‘As hard as you can’: A story about the indestructibility of Phil Simms
Around this time three years ago, Phil Simms, who will broadcast Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday, was broadcasting Super Bowl XLIV, between the Colts and the Saints.
Late in the game, the Colts were down by a touchdown but were advancing into Saints territory.
Before a third down play, Simms made a quick decision about how the Saints could best thwart Peyton Manning, and released.
“If I was the New Orleans Saints, I would not blitz him. I would put the extra guys in coverage,” Simms said.
His voice, as always, was twangy, nasal, assertive, and urgent, as if he had an extra-special stake in convincing you of his opinion.
But the Saints, whose defense that year relied on risk-taking and turnover creation (and yes, perhaps also a bounty system), blitzed anyway. And it worked: Colts quarterback Peyton Manning rushed his throw, which Saints defensive back Tracy Porter intercepted and returned for a championship-clinching touchdown. Game over on the field, conspicuous blunder in the broadcast booth.
As confidently as Simms delivers his opinions, he's quick to own up to his mistakes. He shrugged this one off with the self-deprecation of a man who has been laid low by the game before, and knows that missteps in football are simply a byproduct of striving.
“What was I saying? ‘Don’t blitz?’ Well, they sent everybody!” Simms said.
For the last 34 years, whether as a broadcaster or as a player, that’s what Simms has gotten paid to do: Assess the pieces on the football field, make a decision, and act on it.
Shit happens in football: Simms’ down-and-up-and-down-and-up career, from 1979 to 1993, from bust to Super Bowl M.V.P., was itself a testament to the chaotic nature of the game, as well as to Simms’ ability to weather it. Simms is 58 now, and football’s unpredictability has become a source of vitality, keeping him on his toes as he creeps closer to senior citizenhood.
“I’m not the type of guy that’s looking forward to sitting on the beach,” he told me on the phone two weeks ago.
Simms has been the lead analyst for CBS football games since 1998. Sunday’s Super Bowl, between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, will be his seventh as an announcer.
When we spoke, he was making the two-hour drive from a taping of Showtime's "Inside the NFL" in South Jersey back home to Franklin Lakes, in North Jersey. On top of the game he broadcasts each week, his workload has grown to include weekly spots on "Inside the NFL" and CBS Sports Network’s "NFL Monday Quarterback", as well as radio interviews like his Sunday spot on Mike Francesa's "NFL Now". His gigs require that he watch every N.F.L. game every weekend.
“I always used to say I prepared more as a quarterback, but that’s just not true anymore,” he said. Now, “there’s really no day off.”
But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I was watching the game the other night, and Brent Musburger’s doing the game. And I turned to my wife and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could hang on to be 73?’ And my son [Matt] goes, ‘Dad, that’s sad.’ But it’s too much fun being involved in football. I see Dick Enberg, I see Brent Musburger. What a thrill to be part of the action! There’s so much to the game.”
There always has been for Simms. His exclamations—“Wow!” “Golly!”—speak to his unrestrained, goofy enthusiasm for football. This quality sets Simms apart from his more diffident counterparts at FOX and NBC, Troy Aikman and Cris Collinsworth.
To his fans, Simms is smart and infectiously enthusiastic. To his critics, he's a strident know-it-all.
Any announcer whose job it is to dissect every play will be wrong every now and then, and Simms’s golly-gee style makes him more susceptible to snickering than most. But Simms makes no concessions to the snickers and the naysayers: If you’ve spent your playing days weathering Bill Parcells, armchair quarterbacks are a walk in the park.
Besides, Simms was raised in a household with a sports-nut father and eight siblings, where the point-counterpoint, jab-and-parry style of sports banter was a source of family bonding. Picture a houseful of people sharing Phil Simms’ genetic makeup and accent: If you wanted to be heard, you’d have to have been loud, clear, and emphatic.
“My friends would come over and make the mistake of giving their opinion [about sports]. And we’d all go, ‘What?!’ and then start beating up on them for 10, 15 minutes,” he told me. “So I’ve always loved talking sports and following it. Now I love doing the same thing. And I know a lot of people disagree with what I say, and that’s fine.”
THE 34-YEAR-OLD CLIP IS NOW LEGENDARY AMONG GIANTS fans: N.F.L. Commissioner Pete Rozelle at the microphone, his hair voluminous at the sides in accordance with 1979 styles, his inflexions old-fashioned as he announced the first round pick of the once-proud but now moribund Giants: “Quwahtaback, Phil Simms, Morehead State.”
The instant eruption of boos, in retrospect, is hilarious.
Rozelle smiled sheepishly, in sympathy for the poor no-name from the unknown Kentucky school.
Since then, it has come out that the famous clip was actually a second take. The first time Simms was announced, the NFL Films cameras malfunctioned. So they asked if they could film it again, with the fans’ negative reaction crystallized and queued up. The first time Rozelle made the announcement, Simms said, “I was told there was stunned silence.”
Either way, the upshot was the same.
Ray Perkins, the Giants’ coach at the time, recounted for me on the phone several years ago the reaction at the time: "Phil who?"
Now in his 70s, Perkins’ voice is Deep South and piercing. So really it was more like: “Feel Heeeew?,” that last accusatory syllable drawn out to underscore the extraordinary risk of it all. Both Perkins and George Young, the general manager, were in their first year with the Giants at the time. Their very first action was to pin their professional reputations on a guy nobody had heard of.
Some small-school prospects gain renown for lighting up the lower level of competition: think Steve McNair, or Randy Moss. Simms wasn’t one of those guys. During his career at Morehead State, he threw for 32 touchdowns and 45 interceptions.
There were other reasons to form a negative snap judgment as well. His white-blond dome of hair, pasty skin and slightly gap-toothed smile added up to the stereotypical portrait of a Kentucky hayseed not ready for prime time. His teammates took one look at him and dubbed him “Prince Valliant.” Giants fans, justifiably cynical about the franchise’s every personnel move after 15 years of missing the playoffs, reacted more harshly.
“I had never been a head coach before, and George Young had never been a general manager before,” Perkins recalled. “So a lot of people are saying, ‘Here we go again.’ And we all knew that.”
Simms quieted his critics after his first year, taking over the starting quarterback job in Week 5 and leading his team to a 6-4 record in his starts, good enough to be runner up to Ottis Anderson for Offensive Rookie of the Year. But Giants fans in that era were used to good things going sour pretty quickly, and Simms quickly conformed to the pattern.
His second year ended with him sitting out the last three games with an injured collarbone, his completion percentage having slipped to 48 percent. His third year ended when he separated his shoulder in mid-November. His fourth year ended when he tore up his knee in preseason.
In his fifth year, 1983, Bill Parcells benched him in favor of an undistinguished fellow named Scott Brunner. Brunner eventually played himself out of the job, but Simms’ bad luck continued when he got back on the field. On just his second series, he severely dislocated his thumb on the helmet of an opposing defensive lineman.
It was shaping up to be your classic star-crossed career, another Giants first-round bust. The only person who didn’t think so, apparently, was Simms.
“Failure never crossed my mind,” he told me. “Maybe I just didn’t understand the landscape enough. But I’m telling you, it never crossed my mind.”
That’s Simms’ hallmark: Perseverance, and the unwillingness to let failure define him. He has that exalted American quality of never doubting himself, even when presented with evidence that he should. As a broadcaster, he’s able to admit his mistake and then proceed as assertively as before, as if the mistake never happened. As a player, he was able to shake off five damning years as a minor hiccup.
“There’s no criticism worse than doubt, and people were doubting him. But I don’t think it fazed Phil,” Brad Benson, Simms' left tackle with the Giants, told me. “I think he just figured, ‘I’m right, they’re wrong,’ and he just went about his business. He’s got this spunky feistiness to him. Put it this way: A lesser personality wouldn’t have gotten though that.”
Simms told me, “It’s one of my greatest traits, is that I’m hard-headed.”
SIMMS' BROADCASTING CAREER BEGAN ABOUT as inauspiciously as his playing career.
It was 1994, and Simms was a rookie analyst on ESPN’s "NFL Gameday," ambivalent about giving up his old career for his new one, and clueless about how to talk on air. He would have 15 seconds to weigh in a topic, not nearly enough time for the manifestos that he would write out and read, verbatim. His face would twitch. Words would gush out of his mouth, uncontrollable and without punctuation.
ESPN sent him to a media specialist named Andrea Kirby, a renowned athlete whisperer known for polishing jocks into talking heads. Kirby was so unsparing in her criticism of Simms, everything from his stiff comportment to his monochromatic clothes, that Simms referred to her as “Bill Parcells with makeup on.”
“You have to be concise and descriptive. He was descriptive, but he wasn’t concise. He was very, very wordy.” Kirby told me.
But Simms got better in a hurry.
“He had the makeup, that confidence, to know in advance that he could figure this out,” Kirby said. “He didn’t mind when I’d tell him he was giving me brain damage with too many words. He was okay with that because of his confidence. So he was a fast learner.”
The next year, Simms left ESPN to become a game analyst for NBC. This wasn’t a clean split: ESPN President Steve Bornstein told The New York Times that Simms had voided his contract, thus spurning the network that had “taught him everything he knows about television.” Still, he did so well that three years later, in 1998, he became the lead analyst for CBS when CBS re-acquired its NFL broadcast rights.
Phil McConkey, a return specialist and wide receiver for the 1980s Giants teams, told me, “The key with him was his perseverance, with his playing days and his broadcasting. If you go back and look at the tapes of his first year at ESPN, it wasn’t pretty. But he put into it the same thing as he brought to his football career and got to the top of his profession. He grew up with his parents working on an assembly line [in a tobacco factory]. Hard work is all he’s ever known.”
SIMMS WASN'T THE ONLY GIANT WHOSE 1983 season was ruined by injury. In all, a staggering 25 Giants were placed on injured reserve, leading to a disastrous 3-12-1 record.
This was Bill Parcells’ first year as head coach. It was such a spectacular failure that Young, the Giants general manager, reached out to University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger to gauge his interest in coaching the Giants.
“They tried to fire me. I know they were going to, if they could’a done it,” Parcells told me several years ago. “Fortunately, I got a second chance.”
I phoned Schnellenberger at around that time. “[George Young and I] talked about it, and he went his way and I went mine,” he told me. When I pressed him further, he said, “That’s as far as I’m going with it.” (Young died in 2001.)
The upshot for the Giants was twofold: For one, Parcells came back a changed coach. Gone was the promoted former assistant who was still chummy with many veteran players. In his place was the first incarnation of the glowering autocrat he’s known as today. That summer, he cut several key veteran players, and cultivated a mean streak designed to keep players perpetually on edge.
Bill Ard, a Giants offensive lineman of the era, told me, “He came in ’83 and tried to be everyone’s buddy. He was inches away from being fired. So he came back in ’84 fuckin’ swinging. Swinging. I remember he used to say that he put a pebble in his shoe just to be uncomfortable and pissed off.”
Secondly, Parcells was determined to be proactive in keeping his players healthy. To that end, he hired a dedicated strength coach, a man named Johnny Parker, and overhauled the weight room. The idea that hiring a strength coach and having a first-rate weight room amounted to outside-the-box thinking seems astounding to us now. But this was 1984, back in the dark ages of sports science.
At the time, conventional wisdom was wary of heavy weight lifting, fearing it would limit an athlete’s flexibility. High-repetition, low-weight training, performed on newfangled Nautilus machines, was in vogue.
All wrong for football players, Parker believed. He had made a goodwill trip to the Soviet Union the year before to observe their Olympic training program. The Soviets had this stuff down to a science: “It took the guesswork out of it for me,” Parker told me of his trip.
He returned with a regimen of high-weight, low-repetition weight training and plyometric exercises designed to improve the explosive strength required in football.
Still, many Giants were themselves mistrustful of the new emphasis on weight training. Then, on Parker’s third day on the job, Simms popped into the weight room wanting to work with him.
Recalled Parker, “I said, ‘Phil, I’d be thrilled to death. But to be honest, I haven’t had time to prepare a program for quarterbacks.’
“And he goes, ‘I wanna do what everyone else does.’ So I gave him the program for linemen, and that’s what he did. And that was a key moment. Because he’s your quarterback, and so much depended on Phil, and he hadn’t been able to stay on the field.”
Simms began working out with the linemen before the 1984 season, having failed to stay healthy his previous four seasons. Over his next three seasons, he didn’t miss a single game. Where he was once known for being brittle, he became known for being tough: His calling card was standing tall in the pocket amidst a swarm of defenders until the last possible moment, the better to enable the Giants’ offense long-developing pass patterns, often run by receivers who struggled to get open. Then he’d stride into his throw, with the same go-for-broke assertiveness with which he makes points as a broadcaster, accepting whatever punishment followed.
“Phil is tough, he’s really mentally and physically tough. Nobody doubted his toughness and courage,” said Parker. “The one thing he did that everybody saw was stand in there and take a hit to buy and an extra second to hit the receiver.”
Added Benson, “He was gonna hold onto that fucking ball until the receiver was open, period. And he didn’t have the best of lines those first few years, that’s for damn sure. He was a warrior, that’s all there was to it.”
Aside from improving his durability, Simms’ lifting with the linemen improved team morale. For a quarterback who had often been missing on the field, the weight room allowed him to reinforce his presence. The weight room, among other things, was ground zero for the team’s culture of practical jokes, and Simms, with his Cheshire Cat grin, became the designated joker.
(When he appeared as a guest on Craig Kilborn’s show in 2001, he was asked to use the expression ‘Quarterback Sneak’ with a sexual innuendo. Simms’ response: “Honey, bend over and let the quarterback sneak in there.”)
The bonding experience of the weight room endeared Simms to his teammates. As Joe Morris, the Giants’ running back during the era, told me, “When you got a quarterback out there sweating and working with his offensive linemen, joking with them, you have to know this guy is thinking about one thing: He’s trying to win football games.”
Simms was back as the undisputed starter before the 1984 season. The Giants organization was giving another shot to Parcells, and Parcells was giving another shot to Simms. The pair had gotten off to a rough start: Simms had responded to his initial benching by throwing a profane temper-tantrum at Parcells, asking for a trade, and then pouting for the next several weeks while Young and ownership refused to grant his request.
But ’84 was going to be different, and Parcells and Simms turned over a new leaf. With the rest of his players, Parcells was intent on instilling a message that nobody was above getting cut at the slightest provocation. But with Simms, he took the exact opposite approach. This was Parcells’ special skill: He knew when to scream and when to stroke. Before the Giants’ first game in Philadelphia, he approached Simms.
As Simms recounted in his book Sunday Morning Quarterback, written with Vic Carucci, Parcells said, “All right, Simms. If you don’t throw at least two interceptions today, that means you’re not trying enough. I need plays. Make some daring plays. Go for the big plays. Don’t be afraid.”
They would have regular spats for as long as they were with the Giants, two hard-headed men perpetually convinced of their own rightness. But from that point on, the tension in their relationship had a foundation of mutual trust and respect. Simms was now a Parcells guy.
That season, Simms set the franchise’s all-time record for passing yards with 4,044, which stood until Kerry Collins broke it 18 years later. The Giants finished 9-7 and advanced in the playoffs. The quarterback had finally made good on his long-rumored talent, and the defense was one of the league’s best. Things were looking up.
“I knew he was gonna call for me one day, I just knew that,” Simms told me. “I let it go. And to his great credit, he did too. See? Two stubborn people can make it work.”
"IT'S AMAZING HOW MANY UNCLEAR WHAT-IFS YOU DEAL with in a game,” Simms wrote in Sunday Morning Quarterback.
“A lot of times you don’t really know exactly what you did until you watch the film because the game is so fast and you’re dealing with so many instincts and split second decisions. Often all you’re left with is your best guess. You get a little under pressure, you can’t quite see, and then you throw the ball to where you thought you saw the top of a helmet that’s the same color as yours. The pass is complete, the crowd roars, and you go, Whew! Man!”
He was describing what it’s like to play quarterback, but the sentiment applies to broadcasting as well. Sure, the perspective in the booth is better than on the field, but the speed of the game and the confusion of all the moving parts means it's all about best-guessing.
What better way to deal with such uncertainty than to embrace it and step into it firmly? Sure, a defensive player can crush you, or you can throw an interception, or Twitter may spasm for a minute in celebration of your mistake. But what good does it do to worry about all that?
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.”