A Giant Step Forward

Everything clicked for New York as it skunked the Skins and took over the top spot in the NFC East
December 15, 1986

This Sunday, when the New York Giants take the field at home against St. Louis in a game that can wrap up their first division championship in 23 years, Phil Simms will step out into the arena and hear...and hear...what? Cheers? Boos? Mixed cheers and boos? Beers and chews? What will he hear?

"Good question," the Giants quarterback says. "It'll be interesting."

Why do New York fans love to boo this guy so much? He has led his team to more victories than any NFL quarterback this year: The Giants were 12-2 after beating the Redskins 24-14 in RFK Stadium on Sunday. And in the three previous weeks Simms had brought his team from behind for victories, two of them on the road and all of them against playoff-caliber teams. On Nov. 16, the Giants beat the Vikings by two points, the winning field goal coming with 12 seconds left; to get them there Simms had to convert a seemingly hopeless fourth-and-17 situation. The following week the Giants beat the Broncos by three, this time with six seconds showing, and Simms had to cash in a third-and-21 on that final drive.

On Dec. 1 against the 49ers, the Giants were down 17-0 at the half, but in less than nine minutes Simms and the offense scored 21 points, and the game ended 21-17. In some towns a guy could run for office on the strength of three straight victories like that, or at least they would call him a magician. In New York it's "Yes, but...."

"I watched the 49er game in a bar," said Glenn Moore, an Australian writer who was visiting New York. "Do you know what they were all talking about? The two interceptions Simms threw in the first half. I said, 'But the guy won the game,' and they told me, 'Shut up, you don't understand.' "

Is it comfortable victories they want? O.K., the Redskins game qualifies. It was a nasty kind of game for a while, a defensive game, with the Giants shutting down Washington's two favorite schemes, throwing the ball deep and pounding on the ground with running back George Rogers. (Rogers had only 22 yards on 10 carries.) The score was 7-7 with 1:50 left in the first half when Simms took over and did what he does best—better, perhaps, than any NFL quarterback this year—run a hurry-up offense.

In a minute and 27 seconds he took his team 81 yards in seven plays for a touchdown. When the Skins rushed only three linemen and dropped seven backs into a prevent defense, Simms handed off on a draw play or threw underneath the coverage. When they came in with a fourth lineman, Simms hit flanker Bobby Johnson for 34 yards on a quick-up pattern, laying the ball into his hands perfectly. When Washington blitzed two safeties, he found the right outlet man, split end Stacy Robinson, for 19 yards. Simms got his TD by faking a scramble and pulling up at the last minute to hit Johnson, who was cutting across the end zone. It was textbook hurry-up football, and when a team breaks a tight game open with a score like that it has a chilling effect.

The Giants got 10 points on their first two possessions in the second half—on a Raul Allegre field goal and a 16-yard TD pass from Simms to Phil McConkey—then held Washington to a TD, and the hunt was over. After six straight wins by seven points or less, the Giants had a victory with some air in it. Simms had worked his magic early, at the end of the first half instead of the second, and the result was a one-game lead on the Redskins in the NFC East and a tie with Chicago for the best record in the NFL. And the question remains: Will Simms finally get the recognition that's been due him for eight long and sometimes painful years in New York? Or will it continue to be, "Wait, he'll find a way to screw up"?

How they love to boo quarterbacks in New York. They made a basket case out of Richard Todd in Shea Stadium. Y.A. Tittle heard the boos in his last desperate season, when the Giants went from the title game to a 2-10-2 record. Jets fans booed Joe Namath in his final years, and Giants fans went after Fran Tarkenton, Norman Snead and Craig Morton.

"The way to get cheered in New York," Simms says, "is to be a backup quarterback. They love backups."

Simms came to the Giants in a ray of sunshine, the personal No. 1 draft choice of the new coach in 1979, Ray Perkins. He had gone out to Morehead State in Kentucky himself, and he came back with wondrous tales of this 6'3" golden-haired kid with the rocket arm. By the sixth game Simms had taken over for Joe Pisarcik as the starter. The Giants won four straight. He finished as the runner-up for NFC Rookie of the Year, and New York fans couldn't believe what they were seeing.

"Everything that could be crammed into a human head was crammed into mine," Simms says. "I'd have private film sessions, meetings before the regular meetings and then afterward. I used to go to Perk's house at night to watch film. He'd say, 'C'mon home and have dinner. While my wife's cooking it we can watch film.' He used to stop me in the hall at practice and say. 'Third-and-eight on their 20. What do you call?' And I'd make a call, and he'd nod and say, 'What can't you do down there?' and I'd say, 'I can't take a sack. I can take one on the 50 on third down, but not in field goal range,' and he'd smile."

Toward the end of his second year with the Giants, Simms went down with a shoulder separation. The same injury knocked him out of the final five games and the playoffs in 1981, his third season. The whole strike year of'82 was a write-off for Simms. Knee injury this time. The fan support he had gotten as a rookie had melted. Scott Brunner was the guy who had taken the team to the playoffs in 1981. In '83, Bill Parcells, the new coach, named Brunner as the starter over Simms, and Simms demanded to be traded. He was on his way back into the lineup when he broke his thumb and he was through for another year. New Yorkers had had it with his problems.

Simms set club passing records in '84 and '85, and he led the Giants into the playoffs and was named MVP in the Pro Bowl last season, but the fans never really came back. They remembered the two losses in '85 to the hated Cowboys, the fumbled snap in the first one, the interception that turned the second one around—bitter, nagging memories that soured a season of achievement. And this year they've watched and waited, watched the victories mount and waited for the screwup that would give them a chance to boo.

"It's a New York phenomenon, not only in football but all sports," Parcells says. "In baseball they remember Joe DiMaggio and Duke Snider and Mickey Mantle and boo every outfielder that doesn't measure up. Knick fans remember Willis Reed and boo every center that's followed him. Phil generated a lot of excitement as a rookie, then there was a lull and the fans were disappointed.

"For a while it got to Phil, but I think he's over it now. One time this season, though, he got frustrated, and I had to talk to him. We beat Philadelphia 17-14 in the 10th game, and he was 8 for 18. It could have been 13 for 18—they dropped five passes on him—but he got hammered in the papers. What happened? I called him in and said, 'Look, I think you're a great quarterback, and the way you got to be great was by being fearless out there, and resilient. Don't worry about the things you can't control, like drops. Be yourself.' " Still, Parcells was the guy who benched Simms at the start of the '83 season. The memory makes the coach uncomfortable.

"It was a mistake, O.K.?" he says. "I was a new coach. I hadn't seen that much of Phil. The other guy had taken us to the playoffs. What can I say?"

Simms, at 30, has been through the fire and has come out harder and tougher for it. "The thing you have to understand about New York," he says, "is that you have to learn to live with the ghosts of the past. You have to get used to hearing people say, 'Well, the old Giants would have done this or that.'

"I've gotten to the point where I can shut out the booing now, the constant nagging. I honestly don't hear it. I think I've changed as a player, too. In my rookie year I used to run a lot.... God, I made a lot of plays. My second year I tried to be a quarterback, to do everything properly—don't throw the interception, take the sack when you have to. My creativity was taken away. Now? Well, there comes a time when you have to do what you feel out there.

"The worst thing a quarterback can do is listen to other players. A receiver would tell me, 'I was wide open,' and I'd be destroyed. Oh God, why didn't I see it? Then I'd look at the film and he'd be covered. Or they'd say, and this is the best one, 'You could have stuck it in there.' Yeah, sure."

When this season opened the Giants were a pass-oriented club. Joe Morris, the Pro Bowl halfback, had been a long camp holdout and didn't have his legs yet, so the Giants threw the ball.

"I threw 153 times in the first four games," Simms said. "I thought, 'That's 600 throws a season. We're not going to survive the year like that.' Then in the fourth game Lionel Manuel got hurt and after that our running game started working and we got away from our wideouts. Now we have more of a mix."

The constant has been the play of tight end Mark Bavaro. Against the Redskins on Sunday he caught five passes for 111 yards and a TD. In the previous week against the 49ers, the animal act he put on to start the third quarter—catching a 31-yard pass and dragging four defenders for the final 20 yards—set the tone for the Giants' big comeback. In the first Redskin game Bavaro's blocking from a two-tight-end set, handling the defensive ends by himself, popped some eyes open.

"The greatest blocking job by a tight end I've ever seen in my life," CBS analyst John Madden said.

"Yeah, he got me a couple of times," said Washington defensive end Dexter Manley, who is having the finest season of his six-year career. "But I'll tell you something, he'll never do it again."

Manley, who had terrorized opposing quarterbacks with an NFL-leading 17½ sacks, was a major concern of the Giants and their left tackle, Brad Benson. Opposing teams had devised all sorts of exotic blocking schemes to handle Manley. The 49ers set 242-pound tight end Russ Francis out on a wing and had him cracking back on Manley with a 15-yard head start. The Cowboys tried to control Manley with combinations of three blockers—and he still nailed them for two sacks. The Giants' plan was simpler.

"Benson gets him all by himself," Simms said. "That's our style, and I'll tell you something. I'm not worried."

The 31-year-old Benson came to the Giants after New England cut him in 1977. In '84, with an eye toward replacing Benson, the Giants drafted William Roberts in the first round and then Gary Zimmerman in the USFL supplemental draft. After three seasons Roberts is still a backup. Zimmerman never even got to wear a New York uniform. The Giants traded him to Minnesota before the '86 season started. Benson has fought off all challenges, but the struggle has left him with a perpetually worried look.

"Sure, I'm nervous about facing Manley," Benson said before the Skins game. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. I've never gotten this much attention in my life. It's like I was a quarterback or something."

Manley, oddly enough, was a subject of Redskins coach Joe Gibbs's Saturday morning radio show. Gibbs mentioned that when the teams met earlier in New Jersey the fans made so much noise they pulled one of his players offside. Actually the noise came from the thousands of people in the stands who had their portable radios and TVs tuned to the seventh game of the World Series, and it was the spontaneous roar that followed Ray Knight's home run that caused Washington tackle Joe Jacoby to jump. Whatever the cause, Gibbs suggested that the Washington fans repay the favor—but only when the Skins were on defense. If the fans needed a cue, why all they had to do was watch the right arm of Dexter Manley. When it was thrust skyward, with the fist making circles, that was the time to yell.

It didn't help the Giants that a reporter from Green Bay, of all places, quoted New York's line coach, Fred Hoaglin, as saying that the Giants didn't have much trouble with Manley in the first Giants-Skins game. Hoaglin also said, of the Skins' mammoth 295-pound defensive left tackle, Dave Butz, "His head must weigh 50 pounds. It looks like a big pumpkin." That's a double no-no. Manley doesn't really need stirring up, and Butz is dangerous when aroused.

"Well, I can't say I was exactly happy when I read those quotes," said Giants right guard Chris Godfrey, who had to block Butz. "And Brad was kind of sweating, too. He was an innocent victim in the war of words."

Simms was sacked once, but neither Butz nor Manley collected it. The other end, Charles Mann, got the prize. Benson, with only occasional help from center Bart Oates, did a masterful job on Manley, who lost his sack lead to the Giants' Lawrence Taylor. Taylor had three for the afternoon and now has 19½ for the season.

"At the end of the game," Godfrey said, "when we were in our six-tight diamond and Phil was just kneeling to kill the clock, one of their guys yelled, 'Get out of the way, Dexter wants a sack.' "

"I got a few good rushes," Manley said afterward, "but people were knocking me off. I'll give Brad credit, though. He did a good job." Simms had time and he executed. The Redskins' Jay Schroeder, who came into the game as the NFL's leading long-ball quarterback, with 25 completions of 35 yards or more, was subjected to constant harassment from Taylor outside and Leonard Marshall inside. His swing tight end, Clint Didier, was out with a broken hand, and the Redskins were forced to go with three wideouts the whole way, not their style. The Giants, shunning the nickel and staying in their base 3-4 defense, played mostly zone and concentrated on the deep stuff, forcing Schroeder to pick away underneath the coverage. The result was a lot of gimme yards (309) and two club records tied—most interceptions (6) and most receptions (13) for halfback Kelvin Bryant. The Skins' third wideout, Ricky Sanders, never figured in the offense. He had two passes thrown to him all day and caught one of them, a nine-yard hitch.

"I never had time to go downfield," Schroeder said afterward. "It was a tough day."

Well, Phil Simms has had plenty of them, too—but not recently. So hold off the booing, Giant fans. You've got a live one to cheer for.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOMorris (20) motored through Washington's defenses for 62 valuable yards. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERSimms was simply spectacular, hitting 15 of 29 passes for 265 yards and three TDs. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERIt was a mixed bag for the Skins' Darrell Green: He picked off a Simms pass (above) but then was the victim of McConkey's TD. PHOTOJERRY WACHTER[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN BIEVERTaylor sacked Schroeder three times... PHOTOJERRY WACHTER...as the Redskin QB spent the day trying to avoid the clutches of Giant defenders. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERThe Giants' Erik Howard (above) put the clamps on Rogers, and Lee Rouson (right) used Maurice Carthon as a stepping-stone. PHOTOJOHN IACONO[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN IACONOBavaro got the Giants on the board first with this 9-yarder past Curtis Jordan (22). PHOTOJERRY WACHTERMaybe now Simms will hear some cheers.