Key Questions Heading into the 1997 New York Giants Training Camp
Ever since Jim Fassel became the new head coach, there has been a positive aura that has surrounded the team. Players, coaches, and management have been glowing with a renewed confidence and enthusiasm that seemed to be lacking since the 1994 season. Press reports have told us all about how the players love the new coaches, how management was happy with the draft, how the coaches were pleased with the mini-camps, etc. But these are all just words. Real progress will be measured in the win-loss column, not by “symbolic victories” such as Dave Brown playing better or the offensive line coming together. Fassel’s new offensive system will take time to learn…it is radically different than what the players have become accustomed to. This alone may lead to several setbacks, especially early on in the season. However, the pieces of the puzzle that management have been trying to put together for the last several years are almost all in place. There is youth and talent all over this roster. These players now just need experience, leadership, and, most importantly, confidence. Making this group a confident bunch with a chip on their collective shoulder is Fassel’s greatest challenge. This team must start going into games expecting to win — until that happens, mediocrity will result. “On paper,” the Giants biggest question marks are as follows:
(1) Can the Giants Win with Dave Brown at Quarterback? Another year, same question. However, this season Brown has a coach who supports him, an offensive system that is state-of-the-art, and a more talented surrounding caste. Over the years, Brown has shown flashes of becoming an excellent quarterback…a throw here, a game there. However, there has been no positive consistency. To make matters worse, the psychological and physical toll that Brown has taken over the last couple of years has very much hurt Dave’s confidence level. Can Dave recover his confidence level is the big question. When the game is on the line, does Brown believe he can do it? Fassel and new QB Coach Rod Dowhower have spent a great deal of time in the offseason working on Dave’s mechanics, most notably his footwork. According to Fassel, Dowhower, and Brown, it’s Dave’s footwork that has been responsible for much of his inaccuracy. That’s one of Dave’s biggest negatives. The other is his presence in the pocket. Last year, Dave seemed to become more and more distracted by the pass rush. Who can blame him with the number of times he was sacked and hit? However, unless he learns to ignore the rush, no technique work will save him. Confidence, accuracy, presence…if Dave can master these three aspects of the game, he will succeed and the Giants will be a playoff contender. If he can’t, Danny Kanell or Mike Cherry should be given the starting job as soon as possible.
(2) Do the Giants Have the Players on the Offensive Line? As Fassel recently pointed out to Brown, it doesn’t matter what you draw up on the black board if the line can’t block the opposing defenders. Management believes the Giants have enough talent on the offensive line to succeed. They argue that these players just need more experience. They point to the solid games these guys had against likes of the Cowboys, Vikings, and Dolphins. Brian Williams is set in the middle and is one of the better centers in the game. The right side is more settled than the left, but just as inconsistent. RT Scott Gragg and RG Ron Stone need to dominate more and do so on a consistent basis. In particular, both need to work on sustaining their blocks longer. On the left side, much depends on the development of second year tackle, Roman Oben. If he can develop quickly and impress the coaches, he will be given the starting left tackle job. This would also enable the coaches to move Greg Bishop back to guard. Oben has the agility that Bishop lacks, but does Oben have the technique, temperament, and savvy to succeed? If not, Lance Smith and Rob Zatechka will battle for the left guard spot and the Giants will have to pray that Bishop improves at left tackle.
(3) Can the Giants’ Young Receivers Grow Up Quickly? Much of the Giants’ offensive success will depend on the rapid development of youngsters Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer. Hilliard is probably much more ready to contribute in the NFL than most rookies because of the system he came from in college, his crisp route running, and his sure hands. However, he hasn’t lined up against Deion Sanders, Aeneas Williams, or Darrell Green yet. Toomer only caught one pass last year before injured…he is practically a rookie again. In addition, Thomas Lewis has missed so much time with injuries over the course of his first three years in the league that he is still relatively inexperienced. These three represent the future of the Giants’ passing game and how quickly they catch on will largely determine the potency of the Giants’ offense.
(4) Will Someone Step Up at Tight End? The Giants desperately need one of their tight ends to elevate their game in order to take pressure off of the receivers. Howard Cross is a superb blocker and has proved in the past that he can be an adequate receiver, but he has suffered two poor back-to-back seasons and scares no one as a receiving threat. Aaron Pierce has the tools to be a fine receiver, but is still largely an unknown given the fact that he was mainly employed as an H-Back by Reeves. Reserves Brian Saxton and Brandon Jessie could surprise, but most likely, the Giants will need Pierce to step it up, stay healthy, and become more consistent.
(5) How Well Will the Defensive Tackles Play? By no means are Keith Hamilton or Robert Harris bad players. In fact, they are better than average. However, given their tools, they should play better than they do. At certain times in certain games, Hamilton and Harris would each become unstoppable. But these moments were too few and too far apart. Part of the problem may be that each has been moved around so much in recent years. But for the Giants defense to become REALLY good, these guys will have to stuff the run better and get after the quarterback more quickly. Depth should be a little better this year with the addition of Christian Peter. Perhaps he can light a fire under Hamilton and Harris.
(6) Can the Entire Defensive Line Improve Its Pass Rush? In a 4-3 defense, the rush needs to come from the four down lineman. The more blitzing a 4-3 defense has to do in order increase the pass rush, the more vulnerable a defense becomes to the big play. Michael Strahan is a very good player, but he should make more sacks than he does. The new coaching staff has promised to give him and his fellow linemates more freedom to rush the passer this season. Strahan and RDE Chad Bratzke should be joined by a healthy Cedric Jones and Jamal Duff, both pass rush specialists. Jones needs to regain the form of his collegiate days while Duff needs to regain the form of his rookie year. If they do so and Strahan steps it up on a CONSISTENT basis, the ends will be a real strength on this team. However, to take pressure off of the ends, the tackles must also get in on the action. Unlike most teams, EVERYONE has the tools to be a pass rusher on the Giants, the key is to get it done on the field when it needs to be done.
(7) Will the Safeties Tackle? SS Jesse Campbell wasn’t good in coverage, but he was an excellent tackler who prevented many big plays. FS Percy Ellsworth had a so-so tackling history in college and FS/SS Tito Wooten hits better than he tackles. Whoever takes over at strong safety (Maurice Douglass, Tito Wooten, Rodney Young, Picasso Nelson) needs to be a sound, sure, and consistent tackler. Ellsworth also needs to concentrate on this aspect of his game.
(8) Will Brad Daluiso Deliver in the Clutch? PK Brad Daluiso made most of his field goals last year but that figure is deceiving. Most of his field goals were short attempts and he still hasn’t proven he can make the clutch, long kick (40+ yards) on a consistent basis. In fact, over the past couple of years, Brad has missed a number of kicks that has cost the Giants ball games.
(9) How “Special” Will the Giants Special Teams Be? The Giants’ kick coverage units have given up far too many big plays over the last several years. For the most part, the coverage teams have been sound, but there have been games where the punt or kick coverage units have inexplicably relaxed and cost the Giants bigtime. This has to change. In addition, the Giants should not have their first line players returning punts and kicks. For example, if Tyrone Wheatley and/or Amani Toomer are in the starting lineup, the Giants should not risk them to injury by having them also return kicks and punts, respectively. Reserves need to be found who can do the job.