Giant steps: Reeves directs team's ascent

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.

Young got lucky last January in his search to replace Handley. He first went after former Giants assistant Tom Coughlin of Boston College and then Cowboys defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. Coughlin chose to stay at the college level, and Wannstedt spurned the Giants for the Chicago Bears.

As it was, Reeves was the Giants' third choice. And a third choice with baggage, at that.

His 12 seasons in Denver had ended in a public feud with quarterback John Elway and owner Pat Bowlen. In Denver, Reeves was perceived as a power-mongering coach whose competitive nature rubbed his star player the wrong way.

Elway said he would not have returned to Denver this year if Reeves had come back. The two men traded insults last summer, but have yet to meet on the field.


"I wasn't there trying to win a popularity contest," Reeves said.

He wasn't trying to turn The Meadowlands into Denver East, either, but some people accused him of that when he brought in five former Broncos. The most recent was punter Mike Horan, who replaced Sean Landeta (Loch Raven).

So far, so good for the Giants, who have won five in a row and are fighting for home-field advantage in the playoffs. It's a long way from the tumultuous Handley era.

"It's a different personality," Young said. "Players here have been used to discipline and detail, but they're used to a different personality. Dan does it a different way. He's very detail-conscious, very demanding.

"That's how you describe a good coach."



Age: 49

Hometown: Americus, Ga.

NFL coaching record: 117-79-1 in 12 seasons with the Denver Broncos and 10-3 with the New York Giants. His 127 wins rank third behind Don Shula (327) and Chuck Knox (184) among active coaches.

Biggest successes: His Denver teams won three of four AFC championship games and five division titles.

Biggest setbacks: He's 0-3 in the Super Bowl, each loss by a bigger margin.

Mentor: Former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, for whom Reeves played and coached.


Knock against him: That he's power-hungry, a charge he rebuts, and overbearing at times.

Coaching style: Intense, demanding, detail-oriented. Wins with conservative offense and aggressive defense. Almost always in position to win in fourth quarter.

Playing career: A quarterback at the University of South Carolina, he lasted eight years with the Dallas Cowboys as a free-agent running back.

Intriguing stat: He has been to eight Super Bowls in 29 years as a player or coach in the NFL.