Skid after Super Bowl season becomes a pattern for New York


December 15, 1991|By Ken Murray

This is what Ray Handley's rookie season as head coach of the New York Giants came to last Sunday:

* A mocking ovation from a restless Giants Stadium crowd after Giants wide receiver Mark Ingram threw a pass on a razzle-dazzle play early in the second half against Philadelphia. The pass was caught out of bounds by Stephen Baker.

* A derisive chant of "Ray must go" from a now-angry mob after the Giants took their final timeout with seven minutes left in the game. Down by 16-14, the Giants had only 10 defenders on the field.

* A 19-14 loss to the Eagles that ended the Giants' Super Bowl defense three weeks before the playoffs began.

This week, George Young, the Giants general manager, winced at the abuse heaped on his first-year coach.

"The sadness of sports is that we just haven't gotten much above the level of the Roman Coliseum," Young said. "Ray has only been coach for seven months. Somewhere along the way, people have to learn to spell 'perspective.' "

New York's harsh perspective on Handley suggests that he is too conservative calling plays, that he chose the wrong quarterback at the start of the season and that he doesn't motivate the team the way former coach Bill Parcells used to.

Valid or not, those criticisms -- like the Giants' season -- should come as no surprise. The Giants have been down this disappointing road before. When they won Super Bowl XXI in the 1986 season, they followed it up with a 6-9, out-of-the-playoffs, strike-marred disaster. Discount three losses with replacement players and Parcells coached them to a 6-6 record in their title defense. One year after they won Super Bowl XXV, they are 7-7 going into today's 4 p.m. game against the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium.

Young had an idea of what loomed ahead even as the Giants celebrated their 20-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Jan. 27.

"Nobody saw me celebrating anywhere," he said.

Having abdicated the Super Bowl throne Sunday, Young was starting over Monday in Tulsa, Okla., where he spent five days scrutinizing college talent in combine meetings. There will be changes, Young said, but none that affect Handley's status. He will be back for a second year.

Once their season ends Saturday at home against the Houston Oilers, the Giants will regroup and restock. They will explore the Plan B player pool, investigate trade possibilities and dig into the task of rating college players for what promises to be the best draft in years.

What they will see in hindsight is a defense that lost its edge (take-aways are down from 34 a year ago to 19 now), an offense that didn't get the points (95 fewer this year) and a roster graying around the edges (13 players over age 30).

And when many games were waiting to be won, the Giants found a way to lose this year. They have been outscored by 108-53 in the fourth quarter. They held leads in five of their seven losses.

Phil Simms, a 36-year-old veteran who lost his job to Jeff Hostetler during the summer but reclaimed it three weeks ago when Hostetler was hurt, said the Giants succumbed to the post-Super Bowl syndrome.

"I think it satisfied a lot of us," he said. "We just didn't come back with the same intensity. . . . I'm not saying we lacked it, but I think down deep, the [same kind of] commitment was not there."

Not much was the same with this year's Giants, though. Not long after the Super Bowl, defensive coordinator Bill Belichick took the head coaching job in Cleveland. Parcells promoted linebacker coach Al Groh to Belichick's job, and then, after much speculation, bailed out himself at the late date of May 15.

Handley inherited a system that had produced two Super Bowl champions in five years and saw no need to fix something that wasn't broken. It was, he says now, his big mistake.

"I basically tried to continue the same type of program that had been in place for eight years under Bill Parcells," he said. "For whatever reason, I was not successful in being able to maintain it as he had.

"As I start out next year, the things that are very important to me will be stressed right from the start. I don't think there will be dramatic changes, but I think subtle changes are as important as dramatic changes in this league."

Handley wouldn't say what those subtle changes might be, but the appointment of an offensive coordinator probably is one of them. He declined this year to take advantage of Ron Erhardt, who had served as offensive coordinator since 1982.

As for personnel, Handley will face anew the quarterback controversy that smothered Simms and Hostetler during the summer -- assuming that Simms, in the final year of his contract, remains with the team. Because Hostetler will be 31 next season, the Giants must find a young quarterback to groom.

Their shopping list also could include a big-play receiver, a tight end in the mold of retired Mark Bavaro, an outside pass rusher and some cover men in the secondary. This is a team that will emphasize youth in 1992. Handley figures to benefit from his sobering experience, too.

"I've learned things," he said. "I don't think I went into it as a novice or naive. But I certainly have learned things in this first year."

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