Key Questions Heading into the 1998 New York Giants Training Camp
If you read our “Key Questions” article from last year, you know we said the following: “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.” Well the 1997 Giants, NFC East Division Champs, proved that Head Coach Jim Fassel and his staff lived up to that challenge. The next challenge is to repeat as division champions and win the Superbowl.
The road won’t be easy. The competition from within the division will be tougher as well as the non-divisional games. The Giants face such top teams this year as Denver, Green Bay, Kansas City, and San Francisco. In fact, many prognosticators are already predicting gloom and doom for this team. More than a few football previews have the Giants finishing in third and fourth place in the NFC East. These “experts” argue that not only have teams such as Washington and Arizona improved more in the offseason, but the “real” Giants will fall back to earth when faced with the tougher competition.
The truth of the matter is that this team is still not getting the respect it deserves. It probably won’t until it wins it all.
Yes, the competition will be tougher in 1998, but the Giants themselves should be vastly improved. The team will be much more familiar with the offensive and defensive systems and the roster is filled with players who have yet to reach their prime. QB Danny Kanell should be better and he will have much more dangerous weapons surrounding him 1998 as well as an offensive line that is growing together as a unit. The defense is already one of the top units in the league. But if the Giants are to go all the way, they need some positive answers to the following questions:
(1) How Good a Quarterback Can Danny Kanell Be and How Quickly? Considering that as a second-year quarterback, Danny Kanell came in and led his team to the division title by going 7-2-1 as a starter, he remarkably is still not well thought of by many observers both inside and outside of the game. They argue that his arm isn’t strong enough or he isn’t mobile enough or he was a product of his system at Florida State. Say what you will, but keep in mind that Kanell is still basically a novice as a professional, that he may have had the worst supporting cast in the league in terms of the skilled positions last year, and that this very lack of talent at the skilled positions in turn was a huge contributing factor in scaling back the play book. What do we know about Kanell? Well, despite his inexperience, he is one cool cucumber. He doesn’t seem to get flustered easily and is a very confident young man — that in itself is a tremendous asset. He has a decent, but not great, arm. His accuracy was inconsistent last year, but he vows that will change with better technique and more experience. He is not very mobile, but he has a quick release. He is smart and competitive and he wins.
But more will now be expected of Kanell. Rare it is that team wins a Superbowl without a top-notch quarterback. Kanell not only needs to improve his accuracy, but he needs to make more plays on his own when the called play breaks down. This is tougher to do without good mobility. He will have to do it with his poise, intelligence, accuracy, and quick release. The other big question is how quickly can he improve? In the old days, but not too long ago, quarterbacks were given the “luxury” of a few years to develop before much was expected of them. That has changed given ever-growing fan expectations and the pressures of free agency and the salary cap. Much will be asked and expected of this third-year quarterback even though he has only started 11 pro games. The good news is that he has two of the best quarterback teachers in the game in Jim Fassel and Rod Dohower.
(2) How “Special” Will the Giants Special Teams Be? The Giants should have a very good defense and improving offense in 1998. What just may keep them from reaching the top is the play of the special teams. Poor special teams can cost a team 2-3 regular season games a year and/or knock a team out of the playoffs early. A couple of special teams breakdowns led directly to the Giants playoff loss to the Vikings. Kick-off and punt returns are critical in creating good field position and scoring opportunities. It is still not clear who the Giants will have returning punts (Toomer? Barber?) or kicks (Sehorn? Wheatley? Patten? Barber?). But what is clear is that the returners have been only part of the problem. The blocking for the returns has been horrible in recent years. A lot of times the returner is not even given a chance. This must change. In terms of the coverage units, punt coverage has been decent, but there are still too many break downs in kick coverage. Brad Maynard is a much, much better punter than he showed last year, but he must rebound. Brad Daluiso needs to be more consistent kicking in the +40 range as well as in pressure situations.
(3) Can the Offensive Line Grow into a Solid Unit Quickly? They got better last year — as the significant reduction in sacks indicate as well as the strength of the running game. But more improvement is needed. Youthful tackles Roman Oben and Scott Gragg need to continue to develop. Oben has Pro Bowl potential. Gragg is a monster who still makes too many mental mistakes. Ron Stone is already playing at a Pro Bowl level and he should become the leader of this group. The biggest questions remain with left guard Greg Bishop and center Lance Scott. Bishop is still too inconsistent. Scott has decent mobility for his size, but needs to play with more lead in his pants and move his opponent off the line of scrimmage more regularly. An offense can only be as strong as the line that is protecting it and opening up holes for it. Depth is another concern. Jerry Reynolds is a valuable back-up, but is hoped that a couple of the rookies will stand out at camp and win roster spots. Keep an eye on Toby Myles, Darryl Gilliam, and Jason Whittle in particular.
(4) Will Someone Step Up at Tight End? We asked this same question last year with the hope that Aaron Pierce would take the bull by the horns, but he failed miserably and has since been released. Now much hope rests with Alfred Pupunu. Pupunu can block and catch and was impressive in off-season drills, but he does have some injury concerns. Howard Cross remains a top blocker, but a below-average receiver. Todd Pollack and Andy Haase are rookies who will need time. With all the top cornerbacks in the NFC East, the tight end position becomes even more critical in attacking opposing defenses. Most likely, if Pupunu can’t deliver, the Giants’ offense will be significantly hampered.
(5) How Productive Will the Halfback Position Be? A lot of talk in the offseason has focused on the wide receivers, but the Giants really need to be consistently productive in running the ball for their offense to click. Jim Fassel not only has to figure out who starts, but how to use each of his halfbacks in a way that won’t disrupt the rhythm of the offense. Tyrone Wheatley remains the most physically-talented, but he’s still too inconsistent, doesn’t run “strong” consistently enough given his size, needs to keep his pads lower, needs to run more instinctively, and needs to make some game-breaking plays — something he did regularly in college but hasn’t done yet in the pros. Tiki Barber is an exciting player with limited size but a big heart. Fans only saw a glimpse of his potential last year due to nagging injuries. Gary Brown is a big, power back with surprisingly quick feet. Whoever starts and plays the most, the Giants need that guy to seriously become a concern for opposing defenders and defensive coordinators.
(6) How Fast Can the Receivers Grow Up? A lot is being expected of this group of players who do not have very much professional experience. Ike Hilliard missed practically all of last season. David Patten still has a lot to learn. Eddie Goines hasn’t played much football since college a few years ago. Amani Toomer missed most of his rookie year with an injury and served as a bench warmer most of last year. Omar Douglas hasn’t seen much playing time in his career. Joe Jurevicius and Brian Alford are rookies. These “babies” will be called upon to beat quality veterans like Deion Sanders, Kevin Smith, Aeneas Williams, Bobby Taylor, Troy Vincent, Darrell Green, and Chris Dishman. Some of these guys are future Hall of Famers. Not an easy task without a lot of experience. What will also be interesting is to see how the players relate to the Giants new wide receiver coach.
(7) Can the Defensive Tackles Keep the Pressure Up? A lot fans will point to Jessie Armstead, Michael Strahan, or Jason Sehorn as being responsible for turning around the defense. In reality, however, these guys must credit a lot of their success to the excellent year put in by Keith Hamilton and Robert Harris. These two players created havoc for opposing offenses against both the pass and run. However, historically-speaking, both of these players have been inconsistent performers. The last thing the Giants need is a down year from one or both of these guys. The Giants also need Christian Peter to develop and adequately replace Ray Agnew. In actuality, Peter has the potential to become a much better player than Agnew, but he has to do it on the playing field.
(8) Can the Giants Find a Consistent Pass Rush from the Right End Spot? Chad Bratzke (3.5), Bernard Holsey (3.5), and Cedric Jones (0) combined for seven sacks last year, but more are needed as well as more consistent pass pressure. Bratzke is the front runner for the starting position once again based on his work in the offseason. Holsey played surprisingly well late last year and cannot be discounted. Cedric Jones remains a tease. He shows flashes, but has to stay healthy and put it all together on a consistent basis. A kick-butt pass rusher from the right side may be the last piece of the Giants defensive puzzle that is missing.
(9) Who will Nail Down the Strongside Linebacker Spot? The Giants most likely would like Ryan Phillips to be the man. Phillips has the size, speed, quickness combination that many teams look for — but he played defensive end in college and is still learning the linebacking position. Losing valuable playing and practice time last year due to a season-ending injury didn’t help to expedite matters. Marcus Buckley is very good in pass coverage but has never proved to be strong against the run or in the pass rush department. Most importantly, he doesn’t seem to make many plays. Corey Miller is solid against the run and jamming the tight end at the line of scrimmage, but sometimes struggles in coverage. He’s not the fastest or quickest guy around either.
(10) Can the Giants Stay Healthy? This is the big one. The Giants can ill-afford another rash of injuries like that hit them last year (Brian Williams, Ike Hilliard, Rodney Hampton, Tiki Barber, Tyrone Wheatley, Derek Engler, Chad Bratzke, Cedric Jones, Ryan Phillips, Pete Monty, Phillippi Sparks, Conrad Hamilton). A major injury to Danny Kanell, Charles Way, Ike Hilliard, Alfred Pupunu, any starter on the offensive line, Michael Strahan, Keith Hamilton, Robert Harris, Jessie Armstead, Jason Sehorn, or Phillippi Sparks could prove devastating.