Giant steps: Reeves directs team's ascent

December 19, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — East Rutherford, N.J.-- The New York Giants don't live on the mean streets of the NFL anymore. They live in the high-rent district.

The Giants don't quarrel and point fingers any longer, either. Now they preach harmony and talk of togetherness.

After two years of rancor under Ray Handley, the Giants are enjoying the good life under revivalist Dan Reeves.

In one fell swoop, they went from a mutinous 6-10 outfit to a resilient, 10-3 Super Bowl contender. Last week they became the first NFL team to clinch a playoff berth, and tomorrow night they take the NFL's best record to New Orleans to confront the Saints.

In the NFL, where it takes some teams generations to build a winner, the Giants had success delivered in an overnight package.

Phil Simms, 38, says Reeves, 49, was the carrier and the catalyst.

"In football, coaching determines the success of the team more than in any other sport," the Giants' quarterback said. "It's almost everything in this sport.

"Coaches dictate, and you have to give him [Reeves] an awful lot of credit."

To appreciate where the Giants are today, you have to understand where they have been since winning the Super Bowl under Bill Parcells three seasons ago.

Handley, who replaced Parcells in 1991, never did resolve the quarterback predicament of Simms or Jeff Hostetler. It took Reeves 36 days to make Simms his choice.

Handley lost his players' respect for good as early as September of his second year, when they were in open revolt. Defensive players free-lanced against the Dallas Cowboys instead of following coaching instructions.

Reeves let everyone know who was boss last spring when he publicly scolded superstar Lawrence Taylor for skipping minicamp. For the first time in years, Taylor, coming off an Achilles' tendon injury, was on time for training camp.

"Reeves brought in stability and a real sense of purpose," said center Bart Oates, who started on both of the Giants' Super Bowl teams. "You have a sense of purpose in football, but he kind of refined it.

"More than anything, in my years in football, I've never seen a staff that pays such attention to details. That, to me, is the key. If you take care of the little things, the big things will be easier to take care of."

In contrast to Handley, Reeves arrived making decisions. The biggest, perhaps, came late in the summer, when he released All-Pro linebacker Pepper Johnson and replaced him with free agent Carlton Bailey, from the Buffalo Bills and Woodlawn.

Johnson had not gotten with the program. Noting the influx of former Denver Broncos -- Reeves' old team -- he referred to the Giants as the "New Jersey Broncos." Despite being a team leader, Johnson was deemed expendable. The team was forewarned.

Reeves, however, denies the decision was made to shock the troops.

"I didn't make the decision to send a message," he said. "It was based on what was best for the team. I told him, 'What you do speaks louder than what you say.' "

More important than cutting Johnson, Reeves restored clout to a defense that had grown old, if not feeble. Under defensive coordinator Rod Rust a year ago, the Giants were a read-and-react defense that specialized in giving up big plays.

This year, under 35-year-old coordinator Mike Nolan, they're back on attack, reminiscent of the glory days, even if Taylor is no longer a dominant player. The Giants have surrendered the fewest points in the NFL this season, and have given up 10 points or fewer in six games.

No faith healer could have accomplished what Reeves has thus far. So why wasn't he coaching the Giants earlier? Like 14 years earlier?

In 1979, when Reeves was still an offensive coordinator at the arm of legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry, he was rejected by Giants general manager George Young, who picked Ray Perkins instead. The Giants were coming off six consecutive losing seasons and had just fired John McVay.

"At that time, I thought I needed a guy here who would make the players uncomfortable when they lost," Young said. "I thought I needed a fox-hole guy. . . . I was a little nervous about the fact Dan had been with the Cowboys, where they had always been successful, that it would be a little traumatic for him here. I went with somebody who had been at other places. The decision was based on that, not who was the best coach.

"Dan has proven over the long run to be very successful, and Perkins went a crooked road."

Perkins left after the 1982 season to replace Bear Bryant at Alabama, then made two more stops before joining Parcells' New England Patriots staff this season.

Reeves, on the other hand, is third among active coaches with 127 victories. He trails only Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins and Chuck Knox of the Los Angeles Rams.

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