EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., SEPT. 10 -- Lawrence Taylor did not dominate the playing field Sunday night the way he has so many times for the New York Giants over so many years. It was not one those classic performances, in which he seemingly makes every tackle, but no one in the Giants' locker room was complaining.
With only three full practices after ending his holdout, Taylor mixed it up against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday night and added another impressive notch to his impressive career. He sacked Randall Cunningham, the speedy Eagles quarterback, three times, forced a fumble, and made seven tackles in the Giants' 27-20 victory in the season opener.
But in postgame interviews the 31-year-old linebacker's comments made his performance seem even more remarkable. "I'm the type of person who needs training camp," he said, "because I do not do anything all summer. Just golf."
What shifted Taylor's attention from sand traps to guard traps, was a three-year, $4.5 million contract extension, which he and the Giants finally agreed on last Wednesday, 44 days after training camp began. The deal makes the nine-time all-pro the highest paid defensive player in NFL history.
Although he had originally demanded $9 million for four years, Taylor is glad to be back. With a broad smile after the game, he said it took only one or two plays to find the groove. On the Eagles' third offensive play, Taylor broke through the line and forced Cunningham to rush his delivery, resulting in an Everson Walls interception and a Giants field goal.
In the second quarter, Taylor chased down Cunningham for 12- and five-yard losses. He chopped the ball out of the quarterback's hands from behind in the third quarter, but Cunningham recovered his own fumble. It wasn't until the fourth quarter that Taylor began to show signs of wear. "This old body has built-in controls," he joked. "Even though I wanted to do it sometimes the body would say, 'Nah, nah, nah, you'd better wait a little while.' "
Coach Bill Parcells had given the impression that Taylor would see minimal action, yet he started and played all but five plays in the first half. He even occupied his customary left end spot for Giants field goals and extra points.
"The idea was to start competitive, but not to try and overdo it and mess myself up for the rest of the year," Taylor said. "The Eagles are a big game, but it's only one game. My main thing was to try not to rush things, and not to overexert myself to where I might pull something or hurt the team. Now I'm just trying to stay pretty loose and pick my areas to excel in."
Few athletes can get away with varying their degrees of intensity. The ones who cruise through segments of a game, the ones who play hard and soft, can lose the competitive edge. Taylor successfully played in spurts.
"Experience helped me a lot," he said. "On a play away from me, if it wasn't necessary to run all the way over there, then I wasn't going to run all the way over there."
In the second half, he came out of the game when the Eagles started in poor field position, but always returned after a couple of Philadelphia first downs.
"My stamina was not good; if it was, I could've had a couple more tackles or sacks," he said. "I was impressed I did as well as I did. I did get frustrated some when I got tired. When I got tired and I felt like the whole world was caving in and I got frustrated. I got a personal foul called against me. But that's always the case, when you're tired you don't think, and when you don't think you do something stupid."
In this case, he had several fierce slaps to the helmet of Matt Darwin, the Eagles' tackle who lined up across from Taylor. By the fourth quarter, Darwin was containing Taylor. The linebacker did break through once, but Cunningham slipped through Taylor's arm tackle for a short gain.
Late in the fourth quarter, with Darwin cementing Taylor's feet to the line of scrimmage, Taylor showed the frustration of an athlete whose body is betraying him, and drew an obvious personal foul for a head slap. "I almost felt it coming," Darwin said. "He was running out of gas, and he is not used to that."
The 17-point cushion the Giants built early in the fourth quarter made it easier on Taylor. The Eagles led, 10-6, after Keith Byars hit Anthony Toney with a halfback option pass for an 18-yard score before the half. but Phil Simms led the Giants' best drive of the game to start the third quarter, completing four of six passes, including a 12-yard touchdown toss to first-round pick Rodney Hampton to put New York ahead.
The next time the Giants touched the ball, Dave Meggett returned a punt 68 yards, and the lead grew to 20-10. Later, Simms hit Mark Ingram in stride for a 41-yard touchdown. The Eagles did drive 86 yards in 14 plays for a score, but they used up nearly eight minutes of valuable fourth-quarter clock in the process.
Neither team's offense was impressive. Granted, Cunningham was missing holdout tight end Keith Jackson, but he was unable to create the big plays that Philadelphia has used to beat the Giants in their four previous meetings.
"I love playing Randall Cunningham, and it's nice to finally beat him," Taylor said. "He's a great ballplayer, and great ballplayers like to play against the best. I think Randall would have felt cheated if he didn't play against one of the best players in the NFL."
Parcells did not want to spend much time talking about Taylor. In fact, after fielding a third question about the linebacker during postgame interviews, the coach said: "Oh, what's this, Lawrence hour? Because it shouldn't be. A lot of other guys played pretty good tonight."
One of them was the Giants' other outside linebacker, Carl Banks, who led New York with nine tackles. But even he wanted to talk about his teammate. "He's Lawrence Taylor, never count him out," Banks said with a smile. "I don't even want to think of what it would be like to play with only four days of training camp."
"It was almost like a no-lose situation," Taylor said. "I come in with four days. People don't expect but so much. They expect you to do certain things, but if you mess up, it's like, 'Well, he only practiced but four days.' "
Faced with the possibility of a fifth consecutive loss to the Eagles, the Giants needed Taylor on the field and in their minds. And their defensive leader did not let them down.
"L.T. is a real confidence builder," said New York linebacker Pepper Johnson. "When he's out there, it's like killing a gnat with a sledgehammer. It's like stacking the deck."