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In New York, Handley Is a Public Figure : Football: Media, fans scrutinize and criticize coach’s moves while the Giants stagger to 2-3 start.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Parcells grew up a few miles from the swamp that is now the foundation for Giants Stadium.

Bill Parcells motivated players in a way New Yorkers understood. He spent a week in the face of nose tackle Jim Burt before a game against the Redskins in 1985 and then, with Burt playing like a man obsessed, the Giants ended a two-game losing streak. Burt thanked Parcells for the inspiration by dumping a cooler of Gatorade over his head and, well, you know the rest.

Bill Parcells dealt with the media in a way that elicited the respect of Giant fans--he yelled a lot. The guy was more New York than corned beef on rye.

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And, of course, Bill Parcells won two Super Bowls.

Ray Handley knew there would be comparisons and he was probably prepared for the fact they might not be complimentary. He became the Giants’ head coach because Parcells resigned two months before the opening of training camp last year and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick had already accepted the Cleveland Browns’ head coaching job.

He inherited an aging defense--nine of the 11 starters have seven or more years in the league--a youthful offense and a quarterback controversy.

The Giants stumbled to an 8-8 finish last season and are still staggering at 2-3 this year. So home games haven’t been pretty. The fans boo his use of quarterbacks Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler. They boo his play-calling. They manage a sarcastic cheer when he abandons his usually stoic stance to argue an official’s call.

“I don’t know what I expected,” Handley said. “It seems I do draw attention, no matter what I do. I guess I’ve learned to live with it more. I really don’t worry about it as much as you might think if you were outside looking in.”

It hasn’t been easy, though. Handley, 48, spent seven seasons as the Giants’ running backs coach and had been promoted to offensive coordinator just before Parcells’ resignation. He had spent most of his life in places such as Artesia, N.M., Reno, Nev., and Palo Alto.

And even seven years as an assistant in New York didn’t prepare him for dealing with that media market.

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“In regards to the media, I think it was just an unknown,” Handley said. “Most of the other things with regards to the job, I felt like I knew what to expect. But dealing with the media on an everyday basis was an unknown for me. I don’t know if it’s that difficult, but it’s more time-consuming than I had anticipated when I took the job.”

Eleven days ago, Handley decided the media demands were too much so he canceled his regularly scheduled Wednesday press conference. He made this decision on a day the Giants announced Simms would need elbow surgery and after more than 50 members of the media had already gathered.

The next day, one newspaper ran a picture of Handley’s empty chair. Another had a picture of Handley with a fuel gauge--its needle pointing to ‘E’--superimposed on his forehead.

“They’re doing their job and sometimes it seems like I’m the story more than the team,” Handley said. “I try to change that focus a bit once in a while and try to take myself out of the spotlight and let it rest on the team.

“My timing probably was bad last week. It was a problem of timing more than anything else. Usually, we get along pretty well, though. No problems back here, just business as usual: Everything gets blown out of proportion.”

Chuck Knox, who has spent a good part of two decades dealing with the media on his terms, won’t offer Handley any sage advice Sunday when the Rams and Giants meet at Anaheim Stadium. But he knows what has worked for him.

“I go by one basic credo,” he said. “I understand that other people have jobs to do. The media has a job to do. They have to be responsible to editors and others. I also want them to understand that I have a job to do and I can’t be as candid as I otherwise might be. But I’ll be honest about it. If I can’t answer it, I won’t answer.

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“And I’m not mad at anybody, regardless of what they write, even though there are times when the facts, as they seem, might be totally different from what they actually are. But I’m not going to go chasing rabbits and try to make something out of it. Just get on with it.”

There was a time when Handley could enjoy a cup of coffee and the sports page in the morning, but his doctors have recommended he cut back on his reading.

“I’ve gone back and forth on reading the newspapers and not reading the newspapers,” he said. “If there’s an article in there that I think effects my team, than I like to be on top of it. If it’s something I have to address with the team, I hate to miss that.

“Now, whether I have to be the one to read it . . . I can let someone else advise me when they think there’s something that should be brought to my attention. And right now, I’m in the latter mode.”

He may not find many allies in the New York press, but Handley has at least one in broadcasting. Former Philadelphia Coach Buddy Ryan, now a television commentator, says Parcells got too much credit for the Giants’ success and Handley gets too much blame when they lose.

Running back Rodney Hampton sees it pretty much the same way.

“Coach (Handley) is laid-back and expresses himself a lot different than Coach Parcells did,” Hampton said. “They’re different, but the bottom line is both coaches want to win and I don’t think you can blame a coach if we don’t win. He’s not on the field.”

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Who knows? Handley might soon be the toast of the town, if Hampton’s career-best 167-yard performance in last Sunday’s 31-21 victory over Phoenix is an indication of things to come.

The Giants have been counting on a young offensive line and a couple of young running backs to pound out a path to the future. Hampton was a first-round pick in 1990 and fullback Jarrod Bunch was a No. 1 choice in ’91.

“We’ve spent a lot of draft choices in recent years on offensive linemen and we fully expected going into the season for the line to maybe the strongest part of our football team,” Handley said. “They played their best game last week, but one game is not an indicator. We’re now looking for some consistency.”

Actually, the Giants have the third-best rushing offense in the NFL, but a large part of their recent woes can be attributed to a declining defense.

Lawrence Taylor is still Lawrence Taylor, but he’s not quite as fierce or as much of a force as he once was. And the same can be said for a once-stingy defense that now ranks 18th against both the rush and the pass and is allowing opponents to average 23 points per game. Only four teams in the NFL allow more.

Handley has made the effort to work in some younger players, but it’s been difficult.

“It’s always tough to change veteran players, especially when you’re coming off a Super Bowl,” he said. “And, having been a part of that team, maybe I’m one of the last guys to recognize it when a guy really can’t do it anymore.

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“We’ve tried to infuse some youth on defense. We’ve tried to pay attention to it in the draft. This year, we drafted four defensive linemen and we still have three on the team. We haven’t made any dramatic changes, but we’ve got some new people around and hopefully in the future, they’ll make more of a contribution.”

The Giants are a team in transition, searching for a new identity. And they are coached by a man in transition, seeking to find a comfort zone where Giant fans, the New York media and a low-key coach can coexist.

“We’ve been trying to focus on our level of performance and make progress,” Handley said. “We’re trying to take the positives and work toward more productive ends. We still have to find ourselves. I’m not sure that we’ve found ourselves, but hopefully we’re going in the right direction.”

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