Where Has the Time Gone?

I’m 39 years old. The last time the New York Giants won an NFL Championship was 16 years ago. I was 23 years old at the time. 16 years! When I think back to what my life was like 16 years ago, I can’t believe how much time has passed. I was fresh out of college, starting my first real professional, white-collar job. My life centered around dating girls, hanging out with college buddies, drinking, and the Giants. In those 16 years, I went from sharing apartments, to having my own apartment, to owning my first house. I got married and had two kids. I’m a family man now and I don’t get out much. My life is much different. The first gray hairs are appearing.

And I’m still waiting for the Giants to win another Super Bowl.

Think back to where you were 16 years ago when Scott Norwood’s last-second field goal attempt sailed wide right. How different was your life? Consider how much time 16 years really is. That’s how long we’ve been waiting. The old timers will say 16 years is nothing; that they had to wait 30 years between 1956 and 1986 for another Championship. It’s a valid point, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. I don’t really want to wait until I’m 53 until the Giants win another Super Bowl.

The average life expectancy in the United States is about 77. If I live to be 80, it means that I just spent one-fifth of my life watching the Giants futilely attempt to regain Championship glory. Worse than that, consider these embarrassing facts: (1) the Giants have only won three playoff games in those 16 years; (2) the Giants have not won a road playoff game during that time period. Yikes!

What Went Wrong?

How did the Giants go from a team that won two Super Bowls in four years to a team that that averages a playoff win every five years? The answers are pretty obvious: (1) bad personnel moves and (2) uninspiring coaching.

For all the positive work that General Manager George Young and Director of Player Personnel Tom Boisture did in the 1980’s, their magic quickly disappeared in the 1990’s. Young left the Giants after the 1997 draft and Boisture left the Giants after the 1998 draft. During that time period in the 1990’s, high-round picks were spent on players of dubious talent such as Jarrod Bunch, Kanavis McGhee, Derek Brown, Dave Brown, Marcus Buckley, Thomas Lewis, Thomas Randolph, Gary Downs, Tyrone Wheatley, Rodney Young, and Cedric Jones. And the Giants completely mismanaged the salary cap and free agency. The team overspent to keep its own mediocre talent, let talented players get away, and spent its remaining limited resources on guys like Mark Jackson, Carlton Bailey, and Ray Agnew.

It didn’t get much better under General Manager Ernie Accorsi and Director of Player Personnel Marv Sunderland. Accorsi’s first draft (with Boisture) was a disaster – Shaun Williams, Joe Jurevicius, a 3rd and 4th round pick for Brian Alford, Toby Myles, Todd Pollack, and Ben Fricke. Then from 1999-2002, the Accorsi-Sunderland team spent high picks on Joe Montgomery, Sean Bennett, Ron Dayne, Ron Dixon, Will Allen, Cedric Scott, Tim Carter, and Jeff Hatch. The Giants never seemed to have any cap space but did finally add some decent football players in free agency such as Mike Barrow and Dusty Zeigler. However, there were also big mistakes such as Kenny Holmes.

After the 2002 draft, Jerry Reese became the new director of player personnel. He and Accorsi spent high picks on players such as William Joseph, Osi Umenyiora, Visanthe Shiancoe, Rod Babers, Eli Manning (1st, 1st, 3rd, 5th round picks), Chris Snee, Reggie Torbor, Gibril Wilson, Corey Webster, Justin Tuck, Brandon Jacobs, Mathias Kiwanuka, Sinorice Moss, Gerris Wilkinson, and Barry Cofield. It’s been a mixed bag, but drafting does appear to be better. However, almost everything depends on the Eli Manning trade and we don’t know how that will pan out yet. Free agent additions during this time frame included Brian Mitchell, Jeff Feagles, Jim Finn, Dorsey Levens, Mike Hollis, Ryan Kuehl, Fred Robbins, Carlos Emmons, Shaun O’Hara, Barrett Green, Barry Stokes, Terry Cousin, Lorenzo Bromell, Martin Chase, Norman Hand, Brent Alexander, Kurt Warner, Antonio Pierce, Kareem McKenzie, Jay Feely, Kendrick Clancy, Plaxico Burress, Bob Whitfield, R.W. McQuarters, Sam Madison, Will Demps, Grey Ruegamer, Jason Bell, and LaVar Arrington. A lot of names – some good, some bad.

The net effect of all of this? Of the players added to the roster since 1991, both in terms of draft picks and free agent acquisitions, only seven have been voted to the Pro Bowl: Jessie Armstead, Michael Strahan, Ron Stone, Jeremy Shockey, Tiki Barber, Osi Umenyiora, and David Tyree. Sixteen years of work and only seven players who have been considered among the best at their position.

At the forefront of the frustrating personnel issues has been the inability to stabilize the quarterback position with an upper echelon talent. Since Phil Simms was forced to retire, we have gone from Dave Brown to Danny Kanell to Kent Graham to Kerry Collins to Kurt Warner to Eli Manning. And whether you believe in Manning or not, he certainly has not lived up to expectations yet. For better or worse, the fate of this franchise for at least the next few years is tied to Eli Manning.

There has also been been mediocre coaching. After the Jim Lee Howell/Vince Lombardi/Tom Landry Giants won the NFL Championship in 1956, the Giants did not win another until Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick appeared on the scene. And they have not won another since. The franchise has been led by Ray Handley, Dan Reeves, Jim Fassel, and Tom Coughlin with some bad assistant coaches such as Rod Rust, Johnnie Lynn, Tim Lewis, and John Hufnagel.

Mediocre talent + mediocre coaching = mediocre results.

Current Events:

So let’s move to the current situation. Let’s recap what has transpired. In 2005, both Wellington Mara and Robert Tisch passed away. Their sons, John Mara and Jonathan Tisch, have taken over. According to press reports, the front office tried to convince Tom Coughlin to dump Hufnagel and Lewis after the 2005 campaign despite a largely successful season where the Giants won the NFC East. If true, Coughlin obviously refused. As we all know, the Giants were embarrassed at home in the playoffs by the Panthers 23-0.

Expectations were high entering the 2006 season. The team won all four preseason games, but came damn close to a disastrous 0-3 regular season start until Eli Manning saved the day with late-game heroics in Philadelphia. Then the Giants went on a five-game winning streak, highlighted by their 36-22 destruction of the Cowboys in Dallas on Monday night. The Giants completed what was supposed to have been the toughest part of their schedule 6-2 and had a two-game lead in the NFC East. The Giants had, at that time, the second-best record in the NFC. Life was good.

But the Dallas game was costly as the Giants lost LaVar Arrington and Justin Tuck for the season. Osi Umenyiora also got hurt and missed the next five games. Then Michael Strahan got hurt against the Texans. An MRI revealed an ACL tear in Amani Toomer’s knee. And Luke Petitgout fractured his leg against the Bears. Antonio Pierce had ankle and knee issues. Brandon Short missed a month with a quad injury. Sam Madison pulled his hamstring. Corey Webster suffered a turf toe injury. A team cannot lose that many quality players and not expect the product on the field to suffer. And it did. The Giants began a 2-7 slide. They finished the regular season 8-8, barely limped into the playoffs, and got immediately bounced by the hated Eagles.

Nevertheless, the disastrous finish to what had been an extremely promising start cannot be blamed completely on the injury situation. Questionable coaching decisions were a factor in losses to the Bears, Titans, Cowboys, and Eagles. The coaching staff was publicly criticized again by players after losses to the Seahawks and Jaguars. While many point to the loss to the Bears as the turning point to the season, I believe the real turning point was blowing the 21-0 fourth-quarter lead to the Titans. That was a devastating emotional loss. To the credit of the coaching staff and players, the team did fight hard in close losses to the Cowboys and Eagles, but odd red-zone play calling helped to prevent victory. More importantly, the defense was coming apart and Eli Manning was wildly up-and-down in every game. The low-point came when the Saints trashed the Giants 30-7 at home in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score. The fans, before they left early, started chanting, “Fire Coughlin!” Coughlin (or the front office) decided that a change was needed and Hufnagel was fired. The Giants’ running game came to life again against the Redskins and the Giants defeated Washington 34-28. The outcome of this game was incredibly significant, not so much because it put the Giants in the playoffs, but it very likely saved Coughlin’s job.

Against the Eagles in the playoffs, the defensive problems that plagued the team in the second-half of the season continued, as did Manning’s up-and-down play. Issues with red-zone play calling remained despite the fact that Quarterbacks Coach Kevin Gilbride was now calling the plays. It was truly a microcosm of the entire season. An incredibly disappointing 2006 campaign ended with an equally disappointing finish as the Giants allowed Philadelphia to easily move down field and set up the game-winning field goal with no time left on the clock.

And then we all waited. Waited to see if Tom Coughlin would be fired. Waited to see who the next general manager would be. There were wild rumors of major changes. Names such as Patriots’ Head Coach Bill Belichick, Notre Dame Head Coach Charlie Weis, and Patriots’ Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli were mentioned.

What we can safely assume is that it was not a given that Coughlin would return. Ownership never spoke up in his defense during the late-season slide. And nothing was said for the first few days after the season was over. Coughlin’s annual post-season press conference was not held as both sides met. Three days after the season ended, it was formally announced that Coughlin would be retained and that his contract would be extended one more season. It was not a ringing endorsement.

“Jon Tisch and I sat down with Tom Coughlin on Monday afternoon and had a lengthy discussion with him about the state of our team,” said John Mara. “Those discussions continued on Tuesday. At the conclusion of those discussions we told Tom that we wanted him to continue to be our head coach…(Coughlin) knew that obviously we were not happy finishing 8-8, particularly after starting 6-2. We addressed our concerns to him.”

“It is our strong belief that consistency, stability, loyalty, and sticking by your people are extremely important,” said Jonathan Tisch.

But consistency, stability, loyalty, and sticking by your people didn’t seem to apply to Hufnagel, who was fired with two games to go in the season, and Tim Lewis, who was fired the day after the decision to retain Coughlin was announced. In January 2004, Coughlin vowed to “provide the New York Giants with the best staff in football.” In that he failed miserably as his two most important hires – offensive and defensive coordinators – were let go due to ineffectiveness.

He also said back in his inaugural press conference the Giants must “must eliminate costly penalties” and instill “discipline which provides us all with the courage and the confidence to win in this league in the fourth quarter.” Since Coughlin has been with the Giants, costly penalties have remained an issue and the team lost too many close games in the fourth quarter in 2006. The Giants certainly did not play with much confidence or discipline. Regarding the injuries that plagued the Giants in Jim Fassel’s last season, Coughlin said, “It is something that has to be corrected. It is a mental thing I believe as much as it is anything else.” Injuries have been a huge issue during Coughlin’s regime.

On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much respect between at least some of the players and Coughlin. Players have publicly and privately criticized the coaching staff in the press. Coughlin has also repeatedly told them not do so to no avail. The team also seems to ignore his message about not talking trash to the media about an upcoming opponent. Most Giants fans wish the players would simply shut the hell up and play.

But even if you don’t buy into all of these arguments, coaches are ultimately graded on their win-loss record. With the Giants, Coughlin is 25-23 in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoffs. In other words, he has been a .500 coach. His New York teams have experienced two second-half swoons in three years – an eight-game losing streak in 2004 and a 2-7 finish in 2006. Giants’ pride has not been restored. In his last three seasons in Jacksonville, Coughlin’s teams finished 7-9, 6-10, and 6-10. The last time Coughlin won a playoff game was 1999.

Some have argued that a coaching switch was not made because of a lack of viable alternatives and/or there will be better candidates available next offseason. I’m not sure I buy that. For one, there are always good young candidates available (i.e., Mike Tomlin). Plus, there is no guarantee that coaches such as Belichick, Weis, or Bill Cowher will be available or even want to come here. It’s not an overly attractive destination as the team has a split ownership and an entrenched new general manager and quarterback.

The next major decision the Giants made – even bigger than the decision to retain Coughlin – was the promotion of Jerry Reese to general manager. On the surface, it appears odd that the Reese was promoted after – and not before – Coughlin was retained. But Reese, at least publicly, said he supported the decision to keep Coughlin. It also seems odd that the only external candidate the Giants interviewed for the position was ex-Redskins and Texans’ General Manager Charlie Casserly, although they did reach out to Pioli (and were rebuffed). It will be Reese who will guide the franchise for the foreseeable future. That said, John Mara did make it very clear that his brother, Chris, will have an ever-larger role in personnel matters. I wonder how that dynamic will work in actuality behind the scenes. How much power will Chris Mara have? Under Reese, the Giants have drafted better in recent years, but he also said he fully supported the trade for Eli Manning and would make that trade again.

The next major announcement was the decision to promote Kevin Gilbride to offensive coordinator. This was a curious move for three reasons. For one, according to Gilbride, Coughlin immediately picked him as the man to be the coordinator. He did not interview anyone for the position. Secondly, Gilbride was quickly fired after two seasons from both of his last two offensive coordinator gigs (Pittsburgh and Buffalo). His 2003 Bills’ offense was one of the worst in the league and ultimately got his head coach fired as well. In Buffalo, Gilbride was criticized for being too pass-happy. Thirdly, Gilbride was the quarterbacks coach in charge of the immediate development of Eli Manning. Even the casual observer would question how effective he has been in that role. Indeed, I would argue that the Giants have dumped too much responsibility on Manning in his first three years in the League. The coaching staff certainly does not make it simple for him and they do not employ much of a short-passing game in order to get him in a rhythm and build up his confidence level. To the contrary, both Coughlin and Gilbride said one of their main offensive priorities in 2007 would be to throw the football down the field even more. Now to be fair to Gilbride, he has had some success as an offensive coordinator with the Oilers, Jaguars, and Bills (2002). So we shall see. As for why Coughlin did not interview anyone outside of the organization for the position, it may have been his wish not to throw another offensive system at Manning and maintain some level of continuity. There is something to be said for that approach, especially since the Giants decided to keep Coughlin.

The latest major decision was hiring Eagles’ Linebacker Coach Steve Spagnuolo as the new defensive coordinator. On the surface, this appears to be a good move as Spagnuolo has coached for eight seasons under Eagles’ defensive guru Jim Johnson. He has experience in Philadelphia working with both the linebackers and defensive backs. He also knows the NFC East, and the Eagles in particular. However, it remains to be seen if Spagnuolo is capable of replicating the Eagles’ success without Jim Johnson. “That package we had was Jim,” said Spagnuolo. “We put our heads together as a staff and came up with a few things, too, but the majority of it is Jim sitting down, mixing it together and coming up with something good.”

The Future?

So where does that leave us heading into 2007? That’s the million-dollar question. Coughlin is not in a strong position. He knows it, his assistant coaches know it, his players know it. The one-year extension means nothing. It was just for show. It’s pretty clear that the expectation level by ownership is for this team to make the playoffs and win in the playoffs. If not, Coughlin is likely gone. Some of the comments made by Coughlin recently are laughable. When talking about the decision to promote Gilbride and the Giants’ offense, Coughlin said, “It’s the New York Giants’ system. And the New York Giants’ system has tremendous flexibility.” When talking about Spagnuolo, Coughlin said, “I was obviously looking for a guy who had had the opportunity to work with some outstanding defensive people in this league. It wasn’t just a matter of the aggressiveness because the scheme that we have played here has been an aggressive scheme.” Fans would beg to differ on both accounts.

Obviously what will decide his fate will be if the team wins or not. That will be tough unless Eli Manning becomes a much more consistent quarterback. The Giants’ best player – Tiki Barber – has retired. The defense has issues in the back seven and will be learning a completely new system with the inherent growing pains that come with that. If the 2007 New York Giants experience a two- or three-game losing streak, how will it respond? This hasn’t proven to be a mentally tough football team. Will the players begin criticizing the coaching staff again? We know the press doesn’t like Coughlin and smells blood in the water. This situation has the potential to spiral out of control with the media (and fan sites such as this) fueling anti-Coughlin sentiment. If the chants of “Fire Coughlin” begin again and patrons start leaving the stadium early, a change will be made.

But there is some hope. In recent years, at least under Jim Fassel, this team has played better when expectations were lower. The Giants have talent at the skill positions and on the offensive line. I think Brandon Jacobs is going to be a heck of a player. Eli Manning lobbied for Gilbride so hopefully he will be more comfortable. Defensively, if everyone returns healthy, the defensive line is one of the best in football. Antonio Pierce and LaVar Arrington have talent. And while the Giants should add a stud corner to the secondary, the cornerbacks were not as bad as everyone makes them out to be. An improved pass rush will help. Spagnuolo’s defense will likely suit the talent on this roster better than Lewis’ system did.

Let’s just hope that history doesn’t repeat itself. In 1996, Dan Reeves was a lame duck and the team pretty much tanked after the 0-3 start. The Giants finished 6-10. In 2000, Jim Fassel was very much on the hot seat entering the season. He got his team to the Super Bowl before it was creamed by the Ravens 34-7. Fassel got an extension and held onto power for another three years before a change was made. In a way, it may be better to get this situation resolved quickly one way or the other.