Key Questions Heading into the 1999 New York Giants Training Camp
The Giants fell from first to third in the NFC East last year largely because their offense and special teams continued to struggle. The Giants have a championship defense, but until the Giants get out of the NFL’s offensive basement, they will not contend for a title. The chief problem remains at quarterback where the Giants have gone from Dave Brown to Danny Kanell to Kent Graham in just two seasons. Yet another switch is likely on the horizon with Kerry Collins taking over the helm unless Graham holds off what will likely be his hard charge.
This is an important year for the entire Giants’ organization. It will serve as a barometer as to the ultimate direction of this team over the course of the next few seasons. If the Giants can find positive answers to the questions listed below, there is no reason why they shouldn’t rise to the top of the league.
(1) Can Kent Graham or Kerry Collins Become One of the Better Quarterbacks in the League? Too much credit and too much blame is often given to the quarterback. But if the Giants are to dramatically improve their offensive production, one man must step forward and take control of this team. Head Coach Jim Fassel says Kent Graham is his starter heading into training camp. However, there are no guarantees that Graham will be the man when camp ends in early September. Graham has looked sharp in offseason workouts, but the whispers have already started that Collins is demonstrating the talent that puts him on a different level. Regardless of who is the starter on opening day, that man must perform at a much higher level than Dave Brown or Danny Kanell or the Giants will have a difficult time on offense once again. Both quarterbacks has strong arms and good leadership ability. But both must prove that they can make the big play in the clutch and consistently produce on the field by generating yards, points, and wins. Teams rarely win championships unless their quarterback is playing at a championship-level. At the same time, the last thing this team needs is a quarterback controversy.
(2) How “Special” Will the Giants Special Teams Be? Breakdowns on special teams continue to haunt the Giants. Problems in this underappreciated area might ultimately cost the Giants 2-3 wins. That could be the difference between going 8-8 and 11-5. Though important, too much attention has been focused by the media on the failures of the returners. Equally disappointing, if not more so, is the poor blocking for those returns and poor kick/punt coverage. What’s worse, the Giants lost some of their best special teams players in the offseason: Brandon Sanders and Curtis Buckley. The Giants need more than a couple of rookies to step forward and become headhunters on the coverage teams. They also need solid schemes and proper instruction from their position coach. Some leadership and pride also wouldn’t hurt.
(3) Can the Offensive Line Grow into a Solid Unit Quickly? This unit regressed last year and changes have been made to the starting personnel as well as the coaching staff. Gone are former position coach John Matsko, starting OG Greg Bishop, and reserves Jerry Reynolds and Lonnie Palelei. Arriving on the scene are OL Coach Jim McNally, the returning Brian Williams, first rounder Luke Petitgout, and fifth rounder Mike Rosenthal. McNally is widely-regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches in the business. His major responsibility will to be get projected started LT Roman Oben, LG Petitgout, OC Williams, RG Ron Stone, and RT Scott Gragg to play well together as a unit as quickly as possible. Oben and Stone are clearly the best players on the unit. The Giants will receive a big lift if Brian Williams can prove that he can play again at a high level after missing two seasons with an eye injury. He faces a tough task. McNally’s toughest assignments will probably be getting Petitgout ready for the rigors of an NFL season and NFL-level competition as well as assisting Gragg to become a more consistent and better player. Depth will be key too. Guys like Toby Myles, Rosenthal, Nate Miller, Lance Scott, and Derek Engler could play important roles.
(4) Will Someone Step Up in the Receiving Department? The Giants have invested quite a bit in wide receivers and tight ends recently and it is time to witness the fruit of that effort. At tight end, the Giants signed pass-receiving threat Pete Mitchell from Jacksonville and drafted Dan Campbell in the third round. Mitchell has a chance to put up big numbers in New York. The offense will likely be geared more to him here than it was in Jacksonville. Mitchell should serve as an underneath security blanket for Giants’ quarterbacks. The team also needs a third-down back to become one as well. Tiki Barber suffered through a terrible 1998 season. He should rebound, but if he doesn’t, then the Giants had better pray that LeShon Johnson or fourth-rounder Sean Bennett can deliver the goods.
The biggest change was made at wide receiver with the release of Calloway. Ike Hilliard remains the starter on one side. He needs to catch the ball in a more consistent manner and make more big plays. All indications point to a breakout season by Amani Toomer, who should start opposite Ike. Toomer has an excellent size/speed package and seems to have improved his work ethic and route running. Pushing for playing time will be second-year men Joe Jurevicius and Brian Alford. Jurevicius and Alford are still learning the game, but each has intriguing potential. Jurevicius is a huge target with deceptive speed. He could become a more dangerous version of Ed McCaffrey. Alford is a blazer who needs more work on his hands and routes. He adds a deep threat dimension. It is important that all four of these players improve if the Giants are to increase their offensive productivity.
(5) Is There Enough Leadership on Offense? The Giants have not only lacked skill on the offensive side of the ball in recent years, but leadership too. Quarterbacks Dave Brown and Danny Kanell did not inspire their teammates. Can Kent Graham or Kerry Collins? Leadership must come from others too. FB Charles Way has demonstrated these qualities. So has OC Brian Williams, before he got hurt. Few others have. Guys like Ike Hilliard, Roman Oben, Ron Stone, Pete Mitchell, and Gary Brown need to take charge.
(6) How Much Will the Giants Miss Chad Bratzke? DE Chad Bratzke was an unavoidable loss for the Giants during offseason free agency. Bratzke was not an impact player for the Giants, but the Colts chose to pay him like one. However, he was a steady, hard-working performer who accrued double-digit sacks in 1998. The man on the spot who will attempt to fill his shoes is former 1996 first-rounder Cedric Jones. Cedric has been a huge bust to date, but he flashed improved play in his limited game time last year. Cedric is not a strong, powerful player and may have problems against the run. However, he does have a very quick first step and could develop into a more dangerous outside pass rusher for the Giants. Much depends on his work ethic, technique, determination, and run defense. Bernard Holsey could also play a factor here especially if the Giants platoon Jones. Holsey is a stronger run defender.
(7) How Strong Will the Linebacking Corps Be? A healthy Jessie Armstead is one of the best weakside linebackers in the business. But the Giants need his fellow starters in his unit to play at a higher level. The Giants re-signed MLB Corey Widmer in the offseason because of the leadership and experience he brings to the table. However, Corey needs to become a bigger presence in the middle of the defense. Marcus Buckley is miscast on the strongside. He’s more of a weakside guy, but the Giants have been unable to find someone who combines the power/strength requirements of the position with mobility. It is hoped that Buckley will elevate his game and make more plays or that third-year man Ryan Phillips will beat him out. The Giants were hurt last year by a lack of depth at linebacker too due to injuries to Armstead, Scott Galyon, and Pete Monty. There is an opportunity for some rookies to make an impact as reserves and special teams players.
(8) Can the Defensive Tackles Elevate Their Play? Keith Hamilton had a decent year last year, but he is capable of playing even better. Robert Harris suffered through an injury-plagued year and his productivity declined noticeably. If the Giants are to accomplish big things in 1999, both need to regain their 1997 form or better. Christian Peter should remain an important reserve and press for even more playing time. He doesn’t have the athletic-ability of Hamilton and Harris, but he is the most tenacious of the bunch. The success of the Giants’ run and pass defense largely depends on these three guys.
(9) Can the Giants Stay Healthy? In recent years, the answer to this question has been a big no. Key injuries to Ike Hilliard, Brian Williams, Jason Sehorn, Jessie Armstead, and others have really hampered the team. The loss of someone like Michael Strahan, Jessie Armstead, Pete Mitchell, Charles Way, or any of the starting offensive linemen could prove devastating.