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

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Parcells talks at Simms. (nfl.com)
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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.

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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?