‘As hard as you can’: A story about the indestructibility of Phil Simms

IN 1984, THE GIANTS WERE KNOCKED OUT OF THE PLAYOFFS BY THE SAN FRANCISCO 49ers, who went on to win the Super Bowl. The 49ers’ quarterback, Joe Montana, was well on his way toward becoming one of the best of all time. Simms had turned the corner, sure, but nobody would have put him on Montana’s level: One was considered merely good, at long last. The other already had won two Super Bowls.

For Giants fans, it was hard not to look at Montana wistfully. Simms had been the Giants’ first round pick in 1979. Seventy-five picks later, in the third round, the 49ers selected Montana.

Before that draft, Bill Walsh, the legendary 49ers coach whose so-called “West Coast Offense” of precisely timed pass patterns was designed to make stars out of quarterbacks, had come to Morehead State to work Simms out. When the workout began, Simms did what he did best: Show off his powerful arm by firing passes as hard as he could.

“Oh, it’s waaay too hard,” Simms recalled Walsh telling him in Sunday Morning Quarterback. “Softer.”

Simms tried throwing softer.

“Oh, it’s way too hard. Softer,” Walsh said again.

“I want you to drop back really gracefully. Be really light on your feet. And I want you to throw with beautiful rhythm. I want your passes to be really pretty. I want nice spirals.”

Before he left, Walsh told Simms two things: First, that the 49ers would draft him if he were still available with their first pick, the 29th overall. (They had traded away their first-round pick for an aging superstar named O.J. Simpson.) Second, that Simms was going to lead the league in passing every year in Walsh’s offense.

Before Walsh visited, Perkins, the Giants’ coach, came to work Simms out. Simms had asked him how he wanted to throw.

“Son, I want you to throw that ball as hard as you can every time.”

“Even short passes?” Simms asked.

“I want you to knock ‘em down.”

The moment provided as instructive a contrast as any between the two organizations. One emphasized finesse and precision; the other emphasized power. One played in warm weather on the West Coast. The other played in cold weather on the East Coast. One practiced in shorts and focused on fine-tuning their exquisite offensive machine. The other practiced in pads and focused on toughening up.

One had a coach, Walsh, about whom his players often said, “He treats us like men.” The other had hard-line coaches who inspired their players by making them fear consequences. First was Perkins, who had played for Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama. When Perkins left the Giants before 1983 to pursue his dream of coaching Alabama (“to follow Coach Bryant,” he told me) on came Parcells, whose succinct description of his coaching philosophy was, “Players do what you make them do, and they don’t do what you don’t make them do.”

More to the point for Simms, their offensive philosophies represented a football duality. The 49ers had a pass-first system that flowed from the quarterback, and was therefore conducive to making him look good. Their patterns were horizontal, their quarterbacks completion percentages high.

The Giants’ offense revolved around the running game. For them, the purpose of the pass was to set up the run. Rather than accumulating short completions, the quarterback’s job was to provide the threat of the deep pass, thus keeping defenders from crowding the line of scrimmage.

“I don’t need no quarterback worried about his stats,” Parcells once snapped at Simms in practice after he threw a conservative checkdown pass rather than risking an incompletion or interception.

“I need big plays. We design them; this is what they’re for.”

Playing in a completely different offensive system, one with far inferior wide receivers, Simms’s numbers didn’t stack up to Montana’s or Dan Marino’s, another contemporary in a pass-first offense. Simms’s career completion percentage and rating were 55.4 and 78.5. Montana’s were 63.2 and 92.3; Marino’s were 59.4 and 86.4.

Sean Lahman’s Pro Football Historical Abstract, which adjusted statistics to the context of the era, ranked Simms as the 35th-best quarterback of all time, between Sonny Jergensen and Joe Theismann, and several ticks below quarterbacks like John Brodie, Mark Brunell, and Rich Gannon. (The volume was published in 2008, before the primes of stars like Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers, all of whom would likely rank ahead of Simms.)

Simms loyalists insist that Simms was as talented as the big-name quarterbacks of the era, and that only his system and surrounding talent held him back.

Here’s what McConkey told me: “I always argue this, and of course I’m biased: But you take Phil Simms, put him in a warm-weather city or domed stadium, put him in one of those 3 to 5-step-drop passer-friendly offenses with some All-Pro receivers, and there’s not doubt he’s going to the Hall of Fame.

“Conversely, take Dan Marino out of the weather and offense, take Joe Montana out of that West Coast Offense and take Jerry Rice away from him. Put those guys in Giants Stadium with that wind, with Phil McConkey and Bobby Johnson and Stacy Robinson, and a Bill Parcells-run offense, and they’re good but they’re not the same.”

Simms was conscious of this throughout his career, of course.

“I’d watch tapes of Montana, and I’d go, ‘Wow! He’s doing what Bill Walsh asked me to do that day!’ Sometimes I’d go and wonder what it’s like to be in an offense where it’s truly about the quarterback,” he told me.

“For most of my career, we didn’t know what QB rating was. But every time I looked at the ratings, the San Francisco quarterback, whoever it was, whether it was Montana or Jeff Kemp, they’d be first or second on the board. When you see things like that it makes you think.”

Ard said that Simms was never so crass to talk about himself, but that his chip on his shoulder revealed itself in the way he talked about other quarterbacks in the league.

“He always liked the Lynn Dickeys, the guys not getting any pub. Because everyone’s talking about Marino, Montana, Fouts, and he’s probably saying to himself, ‘I wish I was in that environment.’

“He had a little edge to him. But his edge is what made him good.”

ALL OF WHICH GOES A LONG WAY TOWARD EXPLAINING Simms' hostility to statistics.

“The stat guys are idiots. I mean it very strongly,” Simms told The Big Lead several years ago. “Believe what your eye tells you. I have never looked at one quarterback ever on tape through all the years and when it’s done, I have never thought, ‘What were his numbers?’”

If Simms doesn’t care for the stat guys, whose methods are rapidly taking hold in mainstream football coverage and in front offices, the feeling is mutual.

Aaron Schatz, founder of Football Outsiders, the most prominent advanced statistical football website, told me that Simms “is not a popular broadcaster with the readership of Football Outsiders. He’s a very big believer in ‘I go by what my eyes can see.’”

Schatz added, “He has a tendency to talk about players and say nice things about them that ignores what’s happening on the field. He’s very big on the ‘Veteran Quarterback’ business. It seems like a lot of stuff he says is vapid and ‘Trust me I’ve been there,’ as opposed to more intricate stuff.

“And he refuses to say Asante Samuel’s name correctly.”

Not coincidentally, one of Simms’ favorite quarterbacks, a player he has expended considerable airtime and mental energy defending, is Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Like Simms was, Flacco is strong-armed, sturdy, and plays on winning teams. Also like Simms, Flacco is seldom mentioned in the same breath as the league’s best quarterbacks. So far this postseason, Flacco was eight touchdown passes to zero interceptions, exactly the same ratio as Simms had in 1986.

When Simms talks about Flacco, he might as well be talking about himself. Here’s what he told the Carroll County Times last summer:

“Put Joe Flacco on a football team where it’s all about the quarterback and the offense and he will put up staggering numbers. He plays for a coach that’s not worried about the glorification of his quarterback. Joe Flacco is a big part of them winning, but personal success and glory might elude him. He may only get it through victories. Even then, he might not get the credit that he deserves. I don’t think he’s good, I think he’s awesome. I know I’m right. I don’t need your stamp of approval.”

SIMMS DIDN'T HAVE ANYONE'S STAMP of approval in early November of 1986. His incremental improvement over the previous two years, which culminated in his being named Pro Bowl MVP after the 1985 season, seemed to have reversed itself: After nine games, he was 18th out of 28 starting quarterbacks in quarterback rating.

There were mitigating factors, of course: He had been operating for much of the year without two of his best receivers, Lionel Manuel and Stacy Robinson. But Giants fans didn’t want to hear it. The team was winning games, at 7-2, thanks to the always excellent Lawrence Taylor-led defense and another good year of running from Morris. But Simms’ regression seemed to be preventing them from taking the final step from good to great.

During that ninth game, an ugly victory against Dallas, Simms was booed heartily by the home crowd, booed like it was 1982. The next week, while the Giants eeked out another close win against Philadelphia, Simms’ play remained disconcerting: He completed just one pass to a wide receiver. In a three-game span, he had completed just six passes to wide receivers.

As ever, his outward professions of confidence remained intact. Ard recalled talking to Simms in the weight room after an ugly four-interception loss in Seattle in October.

“Phil came up to me and said, ‘The thing is, Billy, I was really on!’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, you were on crack is what you were on!’”

Enter Parcells, and his fine-tuned ear for the psyche of his players. After the Philadelphia game, and before a game against a tough Minnesota team, he approached Simms:

“I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re thinking, but here’s what I’m thinking: You got your team in first place. You just beat your three biggest division rivals three weeks in a row. Don’t pay any attention to what they’re saying – just go out there and play,’” Parcells recounted for America’s Game, the NFL Network documentary series on Super Bowl champions.

“And don’t let that media affect you as far as being a daring quarterback. You just go out there and let it go. And I will support you 100 percent no matter what happens.”

What followed was the stuff of Giants legend. The phrase “4th-and-17” conjures up powerful emotions for longtime Giants fans. Simms’s 22-yard pass to Bobby Johnson on the Giants’ final drive, which set up a game-winning field goal, was a microcosm for Simms' career: He hung in the pocket until the last possible instant, striding into an onrushing defender to deliver a damn-the-torpedoes pass that hit Johnson along the sideline, square in the chest.

As the victorious Giants ran into the locker room after the game, Parcells kissed Simms on the cheek.  

“You can play on my team anytime,” he said.

From that point forward, the Giants rolled. They won all of their remaining games and watched Simms and the offense pick up steam: They scored 55 points in their last game of the regular season against Green Bay, 49 points in their first playoff game against San Francisco, and shut out Washington, 17-0, in the NFC Championship game. Their combined scoring margin in the playoffs was 66-3.

It all began on that final drive in Minnesota.

“It’s my favorite game in my career, because it’s everything I wanted to be as a player,” Simms told Paul Schwartz for the book, Tales from the New York Giants Sideline. “I wanted to be tough, making big throws, immune to pressure, not worried about outcomes.”

SIMMS WASN'T AFRAID OF OUTCOMES WHEN he sat in a taxi outside the Beverley Garland Hotel in North Hollywood, several hours before Super Bowl XXI. He was wearing a pair of designer sunglasses and smoking a cigarette. This was a discordant site to Brad Benson, who was planning to share a cab with Simms to the Rose Bowl: Simms wasn’t a flashy dresser, and he didn’t smoke.

“What the hell are you doing?” Benson asked.

“I’m having a smoke,” Simms said, flashing the Cheshire Cat grin.

Recalled Benson, “So I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh God, this is the biggest game of his life and he’s having a breakdown. So I go, ‘Are you okay?’”

“Then he takes a puff, blows a smoke ring out, or tries to, and says, ‘You give me time today, big boy, and I’m gonna rip ‘em! I’m gonna come out throwing and rip their ass.’”

As every football fan knows, he did. Simms completed 22 of his 25 passes, for a Super Bowl record 88 percent. (Two of his incompletions came on dropped passes.) His rating for the game was a Super Bowl record 150.9. The Giants handily beat the Denver Broncos, 39-20.

“I had read stories of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, who said with all the nerves, it took until the second quarter to settle into the game. And I thought, ‘Man, I don’t want to wait until the second quarter. I’m not missing 25 percent of the game,’” Simms told me.

Actually, Simms’ revealed his encompassing confidence two nights before the game, while having dinner with Billy Crystal, along with McConkey and the writer Dick Schaap, who was working on a book about Simms and McConkey. Crystal peppered Simms with questions about the game plan. Simms told him the Giants planned to pass much more than usual, and then he diagrammed with salt and pepper shakers what would be their first play: A 20-yard in-cut to Lionel Manuel.

“Can I bet the guy next to me on that,” Crystal asked?

Yes, Simms told him.

Simms began the Super Bowl by winning Crystal $25. He ended it by being the first football player to say, “I’m gonna go to Disney World!” as the game’s MVP.

Disney fantasy, Hollywood ending: Corny clichés, yes, but completely applicable to this heartwarming union between a man and his moment. One iconic NFL Films shot stands out: Simms is standing tall in the pocket, bathed in the late afternoon golden California light, blond and valiant, as he fires one of many picture-perfect spirals. For one day, Simms was as perfect as any quarterback has ever been.

AND THEN EVERYONE LIVED HAPPILY EVERY AFTER.

Or could have, maybe.

What actually happened is that the players went on strike the next season and the Giants never got their shit together afterward, stumbling to a 6-9 record. Parcells and Simms continued their mutually respectful but perpetually uneasy, screaming-match-infused relationship. The Giants won the Super Bowl a few years later, but did so without an injured Simms. Parcells left, and his replacement stuck Simms on the bench in an eerie echo of the way Simms’ career with Parcells began. Simms salvaged things in his last year, 1993, when he reclaimed the starting job and led the Giants to the playoffs.

That’s football for you; it goes on. There’s always the proverbial “next man up.” There’s always the next game that might be your last. It’s a sport that gives the lie to complacency like no other.

“Yeah, I played 15 years in the N.F.L., but it’s a struggle at all times. When things went well it was a struggle. When things didn’t go well it was an almighty struggle,” he told me.

“The Super Bowl was great, but never once did I go, ‘Wow! This is amazing!’ That’s just not the way I am or the way I was raised.”

What defines Simms aren’t the high-water marks but rather the totality of the struggle. He’s still struggling: There are always reams of game film to get through. There are stats people to rail against. There are debates on "Inside the NFL" to be had.

Struggle is what Simms knows best and does best, because to struggle is to resist defeat.

Parcells put it this way: “He was just really an unconquerable guy. No matter what you did to him, no matter what kind of beating that he took, he was getting you the next time.”