15 Nov 2004
Sunday Morning Quarterback
By Phil Simms with Vic Carucci
Published by HarperCollins
Reviewed By Michael David Smith
When a quarterback throws into an area occupied by one of his teammates and two of his opponents, the TV announcers will invariably tell us, "He threw into double coverage."
Most of the time, that's not true. More likely, the quarterback threw to a receiver who was only covered by one defensive player, but the pass took too long to get there or was thrown into an area that allowed a second defensive player to arrive before the ball did. Generally, when an announcer describes a quarterback who has "thrown into double coverage," he's really describing a physical error, not a mental mistake.
That's just one of the smart observations made by Phil Simms, put into words by Vic Carucci, in Sunday Morning Quarterback, one of the most intelligent, unconventional, and amusing football books of recent years.
Simms, the former Giants quarterback, draws on his experience as a player without pretending that players have some magical insight that the rest of us can't grasp.
Simms doesn't portray himself as anything but a regular guy who happened to come across a wonderful career. If anyone gets praise as a true football expert in the book, it's not Simms but Bill Parcells, who coached Simms for eight seasons with the Giants. Parcells might not seem like a pleasant person to play for (would you want him as your boss?), but Simms says he always made practices fun by making them challenging, thoughtful, and competitive. (At the same time, Simms acknowledges that when Jim Fassel joined the Giants' staff, Simms learned a great deal about the technical side of being a quarterback that Parcells had never taught him.)
In one of the book's best chapters, Simms recounts a conversation in which he told Bill Parcells he thought there were 50 great players in the NFL, and Parcells retorted that he couldn't name five. Simms says Parcells convinced him, and that he now uses the word "great" sparingly. In that chapter, he gives us five players he considers great, and it's quite an eclectic list: His boyhood idol Jim Brown, his old teammate Lawrence Taylor, his fellow 1979 draftee Joe Montana, his two toughest opponents: cornerbacks Darrell Green and Michael Haynes.
But what's great about Simms is that he knows no one and nothing in football is sacrosanct. Even when he praises a player, he'll poke fun at him. He mentions the time he won a bet with Taylor when LT thought he could throw a football from the 50-yard line and hit the goal post, and he talks about a pass he threw that Haynes should have intercepted but instead let bounce off his hands and into the hands of a Giants receiver.
Simms repeatedly takes on conventional football wisdom. For instance, he mentions that people frequently approach him and with banal analyses of the Giants' offense, such as, "The Giants always knew how to get the ball to the tight end." Simms insists that that's nonsense. The Giants didn't know anything more about getting the ball to the tight end than any other teams; they simply had a team whose two best pass catchers, Mark Bavarro and Zeke Mowatt, happened to be tight ends.
That unconventional streak is probably why Simms shows so much admiration for Mike Martz, the Rams coach who never does things by the book. Simms says all quarterbacks would love playing for Martz, and as you read the book you sense that as happy as Simms was to have been coached by Parcells, there's a part of him that wishes he had had a coach who let him play with the reckless abandon and Martz employs.
Simms considers Peyton Manning, Daunte Culpepper, and Donovan McNabb to be the top quarterbacks in the NFL right now. He says Manning's technique as a passer is so perfect that when he tutors young quarterbacks (including his sons Chris, of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Matt, of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, NJ,) it's a struggle to find anyone but Manning to use as a good example. In evaluating quarterbacks, Simms hates the notion that they should be judged by whether they win. He says, "If you want to go by that logic, then John Elway was a horrendous college quarterback. He didn't have a winning record his last year at Stanford. He was in an offense that threw the ball, an offense that was built around him, and they lost. He was the top overall pick of the draft and will arguably go down as one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the National Football League, but all he did in college was lose."
The book was written before this season started, but some of Simms' words sound applicable to the league's newest star, Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "Name me the quarterback whose confidence was ruined because he played as a rookie, and I'll show you a quarterback who had no business playing at all," he says.
Simms says a good analyst constantly asks why. He strives not simply tell viewers that a team is having success running the ball; he tells us why the offense's strengths match up well with the defense's weaknesses.
Perhaps the most surprising analysis (coming from a quarterback) is that Simms insists that the physical battle -- which players are blocking and tackling more effectively -- is the key to winning almost every game. He says that when he completed 22 of 25 passes in the Super Bowl, he wasn't throwing the ball more accurately than usual, he simply benefited from a great offensive line, which gave him all the time in the world to look for an open receiver.
The book very rarely relies on statistics to make a point, in large part because Simms hates stats that don't provide a context. He tells his producers not to give viewers stats such as fourth-quarter passer rating because that doesn't tell us anything in and of itself. Unless we know whether the quarterback in question was nursing a lead or mounting a furious comeback, his fourth-quarter passer rating is useless.
Simms reserves his greatest wrath for the phrase "West Coast Offense," which he says is so trite and pointless that it has lost all meaning. "The term itself doesn't bother me so much as the way people talk about it," Simms says. "I'm not sure what's worse -- the erroneous presumption that West Coast offense has a universal definition or the equally erroneous presumption that it is some sort of cure-all, that it is the greatest thing out there." Simms does admire Bill Walsh, though, and many people forget that Walsh considered Simms a better prospect than Montana when both were entering the NFL draft.
As for how to watch the game, Simms points out that coaches' tape, which shows all 22 players, is more revealing than the angles the TV cameras give us, but I have a simple question for him: Why doesn't CBS show more replays that show all 22 players?
And that leads me to my main criticism: Now that we know Simms has so many strong insights, why don't we hear more of them when he's calling the game on Sunday? Too often, Simms falls into the same traps of so many other announcers, hyping stars and sticking to the storylines he planned to discuss before the game started.
But I'm not reviewing Simms' announcing; I'm reviewing his book, and this is a good one. Simms' insight and Carucci's writing make for an easy and surprisingly informative read. You can buy it from our Amazon.com link over on the left-hand side of the page.