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Still Going Deep
Chris Ballard
December 19, 2005
No football commentator--not even that guy with the video game--packs more wisdom into his words than hardworking CBS color man Phil Simms
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December 19, 2005

Still Going Deep

No football commentator--not even that guy with the video game--packs more wisdom into his words than hardworking CBS color man Phil Simms

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Phil Simms is fired up. He has seen something he must point out, so he leaps off his chair and toward the flat-screen TV in his home office, in Franklin Lakes, N.J. It is a Tuesday, and Simms is studying up for Sunday's CBS broadcast of the Broncos-Chiefs game, for which he will provide color commentary. As part of his exceedingly thorough preparation, he is watching a coach's tape of the Broncos' previous game that shows all 22 players from above, allowing him to see how plays unfold. (He also watches broadcast tapes to avoid repeating other announcers' observations.)

"See how the cornerback breaks here," he says, indicating Denver's Champ Bailey. "He reads [ Dallas quarterback] Drew Bledsoe and comes up on it!" As Simms talks, ever more animatedly, his back is turned to the coffee table, where his uneaten breakfast--egg whites on wheat toast--sits within sniffing range of Stella, his small white terrier. "If Bailey doesn't break, it's not an interception," Simms continues. "And what a play, an unbelievable--Oh, you dirty dog! You little turkey!"

Stella makes for the corner with her prize, but Simms doesn't give chase. This theme will be repeated, with half a bagel, then with the tinfoil that housed it. After each heist, Simms utters a good-natured reprimand but never stops dissecting the tape. In the world of Simms, nothing is more important than talking about football. "Football is his job and his hobby," says Jim Nantz, his partner on CBS. "I can call him up in May or June, and chances are when I ask what he's doing, he'll say, 'Watching tape.'"

It is this passionate preparation, combined with a likable goofiness, that has made Simms the top color man in the business and earned favorable comparisons with John Madden. Though not especially colorful--there is no Simms Cruiser or Simms 2006 video game--he provides insight that is short on forced jocularity and long on enthusiasm and technical expertise (box, page 37). A straight talker from Kentucky, he won two Super Bowls with the Giants and raised an NFL quarterback (his son Chris, with Tampa Bay), yet he remains, in the words of CBS sideline reporter Bonnie Bernstein, "one of the most grounded ex-football players I've ever met." Jeff Behnke, a TNT producer, says Simms has the holy trinity of broadcaster traits: "He's prepared, detailed and able to laugh at himself." CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus believes Simms is not only the successor to John Madden as the voice of pro football but says, "I could argue that the mantle has already been passed."

The irony of Phil Simms, esteemed announcer, is that he wasn't especially quotable as a player. Not because he didn't want to talk, but because those were the orders from his coach (and mentor and friend and, one gets the impression, idol) Bill Parcells. Indeed he seemed rusty as a speaker in 1995 when, after being released, he joined ESPN's studio show. "The first Sunday, 15 seconds to air, my face started twitching," he says. "If I had a comment, I'd write it out, word for word, and memorize it."

The network sent him to Andrea Kirby, a media coach. She was ruthless. "He had this really bad haircut and was dressing pretty monochromatic," she says. "He did have a talent for communicating, though. He had all this information in his brain, he just needed to decide what was important." Simms was a quick study. The next year he was hired at NBC, and in 1998 McManus made Simms his lead analyst, offering him a contract the day CBS acquired its NFL rights. Along the way, Simms refined his style, fighting what is at times an inclination to overtalk. "I try to be silent after a play at least once a half," says Simms. "But it is hard, man. Really hard."

This is probably because he has so much in his head. From the Tuesday before a game, when he starts making calls to sources and watching film, through visits with the home team (Friday) and the visitors (Saturday), he jots down thoughts and diagrams on legal pads. Before Sunday's game he rewrites his notes, like a high schooler cramming for a test. He brings a poster board with pertinent info into the booth with him. (His board at a Patriots game last year had BILL BELICHICK written above a list of talking points that included, "So unhip he's cool.")

Simms is often compared to Madden, and he does share a down-home style with the ABC announcer, but he can display a fiery side. When ESPN's Steve Young questioned the "mental toughness" of Chris Simms, saying that Chris grew up in a "laissez-faire kind of atmosphere," the elder Simms shot back, "There's one thing I know my son doesn't lack, and it's toughness." Then he went on: "You know, Steve, follow football more than one day a week and you might know some of those answers."

Still, everyone agrees that Simms calling Simms is not an ideal situation. (It has not happened yet). In a few years, he may have another potential conflict; Simms's youngest son, Matthew, is a highly touted junior at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J.

Meanwhile, Simms has video to watch and people to talk to. As a reporter left his house on a recent afternoon, Simms apologized that he couldn't talk longer (he had a doctor's appointment), even though he'd held forth on football for almost six hours, at least two of which were off the record because he became so worked up analyzing players. "Give a call if you want," he said, waving goodbye. Then he added, quite unnecessarily, "I just love talking about this stuff."

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