Jan 252004
 
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2004 New York Giants Can Vie for the NFC East Title

I’m going to warn you now that all the football prognosticators are going to pick the Giants to finish last in the NFC East in 2004. They will see Bill Parcells in Dallas, Joe Gibbs in Washington, and the three-time reigning NFC East champions in Philadelphia. They will point to a 4-12 team with a mess of an offensive line, inconsistency at the skill positions, and terrible special teams.

On paper, it looks pretty grim.

But it doesn’t have to be. I truly think the Giants have the ability not only to turn things around quickly in order to become competitive again, but they can contend for the NFC East title if they handle their personnel moves this offseason properly.

Most of the discussions by the fans will center around the offensive line. Undoubtedly and obviously, this area must be addressed. But if the Giants are truly to become a contender, they must upgrade their defense in order to compete in the NFC East. Despite what General Manager Ernie Accorsi believes, defense and special teams are what win games in the NFL. The 1999 Rams were the oddity, not the norm. The recent Super Bowls have all been won with defense.

But before we talk about personnel, let’s look at the coaching situation. I was an advocate of hiring Tom Coughlin before the interview process began because I felt he was the safest choice. Coughlin is a very intelligent man, exceptionally well-organized, and a very good game-day tactician. He did an amazing job in taking an expansion team quickly to two AFC Championship Games. And for an undisciplined and unmotivated team such as the Giants where incumbent starters never feared losing their job, he is the perfect tonic. Coughlin is arguably the toughest disciplinarian in the NFL and he doesn’t play favorites. You either perform to his standards or you are gone. “We need more discipline than we had the last few years,” says co-owner Bob Tisch. “We allowed, and I blame ownership as much as anything for it, we allowed our players to get lax. You get used to it that way and accept it.”

But what has really impressed me the most about the man since he has been hired is his energy and competitiveness. Just by listening to him speak and reading his quotes, you can tell that a passion to succeed burns inside this man. He has a presence about him that inspires and energizes you. He’s 57 years old, but it seems as if he is 20 years younger.

“He’s energized,” says General Manager Ernie Accorsi. “And he’s energized everybody else, which I fully expected him to do. He works from 5 o’clock in the morning until I don’t know when he finishes at night. He has a dogged determination to win and really has hit the ground running.”

And if you look at the coaching staff that Coughin is surrounding himself with, all his assistants are energetic, passionate people.

“I’ve always been passionate and enthusiastic,” Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis says. “We’re going to coach our tails off and try to get that done…We’ve got to do a fantastic job of connecting with all of our players, make sure they feel respected and accountable. They will all be held accountable, responsible.”

“I was extremely impressed with Coach Coughlin as well as Tim Lewis,” said Defensive Line Coach Mike Waufle. “Coach Coughlin…reflects a strong work ethic and commitment. He has a high level of energy even after one year away from coaching. He is prepared to restore pride and professionalism to the Giants. Tim Lewis has always impressed me with his attacking style and tough defenses. I feel that his players are prepared to deliver their best for him and play hard.”

Coughlin says Waufle has a “positive, go get ‘em personality”; Defensive Backs Coach Ron Milus is “a knowledgeable, young, energetic coach”; and Wide Receivers Coach Mike Sullivan is “an intense, energetic young guy”.

And this is a relatively young staff:

Head Coach Tom Coughlin: 57
Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis: 42
Defensive Line Coach Mike Waufle: 49
Linebackers Coach Bill Davis: 38
Defensive Backs Coach Ron Milus: 40
Offensive Line Coach Pat Flaherty: 47
Assistant Offensive Line Coach Dave DeGuglielmo: 35
Tight Ends Coach Mike Pope: 61
Wide Receivers Coach Mike Sullivan: 36
Running Backs Coach Jerald Ingram: 43
Special Teams Coordinator Mike Sweatman: 56
Assistant Special Teams Coach Mike Priefer: 37
Strength and Conditioning Coach Jerry Palmieri: 45

Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs may have the pelts on the wall in the form of five Super Bowl wins, but they will not out-work or out-energize Coughlin’s staff. The 62-year old Parcells is a superb coach, but he wore down last season. He even admitted to as such in his post-season press conference. Joe Gibbs turns 64 this season. The Eagles have to be fatigued from three straight trips to the NFC Championship Game with nothing to show for it.

The Giants’ coaching staff is the hungriest in the division. Their enthusiasm and passion for the game will rub off on the Giants’ players. It will make a difference.

“What we must be all about right now, immediately, is the restoration of pride; self pride, team pride, the restoration of our professionalism and the dignity of which we conduct our business,” said Coughin in his introductory press conference. “We must restore our belief in the process by which we will win. We must replace despair with hope and return the energy and the passion to New York Giant football.”

“From a technical standpoint we must begin to focus immediately on the basic axioms which determine winning in the National Football League,” continued Coughlin. “Effort is the key to success. Consistent application of each individual, each individual’s best in the task at hand. Outstanding effort must exist on many levels. It starts with the off-season program. It starts in the spring, carries through the summer to the practice field and training camp and of course to game day. Football is fundamentally a physical game. It is a tough game played by tough people. We must win the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. We must run the ball and we must be able to defend the run. The year off that I have experienced allowed me to make many observations, one of which is – more games are lost in this league than are won. We must eliminate turnovers. You are not going to beat anybody with a minus 16 (turnover ratio). That stat has to radically change. We must eliminate costly penalties. You can’t shoot yourself in the foot and expect to win the hundred meter dash. Special teams and winning the battle of field position must become our catalyst for victory and not our Achilles heel.

“My job is to convince these young men that with the parity that exists in this league today, the difference is in the preparation and that our formula will earn us the right to win.”

Alright then, let’s talk personnel. The advantage the Giants have over every team in the division is that, provided with solid (not great mind you – just solid) pass protection, they have the best quarterback. Dallas isn’t overly-thrilled with their quarterback situation; Patrick Ramsey has a big upside in Washington, but he has a lot to learn still; and Donovan McNabb is simply overrated. And the Giants still arguably have the best halfback in the division as long as Coughlin and his staff can fix Tiki Barber’s fumbling problem. The Giants have Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey, both deserving of double-team attention.

Defensively, Michael Strahan is still the best two-way defensive linemen in the game. Cornelius Griffin, provided he re-signs, is a quality defensive tackle who will benefit from a more aggressive defensive style. There are two young studs in William Joseph and Osi Umenyiora to develop. And if Will Allen and Will Peterson come back healthy, they are one of the finer cornerback tandems in the game.

The holes are obvious. The offensive line must be fixed first and foremost. But it is not in as big of a mess as the national sports pundits would have you make out. Luke Petitgout will come back healthy and strong from back problems that prevented him from lifting weights last season. Coughlin’s staff will make him cut down on his penalties. In 2004, he will return to being one of the better left tackles in the game (as he was in 2002, when he didn’t give up a sack). Right guard David Diehl is an up-and-coming player who gained valuable experience his rookie season. The Giants must make a decision at center. Chris Bober is solid, but will be a free agent. The big question marks are at left guard, where Rich Seubert is coming off a serious leg injury, and right tackle, where the Giants must upgrade over Ian Allen.

It is almost a certainty that the Giants will pursue a veteran right tackle. Look for them to make a run at signing John Tait of the Chiefs, Todd Wade of Miami, Kareem McKenzie of the Jets (restricted free agent), or Orlando Brown of the Ravens. If the Giants sign someone like Wade and re-sign Bober, then the only glaring question mark is at left guard. Someone like Chris Villarial of the Bears or Mike Goff of the Bengals could enter into the picture if the prognosis for Seubert is not good.

Of course, instead of re-signing Bober, the Giants might make a run at Damien Woody of the Patriots, who can play guard and center. He’s coming off a knee injury so that would have to be checked out. But he could play left guard if Seubert can’t come back, and if Rich does, then Woody could play center and give the Giants a heck of an offensive line. Depth? Keep in mind that Wayne Lucier looked promising as a center/guard reserve. Ian Allen was a bad left tackle, but he didn’t do poorly at right tackle. The Giants will also most likely bottom-feed for an older veteran reserve who will come cheap.

“Obviously, the offensive line is an area we’re targeting,” says Accorsi. “We have some good young players who will benefit from having played. But we need to get some veteran help there.”

The rest of the offense? The Giants will draft another quarterback sometime after round two in the upcoming draft. They will also most likely sign a cheap veteran. The Giants definitely must add another quality halfback to complement Tiki Barber either via free agency or the draft. Terrelle Smith (Saints) or Dan Kreider (Steelers) could be an improvement over Jim Finn at fullback. A blocking tight end such Erron Kinney (Titans) would be appealing, but the Giants probably will spend their free agent dollars elsewhere as Visanthe Shiancoe flashes in this department.

Wide receiver is an interesting area. Amani Toomer is set and Ike Hilliard is solid. Tim Carter and Willie Ponder have a lot of potential. But this draft is loaded at wide receiver if someone is available in the early rounds who is rated very highly, the Giants must consider him. Some superb wide receivers will be around when the Giants pick near the top of the second round. And what if Larry Fitzgerald slips to the #4 pick in the first round? I also would not completely discount TE Kellen Winslow, Jr. Yes, the Giants have Jeremy Shockey, but both Winslow and Shockey are basically impact wide receivers who block like tight ends. It would give the Giants the most dangerous 2-TE offense in the league. With the same personnel on the field, the Giants could shift easily from a power run formation to a 4-WR set. Talk about a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators!

What about offensive linemen Robert Gallery or Shawn Andrews in the first round? Every mock draft in the world seems to have the Giants taking one of these two fine-looking prospects. But I don’t see it. Neither is quite in the Jonathan Odgen/Tony Boselli-class. And given the opportunity to select an IMPACT player and the salary cap ramifications of picking at #4, think the Giants will look elsewhere. The offensive line can be addressed in free agency. And do we really want another rookie experiencing growing pains up front – especially from Collins’ blindside (Gallery)? Look for a later round offensive line pick, but not in the first.

So let’s get to the point of this piece. In my opinion, for the Giants to challenge in the NFC East in 2004 and beyond, the team must significantly upgrade the defense. Defense wins ball games and championships. The Giants have the pieces to be decent defense, but not a great one. They must get the pieces to be a great defense.

Where to start? Arguably the best defensive player available in the draft is junior FS Sean Taylor of Miami. I’m not a big fan of taking safeties this high, but Taylor is special. He is an athletic freak with the size of a weakside linebacker. Teams are so afraid to challenge him that he forms a de facto black hole in the middle of the defense in the passing game. Yet despite the fact that teams try to stay away from him, Taylor still had the same number of interceptions last season (10 in 13 games) as the entire Giants’ team did (10 in 16 games). Moreover, Taylor would bring Jeremy Shockey-type swagger to the defense. He would make Will Allen, Will Peterson, Frank Walker, and Shawn Williams better players and turn the secondary into a real strength. Taylor covers, he hits, he blitzes – he makes impact plays. He is an IMPACT PLAYER.

Up front, Strahan is set and I feel strongly that Osi Umenyiora will become the pass-rushing weakside end the Giants have sought for years. Depth is important so the Giants must add another end in free agency (Keith Washington-type) or the draft. What happens at tackle depends on whether the Giants can re-sign Cornelius Griffin. If they can, then Griffin and William Joseph should form a very solid duo in the middle of the defense. Coughlin, Lewis, and Waufle will get Joseph to play at his full potential. Depth again is an issue and must be addressed. If Griffin walks, the Giants will need to look at free agents such Warren Sapp (Bucs), Gary Walker (Texans – ties to Coughlin), Rod Coleman (Raiders – ties to Waufle), Robaire Smith (Titans), and Brian Young (Rams).

Aside from the offensive line, the most glaring holes are at linebacker. Mike Barrow makes too much money and must take a pay cut or be waived. Both Dhani Jones and Brandon Short will be free agents. Both won’t be back. Personally, I’d like to keep Short as he is a very good 2-down linebacker. But if he wants 3-down money, the Giants may let him walk. I think the Giants will spend their second round pick on a linebacker (and there will be some good ones available) unless a super wide receiver or offensive lineman prospect is staring them in the face. Other than the offensive line, the Giants will need to spend some serious free agent money at linebacker. Candidates include Al Wilson (Broncos), Ian Gold (Broncos), Carlos Emmons (Eagles), and Barrett Green (Lions).

Having Mike Sweatman as the special teams coach will make a world of difference. He has a proven track record wherever he has been. The Giants have a good punter in Jeff Feagles. They need to make a decision on the place kicker.

So that’s how I would address things. Fix the offensive line in free agency (two signings), plus spend a later draft pick there. Add another halfback to the backfield, and possibly replace Jim Finn with a better blocker (if affordable). Spend a later draft pick on a quarterback and add a cheap veteran. If a super wide receiver prospect is available in the draft, consider him.

Defensively the Giants can add an impact player if they draft Sean Taylor. He will force opposing teams to change their game plans. He will make everyone around him better and turn the secondary into a real strength. Re-sign Griffin or find an adequate replacement. Add depth to the defensive line either in free agency or the draft. Add two new linebackers – one free agent and one high draft pick (somewhere in rounds 2-4). Adding another reserve cornerback is a possibility – depending on the free agent status of Ralph Brown.

You say the Giants’ don’t have the cap room? Yes, they will. A lot of the players currently on this roster under contract will be cut. Plus, salary cap relief will come from Keith Hamilton retiring, Mike Barrow’s contract being reduced or removed, Jason Sehorn’s contract being off the books, and Kerry Collins’ re-structuring. “We have money to make moves this year,” says Accorsi. “We’ll have the maneuverability to do what we have to do to with veterans to try to improve our team at certain positions.”

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Eric Kennedy

Founder and owner of BigBlueInteractive.com, which is now entering its 20th season. Follow Eric on Twitter @BigBlueInteract.

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