Jul 222004
 
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Key Questions Heading into the 2004 New York Giants Training Camp

As long as I’ve watched the Giants, I have never witnessed an offseason where there has been so much change. New coaching staff, new starting quarterback, dramatic changes on the starting defense, and 45 new players overall. Fans are going to desperately need a roster sheet just to figure out who is who in the preseason and probably well into the season.

The Giants will be picked by most to finish last in the NFC East. Some will predict they will be one of the worst teams in football. The Eagles have won three division titles in a row; the Cowboys have Parcells; and the Redskins have Gibbs. But none of these teams should scare the Giants and, in fact, no team in the NFC should really scare the Giants. Losing three straight NFC Championship Games will likely take an emotional toll on the Eagles. Time is running out for them. They have added DE Jevon Kearse and WR Terrell Owens, but they continue to lose key leadership and talent (this year Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, and Carlos Emmons). Plus, they will no longer be able to run roughshod over the other NFC East teams. The Eagles are superbly coached on defense, but their offense often disappears for long stretches as Donovan McNabb remains very inconsistent.

The Cowboys will be competitive simply because of their coaching and defense, but they still lack proven talent at quarterback and running back…two positions that are just a little bit important to the game of football. The Redskins have put together quite an impressive coaching staff and have added Mark Brunell and Clinton Portis to the offense, but there are some significant question marks on defense.

The rest of the NFC? Everyone has a weakness. The Panthers lost a lot of talent this offseason. The Bucs – like the Giants – are undergoing massive personnel turnover. The Rams lost their defensive coordinator and continue to be harmed by the decision-making of their head coach and inconsistent defense. The Packers, Vikings, Seahawks, and Saints? Nothing to lose sleep over.

The NFC is there for the taking for some team that has a good talent base, is well-coached, stays relatively healthy, and earns some breaks.

Don’t count the Giants out of the picture.

(1) How Much Will the Lack of Cohesion and Chemistry Hurt the Team? Usually teams that have a dramatic turnover in personnel in one offseason do not field a Super Bowl-caliber football team. The Patriots are an exception to the rule. Can the Giants follow that model? The most important football player on the team – the quarterback – will be different this year for the Giants. Whether it be Kurt Warner or Eli Manning, the new signal caller will have to get used to a new offensive system, terminology, coaching staff, and, most importantly, a new supporting cast. The NFL is not a video game. You just don’t usually plug new faces into the lineup without a learning curve. There will be growing pains. How many and how harsh will largely determine the Giants’ win-loss record in 2004.

But it is not just the quarterback who has changed. Six-out-seven starters on the front seven on defense will be new starters. Overall, the defense may have as many as seven new starters (64 percent change). The offensive line will be completely revamped once again with three or four new starters (a possible 80 percent change).

The good news is that the core group of the skill positions on offense (Tiki Barber, Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard, Jeremy Shockey) and the defensive backfield (Will Allen, Will Peterson, Shaun Williams) remain the same.

(2) How Quickly Will the Players Buy Into Tom Coughlin’s Style and Message? Tom Coughlin is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Those who speculate that he has a three-year window are nuts. This guy was hand-picked by the Maras. I believe Coughlin will be here at least 10 years – a bold prediction on my part as head coaches get dismissed left and right in this League. Coughlin isn’t going to change his style. If some players have a problem with him, they will be the ones to leave. It may not happen in 2004 with some of the high-priced players, but it would soon after.

But I digress. For the Giants to be immediately competitive in 2004, the players on the existing roster will have to quickly buy into Coughlin’s style and overall philosophy. What is Coughlin’s philosophy? Look no farther than his first press conference as the Giants’ head coach:

Effort is the key to success…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…More games are lost in this league than are won…Special teams and winning the battle of field position must become our catalyst for victory and not our Achilles heel…I believe that the young men who represent the New York Giants want strong leadership. They want clear and stated objectives. They want superb detail and organization. And (they want) discipline which provides us all with the courage and the confidence to win in this league in the fourth quarter. 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.

The last sentence is the key. Victories are earned. Hard work equals victory. Hard work makes you more physical and helps to prevent mistakes. You can’t focus on offense and defense and ignore special teams and not expect to lose important football games. And the only way you can get players to truly work hard and not make mistakes is by running a tight ship, one that is organized with one dominant voice in control. This is not a democracy; it is a dictatorship.

But the players grew soft under Fassel. The problem is that they don’t seem to know it themselves because they never have known anything different. They also felt they had a say in the way things operated (especially guys such as Michael Strahan). The daunting challenge that Coughlin and his staff face is trying to convince the old guard that the new ways will make them a better team. It will be quite a culture shock. If the Giants start off the season with a losing record, the grumbling behind the scenes may start. Obviously, that won’t be good and could lead to an even more significant house-cleaning in 2005.

(3) Who Will Start at Quarterback and How Effective Will the New Starter Be? If Eli Manning were a normal rookie, then the obvious answer would be Kurt Warner. But Manning is much more advanced than many young men who come out of college. Why? Because mentally he is prepared for the rigors of the pro game. He knows how to prepare as a professional. He works hard and he makes good decisions. My money says Warner will start, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Eli is the man. Regardless of who starts, the win-loss record will largely depend on the overall quality of play at the quarterback position. If it is Warner, can he regain any of his previous NFL MVP magic? Or is he washed up? If it is Manning, how quickly can he learn the pro game and cut down his rookie mistakes? It’s a quarterback’s league. If you have a good quarterback, you make the playoffs.

(4) How Quickly Will the New Defense Come Together? A lot of change. Not only will there be as many as six or seven new starters, but the entire scheme and terminology is different. Michael Strahan will be the only starter in the front seven returning. That is an amazing amount of turnover. The good news is that I really think that Norman Hand and Fred Robbins will prove to be a solid run-stuffing tandem in the middle of the defense. They will also enable William Joseph not to rush back from his pectoral injury. Right DE Osi Umenyiora has a lot of talent, but needs to play the game with more urgency. There is also good depth here on the defensive line with guys such as Keith Washington, Lorenzo Bromell, Isaac Hilton, William Joseph, Glen Steele, Martin Chase, Mario Monds, and Lance Legree in the picture.

It will be also interesting to watch the completely new linebacking corps evolve. Barrett Green may be on the verge of a breakout year. Carlos Emmons is one of the best strongside linebackers in the game. A key figure obviously will be Nick Greisen in the middle. I’m not concerned about his ability to play the run, but I wonder about him in pass coverage. Depth is an issue as the Giants will need a couple of the athletic rookies to stand out in the preseason.

In the backfield, the corners just need to stay healthy for once. This will be a big year for Shaun Williams as he is making far too much money for continued mediocre performance. If he doesn’t break out this year, he’s gone. The starting free safety spot is likely wide open with players such as Omar Stoutmire, Brent Alexander, Jack Brewer, and Jason Doering factoring into the equation.

(5) What About the Offensive Line? Honestly I think the bodies are there. The big question is how quickly this group can come together to form an effective unit. The left-middle of the line is set and easy to figure out. Luke Petitgout will start at left tackle; Shaun O’Hara at center. Petitgout will be backed up by the winner of the Mathias Nkwenti/Drew Strojny battle; O’Hara will be backed up by Wayne Lucier. If Rich Seubert can’t recover from his leg injury, Barry Stokes will start at left guard. Both Seubert and Stokes are good left guards.

It’s the right side where the question marks lie. The best scenario would be for David Diehl to show that he can be a top-notch right tackle in this League AND for Chris Snee to demonstrate quickly that he can start as a rookie. Those are two big “ifs”. If Diehl can’t handle right tackle or if Snee isn’t ready, then Diehl will likely start at right guard and the Giants need to find another right tackle. That guy may not be on the roster yet. It will be interesting to see if the Giants can find some adequate depth for the right side too. Ed Ellis, Ian Allen, and Greg Walker are all in the picture.

(6) Can the Core Group Stay Healthy? We’re talking about TE Jeremy Shockey, CB Will Allen, CB Will Peterson, LT Luke Petitgout, WR Ike Hilliard, SLB Carlos Emmons, WLB Barrett Green, DE Michael Strahan, HB Tiki Barber, and WR Amani Toomer. Unfortunately, the first six guys who I mentioned are coming off significant injuries. Shockey and Peterson have had injury problems since they were drafted. Allen is coming off a very serious foot injury. Petitgout’s back has given him problems and that is never good for an offensive lineman. Long-term losses of any of these players would be hard on the team.

(7) Can the Team Find a Bruising North-South Runner? The Giants desperately need a physical, bruising, north-south halfback who excels in short-yardage and the goal line. Ron Dayne was supposed to be that man, but to date has failed miserably. This will be his last chance with the team. If he can’t do it, can Antwoine Womack or Jermaine Green?

(8) Can the Giants Find an Adequate Placekicker? The Giants not only need someone to come through consistently in the clutch (Matt Bryant has not done that to date), but they also need someone who is a consistent kickoff man (Bryant’s kickoffs are unimpressive and he lost the Dallas game last year with his kickoff out of bounds). Is Bill Gramatica the answer if Bryant can’t do it?

Those are my key questions for the team. The good news is that this appears to be a strong coaching staff with a clear message. The depth situation, except for a few spots, is better than it has been in years. There are more veteran back-ups now. If the Giants can come together quickly, believe in Coughlin’s message, get good play out the quarterback spot, and stay relatively healthy, they should be as competitive as any team in the NFC.

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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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