EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- What if they gave a quarterback controversy and nobody came? Interesting question, as far as the Super Bowl champion New York Giants are concerned.
Neither Phil Simms nor Jeff Hostetler appeared before the media last night after the Giants' 23-17 preseason victory over Buffalo. Frankly, there isn't much for either to say.
Each has won a Super Bowl, but new coach Ray Handley says the job is Simms' to lose. Incumbents are even safer in sports than in politics, so really, what's the big deal?
"I don't really see it as a controversy," Lawrence Taylor said after both quarterbacks distinguished themselves in the Giants' first exhibition. "Either one we go with, we've got a great one."
The absence of debate surely will disappoint all those New Yorkers who love nothing better than a good argument. Still, as close as this competition seems, Simms is the obvious choice.
Obvious, that is, from a cold, analytical, footballish perspective -- one that would ignore the standing ovation Hostetler received from the crowd of 76,121 upon replacing Simms in the second quarter last night.
The fan tribute was an emotional response to Hostetler's performance in the NFC playoffs and 20-19 victory over Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV. It won't influence Handley, of course, but it defines the essence of his problem.
Hostetler, 30, was the underdog who defied the odds, the understudy who made good. His accomplishments remain indelible, and last night's Deja Vu Bowl unleashed the memories yet again.
Nothing was decided on the field: Hostetler (10-for-13, 136 yards) had better stats than Simms (6-for-11, 46), but didn't necessarily rate an edge. He also lost a fumble on a snap and threw an interception that was nullified.
Simms, 35, looked poised and confident; each quarterback directed only one failed drive. The Giants are the Giants, Simms or Hosteteler, Handley or Bill Parcells. In the Super Bowl their time of possession was 40 minutes. Last night it was 38. Only the Harlem Globetrotters play better keepaway.
It was a night when the fans delighted in chanting "Nor-wood" in honor of the Buffalo kicker who missed the last-second field goal in the Super Bowl. But mostly, it was a night to assess The Great Quarterback Debate.
Not that it did any good. Afterward someone dared to ask Handley, "Who pleased you most at quarterback?" The new coach just smiled and said, "I'm not going to comment on that. This is a three-week evaluation."
That gives Hostetler precious little time to unseat Simms, a 12-year veteran. He probably has no chance except in the event of injury, which of course is how he got to play in the first place.
Simms led the Giants to their 11-2 start that clinched the NFC East title. Only after he suffered a badly sprained foot did Hostetler become what one preseason magazine called "the greatest backup since Earl Morrall."
As comparisons go, he could do worse.
Morrall was a starter early in his career, but achieved lasting fame as a backup in Baltimore and Miami. "Having Earl is like having that great relief pitcher in baseball," former Colt Carl Taseff once said.
In 1968 Morrall was named league MVP after replacing the injured John Unitas and leading the Colts to Super Bowl III. He lost to the New York Jets -- Jimmy Orr is still open in the end zone -- but two years later he replaced Unitas in Super Bowl V and sparked the Colts to a 16-13 win over Dallas.
The same thing happened in Miami, where he took over for the injured Bob Griese after five games in 1972 and led the unbeaten Dolphins to 11 of their 17 wins. Griese returned in the second half of the AFC championship game and played in the Super Bowl victory over Washington.
Hostetler's story is a little different. He's entering his eighth season, but didn't throw a pass his first four. The Giants refused to trade him, figuring they had a quality player. Until last season, no one else had any idea.
Now Hostetler is clearly deserving of No. 1 status, much as Morrall was in his later years. Simms isn't Unitas or Griese, but he's still an elite quarterback -- a fiery leader with less mobility than his backup, but just as much heart.
"It's hard to see one guy stand on the sidelines when they're both so competitive," running back Maurice Carthon said. "It's hard for me because I like both guys so well. It'd be easier if I hated one of them."
That's the consensus in the Giants' locker room, and Hostetler's popularity ultimately will serve him well. Simms has missed games due to injury three of the past four years. It seems unlikely he'll play a full season at the age of 35.
Hostetler knows this, which is why all he can do is wait. Recent history works for him, ancient history against him. The Giants won't forget the mistake they made benching Simms in favor of Scott Brunner in 1983, Parcells' first season as head coach.
Now that was a quarterback controversy.
This one, for all its potential, won't be the same.