The news conference was called for March 3, 1995.
The meeting with the media had a special purpose. Former New York Football Giants and free agent quarterback Phil Simms was going to be signed as the new signalcaller for the Cleveland Browns.
Browns’ owner Art Modell was not in attendance as he was vacationing in Florida. The signing was actually hastily put together and a surprise to Modell. Not deterred, a phone was installed in order for him to be heard on a live feed.
Cleveland head coach Bill Belichick had a history with Simms when he was the defensive coordinator of the Giants. Belichick had brought over other former Giants such as linebackers Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks, plus kicker Matt Stover. Now, he wanted Simms as the new field general.
In the previous year of 1994 the starter was Vinny Testaverde, an eight-year veteran. Testaverde was known for good arm strength but had a propensity to commit numerous turnovers. In that 1994 season, the Browns had gone 11-5-0, beaten the New England Patriots in the playoffs with a 20-13 victory and then lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 29-9.
Cleveland’s defense was ranked Number 1 in the league behind Belichick’s crafty moves and schemes. The offense, however, had its issues. Testaverde had tossed 16 touchdowns but had also thrown 18 interceptions. His completion ratio was a mere 55.1%. His backup, veteran Mark Rypien, was an aging player who started three games but couldn’t move the offense.
Things appeared on the uptick for the 1995 season. Sports Illustrated had predicted the Browns would meet the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX in Arizona.
Belichick was looking for a quick edge with a steady familiar face and perhaps make that Sports Illustrated article become a reality.
Simms was coveted by Belichick
Phil Simms was a veteran quarterback. He led the Giants to a 39-20 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 21 and was the game’s MVP. In that game, Simms threw three touchdowns for 268 yards and completed 22 of 25 passes thrown. That 88% completion ratio remains a Super Bowl record.
In the 1990 season, he led the Giants to a 10-0-0 start before an injury sidelined him for the remainder of the year. New York would finish that season by defeating the Buffalo Bills 20-19 in Super Bowl 25.
In 1993, the Giants went 11-5-0 with Simms at the helm. It was one of the most successful seasons for the seasoned quarterback. He completed 61.8% of his passes – a career best. He also tossed 173 straight passes without an interception and was one of only seven QB’s that year to start every game.
He had right shoulder issues throughout the entire year, and at season’s end, he opted for shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. Even though the surgery proved successful, the recovery was anything but.
The prognosis was that the 38-year old Simms would be ready for the beginning of training camp in 1994. Since there were no other signs of injury to the rotator cuff plus the adjoining muscles, the recovery and rehabilitation were viewed as a plus.
However, his recovery period was slow and the eventual outcome wasn’t identified as a positive. During the off-season, the Giants released him to which Giants’ co-owner Wellington Mara called their actions “a day of overwhelming sadness.”
At this point, Simms had passed for 33,462 yards, completed 2,576 passes on 4,647 attempts, tossed 199 touchdowns and 157 interceptions, was sacked 477 times, started 159 NFL games and finished his lengthy career with a 78.5 passer rating. Plus, he was a two-time Super Bowl Champion, named to two Pro Bowls, Super Bowl MVP, and the NFL MVP (1986).
And for a head coach, Simms was as stable and even-tempered as you could ask for. Belichick had seen and witnessed this time-and-time again while he was the DC with the Giants. After Simms decided to sit out the 1994 season in order to completely heal, Belichick made a move to contact Simms to inquire about his services for the upcoming 1995 season.
The Browns’ had Leroy Hoard, Eric Metcalf and Earnest Byner as their running backs. The receiver room was stocked with Derrick Alexander, Keenan McCardell and Michael Jackson as passing threats plus tight end Brian Kinchen. The offensive line had been built into a fine unit which featured center Steve Everitt.
In Belichick’s mind, all that remained was a very good clutch quarterback to sew all the pieces together – someone to manage the game.
Earlier in the year, the Arizona Cardinals had attempted to sign Simms but the deal stalled over contract negotiations. Simms was perfectly healed and was at a career crossroads on whether to play a few more seasons, or retirement to which he would potentially have an analyst job with ESPN.
Belichick had talked to Simms about the possibility of signing with the Browns. He then flew to Hackensack, New Jersey and met Simms at a hotel. There, Belichick convinced Simms to try to work out a deal.
Simms’ agent, David Fishof, met with the Browns’ director of player personnel Mike Lombardi in Cleveland although no word was announced. Simms traveled to Cleveland on a private jet to tour the team’s facilities. During this visit, Lombardi had assumed a deal was indeed struck. Simms and Fishof considered the trip a “feeling-out process.”
The appearance was that Simms and the Browns had reached a tentative agreement although nothing was officially signed. The trip for Simms was viewed as a formality to a signing.
So, even though Lombardi didn’t have a signed contract in hand, later that day the Cleveland Browns called a press conference at the team’s practice facility.
The scene was set for the Browns to announce the signing of quarterback Phil Simms.
Bill Belichick was seen wearing a brown suit; which nobody knew he even owned a suit much less put it on.
After about 40 minutes after the start time of the press conference, there was no sign of Simms. Lombardi then sheepishly announced that after two hours of touring the facilities and trying to iron out contract numbers, there still was no actual “signed deal.”
Art Modell stated at the time that he assumed the two sides were stalled over financial numbers. Fishof would not make any comment. Simms was back on a plane headed for New Jersey. Belichick exited the presser to change into something more comfortable.
Later, it was divulged that Simms wanted to come to Cleveland and become their new starting quarterback. However, there wasn’t a clear definition over whether he would be the actual starter or simply Testaverde’s new backup in place of Rypien.
Modell spoke with the media and told them, “Unequivocally our only interest in Phil is as a backup.”
This, of course, was not what Simms wanted at all. It is likely that it was not what Belichick wanted either.
But sometimes, as an employee, you have to do what you are told to do. And if Modell wanted to sign Simms as a backup and pay him backup QB money, then that is what Belichick would have had to live with.
Fishof and Lombardi did pick up the negotiations a few days later, but Simms did not wish to become anyone’s backup and declined his opportunity to wear a Browns’ uniform.
In the end, it worked out in Simms’ favor as he went into broadcasting first as an analyst for ESPN, then signed a gig to do in-game color with NBC and now a studio analyst with CBS Sports.
After being favored to get to the Super Bowl in that 1995 season, the Browns began the year 3-1-0. Rumors began to surface about the franchise being relocated to Baltimore. Cleveland lost three of four games and after a humilating 37-10 home loss to the Houston Oilers, Modell made it official and announced his intention to move the club to Maryland.
The Browns finished 5-11-0. At season’s end, Belichick was fired. The City of Cleveland was enraged about losing their storied franchise.
Simms on the other hand, did not have to endure all the madness and stress with that 1995 season. He had a steady job with ESPN and was making good money without all the heartache and anguish he would have ultimately endured.
Or, if he had signed with the Browns, even today might have been the public’s scapegoat as to the reason why they left town.
Belichick would rebound and have success as head coach of the New England Patriots winning six Super Bowls. The new Baltimore Ravens and Modell would go on to win two Super Bowls of their own.
Two championships that were supposed to be for the folks in Cleveland.