Following this team feels very much like following the 1986 New York Giants felt. That team, like this one, was built on a dominant, soul-crushing defense that had opposing coaching staffs ditching their normal strategy and searching for some game plan to control Lawrence Taylor and maybe have some chance to run some kind of offense. They were half beaten before the game even began, because they'd already bowed to the Giants' will. The legend preceded the team and laid the groundwork. That team was built around that defense, a defense that beat up quarterbacks and broke wide receivers, a defense the fans embraced and loved cheering for. The offense complemented the defense well, based on a ball control running game and the grit of Phil Simms-to-Mark Bavaro, the way this offense is a ball control offense based on relentless movement and the grit of Ty Jerome. Coached by risk-averse, conservative coaches who believed "don't beat yourself" first, both teams put the onus on you to beat them - then made that impossible by ruthless execution and never flinching. 4th-and-22, anyone? Phil Simms could get the snot beat out of him all day long and still step into the pocket to hit Bavaro on a seam pattern in the last two minutes of the game. Ever watch Kyle Guy run through the lane for a game?
And the fans loved that team, loved that grit and the soul-killing defense just as much as everyone else hated it. Sometime around late October I recognized that the Giants were the best team in the NFL and were going to win the Super Bowl, but the national sports media loved to hate on them for their ugly offense. Forty-niners, Redskins, Broncos, those were the darling teams. As the Giants steamrolled the NFC East and a number of hapless opponents along the way, an excitement built in the fan base. Then the playoffs came and the Giants had the top seed but still weren't the favorite in the national media's eyes. When the Niners won the wild card game in impressive fashion, all the CBS talking heads went on and on about how they could upset the Giants. Most people considered the Niners the favorites! Not me. I made a few hundred bucks that day walking into The Garret and announcing to the room, "TAKING ALL BETS!" Everybody was on the Niners bandwagon. SMH.
The Giants were the best team that year.
Then the Super Bowl came and it was supposed to be John Elway and the Broncos, pretty boy and pretty offense down there in Pasadena putting on a show and winning the Super Bowl. And early in the game it looked like that would actually be the case as the Broncos jumped on top. But then that Defense rose up and some Navy guy named Phil McConkey made a play and Phil Simms proceeded to be perfect, with a completion percentage that STILL is the Super Bowl record and the Giants blew the Broncos out of the stadium in the second half. Elway stumbled out a broken man (but like Humpty Dumpty he would rise again, much respect) and Bill Parcells got the Gatorade bath that the Giants had invented that year on a Monday night in the Meadowlands, beating the Redskins while the nation watched the Mets in a World Series game.
Any of this feel familiar? That was the Giants' year, the year they put it all together for a dominating ride that blew away the fumes and vapors of decades of futility and humiliation on the strength of defense and ball control that the press and experts hated but the fans adored. When you followed that team, you knew. You knew what the media didn't know, that Simms was indomitable and the team embodied Parcells' relentlessness and balls - as conservative as he was nobody would go for it on fourth down like Bill Parcells did that year - and Mark Bavaro was Jack Salt before Jack Salt was even born. They had will and nerve and a black soul - and way more talent than given credit for. From Simms slinging the ball to Bavaro catching it and Joe Morris hauling it to the unheralded offensive line that did the dirty work, the offense was more talented than people recognized, because the passing game was rugged and functional but didn't put up gaudy numbers. The defense was overshadowed by the reflection of the previous year's Bears defense, but damn was it good and it rode roughshod over that season with Jim Burt, Leonard Marshall and George Martin - ancient George who was there during the darkest days - occupying blockers so LT, Harry Carson, Gary Reasons and Carl Banks could terrorize quarterbacks and running backs. The corners weren't the best in the league but God protect any wide receiver running a crossing route against those safeties.
We knew about this team. We knew back in May. We knew before anyone else was thinking about college basketball. We knew this team had crazy talent and mad skills, and we knew The Zay and The Eraser. We knew this team was going to be good and we tried to tell people. Now they all waking up to it, but they still don't quite believe it. You can rest assured that when the brackets are announced, pundits and fans of other teams are going to find some team in our path and circle it: THIS is going to be the big upset, because you know Virginia can't score enough and are prone to upsets and these are the guys that are going to send them home early this year.
Do yourself a favor, fellow Hoo: When the talking heads on TV are puffing up that upset pick after the impressive victory, and all the fans are nodding and saying, "That's right, that's an upset brewing," walk in there and at the top of your lungs announce to the room, "I'M TAKING ALL BETS!"