"John Elway, please."
"Hey, Els, it's me, Phil Simms of the New York Giants!"
"What's up, Gramps?"
"Oh, nice. May you live to be 37 and still active. Anyway, I wanted to tell you about this game I played today at Soldier Field against the Chicago Bears. My first ever under our new coach, Dan Reeves. We came from behind to win 26-20. It was so cool. We looked sort of like, like...the Denver Broncos, in one of those two-minute drills you guys always pull off. And guess who I looked like? Like you! Is that a panic! Els, you there?"
"John, you're not mad because I brought up Reeves, are you?"
"You mean my coach for 10 years, who we got rid of after last season because I couldn't stand him, the guy about whom I said, 'The last three years have been hell?' Why would you think that, Fossil-brain?"
"Sorry. I was just so excited about us being down by a point late in the fourth quarter and then driving 80 yards in seven plays in two minutes and me throwing a touchdown pass to fullback Jarrod Bunch that I had to share it with somebody."
"Try a teammate."
"And you should have seen Lawrence Taylor! Thirty-four years old? Achilles-tendon surgery? Hah! That youngster was running around like a chipmunk on chili pepper! He got two sacks and forced a fumble by Jim Harbaugh and recovered it. Did you know LT had never had a sack against the Bears before? Ever seen that cool LT diamond earring he wears?"
"I think I hear my dog at the door."
"And it was kinda sad. The Bears' rookie coach, Dave Wannstedt, he had to watch me and LT ruin his NFL debut. In front of all those Chicago fans who want to build a shrine to Mike Ditka. Felt sorry for Dave. I mean, the guy's only a few years older than me. Must have broken his heart. Hey, Els. I'm grinning."
"Gotta run, Phil."
"So I was wondering—remember when we talked before the preseason about Reeves, and like everybody else I'm figuring that you're the one that pulled all those games out of the fire? Well, now I'm just wondering if maybe he had something to do with it too. Because of how I played today. You know, now that he's my coach. John? John? Are you there?..."
No, New York certainly didn't look like the Giants of recent years in this game, which snapped the Bears' season-opener victory streak at nine. And if it was disciplinarian Reeves who made the difference, Simms could not have been happier. "Honestly, I haven't won a lot of games late like that," he said afterward. "In all my years with the Giants, we either had it locked by then or we were out of it."
New York was always the team that used its offense to score a few points and then kill the clock so the defense could annihilate the opponent, tactics that earned the Giants Super Bowl championships in 1987 and '91. Then, following that second title, coach Bill Parcells quit and Ray Handley came in and the system went to hell. Enter Reeves, the quiet taskmaster, whose job it became to retool the Giants fast and do it with a 14-year veteran like Simms (coming off elbow surgery that forced him to miss most of last season) and a 12-year veteran like linebacker Taylor, whose Achilles-tendon surgery last year had him pondering retirement.
Still, it seemed like a good deal to the 49-year-old Reeves, whose own blocked coronary arteries had forced him to consider quitting. "On film I saw a team that performed well and then badly," he said of the Giants. "But I figured a team that had won a championship just two years ago couldn't be that far down."
And was he nervous before his debut?
On Thursday, Reeves (just off his rehab buddy, the stationary bike) sat in jogging shorts and a T-shirt at Giants Stadium and replied, "I've got a tremendous amount of butterflies." He was sweating but otherwise resembled a man about to fall into a coma. Such is the deceptive personality of the man Tom Landry called the most competitive he has ever known.
Sunday's game started with a series of three field goals by newly acquired Giant kicker David Treadwell. Reeves had brought him over from Denver, along with former Bronco wide receiver Mark Jackson and linebacker Michael Brooks, because he knew that they knew how to win. Indeed, when Reeves waived popular but loudmouthed veteran linebacker Pepper Johnson on Aug. 30, some critics wondered if Reeves simply planned to turn New York into Denver East. Without Elway, of course. No, said Reeves, he just wanted to be surrounded by people "who hate to lose."
With a 9-0 lead and the Bear offense looking as harmless as a bucket of Lake Michigan alewives, it appeared that Reeves was surrounded by all the right folks. Then just before the half, quarterback Harbaugh, he of the average skills and the $13 million contract, led the Bears on a snappy two-minute drill that ended with his throwing a two-yard touchdown pass to wideout Terry Obee. Obee was delighted, for it marked his first touchdown reception in three years in the NFL. Harbaugh felt good because, well, because he needs a lot of cheering up these days. He was booed lustily by the record crowd of 66,900 after only his second pass of the afternoon. The fans don't like Harbaugh's stats—44 career touchdowns and 46 interceptions—and they don't like his income, but most of them have not thought this through: Benching Harbaugh would put P.T. Willis at the controls.
Harbaugh seems as sad as an incredibly wealthy 29-year-old can be. "I was lucky," he said quietly after practice on Friday. "I got $5 million up front. It's like winning the lottery. And I know that people can't relate to the guy getting millions, that it's natural to love the guy getting paid the minimum, the underdog. So I have to be a professional and just blank all the negative stuff out." He said he was able to do that, but he didn't say it convincingly.
At any rate, the Bear punt-rush team handed him a 14-9 lead early in the third quarter when rookie linebacker Myron Baker blocked Sean Landeta's punt at the 15 and ran it in for a score. Chicago then used twinkle-toed 300-pound tailback Craig (Ironhead) Heyward as a battering ram to help set up a 20-yard field goal by Kevin Butler. The Bears led 17-9.
Next came a flea-flicker by the Giants that left Jackson so open that it seemed he must have run onto the field from the maintenance tunnel. Simms heaved a pass that Jackson caught at the two and carried in a path parallel to the goal line before he stopped and took a pratfall backward into the end zone. "My parents were in the stands," he explained afterward. "All my first three touchdowns with Denver were called back by penalties. I wanted to freeze this one for all time."
The Bear lead was cut to a point. Five and a half minutes later Treadwell kicked another field goal to put the Giants back in the lead 19-17 early in the fourth quarter. But Ironhead, running like a girder falling off a skyscraper, picked up 21 yards on six carries and again brought Chicago into field goal range. Butler kicked a 34-yarder, and the Bears led 20-19 with just over three minutes left.
A Chicago win would have enabled Bear fans to look beyond the loitering ghost of Ditka, Da Coach who had taken Chicago to its only Super Bowl victory, in 1986, but whose recent reign (5-11 last season) had been as full of quirkiness and tirades as Captain Queeg's. It would have made the path easier for Wannstedt—"Wannstat" or "Wannstead," as he's called by Chicagoans unfamiliar with him—and helped pave the way to a bright future without former stars like Walter Payton and Mike Singletary.
Wannstedt says that he knows he is doing everything right—the way he learned to do it at the right hand of Jimmy Johnson, for whom he worked for 11 years at Oklahoma State and the University of Miami and with the Dallas Cowboys. But getting everything in order will take time. Though he's well regarded for his integrity, courtesy and effort, Wannstedt knows that, in the end, his fate will be determined by one thing: "I'll be judged by my won-lost record."
So right now he's a failure, because with three minutes left in the game, Simms began his Elway-like drive. First there was a third-and-18 completion to wideout Chris Calloway for 24 yards and a first down. Then a completion to wideout Mike Sherrard for 38 yards, to the Bear 26. Then a pass aimed at Jackson deep in the middle that forced beaten Bear cornerback Anthony Blaylock to panic and grab desperately at Jackson's helmet. Blaylock was called for pass interference, and the ball was spotted on the one.
On the next play Simms rolled right and hit Bunch for the winning touchdown. Easy as pie. After the ensuing kickoff Taylor promptly stripped the ball from Harbaugh and fell on it, and Reeves was undefeated as the Giants' 14th coach.
In the locker room Simms, who had completed 24 of 34 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns, needed help from a Giant front-office aide to tie his necktie. He had been sacked four times. He had three stitches in his chin and a loose tooth, and at one point in the second quarter he had briefly been knocked unconscious. Such is the price of an attacking offense.
"...John, you still on?"
"Man, I'm pretty dinged up. Ever happen to you?"
"Those two-minute drives are something."
"Aren't they, Phil."
"I'll let you know how things go around here."
"Please do, old fella."
"Coach Reeves sends his love."