The New York Giants aren't the New York Giants anymore. They haven't played like champions for some time, and the sooner their legions of fans realize that, the better. Here's how much the faithful still believe in their team: Fans holding up signs begging for tickets usually work the parking lots adjacent to Giants Stadium before each home game, all of which are sold out. But on Sunday, before the NFC East showdown between New York and the Dallas Cowboys, there were clusters of fans waving placards on Route 3 three miles west of the stadium. One guy in a Giant sweat-suit and hat held a sign that screamed ANYTHING FOR 2 TICKETS.
Anything? You're living in the past, pal. Going into Sunday's game the Giants had had two punts blocked since 1984; in the first 10 minutes against Dallas they had one punt blocked and one deflected. The Giants hadn't lost to the Cowboys at home since 1987, but a minute into the third quarter they looked up in disbelief at a scoreboard that read Dallas 34, New York 0.
"I saw that, and I was sick—absolutely sick," the Giants' soon-to-be-37-ycar-old quarterback Phil Simms said afterward. "My knees were weak. I'm not kidding. I've gotten nervous before some big games, and I've been rubber-legged, but I never remember a time like that, during a game, where I just felt woozy. I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
New York rallied gamely—albeit against a Dallas defense that was willing to give up yards to keep the clock running—and had a shot at making the greatest comeback in NFL history. But the Giants fell short because, true to their present form, they messed up on the most important play of the day. The final score was 34-28, in a game that marked the changing of the guard in the NFC East.
New York, which two seasons ago won its second Super Bowl in four years, has gotten old. Dallas has gotten good. In six days, beginning with a 23-10 whipping of the Washington Redskins in the Monday-night season opener, the Cowboys whipped the last two Super Bowl champions and established themselves as the team to beat in the toughest division.
For the Giants, the loss to Dallas signaled the end of their greatness, coming as it did a week after another loss at home to an NFC power, the San Francisco 49ers. New York's 33-year-old defensive icon, linebacker Lawrence Taylor, chased Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman all over the field but came up sackless. And Simms engineered four straight touchdown drives but couldn't take the Giants on that last crucial march.
An hour after the game, with the New York locker room nearly empty, Simms spoke of the reality that was sinking in. He stood in his number 11 white bathrobe, clutching his street clothes and shoes, looking terribly weary as he pondered the question of the day. "Why aren't the Giants the Giants anymore?" he said. "I want to be very careful how I say this.... We just can't do it like we used to. Probably the two key players for us as we became such a good team were Lawrence and me. Well, I can't win games for us like I used to. Lawrence Taylor can't dominate a game like he used to. It's just not the same as it was, that's all. There's nothing wrong with that. It's natural."
But New York has accelerated its own decline in the last 20 months:
•The Quarterback Controversy. When Ray Handley succeeded Bill Parcells as coach in May 1991, he spoke of opening up the offense and, before the season, named longtime backup Jeff Hostetler to run it. The Giants were 6-5 when Hoss went down with a back injury last season, and Simms mopped up what remained of an 8-8 season. After the final game Handley told Hostetler he would be the starter again in '92. But then Hostetler bruised his back and hip against the New York Jets on Aug. 22, and he missed the last preseason game, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hostetler was ready to play against the 49ers, and he felt fine in the week leading up to the Cowboy game, but Handley kept Simms in the starting lineup on Sunday. "I wanted some continuity at the position," he said. With Simms having led the Giants to a total of 17 points in eight quarters against the Steelers and 49ers, it was a strange call by Handley. "I don't care what anybody says," one New York veteran says. "The quarterback thing is killing us. Ray's got to make a decision and stick with it."
•The Aging Defense. Playing the attacking scheme developed by Parcells and his defensive coordinator, Bill Belichick, the Giants had the NFL's seventh-ranked defense in 1991. But Handley changed gears in the off-season, going with the read-and-react system favored by new coordinator Rod Rust. With a starting defense that averages 29.3 years of age and with players like Taylor and cornerback Everson Walls in a last-hurrah season, it was a weird time to change schemes. New York has given up 65 points in two games.
•The Handley Debate. The fans—and the media to a lesser degree—have a simplistic view of New York's sagging fortunes. Fire Handley, they think, and the Giants will win. That's silly. This is an aging team at the end of its run, but that doesn't absolve Handley of blame. In addition to waffling on the quarterbacks, he has yet to get the offense going in his 18 games on the job, and he has motivated no one. The fans' chants of "Ray must go!" have rained on him at both games this season.
On Sunday one play symbolized the fall of the Giants. Dallas led 34-28 with 1:40 left, and the Cowboys faced third-and-seven at their 46. New York had no timeouts left, and the Giants' best cornerback, Mark Collins, had been injured earlier in the game. When Dallas broke the huddle, the New York defense seemed to be momentarily confused. Rookie free-agent safety Corey Raymond, seeing no one on Dallas's All-Pro wideout Michael Irvin, ran to cover Irvin man-to-man. "We messed up," Raymond said later. "Ever-son Walls was supposed to have him."
Irvin ran a short slant-in, with Raymond trailing him by two yards, and Aikman buried the pass in his receiver's stomach. "I should have had him," Walls said later. But that's the kind of mistake you have to expect from these Giants, who certainly aren't giants anymore.