Key Questions Heading into the 2002 New York Giants Training Camp
There were a number of reasons why the Giants were a 7-9 disappointment last season. The NFC Champion 2000 Giants were relatively injury-free. But the 2001 version was hobbled with a number of nagging injuries to players such as Tiki Barber, Ike Hilliard, Greg Comella, Ron Stone, Keith Hamilton, Kenny Holmes, Cornelius Griffin, Jessie Armstead, and Jason Sehorn. The play of the left side of the offensive line (Lomas Brown and Glenn Parker) deteriorated. The defense had to break in three promising, but green, players in Will Allen, Will Petersen, and Brandon Short. The special teams were downright dreadful. Most importantly, Kerry Collins played poorly until the last quarter of the season. And who knows what type of emotional toll the events of September 11th and the ensuing charity efforts at close range had. Last but not least was the typical Super Bowl letdown.
Yet despite all of that – if the Giants had just managed to hold onto two late 4th quarter leads against the Eagles, then they would have won the NFC East for the third time in five years. (And don’t get me started on the game the officials gave to the Rams). My point?
THIS IS NOT A BAD FOOTBALL TEAM. IN FACT, IT COULD BE QUITE GOOD. SHHH…DON’T TELL THE REST OF THE LEAGUE THAT.
The foundation of this team is still intact. What about the all the guys the Giants lost you ask? I would argue that most of who the Giants released or let walk in free agency were average players at best. I had been a big Ron Stone fan for a long time, but played pretty poorly in 2001 and his immobility was hurting the design of the Giants’ running game. Jessie Armstead’s leadership will be missed, but most of his game was based on speed and he lost that element in his game. He played well in only one of 20 pre- and regular season games. Heck, he was starting to get beat in coverage by slow tight ends. Joe Jurevicius had his best year in 2001, but he never developed into the explosive receiver the Giants are now looking for and certainly didn’t scare anyone. Greg Comella is a blue collar tough guy who you love to root for, but he was never a blaster as a blocker and rarely did any damage with the ball in his hands. Emmanuel McDaniel was pushed to the bench last year by the rookies. Sam Garnes, Lomas Brown, Glenn Parker, Dave Thomas, Thabiti Davis, and Jack Golden? C’mon – don’t make me waste my breath. So where is the bleeding? If you ask me, the Giants conducted a much needed house cleaning and blamed the cap.
Most fans and “football experts” predict gloom and doom in 2002 for the Giants due to Big Blue’s reliance on a bunch of no-name youngsters such as Rich Seubert, Jason Whittle, Chris Bober, and Dhani Jones. Well guess what folks, Whittle played better than Stone last year and Seubert is up-and-coming player who is going to surprise. Dhani Jones is a smart, athletic linebacker who will improve the athleticism one the weakside. Chris Bober can run block. Throw in an excellent draft class and some interesting rookie/street free agents (WR Sean Riley, HB Antonio Warren, FB Charles Stackhouse, OG Tam Hopkins, S Ryan Clark) and look for the Giants to make some noise in 2002 if they get some positive answers to the following questions:
(1) Will Kerry Collins Play Like He Did in the First 12 Games of 2001 or the Last 4 Games? Let’s be frank. This is a quarterback’s league and if you don’t have a good quarterback, you won’t win. Kerry Collins played well in 2000 and the Giants went to the Super Bowl. Last year, his decision-making and accuracy were far too inconsistent and turnovers became a real problem (16 interceptions and 22 fumbles). And he’s never been a tough guy. But when’s he is on, he’s one of the better quarterbacks in the league. Kerry has a rocket arm and can throw all the passes. He’s proved that he can come up big in tight situations such as his last minute heroics in 2001 against the Cowboys, Cardinals, Seahawks, and Eagles (the last three coming in during the last quarter of the schedule). But his poor play in the first 12 games put the Giants in a 5-7 hole that they couldn’t recover from. The key for him is to play CONSISTENTLY well. Up-and-down play leads to mediocrity.
If Collins plays well in 2002, the Giants will probably win the NFC East. If he doesn’t, they will struggle to reach .500 again. The difference in being 8-8 and 12-4 is winning the close games and that usually comes down to the play of the quarterback. It sounds much too simple, but it is true.
(2) Can the Giants Stay Healthy? With free agency and the salary cap, most teams have little proven depth and the Giants are no exception. Any team that suffers a slew of injuries in today’s game will see their playoff hopes fade quickly. Look at the teams in the playoffs. Most have stayed relatively healthy and got consistent play from the quarterback position.
(3) How Effective Will the Revamped Offensive Line Be? I honestly don’t worry that much about the interior trio. Dusty Zeigler is recovering from offseason knee surgery, but he should be fine. He’s one of the better centers in the league. Jason Whittle has played quite a bit the last two seasons and he’s played pretty well. He certainly is more mobile than Ron Stone or Glenn Parker. Rich Seubert has the kind of physical ability you look for – a mauler who can also pull. He’s got some nastiness in his game too. The big question is outside at the tackle spots in terms of pass blocking. If Luke Petitgout stays at right tackle, then that position is settled as Luke is one of the better right tackles in the league. However, if he is moved to the left side, the question is does he have the feet to handle the speed rushers he will face? And regardless of where Petitgout plays, there is still a big question about whether or not Chris Bober has the ability to pass block at the NFL level. As far as run blocking goes, this unit will be much better than last year’s line and could be the best run-blocking line the Giants have had since the mid-1990’s. All of these guys are strong players who can run and pull. They should serve Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne well.
(4) Will Dhani Jones Be An Improvement on the Weakside? What we do know is this – Dhani Jones is a super-smart player who runs better than Jessie Armstead does now. He’s a bit of a strange bird, but his motor is always going 100 percent and he loves to play football. Usually, these kind of guys succeed. However, we still do not have a sense of how instinctive a player he is or about his true ability to play off of blocks or make plays in coverage. The Giants’ opponents will be testing him early and often.
(5) How Well Will Omar Stoutmire Play at Free Safety? The last two years, the Giants really have been playing with two strong safeties on the field. And while Sam Garnes might have rarely given up and big plays, he certainly didn’t make many. In addition, it always seemed that the closer Shaun Williams played to the line of scrimmage, the more impact plays he made – in coverage, against the run, and as a blitzer. So in the offseason, the Giants unloaded the expensive, unproductive Garnes and moved Williams to his more natural position. Williams will be a huge upgrade and could evolve into a true impact player – the kind of guy who wins games by his play. The big question is whether or not Omar Stoutmire can hold down the fort at free safety. Stoutmire is faster and more fluid than Garnes and he does have starting experience at free safety (Cowboys, Jets). My guess is that he will work out just fine, but nothing is for certain.
(6) Will the Special Teams Ever Improve? Finally, the Giants have hired a respected special teams coach with recent special teams coaching experience. But Bruce Read has a lot of work cut out for him. He has to change the mind set of a lackluster, unproductive unit and do so fast. Let’s be honest, the attitude on the Giants’ special teams units stink. Instead of looking for ways to help win a game, the mentality is to go out there and not lose it. The good news is that there will be an influx of hungry new players with something to prove and many of these guys were excellent special teams players in college. The message has been given over and over since mini-camp: if you want to make this team, you need to kick ass on special teams. But the Giants need help everywhere: returners, blocking for returns, kick overage, punt coverage, etc. And to make matters worse, the Giants have to find a new long-snapper, new field goal holder, and still don’t know if P Rodney Williams or PK Owen Pochman will be reliable and consistent.
(7) Will Michael Strahan Receive Some Help Up Front? The early talk last preseason was that this unit was going to be the reincarnation of the Fearsome Foursome. That kind of talk always makes me nervous. They said the same thing about the Cardinals a few years ago. What happened is that Michael Strahan had a career year and the rest disappointed. To be fair, Keith Hamilton looked as sharp as ever until he suffered a serious chest/shoulder injury – this was perhaps the biggest injury the Giants suffered next to Jason Sehorn. But Cornelius Griffin and Kenny Holmes didn’t play as well as expected. Both suffered from nagging injuries in their own right, but their pass rush wasn’t consistently strong. The good news is that both are primed to rebound in a big way. Depth is also a concern. The Giants need guys like Cedric Scott and Lance Legree to become quality players.
(8) Will the Giants Be Able to Develop Their Young Receiving Threats? With Joe Jurevicius gone, there is a huge vacancy at the third wide receiver spot. The competition will be intense between Ron Dixon, Jonathan Carter, Tim Carter, Daryl Jones, and Sean Riley. All are extremely fast – but all still have a lot to learn. This will be a make-or-break year for Dixon. Jonathan Carter is an unknown to most fans but he is physically similar to Dixon and much more dedicated. Tim Carter has blazing speed but will probably take time. Sean Riley is diminutive but may be the fastest. My money says the guy to watch is Daryl Jones.
(9) Who Will Play Fullback? The Giants got a big break when they signed rookie free agent Charles Stackhouse after the draft. His style of play is reminiscent of Charles Way. However, nothing is given and if Stackhouse is too green or is a bust, then the Giants may have to rely on Adam Wright, Aaron Kernek, or move Dan Campbell to fullback.
(10) What Kind of Coordinators Will Sean Payton and Johnnie Lynn Be? In 2000, Giants’ fans were worried that Sean Payton would be hired by another team as a head coach. Some BBI‘ers wanted Ernie Accorsi to fire Fassel and promote Payton. Last year, many of those same BBI‘ers wanted Payton fired. After a successful debut, Payton lost some of his luster in 2001 as his play-calling seemed to be too pass-oriented and appeared to lack a core identity. How well the 38-year old Payton rebounds in 2002 will play a key role in the Giants’ offensive success.
On the other side of the coin is Johnnie Lynn, who must replace the very popular and effective John Fox. Lynn is an energetic guy who relates well to the players. He has vowed to simplify the defensive play-book, but keep the overall defensive architecture intact. It will be interesting to watch how he does. His big challenge will to quickly integrate or continue to integrate Kenny Holmes, Cornelius Griffin, Dhani Jones, Brandon Short, Will Allen, Will Petersen, and Omar Stoutmire into the starting defense.