This Sunday, when the New York Giants take the field at home against St. Louis in a game that can wrap up their first division championship in 23 years, Phil Simms will step out into the arena and hear...and hear...what? Cheers? Boos? Mixed cheers and boos? Beers and chews? What will he hear?
"Good question," the Giants quarterback says. "It'll be interesting."
Why do New York fans love to boo this guy so much? He has led his team to more victories than any NFL quarterback this year: The Giants were 12-2 after beating the Redskins 24-14 in RFK Stadium on Sunday. And in the three previous weeks Simms had brought his team from behind for victories, two of them on the road and all of them against playoff-caliber teams. On Nov. 16, the Giants beat the Vikings by two points, the winning field goal coming with 12 seconds left; to get them there Simms had to convert a seemingly hopeless fourth-and-17 situation. The following week the Giants beat the Broncos by three, this time with six seconds showing, and Simms had to cash in a third-and-21 on that final drive.
On Dec. 1 against the 49ers, the Giants were down 17-0 at the half, but in less than nine minutes Simms and the offense scored 21 points, and the game ended 21-17. In some towns a guy could run for office on the strength of three straight victories like that, or at least they would call him a magician. In New York it's "Yes, but...."
"I watched the 49er game in a bar," said Glenn Moore, an Australian writer who was visiting New York. "Do you know what they were all talking about? The two interceptions Simms threw in the first half. I said, 'But the guy won the game,' and they told me, 'Shut up, you don't understand.' "
Is it comfortable victories they want? O.K., the Redskins game qualifies. It was a nasty kind of game for a while, a defensive game, with the Giants shutting down Washington's two favorite schemes, throwing the ball deep and pounding on the ground with running back George Rogers. ( Rogers had only 22 yards on 10 carries.) The score was 7-7 with 1:50 left in the first half when Simms took over and did what he does best—better, perhaps, than any NFL quarterback this year—run a hurry-up offense.
In a minute and 27 seconds he took his team 81 yards in seven plays for a touchdown. When the Skins rushed only three linemen and dropped seven backs into a prevent defense, Simms handed off on a draw play or threw underneath the coverage. When they came in with a fourth lineman, Simms hit flanker Bobby Johnson for 34 yards on a quick-up pattern, laying the ball into his hands perfectly. When Washington blitzed two safeties, he found the right outlet man, split end Stacy Robinson, for 19 yards. Simms got his TD by faking a scramble and pulling up at the last minute to hit Johnson, who was cutting across the end zone. It was textbook hurry-up football, and when a team breaks a tight game open with a score like that it has a chilling effect.
The Giants got 10 points on their first two possessions in the second half—on a Raul Allegre field goal and a 16-yard TD pass from Simms to Phil McConkey—then held Washington to a TD, and the hunt was over. After six straight wins by seven points or less, the Giants had a victory with some air in it. Simms had worked his magic early, at the end of the first half instead of the second, and the result was a one-game lead on the Redskins in the NFC East and a tie with Chicago for the best record in the NFL. And the question remains: Will Simms finally get the recognition that's been due him for eight long and sometimes painful years in New York? Or will it continue to be, "Wait, he'll find a way to screw up"?
How they love to boo quarterbacks in New York. They made a basket case out of Richard Todd in Shea Stadium. Y.A. Tittle heard the boos in his last desperate season, when the Giants went from the title game to a 2-10-2 record. Jets fans booed Joe Namath in his final years, and Giants fans went after Fran Tarkenton, Norman Snead and Craig Morton.
"The way to get cheered in New York," Simms says, "is to be a backup quarterback. They love backups."