There are times when the mind doesn't accept what the eyes see. Jeff Hostetler came off the bench in an emergency to lead the New York Giants to a Super Bowl title last season, and when new Giants' Coach Ray Handley pulled a training-camp surprise and named Hostetler as his starting quarterback, he performed admirably.
But the idea of putting a healthy Phil Simms on the bench takes some getting used to for anyone who appreciates how Simms made the Giants good again after nearly two decades of lousy football. Hostetler played a major part in putting Super Bowl rings on the Giants' fingers last season, but there simply was no questioning Simms' ability as a quarterback and a leader. Simms was the man.
Seven games into the Handley administration, that perception has changed. With each passing game, Hostetler has done something to establish himself more firmly as the leader of the Giants.
Consider: Hostetler reprised his performance in last season's National Football Conference title game in the Giants' victory over San Francisco in the opener. He then fought through his first booing from the home crowd in a loss to the Los Angeles Rams; played impressively in a loss at Chicago; expressed some anger about Handley's criticism and a conservative offense in a win over the Cleveland Browns; put on a passing show in a loss at Dallas, and took command of the offense in a victory over the Phoenix Cardinals.
After pulling out a 23-20 triumph in the final minute against Pittsburgh Monday night at Three Rivers Stadium, there is no denying it -- Hostetler is the man, the Giants' man. There will be other bumps down the road, but he has earned the right to be allowed to play through the down moments, as Simms did in the past, without having to look over his shoulder.
The transition has been made. The Giants are Hostetler's team.
"With each week that goes past, everybody feels more comfortable," Hostetler said in a happy Giants locker room Monday night. "We're getting a good feel for everything. I think things are starting to click a little bit."
No kidding. Hostetler looked so comfortable behind center against the Steelers that he could have hung pictures, pulled up an easy chair and read the newspaper. And he was under heavy pressure from the Steelers' rush. Hostetler got blasted early by linebacker Greg Lloyd, the Steelers' knockout artist. No problem. He got up, caught his breath and led a 75-yard drive for the Giants' first score, a 12-yard pass that he gunned to tight end Howard Cross.
Time after time, Hostetler came up with big third-down plays as the Giants built a 20-0 lead before Handley unwisely decided to sit on the ball. The Giants converted nine of 17 third-down situations, and Hostetler was directly responsible for seven of those successful plays, four by passing and three by running.
"Third-down conversions are one direct barometer as to how a quarterback is performing," center Bart Oates said. "Nine of 17 is pretty dang good. That's a big-league day, particularly against the quality defense we played."
The Steelers have a physical set of linebackers and a secondary that ranks as one of the best in the NFL. But Hostetler told Oates on Sunday he would be dangerous if he got out of the pocket. "He was very prophetic," Oates said.
From studying film of the Steelers, Hostetler noticed the defensive backs concentrated so hard on staying with the receivers that they turned their backs on the quarterback. He took advantage by scrambling six times for 48 yards. The most important scramble was on the last drive when he dropped back intending to pass and instinctively took off when the opening presented itself for an 18-yard gain that set up Matt Bahr's winning 44-yard field goal.
"Their defensive backs were jumping on everybody," Hostetler said. "When they do that, there's holes to run. Running never crossed my mind at all until I saw the first receiver in the pattern (Zeke Mowatt) was covered. I didn't have to (look at the other receivers) because the hole opened up in front of me."
In that moment, Hostetler provided the extra dimension that caused Handley to make him the starter -- he improvised. Hostetler made the big plays to build the Giants' 20-0 lead, and when the defense let Pittsburgh tie it with 50 seconds left, Hostetler ignored the roaring celebration in the stands and won the game. Party over.
"Hoss did a hell of a job," tackle Jumbo Elliott said. "They scored that TD and the fans went wild, but we didn't fold up and say, 'Here goes another one.' That's a good reflection on the team. Jeff seemed really comfortable. We've been coming through a transition, but now we have a couple of wins to show for it."
Here's how comfortable Hostetler has become: In 12 starts and two significant appearances off the bench over the past two seasons, he has led five fourth-quarter comebacks.
Hoss is boss. No question about it.