His own man Handley's choice of Hostetler ends Parcells era

August 22, 1991|By Steve Jacobson | Steve Jacobson,Newsday

Ray Handley, the coach who identifies himself as a rookie, made his move. He went to Jeff Hostetler and said, "You're my quarterback."

"And I shook his hand," the rookie coach said.

Then he went to Phil Simms, the noble Giant through the battering of the bad years and the buttering of the good years, and said, "I've made the decision. I'm going to start Jeff. You know, as I've indicated what your role is on the team, how valuable I consider you."

It was as gentle, diplomatic, considerate, politic and tactful as a feeling man could make it. And so the Phil Simms Era ended, and the Bill Parcells Era, too. And the Ray Handley Era began: The kings are dead; long live the kings.

It was a gutsy decision for the rookie coach taking over the Super Bowl champions. What he was saying beneath the cushioning was that Phil Simms' time as the quarterback of this team in this city is ended.

Handley did his best to say there was "no loser" in the job competition, and of course Simms is not a loser, but he has lost the job. He is the backup.

There really is no such thing as a two-quarterback rotation. In the Handley system -- like almost all others -- one quarterback takes all the snaps with the offense in practice and the backup presents the opponent's offense for the defense.

Neither, they said, would have it any other way. "You can't go into a game with two guys at one spot," Hostetler said.

It would have been much easier -- safer -- for this rookie coach to go with the incumbent: The champion is not supposed to lose a split decision, is he? And Simms is the champion. He's one of the guys Parcells used to call "my guys."

They were the guys Parcells used in front of the team as his whipping boys because he knew they knew how highly he regarded them. He used them because he relied on them on both sides of the ball, and in the locker room. Most recently they were Lawrence Taylor, Ottis Anderson, Maurice Carthon and Simms. They represented, in the voguish term of these times, the smashmouth football Parcells loved. It won two Super Bowls.

Hostetler was undistinguished in the last three games of 1990 after Simms was hurt. He did very well in the playoffs and the Super Bowl. He didn't glow the way Simms did in his Super Bowl.

It was still Simms' team; he had earned his place with those guys. He took the best shots for a long time without complaint. He earned their trust. Before Hostetler was rushed into the breach, Simms had led the Giants to a 10-1 record and was playing the best of his career. Some day, Parcells said, we'd be watching some other Giants quarterback "and you'll be saying, 'He's good, but he ain't no Phil Simms.' "

Of course, he was right. Simms heard the cheers, but too much booing. The fans didn't really understand what they had. Those who felt his presence best are now the old guard. As Taylor was musing the other day, "Bill Parcells is not around to think for us; some of us are going to have to learn to think for ourselves."

Handley thought for himself. He will select his own "go-to guys," as Parcells called them.

Hostetler was Parcells' long-term backup quarterback. In fact, for essentially the first five of his seven seasons he was backup to backup Jeff Rutledge. When Hostetler did get one chance to start, he was pulled for Rutledge at halftime. That was Parcells' evaluation.

For last season, with Rutledge gone, Parcells promised Hostetler "a new role," which turned out not new at all. "It never was an open competition," Hostetler said.

Would he ever have had a real opportunity with Parcells? "We'll never know," Hostetler said.

Both had good training camps and preseason games; it was quite close. Parcells liked those tough guys; he presented himself as a tough guy. Hostetler was valedictorian of his high school class, an academic All-America at West Virginia, was nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship. Handley is a Stanford man; until Parcells stepped down, he considered going to law school.

That suggests only that Handley has his own perceptions and draws his own conclusions. Saturday night, after completing all nine of his passes against the New York Jets, what Hostetler heard was Handley supporting Simms. Hostetler said he thought it had never been "a level field," that it had always been tilted against him in the first place. "Take me at my word," Handley said yesterday. "When I say it's going to be an even competition, take me at my word."

He had to make the separation. Simms will be 36 in November. He probably has a good year left. Hostetler is 30 and his biological clock was ticking. History says that longtime backup quarterbacks rarely thrive when they do get the chance; they are backups for a reason.

Handley said he'd make his own judgment. Once the decision was announced, he had to present his rationale. "The level of his game is higher than at any time in the playoffs," Handley said.

He said he considered that Hostetler had played so well against the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears, two of the first three teams on this season's schedule. But if the opener were against the Washington Redskins, who Simms whips regularly, would it have been a different decision? "Possibly different," Handley said.

Hardly likely. "Jeff Hostetler will not be looking over his shoulder," the coach said, "expecting an incompleted pass to bring Phil Simms from the sidelines."

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