Key Questions Heading into the 2000 New York Giants Training Camp
It’s very tough to predict what kind of team the Giants will field this year. If they stay healthy, a number of key veterans return to form, and a number of newcomers shine, they could surprise the league. However, Head Coach Jim Fassel is on shaky ground and everyone knows it. How will the team respond to him once hardship strikes? Lame duck coaches often don’t instill fear or demand respect. Then there are the questions on the field. Is Kerry Collins a winning quarterback? Is the offensive line really improved? Will the pass rush return? How strong is the secondary? Will the special teams let the Giants down again?
This team has enough talent to ensure an 8-8 season. The only way the Giants don’t attain this mark is if the injury bug strikes hard again or the team stops playing for Fassel and his assistants. To win more than eight, the Giants will need to (1) win most of their home games, (2) attain at least a 5-3 mark against the improved NFC East, and (3) win the close ball games in the fourth quarter.
(1) How Good is Kerry Collins? In politics, it’s the economy stupid. In football, it’s the quarterback. I used to think that team could win with an ordinary quarterback and a strong supporting cast. Jim McMahon, Mark Rypien, and Jeff Hostetler were my examples. But most Superbowl champions have an elite quarterback. Guys like Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett Favre, and John Elway elevated their respective team’s play. It is these players who gave their teams the opportunity to compete for the title. Let’s put it this way – with a top quarterback, you always have a chance to compete in the playoffs; without one, you’re most likely dead in the water.
So how good can Kerry Collins be? We already know that the Panthers and Saints threw him on the scrap heap. That doesn’t inspire confidence. Neither does his tendency to make turnovers (both interceptions and fumbles) and his jumpiness in the pocket. It is the latter that concerns me the most. I like my quarterbacks tough as nails. That may be the Phil Simms’ bias in me, but I firmly believe that it is the tough guys who come through in the crunch.
The good news is that Collins has wonderful tools to work with. He has a cannon arm and a quick release. He can fire all the different kinds of passes well including the always tough deep out and seam pass (the latter being a favorite among Giants’ fans). When Collins is on, he can throw as well as any quarterback in this league. Developing positive consistency and curtailing those dreaded turnovers are key. But the ultimate benchmark will be the win-loss record. The Giants will go only as far as Collins can take him. Kerry must come through in the crunch and win games in the fourth quarter. He has a lot of pressure on his shoulders. But isn’t that the way football should be?
(2) Can the Offensive Line Grow into a Solid Unit Quickly? This unit has been a disaster since the mid-1990’s when players like Jumbo Elliott, William Roberts, Bob Kratch, and Doug Riesenberg departed. Since then, it has been one disappointing unit after another. While the Giants have brought in a few free agents during decade of the 1990’s (such as Lance Smith and Ron Stone), the Giants tried to rebuild the foundation of their offensive line through the draft – but to no avail. The brain trust of the team took a different tack in 2000 by deciding to rebuild through free agency with players such as Lomas Brown, Glenn Parker, and Dusty Zeigler. Brown and Parker are in the twilight of their careers and there is no guarantee that these three players will be any better than their predecessors. Throw in Luke Petitgout, who is being moved to his more natural position, but who didn’t play very well last year, and you see why there is cause for concern.
But there is one area where this unit should be better and that is the mental toughness and leadership departments. Let’s face it – Scott Gragg and Roman Oben were not very mentally tough and they certainly were not leaders. While players looked up to Brian Williams, it remains questionable as to whether or not he provided a good example in 1999. Brown, Parker, and Zeigler have already taken over the line due to their personalities, experience, and leadership qualities. The youngsters look up to these three and these three do not seem the type to back down from adversity. That bodes well for a unit used to panic in the second half of the 1990’s.
Nevertheless, the line needs to control the line of scrimmage for Ron Dayne, Joe Montgomery, and Kerry Collins. They don’t have to dominate or be blasters, but they do have to create holes for the runners and keep Kerry’s jersey clean. If not, it could be a long year.
(3) How Strong is the Secondary? Gone are the likes of Phillippi Sparks, Percy Ellsworth, and Conrad Hamilton. The new left corner is Dave Thomas – a solid player but a guy who Jacksonville wanted to replace. Is he good enough to play the type of aggressive, blitzing defense that Defensive Coordinator John Fox likes to play? If not, he could change the very make-up of the way the team defends opposing offenses. The Giants may be forced to play less aggressively and this type of style does not bode well. Moreover, Jason Sehorn still has yet to prove that he can regain his 1997 form after a severe knee injury in 1998. Jason looked very ordinary last year before he suffered the broken leg.
Then there is Shaun Williams – a guy who looks more like a natural strong safety than free safety. Shaun tackles and hits very well. He also is much faster than Percy. However, he has yet to demonstrate that he is strong or instinctive in coverage. Perhaps if the Giants leave him alone at one position, he can master it and become the type of player that most teams thought he would be when he entered the draft. Keep this in mind, however – Williams is the last line of defense and it will be up to him to prevent many big plays. If he makes a mistake, it could be six points for the opposition very quickly.
The nickel position is also a concern – especially with more and more teams playing three wide receiver sets. Who will be the nickel corner? Reggie Stephens, Emmanuel McDaniel, Ralph Brown, Andre Weathers? It may be that one of these guys will have to line up against a Michael Westbrook, Joey Galloway, or Rob Moore. Are they up to the task?
(4) Wither the Pass Rush? Of course, a good pass rush can cover up a multitude of sins in a secondary. Unfortunately, the pass rush evaporated last year. The main culprit was Michael Strahan. To be fair, Michael played with a plethora of injuries ranging from his hands/wrists to his elbow to his knee. These injuries hurt him in the hand-to-hand combat necessary to win in the trenches and also deprived him of working out in the weight room during the season. For the Giants’ defense to reach top status, Michael needs to regain his 1997 and 1998 form.
Strahan was also hurt by the loss of Chad Bratzke to free agency and Robert Harris to injury. Cedric Jones started and didn’t look bad, but he didn’t flash the way a team wants a 4-3 weakside end to in the pass rush department. Hopefully, Jones will build upon his 1999 season and become a more explosive pass rusher. Christian Peter wins the all-hustle award, but his pass rush was virtually non-existent last season. Peter would also do better if spelled. That’s where second rounder Cornelius Griffin comes into the picture. Griffin has the type of quickness and athleticism to provide a pass rush threat from either inside or outside. His development will be crucial. So will the need for someone to step up at back-up defensive end. Not only is Bratzke long gone, but Bernard Holsey is too. God help the Giants if Strahan or Jones go down. The Giants need someone like Jomo Cousins, Jeremiah Parker, Lavell Ellis, Cedric Pittman, or Carl Hansen to make some noise in camp.
(5) How “Special” Will the Giants Special Teams Be? I’m just going to start off by repeating what I did last year at the same time:
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.
In 1999, Tiki Barber did become a very dangerous threat as a punt returner, but blocking on kick returns continues to remain disappointing. There were also some big breakdowns on kick and punt coverage last year that led to returns for scores. Brad Maynard is too inconsistent and Brad Daluiso is still just as likely to miss from the 40-50 yard area as he is to make it. The Giants need guys like Bashir Levingston, Ron Dixon, Tiki Barber, Greg Comella, Joe Montgomery, Jeremiah Parker, Brandon Short, Dhani Jones, Pete Monty, Lyle West, Ralph Brown, Reggie Stephens, Andre Weathers, and Emmanuel McDaniel to shine on specials.
(6) Can the Giants Stay Healthy? It sounds like a loser’s excuse, but the Giants have been hammered by injuries in recent years. Ike Hilliard and Brian Williams in 1997; Jason Sehorn and Jessie Armstead in 1998; Michael Strahan, Robert Harris, Charles Way, Gary Brown, Joe Montgomery, Conrad Hamilton, Jason Sehorn, Pete Mitchell, and Brad Daluiso in 1999. The loss of Kerry Collins, Ron Dayne, Jessie Armstead, Michael Barrow, Michael Strahan, Jason Sehorn, Amani Toomer, Keith Hamilton, or any of the starting offensive linemen could prove devastating.
(7) Will the Giants Develop a Personality on Offense? What kind of offensive team will the 2000 Giants be? Head Coach Jim Fassel and Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton say the running game with Ron Dayne will be important, but the offseason is filled with talk of multiple sets, movement, spreading the field, etc. Most successful offensive teams seem to develop a core identity and have a group of plays they run well and can fall back on in times of adversity. What will the Giants’ core plays be? Will the Giants be a running team or a passing team? Will Fassel and Payton try to do too much and tax their players more than necessary?