Jul 132012
New York Giants and the National Sports Media

Watching the football media experts on The NFL Network and ESPN this offseason makes me feel like Mugatu in the film Zoolander. Most commentators say the New York Giants barely made the playoffs last year, have lost more than they have gained this offseason, and will be hard-pressed to fend off the dramatically-improved Eagles, Cowboys, and Redskins.

But what these critics seem to completely ignore:

•    Continuity is a strength, not a liability.
•    The Giants have the game’s best quarterback.
•    The Giants have the game’s best up-and-coming defender.
•    The Giants have one of the game’s best coaching staffs.
•    The defense will be dramatically better in 2012.
•    The running game will be dramatically better in 2012.
•    The Giants are getting significant reinforcements through the return of injured players and what looks to be a very strong rookie draft class.
•    Despite all of the problems last year (injuries, inexperience, weak running game and defense for most of the season), the Giants still won the NFC East, swept aside all of the best teams in the playoffs, and won the Super Bowl.

But there is no discussion about these facts by the critics.

“Doesn’t anyone notice this? I feel like I am taking crazy pills!” – Mugatu

I’ll say right now, barring significant injuries, this may be the most talented Giants team since 1986. Some seem to forget how strong the 2008 New York Giants were before Plaxico shot himself and injuries wore down the defensive line. That team was cruising for a repeat Championship, having beaten both eventual Super Bowl participants in their home stadiums. Even though most of the players from that team are no longer on the Giants, I get the sense that Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning, and Justin Tuck know what it takes to repeat that impressive regular-season performance and this time finish the deal in the playoffs. Most importantly, the 2012 Giants are a stronger team than the 2008 Giants at almost every position.

To be clear, what I am saying is this – I think the Giants have a good chance to be the NFL’s dominant team from start to finish in 2012. I’m sure the Packers, 49ers, Saints, and Patriots may have something to say about that. And the NFC East will be a lot tougher. But this is a DAMN GOOD Giants team and it’s remarkable that the “experts” don’t seem to recognize it.

Quarterback: Taking into account both the regular season and playoffs, Eli Manning was the best quarterback in football last season and the League’s MVP. Without Eli, the Giants were probably a 4-12 team at best. Now the same could be said of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, but in the playoffs, Rodgers’ performance against the Giants cost his team dearly and Brady’s performance against the Ravens should have done the same.

Eli is the best not only because he puts up big numbers (over 13,000 yards in the last three seasons), but because the entire team has subconsciously adopted his calming personality. So has the fan base. Giants fans were inexplicably optimistic heading into the playoffs last year. Why? It wasn’t because of the 32nd ranked running game or 27th ranked defense. Whether you want to admit to it or not, it was because of Eli. Eli doesn’t shy away from pressure. He thrives on it. Fourth-quarter comebacks and dramatic wins have become so common with Eli at the helm that we now expect it. I hope Giants fans recognize the greatness they are watching.

Eli’s critics say he is inconsistent. Again, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Eli is the model of consistency. He has improved every season and his upward trending performance is as linear as it gets. Eli may actually be the game’s most consistent performer, especially when it matters the most. With the game on the line, I wouldn’t want any other quarterback.

Wide Receivers: The story is so remarkable that it seems surreal. In one season, Victor Cruz went from an undrafted rookie free agent who spent his first season on IR with no catches to the most productive single-season receiver in the 87 year history of the franchise. Despite the fact that he is only 25 years old and will be entering only his second full season, Cruz may be the game’s most dangerous slot receiver. And the odds are that he is going to get even better.

As good as Cruz is, Hakeem Nicks may be the better receiver and definitely should be considered one of the game’s best. He just turned 24.

The Giants will miss Mario Manningham unless someone else steps up. Manningham made a number of huge plays for the Giants, especially in the playoffs. But he also never seemed to be quite on the same page with Eli at all times. Contrary to their nature, Giants’ coaches were practically gushing about Rueben Randle ever since the rookie mini-camp. Randle has the ability to make the Giants’ receiving corps even stronger than it was in 2011.

And don’t completely discount Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden, and Jerrel Jernigan. Coughlin and Eli both seem to respect Hixon a ton. It’s now or never for Barden. And Jernigan will have a much better understanding of the Giants’ system. Throw into that mix, rookie Brandon Collins who Kevin Gilbride seems very high on and Dan DePalma, who supposedly has impressed his teammates with his ability. It’s a very strong group. Nicks and Cruz are Pro Bowl talents. If Randle develops as hoped, it may be the best in the League.

Running Backs: The Giants were 32nd in rushing last year. There is no way in hell that a Tom Coughlin-coached team is going to be at the bottom of rushing figures for two years in a row. On the contrary, it is far more likely that the Giants will be one of the stronger rushing teams given Coughlin’s emphasis on the ground game.

For all of the grief that the offensive line gets for the lack of productivity in the ground game, the running backs deserve much of the blame. Due to a foot problem, Ahmad Bradshaw started only nine regular-season games and missed most of the practices. That lack of practice time affected his performance. Brandon Jacobs played well in 2-3 games, but was ordinary or worse in the rest of the contests. D.J. Ware was just a guy.

Even before David Wilson was drafted, it was my belief that Ahmad Bradshaw was going to be on a mission to prove himself in 2012. The addition of Wilson only adds fuel to that fire. Bradshaw was a very tough runner in 2011, but I expect to see the return of that elusiveness that made him so dangerous. I also expect to see him become more of an emotional leader, replacing the void created by the departure of Brandon Jacobs.

That all said, the Giants may never have had a running back like David Wilson. “I don’t know if we have had a guy as explosive, regardless of the position, here,” said Kevin Gilbride last month. “The darting, the explosiveness and short bursts that you see with him. That is kind of exciting to see…Tiki (Barber) was a tremendous all-around back. But this guy has the kind of explosion that I’m not sure how many guys in the league have.”  (Keep in mind that Tiki Barber is the franchise’s all-time rushing leader).

Once the Giants trust Wilson’s pass protection enough for him to play regularly, he may elevate the Giants’ offense to a totally different level. What I love about the guy is not just his ability, but he seems to “get it.”  He is one focused player.

The competition doesn’t end there. Da’Rel Scott is a homerun threat every time he touches the football. Andre Brown flashed last preseason. And Joe Martinek is a jack-of-all-trades type who is going to be very hard to cut. I’ll be curious to see if the Giants try to use him as a short-yardage running back.

At fullback, look for Henry Hynoski to dramatically improve. He knows the system better and has added strength and muscle in the offseason.

Tight Ends: Here is one of the few question marks on the team. If Martellus Bennett is focused and his reputation as a strong blocker is accurate, then he will be a tremendous addition for improving the running game alone. So much of the Giants’ running game depends on the tight end block, something that was subpar much of 2011. Bennett is a big, strong guy who can block a defensive end. What we don’t know is if Bennett can provide the type of clutch-receiving performance that Jake Ballard gave the Giants in the first half of 2011 before he was injured.

Depth remains a concern. Bear Pascoe isn’t really the kind of guy you want starting and is more of a jack-of-all-trades type than feature tight end. Adrien Robinson may be big and athletic, but he is green as grass. Travis Beckum is coming off of an ACL injury. And who knows about Christian Hopkins, Ryan Purvis, and Larry Donnell?

Offensive Line: This is one area where the 2008 team was stronger. But I guarantee you that the 2012 offensive line will be much better than the 2011 version. For one, the interior trio is pretty much set. David Baas will be healthy and he showed late why the Giants signed him. Look for Chris Snee to rebound strongly from perhaps his worst season. And Kevin Boothe was a rock of consistency at guard last year. Those three give the Giants a big, strong, physical, nasty interior presence.

The questions are really at tackle. Will Beatty’s eye is supposedly no longer an issue, but he had back issues last year and those continued this offseason. The Giants don’t seem to be particularly worried about it, but big guys with back problems make me nervous. If Beatty is healthy, the Giants should be fine at left tackle. In his first season as starter, while there were some down moments, Beatty played pretty darn well in pass protection. He should improve with experience if he remains focused. On the right side, Kareem McKenzie faded pretty quickly in 2011 and was let go. David Diehl, who plays better at tackle than guard, will likely be the starter. He’ll see less athletic defensive players on that side and that should help his game. The Giants appear to be grooming James Brewer for a future starting position. He’s a huge man with good feet. Sean Locklear is the veteran insurance policy, but he may be pushed by Matt McCants.

For all the grief the line gets, it only gave up 28 sacks last year. With the interior trio solidified, the addition of Bennett, an improved Hynoski, and better play from the halfbacks, look for drastic improvement in the ground attack.

Defensive Line: In 2008, Michael Strahan retired and Osi Umenyiora missed the season with injury. Injuries to Justin Tuck and Fred Robbins really affected the line late in the year. Last season, Tuck was a shadow of himself for most of the season. Umenyiora missed half of the year. And Chris Canty and Linval Joseph were slowed with injuries that required offseason surgery. But the Giants had arguably the best all-around defensive end in football in Jason Pierre-Paul – the 23-year old Jason Pierre-Paul who has only started seven college and 12 NFL regular-season games. Coaches and players say the sky is the limit for JPP.

But keep in mind that if Tuck rebounds as many expect him to do, opposing offenses are going to have a real problem. Before last year, Tuck was the impact player up front. What if both Tuck and JPP are impact players in 2012? Add to that mix a much more content (pay raise) and healthy Osi Umenyiora who was a huge factor in the post-season run with his pass rush. And Osi will be exceptionally motivated to perform in his contract year. Dave Tollefson departs, but all that means is that Mathias Kiwanuka may see more snaps at defensive end (which is a good thing). The Giants have some young defensive ends who could surprise too – Justin Trattou, Adrian Tracy, Craig Marshall, Adewale Ojomo, and Matt Broha.

Inside, Chris Canty had his best year despite playing with a bum knee. People seem to forget that last year was Linval Joseph’s first year starting and that he got better each game despite a bad ankle injury. Marvin Austin hasn’t played football in two years, but he still may be the best pass-rushing defensive tackle on the team. The presence of Rocky Bernard, Shaun Rogers, Martin Parker, Dwayne Hendricks, and Markus Kuhn makes this an incredibly deep unit.

This is the most-talented and deepest defensive line in the NFL. The unit may also include the game’s best defensive player.

Linebackers: Stop bitching about the linebackers. This is deep and talented group. Last year, the unit was hurt by the preseason loss off Jonathan Goff for the year, missed time and effectiveness by Michael Boley due to injury in the middle of the season, and the inexperienced rookie class that was further set back by the lockout. Once Boley recovered and the Giants added a veteran presence in Chase Blackburn, things really turned around. Now everyone is healthy, the Giants added another player by trade, and the rookies are not pups anymore.

Michael Boley is one of the most underrated players on the team. His strength is pass coverage and that’s why most fans don’t notice him more. Mathias Kiwanuka is more comfortable than ever at weakside linebacker. And the journeyman Chase Blackburn made a huge impact during the stretch run last year. That all said, the guys behind the starters will be pushing hard for playing time. Perry Fewell has been raving about Keith Rivers, Mark Herzlich, and Jacquian Williams. All three will play in various sub-packages and don’t be shocked to see Herzlich win the starting spot in the middle. Rivers, Boley, and Williams give the Giants three extremely athletic linebackers who can cover a lot of ground. We may see less of the three safety package because of these three.

And even behind these guys there are others who have talent and should not be discounted. Spencer Paysinger, Greg Jones, and Jake Muasau can play in this league. Paysinger and Jones are good special teams players and Fewell likes Mausau as a potential middle linebacker.

This is the strongest and deepest group of linebackers the Giants have had in years.

Defensive Backs: At cornerback, Corey Webster is one of the NFL’s best, and he’s coming off one of his best seasons. A big question is how well will Terrell Thomas rebound from last year’s ACL injury? Before he was hurt, he looked primed for a breakout year. The Giants will likely once again use him as their slot corner in nickel packages as Thomas is a very physical player from that position as a coverman, blitzer, and tackler. If Thomas is slow to recover, the Giants will have plenty of options. Prince Amukamara’s foot problems should be behind him. He has a ton of talent. Michael Coe really impressed the coaches in practices this offseason and the team also appears pleased with Justin Tryon and Jayron Hosley. Then there are guys like Brandon Bing, Bruce Johnson, Antwaun Molden, Janzen Jackson, and Dante Hughes who could press for a roster spot.

If Thomas can return to form, Amukamara demonstrates why he was first round pick, and back-ups like Coe, Tryon, and Hosley continue to impress, then the Giants may have one of the better cornerback collections in the League.

At safety, Kenny Phillips’ athletic presence prevents most teams from testing the deep third of the Giants’ secondary. With the reinforcements at cornerback and linebacker, Antrel Rolle – another athletic performer – won’t be forced to play out of position at nickel corner in 2012. The Giants have high hopes for Tyler Sash. He may not be the most athletic guy, but he is a very smart, heady, and physical player. Keep an eye on both Stevie Brown and Will Hill. Both flashed in practices this offseason.

Special Teams: Funny what a year makes. In 2010, everyone wanted to run Tom Quinn out of town. The Giants got a legitimate NFL punter and dramatically improved in punt and kick coverage and the bitching stopped. One area that still needs improvement is the return game. Before his two ACL injuries, Domenik Hixon was a very dangerous punt and kickoff returner. Can he return to form? Or will someone else step up? The good news is that Giants are rock solid in the kicking game with Steve Weatherford, Lawrence Tynes, and Zak DeOssie. And there are a lot of young and hungry linebackers, defensive backs, and wide receivers on this team that should help on the coverage units.

Summary: Brandon Jacobs was not a big loss. Losing a healthy Jake Ballard hurts and we’ll have to see if Martellus Bennett and Adrien Robinson can fill the void. Mario Manningham might be a big loss, but not if the Giants’ faith in Domenik Hixon and Rueben Randle is validated. The biggest loss could be losing Quarterbacks Coach Mike Sullivan to the Buccaneers, but the otherwise, a very strong coaching staff returns remarkably intact.

I may or may not be taking crazy pills, but I’m definitely drinking the Kool-Aid. And it’s Blue…Giant Blue. This is a damn good team. It’s a much healthier and stronger version of the one that won the Super Bowl last year. The Giants will be better at almost every position, and at some positions, significantly so. Defensively alone, the Giants should improve from 27th to easily top 10. At worst, the Giants will be middle of the pack running the football. The fact that the “experts” can’t see that is mind-boggling.

The Giants are the best or near best in the NFL at quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive line. They have enviable talent and depth at many other positions.

Injuries can always derail a season, but the Giants have also won two recent Super Bowls despite being hit by significant injuries. If this team can stay somewhat healthy, watch out NFL.

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Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy is Editor-in-Chief of BigBlueInteractive.com, a publication of Big Blue Interactive, LLC. Follow @BigBlueInteract on Twitter.

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