Lore has it that Bill Parcells answered his telephone one day in the wake of his first season as the Giants head coach early in 1984. He had gone 3-12-1 and had looked overmatched at times. He was not yet a wise football man; nobody ever sought him out for any kind of deep football thoughts.
The caller had news: George Young, Parcells’ boss, was quietly gauging the interest of Howard Schnellenberger, with whom Young had worked in Baltimore, and who had just led the Miami Hurricanes to a national title with a stirring upset of undefeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The caller expected Parcells to make a case for himself. He did not.
“What can I say?” Parcells said. “You are what your record says you are.”
That was where it started. That is the quote that will come in the third or fourth paragraph of Parcells’ obituary. One day, it should find a safe home inside “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” It has been poached, bogarted, borrowed and stolen by a thousand coaches since, usually as a cudgel against laments of hard luck and bad bounces. And it is intellectual property, at least in part, of the New York Football Giants.
“You are what your record says you are.”
Only, it’s a funny thing. The Giants are doing everything in their power to disprove that magnificent football proverb. They are 4-7 after holding on by their fingertips and their whitened knuckles Sunday, beating the Burrowless Bengals 19-17 in what was, speaking truthfully, one of the ugliest football games you’re ever going to see.
By any measure, by any standard, by any definition, in any context, a record of 4-7 isn’t supposed to be good enough to translate to “first place.” Think of a 40-70 baseball team. Think of a 20-35 basketball or hockey team. Or don’t: Just think of every 4-7 football team you’ve ever seen before. First place? Could you even say that with a straight face?
And yet the Giants spent the final eight hours of Sunday sitting in first place in the NFC East, technically tied with the Washington Football Team but owner of a two-game sweep over the WFT this year. They will spend at least the first 23 hours of Monday in first place, too, until the Eagles try to pull off a highly implausible upset of the Seattle Seahawks in Philadelphia.
Four-and-seven. First place. Ridiculous. RIDONKULOUS.
And absolutely true. Absolutely real.
“We’re starting to believe we can win each and every game,” said safety Logan Ryan, who has done enough winning in his career in Foxborough and Nashville that he qualifies as an expert on a team with few other similar résumés.
“It’s really a testament to how we approach every day,” said tight end Evan Engram. “We’re playing as a team, playing together, getting better every week.”
“I’m proud of the way we did some things,” coach Joe Judge said.
They did enough things to ward off what would have been a troubling buzzkill of a loss. They got just enough from Colt McCoy when he was summoned to replace Daniel Jones, felled by a barking leg.
They got a critical interception from Niko Lalos, pride of both the Dartmouth Big Green and the St. Vincent-St. Mary’s Irish, which earned him a pregame shout-out on social media from another alumnus of that Akron high school, guy with the Twitter handle of @KingJames.
They made sure to maximize this three-game soft underbelly of their season, dispatching of the WFT, Eagles and Bengals — combined record: 9-21-2 — which allows them their present perch, however long it lasts, however perilous its far-ranging possibilities may be with a fou- game stretch of Seattle/Arizona/Cleveland/Baltimore — combined record: 27-15 — upcoming.
“We’ve got five more games to worry about,” Judge said, and they do. No. 5 is the season finale, at home, two days after New Year’s, against the Cowboys, who were left for dead after being trucked by Washington on Thanksgiving. Of course, everyone in the NFC East has been given that diagnosis this year, sometimes on multiple occasions.
It was only about 15 minutes ago that the Giants were 1-7. As giddy as things seem now, there are exactly six points that separate them from being 1-10. For 100 years, those kinds of things have mattered in the NFL. Just not this year. Just not this time.
Just not in 2020, where your record is a liar, where 4-7 equals first place. Hard to believe. Harder still to wait for whatever’s next.
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