MADISON, N.J. -- The last time New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms was battling for a starting job, he lost. And he knows the reason: He simply lost his cool.
That's why, in his current duel with Super Bowl XXV hero Jeff Hostetler, Simms has been unflappable, poised, in charge. Just the way a starting quarterback is supposed to be.
Eight years ago, when he battled Scott Brunner for the starting job, Simms fretted his way out of the lineup.
"I was very frustrated then. Every day I was on edge," Simms said last week. "I played like it. I acted like it. It was there on every throw. My feeling was: I just want to complete the pass. I don't [care] about whatever else is going on; I'm just trying to take care of myself."
In the end, he was beaten out by a lesser-talented player who didn't last long in the league, and Simms says it was because coach Bill Parcells believed he was "uncontrollable."
Tonight, when the Giants and the New York Jets play in a preseason game at the Meadowlands, Simms, 35, and Hostetler, 30, will get their final chance to win over new coach Ray Handley, who took over for Parcells in May. Simms will start the game, and Hostetler will open the second half. Handley said he would decide on a starter before the final exhibition game Aug. 24 against New England.
While Handley hasn't tipped his hand concerning whom he considers ahead in the quarterback race, there are some subtle reasons to believe that, barring a catastrophic outing by Simms or an incredibly brilliant performance by Hostetler against the Jets, Simms will return for his eighth straight season as New York's starting quarterback.
For starters, Handley took a different stance regarding the depth chart than Parcells did immediately after New York's 20-19 Super Bowl victory over Buffalo. In January, Parcells said Simms and Hostetler would be dead even entering training camp. But three weeks ago, Handley -- while still insisting that the competition was wide open -- called Simms the starter for now, implying that it was his job to lose.
While Simms has been relaxed and outgoing about the fight for the starting job, Hostetler has been closed-mouthed and wary, almost invisible at the Fairleigh Dickinson University training camp site other than to attend practice.
When Simms was named the starter for the first exhibition game against Buffalo on Aug. 5, Hostetler said, "I figured it would evolve into this, but as far as opportunity and repetitions go, it's as equal as it's going to get."
Hostetler won the right to challenge Simms by winning five games at the end of last season (including three in the playoffs) after Simms injured his foot in Game 14. Of course, Simms had a terrific season himself, helping the Giants to a 10-0 start.
In camp, the new coach has made the competition between the two quarterbacks as even as possible. They've gotten an equal number of practice repetitions and equal time with the first-string offense. In the first two preseason games, each has started once and the rotation has allowed both to play against the opposing first-string defense while surrounded by the Giants' starters.
"To make an equal evaluation, I have to give them equal circumstances," Handley said.
So far, the statistics are close. Hostetler is 15-for-23 for 178 yards, and Simms is 10-for-18 for 81 yards and one touchdown. Although Hostetler has better passing numbers, he also has turned the ball over twice on fumbles and has thrown an interception, which was wiped out by a penalty. Simms has no turnovers.
"Neither one of us has any animosity toward the other," Simms said. "Actually, it's been very good. We've become better friends. We don't go out and have a beer together because he doesn't drink beer. But neither one of us roots against the other.
"One time he said to me, 'No matter what happens, don't let any of this come between us.' And I said, 'It'll never do that.'"
Still flush with the euphoria of a Super Bowl championship and enamored with the quarterback who delivered it, New York fans seem to have made Hostetler their favorite. In the first preseason game against Buffalo at Giants Stadium, Simms received polite applause while Hostetler drew a standing ovation.
The Giants Stadium crowd also heaped a chorus of boos on Simms after a third-down incompletion deep in Buffalo territory. On the sideline, Simms ripped off his helmet and slammed it to the ground. However, for the record, Simms placidly says he has no comment on fan reaction. Perhaps it's another indication that he has a rein on his emotions as well as his game.
"I've played the first two exhibition games just like it was the regular season," he said. "If the play wasn't there, I just threw it away. I haven't looked for any cheap completions. . . I believe the coaches are going to evaluate us truly, not just strictly on the stats. So that's how I've tried to play it."