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Hostetler Ready for Breakfast of Champions : Football: Super Bowl hero didn’t make the cereal-box cover, but he did win the New York Giants’ quarterback job.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe the next time Wheaties does a cereal-box cover featuring the New York Giants, they’ll include quarterback Jeff Hostetler in the picture. Of course, the way Hostetler is playing, they might have to give him his own cover.

Hostetler was snubbed last spring when Wheaties, banking on the Giants’ popularity after their Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills, produced a team box-cover for distribution in the Northeast.

Sean Landeta, the team’s punter, was pictured. So were center Bart Oates, tight end Mark Bavaro, running back Ottis Anderson, cornerback Reyna Thompson and linebacker Pepper Johnson. Even quarterback Phil Simms, who didn’t play a down of the NFC playoffs or Super Bowl, was on it.

Hostetler, who replaced the injured Simms late in the season and completed 20 of 32 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown in a 20-19, Super Bowl victory, was not.

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In some ways, you can’t blame the General Mills marketing folks for choosing Simms over Hostetler. Simms had been the Giants’ starting quarterback since 1984. He earned most valuable player honors in Super Bowl XXI, leading the Giants to a 39-20 romp over the Denver Broncos.

Simms was popular among fans, and most figured he’d be back at the helm when the Giants began the 1991 season. It’s an old football axiom: You don’t lose your starting job because of an injury.

But you do lose your job when the coach believes another player can do it better. That was the case in New York, where first-year Coach Ray Handley had a difficult decision this summer.

Hostetler and Simms played extremely well in the exhibition season, and no clear-cut starter emerged after four games.

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But when Handley considered the Giants’ schedule--San Francisco, the Rams and Chicago to open the season--and the success that the more mobile Hostetler had against the hard-rushing 49ers and Bears in the 1990 playoffs, Hostetler got the nod.

“I thought Jeff gave us the best chance to win early in the season,” Handley said. “I told him two or three games down the road, if we weren’t performing well offensively and his play was a major factor in that, I could make a change. I’m not going to make it a series-by-series or game-by-game thing.”

Hostetler showed Handley, Giant fans and a national-television audience Monday night that he is worthy of the job, completing 17 of 31 passes for 228 yards and rushing for 45 yards in the Giants’ 16-14 victory over the 49ers. He’ll attempt to improve his record to 9-0 as a starter Sunday when the Giants play host to the Rams.

Hostetler, who spent almost all of seven seasons as a backup and didn’t even attempt a pass in his first four years with the Giants, is finally a No. 1 quarterback, and he doesn’t intend to relinquish the title soon.

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“Ray told me the job is mine, and there’s no need to look over my shoulder,” said Hostetler, 30. “As long as I’m playing well, why look over my shoulder? As a quarterback, you can’t do that. If you do, you’ll get into trouble.”

For most of his career, Hostetler spent Sundays looking over a clipboard. That’s what backups do on the sideline during games. And no matter how much the former West Virginia quarterback improved in practice, he couldn’t complain about his lack of playing time--not when Simms and the Giants were doing so well.

“Those were a lot of frustrating years,” Hostetler said. “As a young quarterback, the only chance you get to play are through injuries or poor performance (of the starter). That wasn’t the case here. The opportunity never came.”

Until last December, when Simms sprained his ankle against Buffalo. Hostetler stepped in and guided the Giants to regular-season victories over Minnesota and Phoenix, which clinched the NFC East title.

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He threw two touchdown passes and ran for a score in a 31-3 playoff victory over Chicago. Hostetler survived a leg injury in the NFC title game against San Francisco to hit two key passes during a last-minute drive, which ended with Matt Bahr’s 42-yard field goal and a 15-13 Giant victory.

Then came his outstanding performance in Super Bowl XXV and a bittersweet off-season that--by Hostetler’s choice--contained few of the traditional spoils of Super Bowl stardom.

He visited the White House and appeared on The Tonight Show, but there was no book deal. No major endorsement contracts. No whirlwind speaking tour.

“I kept pretty quiet and secluded,” Hostetler said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

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There was grief when Hostetler’s 57-year-old mother, Dolly, who traveled to Tampa to watch the Super Bowl despite suffering from liver cancer, died in March. There was joy when Hostetler’s third child was born in April.

Then there were the demands of football success. Groups wanted him for speaking engagements. Companies wanted him to endorse their products. Kids wanted his autograph. Hostetler didn’t turn them all down, but he was selfish with his time.

“There are demands, but it’s something where you can control how much or little you do,” Hostetler said. “I’m a family man and I won’t do a lot of extra-curricular activities outside the stadium. I want to keep things the way they’ve been.”

Inside the stadium, things have changed for the better for Hostetler, whose clutch play continues to solidify his starting job and whose mobility has brought another dimension to the Giant offense.

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Twice Monday night, Hostetler completed big third-down passes to prolong scoring drives, including an 11-yarder to Mark Ingram on third and 10 with 1:33 remaining.

Hostetler ran for 25 yards to set up the Giants’ second-quarter touchdown. In the final 1:45 of the first half, he passed 47 yards to Stephen Baker and ran for 10 yards to set up Bahr’s 28-yard field goal, which gave the Giants a 13-7 lead.

He also did a nice job handling a low snap and holding for Bahr’s game-winning field goal.

Hostetler has been criticized for running too soon, not waiting in the pocket long enough for receivers to get open, but he seemed to make all the right decisions Monday night.

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“If I have an open field in front of me, I’m going to take it,” Hostetler said. “Why throw the ball away when you can gain a lot of yards?”

Simms was more of a stationary target in the pocket. When receivers were covered and he was pressured, Simms usually threw the ball away.

Now Simms is even more stationary during games, standing on the sideline wearing a baseball cap, giving the Giants the NFL’s best bullpen.

“Whatever decision I made, I knew it would leave me with a good quarterback and an excellent backup,” Handley said.

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Simms has been diplomatic about his demotion. He isn’t happy about being a backup, but he hasn’t complained publicly about it.

“I’ve been there and it’s not an easy situation,” Hostetler said. “He’s handled it well. It’s got to be tough, you know that.”

Hostetler knows.


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