EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Phil Simms had many triumphant moments in his storied 15-year Giants career, most notably his nearly flawless MVP performance in the Super Bowl XXI victory against Denver.
But anyone who plays that long bears his share of disappointment and Simms was no exception. Some of the most enduring defeats were not the most significant games or lopsided losses, but those in which the Giants sabotaged their chance to win with turnovers, mental lapses or missed opportunities. It happened often enough that Simms developed a phrase for it.
"We would refuse to win," Simms said.
One of those games occurred on Oct. 13, 1985, in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. The Giants outgained the Bengals, 470-199, finished with more than twice as many first downs (34-16) and outscored them in the second half by 13 points. But they lost, 35-30.
The Giants fell behind, 21-0, rallied to within a point and later trailed by 15 before scoring the game's final 10 points. But they came up short in Cincinnati, a city that has treated them harshly. They are 0-6 in Southwestern Ohio, a streak they will try to end when the teams meet Sunday in Paul Brown Stadium.
Perhaps the most frustrating of those defeats occurred when most of the Giants' offensive output was generated by Simms, who threw for 513 yards; 35 years later, it remains the franchise's single-game record.
In a recent phone conversation, Simms vividly recalled details of that game.
"It was a hot, steamy day in Cincy, I remember that," Simms said. "My uniform was a different color when the game was over because the heat, the turf, whatever. We threw it because we got behind. I threw two picks, if I remember. But physically, it was probably one of my top two or three games ever throwing the ball. We just made so many good throws and catches in the game, it was ridiculous. But we never could get into the end zone."
Not often enough. Simms threw one touchdown pass, a 24-yarder to running back George Adams, the team's first-round draft choice that year, with 1:28 remaining. Joe Morris, who rushed for 1,336 yards that season, netted minus-6 yards on five carries, but scored one of his team-record 21 touchdowns on a one-yard run. Kicker Jess Atkinson scored on a 14-yard run on a fake field goal and kicked three-pointers from 33, 37 and 46 yards.
But in addition to the two interceptions, Simms and Adams each lost fumbles, and the QB was sacked seven times for losses totaling 70 yards.
"I don't remember the sacks being a big part of why we couldn't get it done," Simms said. "It was just one of those days where the turnovers, I don't know what else, maybe the sacks, but we moved the ball, of course, with 500 yards, we moved it well. That's what I remember."
View photos of Super Bowl XXI MVP and Ring of Honor inductee Phil Simms through the years.
Simms completed 40 of 62 passes, both franchise records he held for three decades. Eli Manning had 41 completions against San Francisco on Oct.11, 2015, and threw 62 passes at Philadelphia on Dec. 22, 2016. Manning almost secured the yardage record as well but topped out at 510 yards vs. Tampa Bay on Sept. 16, 2012.
"I always say I set a lot of records - fumbles, sacks, all those things, I got a lot of good ones," Simms said. "But it's all good. I think me and (center) Bart Oates set a record in 1985 for fumbles because it was his first year with us and, man, we just had trouble with the snap. Oh my God. It ruined my whole year.
"Every play, all I thought about was getting the snap. Every single play, I would say as we were going to the line of scrimmage, 'Hey Bart, get the ball up.' I did it every play. It was monotonous. I would just say it. Every day, (coach Bill) Parcells would say, 'Simms, Oates, get your (butt) on to the field and practice your snap.' 'You know Bill, we're really good when there's nobody around. It's when Bart's trying to block somebody it becomes a problem.'"
That issue was central to a galling defeat one week before the Giants arrived in Cincinnati. Simms threw three third-quarter touchdown passes, including the go-ahead 70-yarder to Adams, as the Giants took a 12-point lead against archrival Dallas in a Sunday night game in Giants Stadium. The Giants led, 29-27, when Simms couldn't secure an Oates snap with 2:40 remaining. The ball fell to the ground and was recovered by Dallas at the Giants' 19-yard line, leading to Rafael Septien's go-ahead field goal. On their ensuing possession, the Giants moved to the 50-yard line before Simms' final pass was intercepted by Everson Walls, the Giants' fifth giveaway of the game.
The Giants started the Cincinnati game as if they still had a Cowboys hangover. Boomer Esiason threw early touchdown passes to Cris Collinsworth ("back of the end zone, coming across - I remember it," Simms said) and James Brooks, who also scored on a five-yard run as the Bengals jumped ahead by 21 points midway through the second quarter.
With the Giants stuck in a deep hole and the rushing attack offering little support – finishing with 27 yards on 15 carries – Simms began throwing. And throwing. And throwing.
"We threw it 62 times because we were down 21-0," Simms said. "Time was of the essence in the first half."
They scored just three points in those 30 minutes and went to the locker room at halftime trailing by 18. The deficit would have been smaller had Adams not fumbled at the two-yard line in the final moments of the second quarter.
In the third quarter, Simms kept slinging, the Giants started scoring and with three minutes remaining in the period, they were within a point.
"I do remember seeing during the game, probably when we pulled to 21-20, that (Bengals coach) Sam Wyche was on the sideline panicking," Simms said. "Just going like, 'What the hell? When are we going to stop what's going on?'"
It happened quickly. On the second play of the Giants' next possession, Simms threw a pass to Mark Bavaro that was intercepted by safety James Griffin, who returned the ball 24 yards for a touchdown and a 28-20 lead. Griffin had both of the Bengals' picks that day.
"We would refuse to win, so we'd do something wrong again, either throwing the pick that was returned for a touchdown, which I saw on TV this offseason somehow," Simms said. "I was under pressure, but I threw it perfectly. I lobbed it or whatever and I thought it's going to be great. (Griffin) cut underneath it. It was something I didn't read right. It does happen. It wasn't one of those, 'Oh, that was a stupid play.' But it's stupid because it was intercepted. When I let it go, I thought it was perfect."
Offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, a consistently tough evaluator, told Simms, "I see what you were trying to do, Phil. You threw it perfect, just a little unlucky."
Cincinnati increased its lead to 35-20 in the fourth quarter on Esiason's five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Rodney Holman. The Giants countered with Atkinson's third field goal and Simms' 24-yard scoring pass to Adams with 1:24 remaining. "They played back in a prevent, if I remember," Simms said. "I looked the guy off then threw the ball about as hard as I could throw it in between everybody in the end zone to George, catching it and going in."
The Bengals, however, recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
"When you throw it 60 times," Simms said, "it's almost guaranteed you're going to lose the game."
The Giants know; they're 2-24 in regular-season games in which they threw 50 or more passes (but they won the 2011 NFC Championship Game in San Francisco when Manning threw 58 passes).
"Some analyst will eventually come on and say, 'You know, they just can't throw it that many times. They have to run it more,'" Simms said. "Hey, when you throw it over 50, it means you're trailing. We don't have time to run it. I love the things that people come up with, analytics."
Simms' 40 completions were divided among nine receivers. Bavaro, then a rookie playing in his sixth NFL game, caught 12 passes for 176 yards. The 12 receptions were a Giants record that went unmatched until Amani Toomer had 12 at Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 2006. The Giants have since had four other 12-catch games, and Tiki Barber (13 in Dallas in the 1999 season finale) and Saquon Barkley (team-record 14 on Sept. 16, 2018, also in Dallas) have since topped Bavaro, whose 176 yards remain the franchise record for a tight end.
Bavaro entered the Bengals game with four catches. In the season's final 10 weeks, he totaled 21 receptions and never had more than three in a game. Roughly one-third of his 37 rookie receptions were in Cincinnati.
"Mark Bavaro had a great day that day," Simms said of his fellow Giants Ring of Honor inductee. "Some of those were really good where we threw it into really tight spots, caught him down the field. There weren't many cheap yards in what he did that day. It was kind of physical.
"I remember one of the best throws I ever made. In that game, I drop back, TV would have been right to left, so it wasn't the first quarter I don't think. Bavaro ran down the field and did like a corner route. I was getting hit and they drove me up in the air, and I still made the throw and put it right on the money. The guy hit me, and I went flying through the air. For real. Not just down, I went up. I can't remember who hit me."
While Simms threw for 513 yards, Esiason completed 15 of 24 passes for 193 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked six times.
Simms and Esiason, who later played for the Jets, are close friends who appear weekly during the season as studio analysts for "The NFL Today" on CBS.
"Boomer says, 'Yeah, we beat you,'" Simms said. "I said, 'Yeah, but Boomer, I threw for 513, so what do you think about that? Who cares?' It was almost like a receiver, they lose the game but he caught 12 passes so he's not really upset. I was upset, but as time has gone on, I'm like, 'Oh well we lost, big deal.'"
The Giants' second consecutive turnover-infused defeat was witnessed by a legion of Simms fans, including a special one who had a brief postgame meeting with the quarterback.
"Since I grew up in Louisville (100 miles away), we had probably, no exaggeration, from people that knew me this, that, whatever, at least 1,000 people there," Simms said. "They came up in busloads, so at least they got to see me throw the ball a lot."
They also got to see the third of the Giants' six defeats in Cincinnati.
"Yeah, you're down," Simms said. "(After the game) our busses were underneath the stadium, so I didn't get to see anybody. But my mom (Barbara) did come in, and I was dejected, of course. She found her way in and goes, 'Son, don't be too mad. You know you probably set records today, so just don't worry about it, okay?' I don't know if it's going to soothe my feelings right now as Bill Parcells is burning a hole through me as we're talking."
Simms had another memorable postmortem to his record-smashing performance.
Erhardt was an affable and engaging man – except when he was critiquing his players during Monday tape reviews.
"Ron was usually pretty rough in those meetings," Simms said. "He was always really positive during the game. Always. But I knew I was in trouble every time he said, 'Look, don't worry about it. We'll watch the film.' And I went, 'Oh shoot.' That meant, 'You really screwed it up, but I'm going to wait until this game is over to tell you.'
"Of course, we won a lot of games in that era. He would just be real abrupt. (He'd say), 'What are you doing here? Why didn't you make this throw?' Well, Reggie White is hitting me. And he goes, 'Don't give me these excuses, complete the ball.' And I'm just sitting there going 'Are you (kidding) me? Whatever.' (Backup quarterback) Jeff Rutledge usually sat right beside me, so when Ron would be chewing my (butt) off, I'd look over and Rut would be smiling Then the meeting would be over, we'd go out there and Ron would go, 'Hey, I really got on your (butt), didn't I?' He would laugh about it. And I'd just go, 'Yeah, it was really great.' It was so funny. He would be like that and then just shake it off and we'd move on. It was really something. He was great."
But the day-after meeting took a decidedly different tone after Simms threw for 513.
"When we watched the tape the next day, I was dreading it because you always dread it when you win or lose watching the tape," Simms said. "Of course, you dread it more when you lose. But we're watching it and Ron always gave a speech before he started, and he just goes, 'Men, I know we lost, but I'm going to tell you, hell of a job. A lot of great plays. Let's watch them.' That's the truth. And I'm just like, 'Alright good, I'm going to sit back and enjoy this.'"
Thirty-five years later, he still does.