Jul 311997

The Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Baltimore Ravens, August 2, 1997: Here we go! The first game under the new Jim Fassel regime. For the players, they can finally beat up on somebody else besides their teammates. Since the Giants are just learning their new offensive and defensive systems, the coaching staff will probably keep things mostly vanilla. On offense, Fassel is slowly but surely installing his new system, but it will take time for the players to become comfortable with it. On defense, Defensive Coordinator John Fox’s new aggressive defense will be under the spotlight. He too will most likely keep things basic as he doesn’t want to give away too many of the Giants’ new wrinkles. It is important for most fans to realize that the first preseason game is more of a glorified scrimmage and that the team is not likely to look sharp as it has just begun its ascent on the learning curve.

The Giants on Offense: The “West Coast” offense makes it debut in New York. Get ready for a more sophisticated passing offense that entails more throwing to running backs and tight ends. Fassel has also just begun to implement a system that also should get the ball to receivers while they are moving forward, and thus, dramatically increase the yardage gained after the catch. The Giant quarterbacks will be provided with a number of options on each and every passing play. If the primary receiver is covered, the quarterbacks will be able to dump the ball off to a number of shorter receivers. Routes are designed to create mismatches and confusion amongst the opposition. The new offense is definitely more “finesse” than Giant fans have become accustomed too. Fassel’s system is very much based on rhythm and timing — the style of football that Bill Walsh became famous for in San Francisco.

Key to the success of this offense will be the play of the quarterbacks, most notably starter Dave Brown. Dave has been immersed in the new system since Fassel took over in the spring, but the learning process will take a lot longer than a few months. It took such fine quarterbacks as Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Brett Favre a couple of years to become totally comfortable with the “West Coast” offense. Brown has looked very good at times in camp, but he has also had his setbacks. He needs to improve his overall play in a consistent fashion. Because he is not totally comfortable with the offense yet, there has been hesitation in his play at camp. Hesitation can kill one in an offense based on timing and rhythm, yet only experience and playing time will allow him to become more comfortable. It also wouldn’t hurt if Brown started to win the support and confidence of his teammates by making plays on the field. Such support and success would undoubtably help his own confidence and self-esteem, leading to a snowball effect.

Brown is expected to play about a quarter and a half on Saturday. The bulk of the remaining playing time will go to Danny Kanell. If Dave Brown does not pan out this year, Kanell might very well be the Giants starting quarterback in 1998. Kanell doesn’t have the arm that Brown does, but he is a very instinctive quarterback who’s skills may be well suited for the new offense. Most importantly, Kanell has not received the physical and psychological beating that Dave has had to face in recent years. Rookie Mike Cherry may also play, but is a couple of years away from contention for a starting position.

Also under the spotlight on Saturday will be the offensive line which has been re-vamped on the left side. OG Greg Bishop has been shifted from left tackle to left guard and second-year man Roman Oben now starts at left tackle. Bishop also faces tough competition from Lance Smith and Rob Zatechka for his starting spot. Due to injury (Brian Williams) and holdout (Adam Schreiber), the center position is currently a mess. OG/OC/OT Jerry Reynolds will start, despite not being very experienced at the position. Rookie Derek Engler, a rather ordinary rookie free agent, backs him up. The right side is more settled with OG Ron Stone and OT Scott Gragg. Also trying to make a statement on Saturday will be back-ups RT Deron Thorp and LT Alan Kline. Because of the problems at center and the transition on the left side, the line may struggle quite a bit against Baltimore.

As for the skill positions, the focus will be on the young guns at wide receiver, tight end, and running back. Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard are trying to win Thomas Lewis’ and Chris Calloway’s starting jobs. David Patten, Kevin Alexander, Omar Douglas, and Alfonzo Browning are all competing for the final fifth or sixth roster spot at receiver. At tight end, Howard Cross is attempting to beat off the challenge from Aaron Pierce. Rodney Hampton’s knee injury also will allow HB’s Tyrone Wheatley and Tiki Barber to show their stuff. At fullback, the competition for the back-up fullback spot is a dead heat between Eric Lane and Matt Calhoun.

The Giants on Defense: The Ravens have a very good offense and they should provide the new-look defense with a good challenge. John Fox has promised to implement a more attacking defense that provides greater freedom (and responsibility) to the defensive players. Pass rushers will be given more freedom to rush the passer, defensive backs will be allowed to play more aggressively, and linebackers can call defensive audibles. These changes will increase the chances for big plays, both for the Giants and the opposition. Besides the new system, the biggest change for the Giants this year on defense is the addition of Christian Peter to the defensive tackle rotation, the replacement of Jesse Campbell with Maurice Douglass at strong safety, and greater depth at linebacker.

In a 4-3 defense, it all starts up front with the defensive line. The defensive tackle position looks very much improved this year with the addition of Christian Peter as well as the continued development of Keith Hamilton, who has played well in camp along with Peter, and Robert Harris, who has the physical tools to excel. Hamilton and Harris will start, but Peter is pushing Harris for a starting job and will play a great deal this season regardless. A fierce fight is developing for the final DT spot between Bernard Holsey (who seems to have the lead), Darnell Gilliard, Ramon Okoli, and Matt Keneley. Every preseason game is critically important for these gentlemen.

At defensive end, much of the focus will be on Cedric Jones, the fifth player taken in the 1996 draft. Jones is healthy for the first time in his brief Giant career and the Giants will be looking for him to add to the pass rush this year. Jones has had a very quiet camp thus far. Unfortunately, Jamal Duff (hamstring) is not healthy and he probably won’t play on Saturday. Starters Michael Strahan and Chad Bratzke get more freedom to rush the passer, but will be facing two outstanding OT’s in Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Brown.

The starting linebacking group is set with Corey Miller, Corey Widmer (who has had a great camp), and Jessie Armstead. However, the play of the back-ups will be worth watching. Pete Monty and Doug Colman have the tools to eventually replace Widmer down the road as does Jason Phillips with respect to Corey Miller. Marcus Buckley has been moved back to the weakside by the new coaching staff and seems to be reborn. Scott Galyon is an excellent cover man from the weakside.

In the secondary, the only real question is who to keep at strong safety and who starts at free safety. At cornerback, Phillippi Sparks, Jason Sehorn, Thomas Randolph, and Conrad Hamilton will make the team. Kory Blackwell will be battling Marc Williams for a practice squad birth. At free safety, Tito Wooten and Percy Ellsworth both will make the squad, but who starts? Tito seems to be ahead right now. At strong safety, a fierce competition is brewing for three roster spots. Rookie SS Sam Garnes won’t start, but he has been impressive and will make the team. Favored starter Maurice Douglass is attempting to fend off Rodney Young and Picasso Nelson. The Ravens have some very good receivers and a dangerous passing attack. This game will be a good test for the Giants’ more aggressive approach.

The Giants on Special Teams: The biggest change here is the replacement of Mike Horan with Brad Maynard. Maynard has the tools to become a Pro Bowl player. Brad Daluiso doesn’t really face any competition this year. The Giants will be looking for dramatic improvement among their coverage teams this year and a number of rookies will be trying to make the roster through their play here. The Giants also have to nail down who their punt (Toomer, Barber, Lewis, Calloway?) and kick (Hamilton, Patten, Wheatley, Walker?) returners will be this year.

The Outlook: Don’t read too much into this game! The first preseason game is usually very sloppy and the Giants have a lot to learn. However, it would be nice to see some positive play from Dave Brown, Tyrone Wheatley, Roman Oben, Greg Bishop, Aaron Pierce, Amani Toomer, and Cedric Jones.

Jul 151997
Key Questions Heading into the 1997 New York Giants Training Camp

Ever since Jim Fassel became the new head coach, there has been a positive aura that has surrounded the team. Players, coaches, and management have been glowing with a renewed confidence and enthusiasm that seemed to be lacking since the 1994 season. Press reports have told us all about how the players love the new coaches, how management was happy with the draft, how the coaches were pleased with the mini-camps, etc. But these are all just words. Real progress will be measured in the win-loss column, not by “symbolic victories” such as Dave Brown playing better or the offensive line coming together. Fassel’s new offensive system will take time to learn…it is radically different than what the players have become accustomed to. This alone may lead to several setbacks, especially early on in the season. However, the pieces of the puzzle that management have been trying to put together for the last several years are almost all in place. There is youth and talent all over this roster. These players now just need experience, leadership, and, most importantly, confidence. Making this group a confident bunch with a chip on their collective shoulder is Fassel’s greatest challenge. This team must start going into games expecting to win — until that happens, mediocrity will result. “On paper,” the Giants biggest question marks are as follows:

(1) Can the Giants Win with Dave Brown at Quarterback? Another year, same question. However, this season Brown has a coach who supports him, an offensive system that is state-of-the-art, and a more talented surrounding caste. Over the years, Brown has shown flashes of becoming an excellent quarterback…a throw here, a game there. However, there has been no positive consistency. To make matters worse, the psychological and physical toll that Brown has taken over the last couple of years has very much hurt Dave’s confidence level. Can Dave recover his confidence level is the big question. When the game is on the line, does Brown believe he can do it? Fassel and new QB Coach Rod Dowhower have spent a great deal of time in the offseason working on Dave’s mechanics, most notably his footwork. According to Fassel, Dowhower, and Brown, it’s Dave’s footwork that has been responsible for much of his inaccuracy. That’s one of Dave’s biggest negatives. The other is his presence in the pocket. Last year, Dave seemed to become more and more distracted by the pass rush. Who can blame him with the number of times he was sacked and hit? However, unless he learns to ignore the rush, no technique work will save him. Confidence, accuracy, presence…if Dave can master these three aspects of the game, he will succeed and the Giants will be a playoff contender. If he can’t, Danny Kanell or Mike Cherry should be given the starting job as soon as possible.

(2) Do the Giants Have the Players on the Offensive Line? As Fassel recently pointed out to Brown, it doesn’t matter what you draw up on the black board if the line can’t block the opposing defenders. Management believes the Giants have enough talent on the offensive line to succeed. They argue that these players just need more experience. They point to the solid games these guys had against likes of the Cowboys, Vikings, and Dolphins. Brian Williams is set in the middle and is one of the better centers in the game. The right side is more settled than the left, but just as inconsistent. RT Scott Gragg and RG Ron Stone need to dominate more and do so on a consistent basis. In particular, both need to work on sustaining their blocks longer. On the left side, much depends on the development of second year tackle, Roman Oben. If he can develop quickly and impress the coaches, he will be given the starting left tackle job. This would also enable the coaches to move Greg Bishop back to guard. Oben has the agility that Bishop lacks, but does Oben have the technique, temperament, and savvy to succeed? If not, Lance Smith and Rob Zatechka will battle for the left guard spot and the Giants will have to pray that Bishop improves at left tackle.

(3) Can the Giants’ Young Receivers Grow Up Quickly? Much of the Giants’ offensive success will depend on the rapid development of youngsters Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer. Hilliard is probably much more ready to contribute in the NFL than most rookies because of the system he came from in college, his crisp route running, and his sure hands. However, he hasn’t lined up against Deion Sanders, Aeneas Williams, or Darrell Green yet. Toomer only caught one pass last year before injured…he is practically a rookie again. In addition, Thomas Lewis has missed so much time with injuries over the course of his first three years in the league that he is still relatively inexperienced. These three represent the future of the Giants’ passing game and how quickly they catch on will largely determine the potency of the Giants’ offense.

(4) Will Someone Step Up at Tight End? The Giants desperately need one of their tight ends to elevate their game in order to take pressure off of the receivers. Howard Cross is a superb blocker and has proved in the past that he can be an adequate receiver, but he has suffered two poor back-to-back seasons and scares no one as a receiving threat. Aaron Pierce has the tools to be a fine receiver, but is still largely an unknown given the fact that he was mainly employed as an H-Back by Reeves. Reserves Brian Saxton and Brandon Jessie could surprise, but most likely, the Giants will need Pierce to step it up, stay healthy, and become more consistent.

(5) How Well Will the Defensive Tackles Play? By no means are Keith Hamilton or Robert Harris bad players. In fact, they are better than average. However, given their tools, they should play better than they do. At certain times in certain games, Hamilton and Harris would each become unstoppable. But these moments were too few and too far apart. Part of the problem may be that each has been moved around so much in recent years. But for the Giants defense to become REALLY good, these guys will have to stuff the run better and get after the quarterback more quickly. Depth should be a little better this year with the addition of Christian Peter. Perhaps he can light a fire under Hamilton and Harris. 

(6) Can the Entire Defensive Line Improve Its Pass Rush? In a 4-3 defense, the rush needs to come from the four down lineman. The more blitzing a 4-3 defense has to do in order increase the pass rush, the more vulnerable a defense becomes to the big play. Michael Strahan is a very good player, but he should make more sacks than he does. The new coaching staff has promised to give him and his fellow linemates more freedom to rush the passer this season. Strahan and RDE Chad Bratzke should be joined by a healthy Cedric Jones and Jamal Duff, both pass rush specialists. Jones needs to regain the form of his collegiate days while Duff needs to regain the form of his rookie year. If they do so and Strahan steps it up on a CONSISTENT basis, the ends will be a real strength on this team. However, to take pressure off of the ends, the tackles must also get in on the action. Unlike most teams, EVERYONE has the tools to be a pass rusher on the Giants, the key is to get it done on the field when it needs to be done.

(7) Will the Safeties Tackle? SS Jesse Campbell wasn’t good in coverage, but he was an excellent tackler who prevented many big plays. FS Percy Ellsworth had a so-so tackling history in college and FS/SS Tito Wooten hits better than he tackles. Whoever takes over at strong safety (Maurice Douglass, Tito Wooten, Rodney Young, Picasso Nelson) needs to be a sound, sure, and consistent tackler. Ellsworth also needs to concentrate on this aspect of his game.

(8) Will Brad Daluiso Deliver in the Clutch? PK Brad Daluiso made most of his field goals last year but that figure is deceiving. Most of his field goals were short attempts and he still hasn’t proven he can make the clutch, long kick (40+ yards) on a consistent basis. In fact, over the past couple of years, Brad has missed a number of kicks that has cost the Giants ball games.

(9) How “Special” Will the Giants Special Teams Be? The Giants’ kick coverage units have given up far too many big plays over the last several years. For the most part, the coverage teams have been sound, but there have been games where the punt or kick coverage units have inexplicably relaxed and cost the Giants bigtime. This has to change. In addition, the Giants should not have their first line players returning punts and kicks. For example, if Tyrone Wheatley and/or Amani Toomer are in the starting lineup, the Giants should not risk them to injury by having them also return kicks and punts, respectively. Reserves need to be found who can do the job.

Jul 091997
1997 New York Giants Roster Analysis Heading into Training Camp

The following is an attempt to predict what the Giants’ final 53-man roster may look like by the end of training camp. After first listing the likely number of roster spots spent at each position (in bold), we will list each player and breakdown each unit. In this way, it is hoped that we will be able to identify the key upcoming roster battles. Please note, of course, that our predictions cannot take into account injuries any current player may suffer in the future — injuries which may influence this analysis.

Quarterback (3): Dave Brown, Danny Kanell, and Mike Cherry.

This one is easy. Even if Stan White had not injured his shoulder in the World League, he was not likely to beat out Mike Cherry, who has impressed the Giant coaches early.

Halfback (3): Rodney Hampton, Tyrone Wheatley, Tiki Barber, and Robert Walker.

Another easy one. Hampton and Wheatley will battle for the starting spot, with the “loser” probably receiving just as much playing time as the “winner.” Tiki Barber will be the 3rd-down back and probably the primary punt returner. Robert Walker has talent, but he has trouble holding onto the ball and is most likely on the wrong team at the wrong time.

Fullback (2): Charles Way, Matt Calhoun, and Eric Lane.

Charles Way is on the verge of stardom. With the elimination of the H-Back system, there is now a need for a true back-up fullback. Calhoun is a big back and a good blocker. Lane is not as bulky, but does more damage with the ball in his hands. The Calhoun versus Lane battle will be an interesting one to watch.

Tight End (3): Howard Cross, Aaron Pierce, Brian Saxton, and Brandon Jessie.

One gets the sense that Fassel would like a true receiving threat at the tight end position. Who wouldn’t? The question is whether or not the Giants have that type of player on the roster. Howard Cross obviously isn’t the answer. Cross is a superb blocker and at times can hurt a defense with his receiving skills (see the 1993 and 1994 seasons), but he really doesn’t scare anyone. Aaron Pierce isn’t the blocker that Cross is, but he does have better receiving skills. Whether he can step it up another notch and win the starting position is a matter open for debate. Brian Saxton and Jesse Brandon will most likely battle for the final roster spot. Saxton has flashed ability as a receiver and Jessie is a great natural athlete who is as green as they come (he didn’t play football in college). If Jessie doesn’t make the final roster, look for the Giants to stash him on the practice squad — his physical tools are that good.

Wide Receiver (6): Thomas Lewis, Chris Calloway, Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard, Kevin Alexander, Omar Douglas, David Patten, Brian Roberson, John Washington, Van Johnson, and Alfonzo Browning.

The obvious players who will make it are Lewis, Toomer, and Hilliard. After that, the questions start. Hilliard is a rookie and Toomer had only one catch before he got hurt and thus is practically a rookie. Moreover, in Lewis’ three years with the team, he has been hurt more often than not. All this inexperience would seem to indicate the Giants would have to keep a hold of the relatively expensive Calloway for at least one more year. On the next level, it seems like Alexander, Douglas, and Patten are ahead of the others. Patten, a free agent signing from the Arena League of all places, has been reportedly impressed the coaches early. Alexander showed some nice things late in the season and Giants’ management continues to be high on Douglas. All three are short, but fast and quick players. The Giants will keep five or six receivers (probably six) and there should be a heck of a battle for the 5th and 6th spots. Any player who shows something in the return game is bound to help his cause.

Offensive Line (10): OC’s Brian Williams, Adam Screiber, and Derek Engler; OG’s Ron Stone, Lance Smith, Rob Zatechka, Jamie Sumner, and Cayetano Castro; OT’s Scott Gragg (R), Greg Bishop (L), Roman Oben (L), Jerry Reynolds (R/L), Deron Thorp (R), Alan Kline (L), and Dave Rilatt (?).

The obvious players? Williams, Schreiber (if the Giants can re-sign him), Stone, Smith (if they can re-sign him), Zatechka, Gragg, Bishop, and Oben. That’s eight — leaving two roster spots. Deron Thorp has been extremely impressive in the World League and is most likely going to make the roster. Ideally, the Giants would like another guard, but are Sumner or Castro worth a roster spot? Reynolds and Kline will most likely battle for the final roster spot. If Thorp, Reynolds, or Kline could also play guard, they would really help their cause. On the other hand, the Giants may decide to go with nine players here and use the extra roster spot at outside linebacker or defensive back.

Defensive Tackle (4): Keith Hamilton, Robert Harris, Christian Peter, Bernard Holsey, Matt Keneley, Darnell Gilliard, and Ramon Okoli.

Hamilton, Harris, and Peter will make the roster. The final spot will be a battle royale between the remaining four players. Holsey has the quickness, Keneley the intangibles (intensity/work ethic), and Gilliard and Okoli the size.

Defensive End (4): Michael Strahan, Cedric Jones, Jamal Duff, Chad Bratzke, Harold Gragg, Charles Estes, and Ryan Smith.

Obvious if all are healthy — Strahan, Jones, Duff, and Bratzke. However, the Giants would like one of the remaining players to flash so they can stash him on the practice squad — the Giants may not be able to hold onto Bratzke next year.

Middle Linebacker (3): Corey Widmer, Pete Monty, and Doug Colman.

All three will make the team.

Outside Linebacker (4): Jessie Armstead, Corey Miller, Ryan Phillips, Scott Galyon, Marcus Buckley, and Ben Talley.

Armstead, Miller, Phillips, and Galyon make the squad. Buckley and Talley are out of luck unless the Giants can come up with another roster spot from another position (i.e., wide receiver or offensive line). Between the two, Buckley is more likely to stick because of his versatility (he can play both strongside and weakside) and experience. Talley is most likely not the same player since his injury.

Safety (5): FS’s Percy Ellsworth, Tito Wooten, Brandon Sanders, and Typail McMullen; SS’s Maurice Douglass, Rodney Young, Sam Garnes, Picasso Nelson, and James Johnson.

Free safety is obvious and the Giants will most likely only keep two players there — Ellsworth and Wooten. Strong safety is a confusing mess. Douglass (if they can re-sign him) has the lead because of his experience. The Giants have a lot invested in Young (1995 3rd rounder), Garnes is a 1997 draft pick, and Nelson has been impressive early, according to some reports. Strong safety will be one of the hottest battles in all of camp.

Cornerback (4): Phillippi Sparks, Jason Sehorn, Thomas Randolph, Conrad Hamilton, Kory Blackwell, and Marc Williams.

Easy — Sparks, Sehorn, Randolph, and Hamilton. However, like the situation at DE, the Giants may not be able to hold onto Randolph after this year. Thus, it would be great if Blackwell or Williams show enough to hang around on the practice squad.

Punter and Kicker (2): PK’s Brad Daluiso and Brion Hurley; P’s Brad Maynard and Scott Player.

Daluiso and Maynard form the kicking team.