For team new from top down, Giants' Super focus remains same Handley/Hostetler squad aims for top

THE BALTIMORE SUN

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Bill Parcells is a talking head. Phil Simms is barely talking. And the Giants -- the Giants of Ray Handley and Jeff Hostetler -- are talking about another Super Bowl.

It has been an eventful, almost tumultuous, seven months since that January night in Tampa, Fla., when Scott Norwood's kick went right, and wrong, for the Buffalo Bills, giving the Giants their second championship in six seasons.

The team, or at least half of it, was sold to hotel magnate Robert Tisch in February.

The coach resigned in May.

The quarterback couldn't reclaim his job in August.

"I haven't noticed any glitches in the transition," George Young, the Baltimore native and longtime Giants general manager, said last week.

"There is change, but I don't think there's enough change to cause any problems," said punter Sean Landeta, the seven-year veteran from Towson State.

If a 2-2 preseason that concluded with a 24-3 loss to the pitiful New England Patriots wasn't reason enough to worry, or wonder, then a slow start to the regular season might be. It begins here tonight against the San Francisco 49ers.

The questions linger:

Will Handley, a career assistant who worked with people such as Bill Walsh and spent the past seven years coaching the Giants running backs before nearly giving it up for law school, be as successful following his out-of-nowhere promotion as Parcells was in his?

Will Hostetler, a career backup who didn't even attempt a pass in his first four years with the Giants, continue his remarkable Joe Hardyish rejuvenation that was capped by a 20-for-32, 222-yard, one-touchdown passing performance against the Bills?

Will the Giants, a veteran but slightly aging team, be able to follow last year's 16-3 Super Bowl season with a stronger showing than they did the last time they were the league's defending champions, going from 17-2 domination in 1986 to 6-9 strike-shortened dormancy?

"You know, if we don't win, that's [the changes] what will be rationalized," said Landeta. "But it won't have anything to do with why we don't win. Different coaches. Different players. That's all irrelevant. The reason you win is that your players play better than the other players."

The Giants certainly have the players needed to win, and three more than were available during the preseason. When all-purpose, all-NFL running back/returner and former Towson State star Dave Meggett, along with Pro Bowl offensive tackle William Roberts and wide receiver Mark Ingram, ended their holdouts Friday, a sigh of relief could be heard all around Giants Stadium.

And Handley, the straight-talking, squinty-eyed, steadily balding coach, was breathing a lot easier. "You can't be totally ready if you don't have all the players," Handley said hours before the last contracts were signed.

Handley, 46, already has made at least one gutsy call before he coaches his first official NFL game. It came before the final preseason game, when he chose to stick with Hostetler rather than giving the No. 1 quarterback job back to Simms, who had held the position for most of his 13 years.

Before, and after the decision was made, it became a cause celebre, so much fodder for the WFANs of New York, even to the point of overshadowing that other fun couple, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. "The controversy was developed more by the media, in telephone polls and all that nonsense," said Young. "Ray handled it like he did other players. It wasn't a preoccupation in our office."

Said Handley, "It was a gut feeling, gut decision, gut reaction."

And, because of the way Simms and Hostetler dealt with it, which was hardly talking about it at all after promising each other before training camp to handle things diplomatically, the debate never seeped through the walls of the locker room.

There was more discussion about who wasn't there -- the Giants started camp with 13 veteran holdouts and several unsigned rookies -- than who the quarterback was going to be.

"Nobody cared," said former All-Pro linebacker Carl Banks. "We have a very strong team-oriented concept. We have supported whoever the quarterback is at this point, and whoever the quarterback will be. That's the only way you win football games."

Handley's approach -- earnest, direct and mostly non-confrontational -- has been widely viewed a welcome change for those who had tired of Parcells' penchant for reverse psychology and long-standing habit of sending mixed signals.

But can players who have been used to being motivated by a drill instructor be as fired up by someone who looks and talks like their financial adviser? Though most believe Handley's approach will work, the difference in philosophies came into question at a players-only meeting last week.

"We need to make sure we keep ourselves motivated, not just for the Niners, but for a team that looks easier on paper," said cornerback Everson Walls. "We want to do it without Parcells shouting at us."

Handley, asked often about the difference in style, told The New York Times in July: "There is more than one way to get the same results. I don't know if I'm the same type of motivator that Bill was, but I think I know the players as well as he did. I don't think rah-rah is the way to get it done anymore. I don't think I have to get the players upset to get them to play."

There are some other changes. Though the offense will continue its pound-it-in-the-ground philosophy, Handley will likely use more two-back sets and more players to run the ball. Handley, who had been named offensive coordinator shortly before Parcells resigned, will remain in that capacity as well. Handley will "script" plays, a la Walsh, but admits that many situations can call for audible-libbing.

Asked last week if he had any trepidations about his debut, Handley said with a now-expected pragmaticism: "The work schedule is pretty well-defined once you get into the regular season. You go from one task to another. You don't have time to reflect on your own feelings. I've often felt as a coach that there's no reason to have butterflies if you've done all your preparation."

With the changes at the top behind them, with a disappointing preseason forgotten, with the flame of a quarterback controversy still flickering, the defending Super Bowl champions and their new coach certainly will have more than a few obstacles placed before them between now and next January.

"It's harder to come in as champs," said Banks. "Teams are going for the top. They want to win. It's just the competitive nature of the business. You have to be ready from the opening bell."

Ready or not, the bell tolls tonight for the Ray Handley-Jeff Hostetler Giants.

Who's new for the Giants

Owner: Robert Tisch, president and CEO of the Loews Corp., purchased 50 percent of the team from the Mara family in February. It marks the first time in the 66-year history of the team that control is outside the Maras.

Head coach: Ray Handley for Bill Parcells.

Assistants: Defensive coordinator Al Groh for Bill Belichick (head coach at Cleveland); wide receivers coach George Sefcik for Tom Coughlin (head coach at Boston College); Charlie Weis for Handley at running-backs coach; other new assistants include Jim Fassel (quarterbacks), Fred Bruney (secondary) and Ron Erhardt (game preparation).

Key players: Jeff Hostetler for Phil Simms at QB. TE Mark Bavaro and DB Dave Duerson were waived.

Other acquisitions: TE Zeke Mowatt and WR James Milling (Maryland), FB and top draft choice Jerrod Bunch (Michigan) and WR and third-round pick Ed McCaffrey (Stanford).

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