EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Who said Ray Handley has no sense of humor?
Handley, the first-year New York Giants coach, normally is as stoic as Gary Cooper. Every word he utters -- at least in the presence of reporters -- is measured, as if he is visualizing how his quotes will read on an opponent's bulletin board. This is no Buddy Ryan, randomly tossing off one-liners that serve to enrage the other side.
So, in typical Handley fashion, he gave a non-inflammatory response to a suggestion that tomorrow night's game with the Eagles in Veterans Stadium figures to be markedly different from those that have taken place the past three seasons.
Handley shrugged when a reporter said it was "deliciously ironic" that the Eagles, who won five of the last six meetings behind scrambling quarterback Randall Cunningham, would be led by gimpy-kneed Jim McMahon, and the Giants, who previously started pocket passer Phil Simms, would line up with the far more mobile Jeff Hostetler.
"We're just preparing for McMahon," Handley said. "We can't think about Randall Cunningham at the present time. This irony business is way too deep for me."
Then, with just a hint of a smile, Handley indicated that he had, too, considered the implications of the most obvious personnel difference between this season and last.
"Maybe we'll open with a quarterback draw," Handley teased. "Maybe we'll run four straight quarterback draws."
Not that Handley would ever admit it, but the prospect of giving the Eagles a taste of their own medicine has to be, well, deliciously ironic.
Handley saw both sides in the rivalry in his seven years as an offensive assistant under Bill Parcells. From 1984 through '87, the Giants won seven of eight games with the Eagles. But the pendulum began to swing the other way on Oct. 10, 1988, in a Monday night game at the Vet that helped to establish Cunningham as the NFL's premier Giant-killer.
With New York ahead, 3-0, in the first quarter, the Eagles drove to a third-and-goal at the Giants' 4-yard line. Cunningham rolled right, absorbed a crushing hit from Pro Bowl linebacker Carl Banks, but, miraculously, stayed on his feet and slung a touchdown pass to tight end Jimmie Giles.
By game's end, Cunningham had completed 31 of 41 passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns in the Eagles' 24-13 win, earning him NFL Player of the Week honors. But his escape from Banks, a play for the ages, was all anyone wanted to talk about.
"God gave me this talent to run fast, to throw the ball far, to make moves, but things like that aren't supposed to happen," Cunningham said at the time.
Those things, however, kept happening whenever the Giants crossed paths with their NFC East nemesis. New York was 10-0 heading into a Nov. 25 trip to Philadelphia last year, but the Eagles got three touchdowns from Cunningham -- two passing, one rushing -- and breezed to a 31-13 victory. A hurried Simms, meanwhile, completed 17 of 40 passes for 234 yards with two interceptions, one of which was returned 22 yards for a touchdown by middle linebacker Byron Evans.
Simms went down with a badly sprained foot in the 14th game of the season and didn't play thereafter, which opened the door for Hostetler to go 5-0 and win Super Bowl XXVI. It was a huge story in New York when Handley, in his boldest decision to date, named Hostetler as his starting quarterback in the preseason ahead of old reliable Simms.
A lot of theories have been floated on that particular topic, the most common being that Handley, in making the change, wanted to show he was his own man. Still, you wonder. Might it be that, after all those frustrating moments watching Cunningham perform his magic, the new coach simply wanted a scrambling, rambling quarterback to call his own?
Cunningham is out for the season with a knee injury sustained in the opener against Green Bay, but Handley continues to treat the mention of his name almost as a personal affront.
"I thought a lot of the 'Giant-killers' were on the other side of the ball . . . guys by the name of Reggie White and Seth Joyner," Handley said when Cunningham's list of feats against the Giants was mentioned.
"Listen, we have a healthy amount of respect for Jim McMahon. I think he's a hell of a competitor, and I'm sure he's going to adequately move the Philadelphia offense. Is it different preparing for him than it is for the other guy? Of course. But McMahon's not a bad quarterback. He has a pretty good track record."
McMahon's track record, however, does not figure at all into the Eagles' recent domination of the Giants. Consider this: From 1988 through '90, the Giants were 17-1 against Washington, Dallas and Phoenix as compared with 1-5 against the Cunningham-led Eagles.