Ray Perkins is sitting at the head table, fiddling with the microphone, trying to figure out how to answer the question. It is last Wednesday's press luncheon at the New York Giants' stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands, and 60 or so listeners lean forward to hear how the Giants' rookie coach will handle the tough question of whether or not he'll switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, which he doesn't care for, against unbeaten Tampa Bay on Sunday.
A heavy question, but a logical one, because the Giants have only three healthy defensive linemen. Perkins adjusts a button on his windbreaker and stares out at the audience with his pale blue, deep-set eyes—eyes that "look like they can stare right into your mind," as Giant Linebacker Brian Kelley has said.
In front of Perkins sit members of the press, who constitute only a small part of the press-day audience. Behind them are scattered the Giant brass and a group from the New Jersey Sports Authority, including a delegation from the Meadowlands' indoor arena, which is under construction. There are a few oldtime radio and TV people around, an out-of-work PR man or two and, of course, the car dealers. They supply the team automobiles, at a price, and part of the deal is that they can attend real live press conferences. Slightly behind and to the left of the dais sits the Tampa Bay publicist.
Perkins learned his football from Bear Bryant and Don Shula and Chuck Fairbanks, who are not in the habit of discussing game plans at Wednesday luncheons. He is not comfortable with this press-day circus.
The writer repeats the question: "In your mind, have you ruled out the 3-4?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Why don't you like the 3-4?" Pause.
"I just don't, based on the question," Perkins says.
He looks at his watch. It reads 12:10 p.m. Downstairs, where the Giant players hang out, a squad meeting has been going for 10 minutes. Time is Perkins' mortal enemy. He is very bitter about the fact that a long time ago they ruled out the 36-hour day. It is the third squad meeting of this Wednesday, and he would prefer to be there, rather than discussing game plans with a bunch of car dealers.
At 8:30 a.m. Perkins had met with his quarterbacks for an hour. By then he had already been in the office for two hours; he was well into his second pot of coffee. At 10 the squad met for an hour and a half. They had half an hour off for lunch, followed by another hour-and-a-half meeting, the one now going on. Then there would be a practice lasting 45 minutes longer than the ones John McVay ran when he was the Giants' coach in 1978. Finally there might be a late session with a quarterback or two—on Thursday Perkins would bring his rookie starter, Phil Simms, home with him for four hours. After that, Perkins would have his late-late session with the projector and the yellow-lined paper and the X's and O's.
"Paralysis by analysis," former NFL Coach Tommy Prothro once called it. But Perkins has an excuse; no coach carries a heavier burden of history than he does. Sixteen years without a playoff team, including the worst record in the NFL over the last five, was the Giant illness Perkins was hired to cure last February. The Giants are a team with a past of cronyism at the higher management level, and a history of making top draft choices who bottomed out—Larry Jacobson, Eldridge Small, Rocky Thompson, Big Al Simpson, John Hicks. The names pierce like arrows.
And then in 1978 the fans rose up, and so did Timmy Mara, the 44-year-old nephew of President Wellington Mara and, with his uncle, the co-owner of the Giants. For years Timmy had lived an untroubled existence at the sports watering holes in Manhattan, P.J. Clarke's and Mike Manuche's. Oh, he occasionally showed up in the stadium lot in his golf cart to chase a photographer or two out of a privileged parking spot, and when things got tough, Timmy fired the team's PR man, Don Smith. The reason: "negative publicity." In a bold move during the '77 season, he ruled that secretaries would henceforth refrain from bringing coffee or sandwiches to their desks. He followed this with an edict that the cars of all coaches and players had to display proper stickers—or they would be towed away from the special parking area. Unfortunately, the moment he chose for his announcement was right before a game.
"There we were, ready to go out on the field," says John Symank, a defensive coach with the Giants from 1974 to 1978, "when all of a sudden everyone's running out to the parking lot to take care of their cars. Players were out there in uniform, with kids climbing all over them for autographs...and the kickoff was coming up in five minutes."
In 1978 Timmy came out of the closet and showed a genuine interest in the club, particularly in the way his uncle had been running it for the previous 14 years. There were bitter words of criticism, a public feud. People who know Timmy say there was a Svengali behind him, one of his buddies from the club, an ex-player who yearned for power. The fans didn't care. Suddenly theirs was a new voice brought to the fray. They were angry and rebellious, those loyal fans, who had again bought up every seat in the 76,821-seat Giants Stadium, ensuring that the club would lead the NFL in attendance for the third straight year.
Ron Freiman, a Livingston, N.J. printer, publicly burned his tickets in the parking lot before the game against the Rams on Dec. 3. After that, a group called The Committee Against Mara Insensitivity to Giant Fans met in a Clifton, N.J. hotel to plot strategy for a protest at the Dec. 10 game with St. Louis. The protesters planned to have a plane fly over the stadium, towing a streamer reading: 15 YEARS OF LOUSY FOOTBALL, WE'VE HAD ENOUGH. As the plane passed above, the fans would chant, "We've had enough!"
"Not even that worked right," says Dr. Arthur Milne, a dentist from Basking Ridge, N.J., who collected the $234 to hire the plane. "It was supposed to fly over in the first quarter, when the stands were full. Instead, it came in the third quarter, when they were half empty. And the Giants were winning."
From the wreckage of the 6-10 record in 1978—the Giants' sixth straight season without a winning record—came a new general manager, 48-year-old George Young, a scholarly Baltimorean. Young had 11 years of NFL experience, mostly alongside Shula, and had an intimate knowledge of all aspects of the game. This prompted the suggestion that it was Commissioner Pete Rozelle's intervention, not the brainwork of the Maras, that brought Young to the Jersey meadows. In the past, the Maras had shown an antipathy toward hiring able executives. Young's choice as coach was Perkins, 37, a lean and whipcord-tough Mississippi native.
Perkins had all the right credentials as a player—national championship ring from Alabama, Super Bowl ring from Baltimore—and as an NFL assistant. He had learned Fairbanks' system at New England, and then he had put the juice into a San Diego offense that had led the NFL in passing in '78. And work, Lord, how the man could work—6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
"He goes on five hours sleep during the season," says his wife, Carolyn, "and then he collapses."
So now it is Wednesday afternoon, and Perkins' 0-5 Giants are four days away from playing Tampa Bay, the NFL's only unbeaten team. Three young writers who have watched the Giants practice the 3-4 defense all afternoon are confronting him with very long faces.
"You lied to us," one of them says, "and you expect us to lie in print."
"I answered within the context of the question," Perkins says. His deep-set eyes look very tired. His face is drawn. He has lost 20 pounds from his already spare frame since he got the job in February.
They straighten the matter out, Perkins getting the message across that it's too much to expect that he lay out his strategy before 50 strangers and the Tampa Bay PR man.
"I feel sorry for him sometimes," says Jim Clack, the Giants' center who taxied on Chuck Noll's first team in Pittsburgh, the 1-13 Steelers of 1969. "He wants to win so bad it's just killing him. His ideas are sound, his offensive principles are great, but the facts are that he's ballplayers away from making it go. You see him run through here at lunch-time. He'll just grab a roll and a piece of ham or something—half the time he doesn't even know what he's eating. Look at him. It's almost six o'clock at night, and he's still in his coaching gear."
There's sympathy for Perkins among his players, but there's a dark side, too.
"If he keeps pushing himself this way, he's headed for a crack-up," one veteran says. "He's got to lighten up on himself, and on us. You can't keep guys on the practice field almost three hours, and then give them three more hours of meetings. Our legs are dead, our minds are dead. We're drained before we even get on the field on Sunday."
"Sure, I know some of the players are saying that," Young says. "That's what they kept telling Shula, too. And George Allen. Last year they said they didn't get enough coaching. Now they say it's too much. I've even heard people say he's too intense. The people who say it have never been around a really intense person before."
On Thursday Wellington Mara is asked, "What have you noticed that's different about the practices this year?"
"Forty-five extra minutes, for one thing," the owner says.
Young, standing nearby, is uneasy. "Why all the publicity for an 0-5 team?" he asks.
"Just trying to get personal stuff on Perkins, like what he eats for breakfast," a writer says.
"Right there," Young says, pointing to a football on a tee. "That pigskin. That's what he eats for breakfast."
On Sunday, at least, that was the breakfast of a winner, if not a champion. At 3:54 Perkins got his first victory as an NFL head coach. The Giants beat the Buccaneers, 17-14, in a way no one would have thought possible. The NFL's worst offense cracked the No. 1 defensive team with 202 yards rushing, stunning the Bucs in what has always been their least vulnerable area. A big, muscular ground game, featuring some reckless running by young Billy Taylor, produced the first touchdown, and the other 10 points—a Taylor touchdown and a Joe Danelo field goal—were set up by interceptions.
There was no wild celebrating in the Giants' locker room as Perkins made the rounds. His remarks were pointed, topical. He told Doug Van Horn, the 35-year-old left guard, that he had done a hell of a job on his trap blocks. The 32-Wham-Trap, with Van Horn kicking out on the Bucs' left end, Wally Chambers, had given Taylor most of his yards.
"They never knew what hit 'em," Van Horn said.
He moved on to Simms, who not only had survived his first start as a Giant, but had also actually enjoyed it. His six completions picked up 37 yards; the Bucs took back 19 of them with sacks.
"I've been informed you threw for 30 yards," Perkins said, straight-faced.
"Pretty good passing game, huh?" the rookie said, feeling all his parts to make sure they were in working order.
When he got to Taylor's locker, Perkins lingered for a while. Taylor was the unchartable element in the game. He had never run the way he did Sunday; he had 33 carries for 148 yards, which tripled his total output in the first five games.
The Giant defense usually starts a game playing tough, but sooner or later it cracks because the offense doesn't give it enough breathing time. On Sunday the defense—mainly Perkins' hated 3-4 alignment—got help from the offense, and it hung in and shut down the Bucs' runners. On passing downs the Giants, rushing three men, kept Quarterback Doug Williams' percentage low (14-for-38) and his interceptions high (three).
Taylor made the offense-defense equation work, and when Perkins reached his locker, he gripped his hand for a moment and, among other things, thanked him "for the sacrifice you made for the team today."
Someone asked Perkins what else he had said to Taylor.
"Coach-player talk," Perkins said.
"How does your first win feel?" he was asked.
"Like it's supposed to—good. Like it's about time."
Someone asked him about the way Williams had scattered his passes, and for the first time Perkins smiled.
"They dropped passes on him," he said. (There were, in fact, seven drops by Tampa Bay.) "I'm not sure I wouldn't have dropped some, too, the way those guys were getting hit out there."
Once a reporter had asked Bryant to evaluate Perkins as a player, and the Bear had smiled much the same way Perkins did on Sunday. "He wasn't big, 170 or so," Bryant had said, "but he wasn't bashful about hitting somebody. He didn't come from Peaceful Valley."