2003 New York Giants: Despite the Bright Optimism of June, There Are Potential Storm Clouds on the Horizon
BigBlueInteractive.com has always been an emotional roller coaster since its inception in 1995. That year, the Giants were a popular favorite to compete with the Dallas Cowboys for supremacy in the NFC East due to the Giants’ six-game winning streak at the end of the 1994 season. QB Dave Brown had experienced ups and downs in 1994 as a first-time starter, but most fans (and the Giants’ organization) were pleased with his apparent rapid development. The offensive line was a strong unit with Jumbo Elliott, Greg Bishop, Brian Williams, Lance Smith, and Doug Riesenberg. The Giants looked to have the deepest backfield in the NFL with Rodney Hampton, 1st round “steal” Tyrone Wheatley, and fellow newcomer Herschel Walker. In addition, the Giants had drafted a very promising fullback in Charles Way. Mike Sherrard was still the best Giants’ receiver in recent memory and Thomas Lewis was to become another deep threat.
Defensively, the team had a solid defensive line with Robert Harris, Keith Hamilton, Ray Agnew, and Michael Strahan. Michael Brooks was a stud at middle linebacker and the secondary was one of the NFL’s best. In 1995, the likes of Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin were having problems getting open against Phillippi Sparks. Thomas Randolph was the talk of the town (not Jason Sehorn). And the team had finally acquired a ball-hawking free safety in Vencie Glenn.
All looked set for a great season. Opening night was a Monday Night affair against Dallas. The Giants were going to retire Phil Simms’ #11 at halftime. The end result? Cowboys 35 – Giants 0. And the game wasn’t even that close.
The Giants didn’t win their first game until week four and finished the season 5-11.
The moral of this story is that how a team looks on paper in June means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Talent, coaching, hard work, team health, team chemistry, and luck are all factors. Every sports league has its preseason paper champions that fall embarrassingly by the wayside. It happens in baseball, basketball, hockey, and football every year. In fact, it is often the case that those teams one gets the most excited about are the ones that end up being the most disappointing. Perhaps the players, coaches, and management get too caught up in the press clippings themselves. Whatever the reason, personally the most nervous I get as a Giants’ fan is when the Giants become favorites rather than underdogs. Most predicted the Giants to have strong seasons in 1982 (4-5), 1987 (6-9), 1991 (8-8), 1995 (5-11), 1998 (8-8), and 2001 (7-9).
Everyone is giddy now with the reviews coming out of the mini-camps. So what? As SOTI has pointed out, mini-camp is glorified two-hand touch football. Kerry Collins looks sharp? Well, guess what? Kerry Collins always looks sharp when he’s not getting hit (as do most quarterbacks). The rookies look great? Every team in the NFL, including the Giants, has rookies that look great in June and July. But most fade and are not major factors in the NFL their first year in the league. It’s nice to have the positive, feel good stories in June and July, but no one remembers these stories in October and November when your team is struggling after a couple of tough losses.
Let’s be frank. On paper, the Giants look to have a very good team with only a few important jobs open (e.g., the right side of the offensive line is up in the air as is the nickel back job and the starting fullback spot). But there is plenty that could go wrong. For example:
QB Kerry Collins: Collins coming off his best season ever. By the end of 2002, one could argue that he was the hottest quarterback in football. But Collins has yet to put two, strong back-to-back seasons together in the NFL. Most people assume he will continue his stellar play in 2003, but that may not be necessarily the case. The same assumption was made in 2001, but Collins’ play that season actually put into doubt his future with the franchise. Quarterbacks are not machinery. They are real live human beings with the same problems most of us have. They have problems with their finances, problems with their wives, bad days at work, some nights where they have trouble sleeping, and sometimes simply feel ill at ease with life in general. Just like the rest of us, they are people. Some people continue to grow and improve, some people plateau, some people stagnate and actually aren’t the same as they used to be. Can we all honestly say that every single day at work or school or home we are the best we can be? Of course not. The challenge for Kerry Collins – and every NFL quarterback – is to be the best he can be during those 16 regular season games and 3 or 4 playoff games. It’s not easy. Most fail. It’s what separates the best from the rest.
The 2003 NFL season for the Giants depends on Kerry Collins. Period. You can’t win in the NFL today with mediocre quarterback play. The Giants’ defense will not be good enough to carry them. It’s a passing league and the Giants are a passing team. If Kerry Collins plays well, the Giants will win. If he struggles, they will lose.
That’s the big picture with Collins, but there are also some more detailed, specific points I would like to make. Collins – like all quarterbacks – plays at his best when he is protected and given time to throw. But it is not possible to provide perfect protection. Pressure and sacks happen. The great quarterbacks make the great throws when they are getting hit or about to get hit. There are times when Collins plays this way and I think this is when he is at his best. But there are times when Collins gets a little gun-shy and I think this is when he is at his worst. The tougher he plays, the better.
Secondly, Collins excelled last season when the scheme was simplified (less motion, quicker pace, simpler formations) and his number of options were reduced. In the latter case, remember, Collins was at his best when Ike Hilliard, Ron Dixon, and Tim Carter all got hurt. His only viable targets were Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey. On the surface, at first, this looked like a disaster for the Giants and Collins. But this is when Collins was at his most productive. Was it because Collins, Toomer, Shockey, and the pass protection were all in a “zone” or was it because Collins responds better when his options are reduced? To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that. If it is the case that Collins responds better with less to think about, what will happen to his play when Hilliard, Dixon, Carter, and Visanthe Shiancoe are all thrown into the mix?
Coaching: Long-time readers of BBI know my position on NFL coaching. Except for one or two exceptional exceptions, I honestly don’t think there is a huge gulf in the quality of coaching in the league. It’s always been my view that talent – not coaching – is what ultimately wins championships. As I said, there are exceptions to the rule (i.e., the 1990 New York Giants, the 2001 New England Patriots, etc.). But for every example like that, there are 10 examples where an idiot like Barry Switzer or Mike Ditka won an NFL title or a “genius” like Jimmy Johnson or Mike Shanahan struggled. Bill Cowher is an idiot one year and a genius another. What changed? Not the man. The talent is what changed.
I think Jim Fassel and his coaching staff is a good staff. Not exceptional, but most likely above average. Fassel seems to command the respect of his players as they all seem to work very hard both in the offseason and the season. He is bright, organized, and not unwilling to change his ways. It seems as if every single season that there has been a crisis under Fassel, he has known what change to make to get his team to play better. In 1997, it was to bench Dave Brown in favor of Danny Kanell. In 1998, it was to bench Kanell in favor of Kent Graham. In 1999, it was to bench Graham in favor of Kerry Collins. In 2000, it was to issue “the guarantee”. In 2002, it was to demote Sean Payton and assume play-calling responsibilities.
So the good news is that Fassel knows how to respond to a crisis. The bad news is that it seems as if he doesn’t know how to head one off in the first place. Every single year we go through this. Perhaps it is the norm in the NFL and I’m being unrealistic…especially given the talent level on the Giants during those seasons. But it would be nice not to have a major crisis for once.
Secondly, Jim Fassel has a 2-3 playoff record…certainly nothing to brag about. Under his stewardship, the Giants played one of the most impressive (if not the most impressive) post-season game in their history (the 41-0 shutout against the Vikings in 2000). But two of the most gut-wrenching, painful post-season losses in team history also came under his watch. Who could ever forget the 1997 playoff loss to the Vikings where the Giants had a 9 point lead with about 90 seconds on the clock? Or losing the 24-point lead to the 49ers last year? In both games, Fassel couldn’t find a way to stem the tide. That’s disconcerting. Is it a coincidence or a warning sign?
Thirdly, for much of the season, the undermanned Giants’ defense played well in 2002. The Giants were third in scoring defense, trailing only the Bucs and Eagles. However, the inability to maintain big late leads in games against Jacksonville, Tennessee, Indianapolis, and San Francisco doesn’t sit well with me. Neither do player comments after the 49er loss that seemed to indicate that rookie defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn didn’t adjust to what the 49ers were doing on the field. Is Johnnie Lynn up to the task of continuing the proud defensive coaching tradition of this franchise?
Pass Rush: One of Johnnie Lynn’s biggest problems last year was that the front four on defense could not mount a consistent pass rush. DE Michael Strahan could never afford to take a down off, was constantly mugged by double- and triple-teams, and eventually wore down (both late in games and late in the season). DT Cornelius Griffin played on an injured ankle (again) and teased (again). Keith Hamilton was lost with an Achilles tendon rupture, but he was not playing well before the injury (no sacks). DE Kenny Holmes fattened up his on his 8 sack total against lesser competition and was a mostly a non-factor against the better left tackles in the game. Depth was non-existent. Frank Ferrara, Dwight Johnson, Lance Legree, Matt Mitrione, Byron Frisch? Ugghhh! Opposing passers were not harried enough and the secondary (which was also suffering from injuries) had to stick with opposing receivers far too long.
Will the Giants be better in 2003? The hope is that they will, but the same four starters will most likely be starting again. Plus, Strahan will be a year older on the wrong side of 30. Hamilton is facing off-the-field problems and distractions (possible jail time, possible NFL suspension). Griffin did have surgery to hopefully clean up his ankle woes once and for all, but he needs to bring it on every down in every game. Kenny Holmes need to do better against better competition. The good news is that the back-up situation is vastly improved with the additions of William Joseph, Osi Umenyiora, and Keith Washington.
Nickel Corner: Jason Sehorn is gone. Aside from his meltdown in the 49er game, Sehorn actually played fairly well in the nickel last season (it’s at corner where he stunk when Will Peterson was hurt). The challenge now is to find a quality replacement for Sehorn as well as to find quality back-ups for the two Wills (the likelihood of both staying healthy all season is not good). The nickel corner spends more time on the field than the third linebacker. Plus, with the Redskins looking to flood the field with 3-, 4-, and even 5- receivers, the Giants need to come up with more than three guys who can cover. The candidates are Ralph Brown, Kato Serwanga, Ray Green, Rod Babers, and Frank Walker. But no one is proven. If someone doesn’t step up, the Giants will be in trouble here.
Short Yardage/Goal Line Woes: Last season, probably the biggest reason why the Giants struggled offensively during the first half of the season and didn’t score more often was their inability to convert more on 3rd-and-1 and 3rd-and-2 as well as punch the ball into the endzone from inside the five yard line. Much of this had to do with the run blocking. The Giants have more of a finesse, pass-blocking line. But also, much had to do with the fact that Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne are not good short-yardage runners (Dayne is not a good runner period). Hopefully, the newcomers on the right side of the offensive line (most likely Ian Allen at right tackle and David Diehl at right guard) will be an improvement as will the additions of Dorsey Levens, Brian Mitchell, and Jim Finn. But the Giants will miss the run blocking of TE Dan Campbell.
Team Health: It seems as if today’s NFL Champions are not just determined by talent and coaching, but also how healthy they stay. There are certain players the Giants simply cannot afford to lose such as Kerry Collins, Tiki Barber, Jeremy Shockey, Amani Toomer, Luke Petitgout, Michael Strahan, Will Allen, and Will Peterson. Like all teams, the Giants can’t afford to get hit hard with a lot of injuries to lesser players.
So there are some of the areas to worry about. That’s why I can’t get overly excited about the Giants’ prospects in 2003 in June. Don’t get me wrong…I am excited. But I am also cautious. I’ve been burnt one too many times with high expectations. I take a more wait-and-see approach. To me, the biggest clue will be the play of Collins. If he plays well, there will be much less to worry about. But Fassel and his coaching staff need to prove they can take the next step. The pass defense needs to be improved with a better pass rush and more cover corners. The Giants must be more productive in short yardage and goal line situations on offense. And of course, the team needs to stay relatively healthy. There are a lot of question marks there. Too many to get too excited this soon.