please like and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Twitter. Curtis can be followed on Twitter @CuRawls203.