New Orleans Saints 30 – New York Giants 7

The future is not as bleak as it seems.

And this is not a Pollyanna talking. Back in late November, a month ago and before losses to the Cowboys, Eagles, and Saints, I said the season was over – that the team was emotionally done. Many said I was over-reacting and being pessimistic.

I’m not changing my tune for the 2006 season. This team has given up. Even if they beat the Redskins on Saturday and find themselves in the playoffs, it will be quick exit. Why? I will address those reasons in a moment.

But all is not lost for 2007 and beyond. This team, with some tweaking of the roster, can compete for a Super Bowl appearance soon. But three VERY IMPORTANT things have to happen first:

  1. The Giants must make the correct decision in hiring a new general manager.
  2. The Giants must make the correct decision in hiring a new head coach.
  3. The new coaching staff must be capable of turning Eli Manning into a more consistent quarterback.

Why do I think the way that I do? Why did I think that the season was over a month ago, but there is a chance to do some special things with this roster in the future?

After a 6-2 start, various factors conspired to turn a once-promising season into a nightmarish collapse. A series of hard-fought but emotionally-draining defeats took its toll on a team that was already physically breaking down. The tough schedule only exacerbated matters. The team eventually lost confidence in itself and the coaching staff. The ultimate result of all this manifested itself against the Saints. Honestly, I expected to see a humiliating defeat like this sooner. I’m surprised it took this long.

If you want to take away anything from the Saints game, take away this – it cemented the fact that Tom Coughlin and his staff are toast. Whether you believe this is the correct decision or not, or whether they were the problem or not, is immaterial. The team has lost faith in and tuned out the coaching staff. And it is far easier to replace the coaches than it is to replace the players. The team is not playing hard anymore for this staff. It didn’t have to be this way. If the Giants had won even one or two of the games that they let get away, that confidence and trust might not have been shattered. That’s how fragile the coach-player relationship has become in the NFL today. It’s tenuous and why we see coaches getting fired en masse almost every season now.

I’m really going to make a lot of fans disagree with me, but I firmly believe that the Giants – in terms of personnel – are nowhere near as bad as they looked like against the Saints. In fact, I wouldn’t even suggest reviewing that game in terms of evaluating personnel. The Giants did not play that game with the level of confidence, intensity, or desire that is required to adequately compete in the NFL. It’s not because they have “no heart” or “don’t care.” They are an emotionally and physically tired football team.

Let’s talk about the physical breakdowns first. Much has been made out of the injury situation. It has been talked about to death. But few teams can lose their starting left tackle, starting flanker, its top three defensive ends, and a starting linebacker and not have it affect the win-loss column. Just as importantly – and this has not been emphasized enough – the injuries caused the depth to become worn down. For example, Mathias Kiwanuka, a rookie who is used to playing 11-12 games a season, found himself starting every snap on defense and playing special teams on top of that. Depth at defensive tackle became an issue as Fred Robbins has been playing hurt of late and Barry Cofield over-used given his rookie status and the physical nature of the position he plays. Antonio Pierce has been bothered by a knee and the linebacking unit was banged up again. Jeremy Shockey with a painful dislocated finger. And the offensive line has been dealing with multiple injury issues for the last few weeks.

But the injuries were not the sole reason for the collapse. And neither was one game or one play. Too much has been made about the loss to the Bears or the breakdown on the 3rd-and-22 draw play in that game. The Giants could have very easily have survived that tough loss had they followed that up with a win or two. But that physical, emotional defeat was followed by a physical pounding by the Jaguars and emotionally draining losses to the Titans, Cowboys, and Eagles. In each of those latter three games, strange plays, questionable coaching decisions, and untimely failures in execution led to heartbreaking defeats. Confidence waned and then was shattered. It happens all of the time in football. The season snowballed on New York

If some players were openly questioning the ability of the coaching staff in public, you know that must have been only the tip of the iceberg behind the scenes. If fans recognized that there were schematic problems with Tim Lewis’ third-down passing defense, you know the players must have certainly felt the same way. And whether these concerns were justified or not, what actually transpired in football games certainly fueled that doubt. And how can a team do well if it is filled with self-doubt in its coaches and/or its own ability? Again, a win or two may have changed things. I thought the loss against the Titans – collapse of mind-boggling proportions (not to mention a game filled with unbelievable mistakes) – was the last straw. It wasn’t. The Giants regrouped and gave the Cowboys a real fight. But mistakes in the red zone and in pass defense, as well as botched turnover opportunities, did the Giants in again. They lost another heartbreaker. They played the Eagles close, but it was obvious from that contest that the foundation was cracking. It burst against the Saints.

Excuses, excuses, excuses you say. It’s not an excuse, but an explanation. When a team loses four close games in a span of six weeks and in each of those losses, there is some sort of devastating failure in execution or coaching mistake, it will take a mental toll on a football team. In each of those four losses, players and fans were left with the mentally fatiguing feeling, “Damn, if just one of six or seven things didn’t go wrong, we would have won that football game.” Why did those things go wrong? Some of it was that the personnel was not good enough. Some of it was the injuries. Some of it was coaching decisions. Some of it was strange happenings (i.e., the two misplays by Kiwanuka), and some it was simply bad luck.

So why am I optimistic about the future? Simple. This team still has very good players and, to be frank, no one in the NFL is really all that dominant.

Here are some quick thoughts on the personnel:

Defensive Line: The strength of the defense and the hardest part of the defense to make a strength. No team has four quality defensive ends like the Giants do. Michael Strahan will be back. Osi Umenyiora hasn’t come close to reaching his fullest potential. Mathias Kiwanuka looks like a future stud. And Justin Tuck is a fine two-way defensive end. Much depends on the ability of Strahan and Tuck to recover from their foot injuries, but if they are fine, this is the strongest group in the NFL. Inside, the defensive tackles were supposed to be the weakness of the defense. Until they wore down late, Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield were actually the strength of the defense. Robbins had a very good year and Cofield, amazingly, held up very well until the end. He will be much better next year with this experience. What is needed is quality depth that can spell these two. William Joseph is clearly a bust and must be replaced. Jonas Seawright did not come on. The Giants did pick up an interesting prospect in Titus Adams. Another body is needed.

Linebacker: After two excellent seasons (one with the Skins, one with the Giants), Antonio Pierce had a down season. Much of that may have been due to nagging injuries (a hand injury and a knee injury). But he is one of the better linebackers in the NFL. Gerris Wilkinson has potential to be a good one, but more bodies are needed. We still don’t know what we have in LaVar Arrington. His knee was never close to 100 percent and the added time off due to the Achilles injury actually may help him. If he can play anywhere close to way he was playing against Dallas before he got hurt, he’s an asset. What the Giants do need to do is add linebackers with speed who are tough, physical players with leadership skills. The Giants need more speed on defense and they need to become more physical. This is the obvious area to improve both characteristics. Good bye Carlos Emmons.

Defensive Backs: I’m not as down on the corners as many. I was pleasantly surprised at how well Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters played. Can the Giants do better? Sure, but the Giants can win with both. Much depends on the development of young players such as Corey Webster (didn’t give up big plays, but was too soft on underneath stuff), E.J. Underwood (coaching staff was really high on him), and Kevin Dockery (looks like a nice nickel corner). Ideally, the Giants add another young corner with impact ability as a future starter. The bigger issues were at safety where Will Demps struggled for much of the season and Gibril Wilson has never regained his rookie form. The Giants can become more physical at both spots and more athletic at free safety. James Butler remains in the picture.

Offensive Line: I don’t care what some think, this is a very good group. The supposed weak link, Luke Petitgout, was playing very well before he was lost due to injury. The guards are both young and improving players. The right tackle is solid. The Giants may lose Shaun O’Hara to free agency but the rest of the group is under contract long term. Rich Seubert could replace O’Hara. This group can block for the run, pass protect, and pull. Don’t forget interesting young prospects such as Guy Whimper and Matt Lentz.

Jeremy Shockey: Love him or hate him, Jeremy Shockey is an impact player. He’s the focal point for other teams in defending the Giants. What the Giants do need to do is protect themselves better in case Shockey gets hurt. I could very easily see them drafting a tight end very high not only for this purpose, but also to provide them with some serious match-up problems against other teams in two-TE sets.

Wide Receiver: Love him or hate him, Plaxico Burress is the best receiver the Giants have had in a long, long time. He’s the only receiver on the roster right now that deserves double-team respect. Unlike many, I like Plaxico and respect his ability. The Giants are still very high on Sinorice Moss – an explosive receiver who had his season sabotaged due to a nagging quad injury that must have been a tear. At worst, I expect him to be a dangerous slot receiver in the NFL. The Giants hope he can become his brother. The big question is Amani Toomer. He turns 33 next year and has a big contract, but Eli is so comfortable with him, that you have to think he will be back. Provided he comes back strong, a receiving triumvirate of Burress, Toomer, and Moss is dangerous enough. Since you know David Tyree will be back, there is room for one more young player here. Anthony Mix is a wild card. Good bye Tim Carter.

Running Back: A lot of people are down on Tiki Barber right now because he is being too closely associated with this disappointing season. His media whoring hasn’t helped matters. But as time passes, he will be fondly remembered as the best running back in Giants’ history. That said, and despite his productivity this year, I think he is leaving at the right time. Either due to declining physical ability or lack of focus on the game, he’s not the same player he was in 2004 and 2005. The burst that led to big plays isn’t there anymore. It’s time for Brandon Jacobs – a physical beast who is going to pound teams into submission next season. He’s also going to run away from a lot of people en route to some 40+ yard runs. I think he will be the face of the Giants’ offense in 2007 and beyond. My only real concerns with him are durability and ball security. We don’t have enough info on him yet to know if either will be a problem. What the Giants do need to do is find a back-up who complements him well. Derrick Ward, if he can stay healthy himself, could be a viable back-up, but a quicker, change-of-pace back would be ideal.

Jim Finn is a solid fullback.

Quarterback: As is almost always the case, the most controversial figure on a football team is the quarterback. Unless you have a Tom Brady, Joe Montana, or Dan Marino on your roster, half the fans out there will hate their quarterback, the other half will support him. It happened with Phil Simms. It happened with Dave Brown. It happened with Kerry Collins. I still believe in Eli Manning. I don’t think accuracy will ever be a strength of his game, but I believe he has all of the physical and mental tools to succeed in the NFL. Fans who are writing him off already don’t remember the legions of NFL quarterbacks who have struggled early in their careers only later to become very good signal callers who led their teams to glory. We know Eli can play well in the clutch. We’ve seen him lead the Giants on many come-from-behind drives either to tie or win games in just his 38 starts. In that time, he’s thrown 53 touchdown passes. But he has been horribly inconsistent. Can the new coaching staff make him a more consistent quarterback that elevates the play of his teammates? My opinion is that he has been hampered by a system and coaching staff that makes him think too much and doesn’t game plan well enough. I know, it sounds like a cop-out. But there have been games in his short career where he has had a very high completion percentage and an excellent touchdown-to-interception ratio. He performs extremely well in the hurry-up offense and two-minute drills. He can throw all the passes. And I think his laid-back temperament is ideal for New York – it’s not a liability but an asset. Fans want to see a fiery guy, but I’m not sure a fiery guy could survive the NY/NJ media and fan onslaught. It’s interesting to note when the Giants win, his temperament is complimented; when the team loses, it is criticized.

Kickers: Jeff Feagles says he will be back in 2007. That’s a good thing. Jay Feely, a free agent, might not.

Free Agency: There will be a lot of teams with a lot of money to spend in free agency this year due to the elevated salary cap from the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Too much money – too few quality free agents. Don’t expect the Giants to make a big splash here. They could target one top player such as a linebacker or defensive back.

As for their own free agents, the most important players on this team are already under contract. Who is not? OC Shaun O’Hara, OC/OG Grey Ruegamer, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, LB Brandon Short, CB Frank Walker, and PK Jay Feely. There are some others who will be restricted free agents such as SS Gibril Wilson and LB Reggie Torbor. The Giants are in great shape here. They do need to determine what they will do at place kicker.

Draft: The Giants have all seven of their picks.

Summary: Personnel-wise, this is not a bad football team. The Giants have good offensive and defensive lines. There is talent at the offensive skill positions of running back, tight end, and receiver. The biggest needs are defensive – to become more athletic and more physical on defense, especially the back seven. The team could use a quality prospect at safety, linebacker, and corner. It could use a quality back-up defensive tackle. Offensively, another receiver and tight end would be nice.

But this roster does not need to be blown up. There is a solid foundation.

The big unknown – and what will ultimately determine everything – is how well can the Giants get Eli Manning to play. I’m optimistic, but the Giants need to find a coach who can get it out of him. We have to move beyond that Manning trade. It’s a done deal and nothing will change that. Did we overpay? It’s a moot point. The general manager who pulled the trigger is no longer in the picture. We have to get behind our young quarterback and hope and pray he can deliver us to the promised land. Let’s go Giants!

(Box Score – New Orleans Saints at New York Giants, December 24, 2006)