2001 New York Giants: Reasons for Optimism
The odds are stacked against the Giants with respect to a return trip to the Super Bowl in 2001. There are 14 other teams in the NFC looking to take away the NFC crown so in terms of straight odds, the Giants have only a 1-in-14 chance to repeat. Then there is the first place schedule with four night games. Luck and injuries always play a role as well.
Normally, the favorite also has a big bullseye on its chest and the fact that the opposition goes all out to beat the defending champion usually causes problems. But strangely, the national media and many in the game don’t seem to be giving the Giants much respect. New Redskins’ Coach Marty Schottenheimer says the Eagles – not the Giants – are the team to beat in the NFC East. National media who cover the game point to the Bucs (with the additions of QB Brad Johnson, DE Simeon Rice, and OT Kenyatta Walker), Eagles (WR James Thrash, WR Freddie Mitchell, and DE Nduwke Kalu), and Rams (veteran CB Aeneas Williams and S Kim Herring along with three first round defensive picks). The Giants? A one-year wonder most speculate.
These people are selling the Giants short. The 2001 Giants may not reach the Super Bowl, but they will be a better team. Here are the reasons why:
(1) Quarterback Kerry Collins: Collins is entering his prime right now. He is coming off his best season as a pro despite 2000 being his first year as a full time starter in New York and having to learn a brand new offense before the season started. His performance in the Super Bowl was an aberration against arguably the best defense in NFL history. Before that game, he had dramatically cut down the number of turnovers (both interceptions and fumbles) while throwing for 27 touchdowns (including five in the post-season). Collins also had some superlative games such as his performances against the Eagles, Steelers, and Vikings. There is no reason why to believe that he should not continue to improve – especially given the fact that he will be much more comfortable with the offensive design and surrounding personnel. Also, as Head Coach Jim Fassel and Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton get to know more about Kerry’s strengths and weaknesses, they will adapt the passing offense to his benefit.
(2) Improved Pass Defense: Pass defense is not only about coverage but the ability to rush the passer and the Giants dramatically attempted to improve both these areas in the off-season. While most expected the worst with Dave Thomas playing right cornerback, he actually held up pretty well with an above-average season. Still, Defensive Coordinator John Fox was limited in the types of schemes he could run, including blitzes, given the concern at cornerback opposite of Jason Sehorn. With the drafting of Will Allen and Will Peterson, as well as the healthy return of Ralph Brown, the Giants have added much talent to this all-important position. Indeed, it appears on the surface that the Giants have the perfect cornerback combo: one corner to take away a taller, physical receiver (Sehorn) and one to take away a smaller, speedier wideout (Allen). The Giants will also be a much faster defense with Allen and Peterson.
The other improved pass defense element – maybe even more important – is the upgraded pass rush. Cornelius Griffin moves into the starting line-up for Christian Peter. This move represents a huge pass rush upgrade. Last season, in limited action, Griffin demonstrated incredible athleticism for someone so large on his way to accumulating 5 sacks (Peter only had one all year). The other major change up front is Kenny Holmes replacing Cedric Jones (3.5 sacks in 2000). Holmes picked up 8 sacks with the Titans last year despite playing in a division with two Hall of Fame left tackles and playing with a variety of nagging injuries. He has a variety of pass rush moves and a closing burst that Cedric can only dream about. Holmes will not be an impact player, but he will be a pass rush presence. The addition of both him and Griffin will take a lot of pressure off of Michael Strahan and Keith Hamilton and give the Giants a very rare pass rush threat from each of the four down spots. Also, don’t count out the pass rush potential of fourth rounder Cedric Scott.
(3) Improved Special Teams Play: Why? Because it can’t get much worse. Gone is the unpopular special teams coach, Larry MacDuff. In his place is newcomer Fred von Appen. Brad Daluiso may have been the worst kick-off man in the league last year and that fact put the kick-off coverage unit at a tremendous disadvantage. Punter Brad Maynard flashed ability, but was extremely inconsistent. Kick and punt coverage should improve with the youngsters at defensive back and linebacker. Ron Dixon has become one of the most dangerous kick returners in the game. Wide receiver Jonathan Carter is another speedster who can help out there. Where the Giants do need some positive answers is finding a punt returner to replace Tiki Barber and finding a reliable field goal kicker.
(4) The Youngsters Who Haven’t Peaked: The Giants have a lot of young players who have not reached their prime or are just entering their prime. These include tackle Luke Petitgout, center Dusty Zeigler, tight end Dan Campbell, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, wide receiver Ron Dixon, fullback Greg Comella, halfback Ron Dayne, H-Back Sean Bennett, and quarterback Kerry Collins on offense. Wideout Amani Toomer and halfback Tiki Barber are both young difference-makers. The only place the Giants have age concerns on offense are at starting left tackle, starting left guard, starting tight end, and back-up quarterback. But also keep in mind that the offensive line was completely overhauled last year and the cohesion and familiarity between the five starters should even be more improved in 2001.
Defensively, the Giants are not as young of a unit, but they still have a slew of up-and-coming players such as defensive tackle Cornellius Griffin, defensive end Cedric Scott, linebacker Brandon Short, linebacker Dhani Jones, linebacker Jack Golden, free safety Shaun Williams, cornerback Will Allen, and cornerback Will Peterson. Defensive end Michael Strahan, defensive tackle Keith Hamilton, middle linebacker Mike Barrow, weakside linebacker Jessie Armstead, and cornerback Jason Sehorn remain some of the best in the business.
Because the youngsters will have more experience, they will be much better in 2001 – and thus, so will the Giants.
(5) The Players Know Who Runs the Show: Last year, the players knew Head Coach Jim Fassel was on shaky ground. Because of that, at the first sign of sustained difficulty, Fassel could have lost the respect and command of his men. With two division titles in four years, a NFC Championship, a “Coach of the Year” award, and a fat new 4-year contract, the players know he isn’t going anywhere and thus will call the shots for the foreseeable future. It’s his team and he will define its make-up. Fassel has proven he can get a team to the Super Bowl; now he just has to win it.
The Giants also got lucky last year when no one decided to offer Defensive Coordinator John Fox a job. In addition, respected Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton will be a year older and wiser in 2001.
So there you have it. The Giants will be better in 2001 because their more effective quarterbacking, upgraded pass defense, improved special teams, developing younsters, and respected coaching will make them so. Whether they get back to the Super Bowl and win it will largely depend on their heart, play-making ability, health, and a little luck.