Jul 252001
 
Three New York Giants With Impact Potential

Every team in the league wants them, but they are hard to come by. I am talking about those gifted athletes who make a difference on the playing field. Football players so good that they keep the opposition worried. These are the men that win football games and go to Pro Bowls. They are the ones that the average fan talks about around the water cooler on Monday and Tuesday mornings.

Impact players.

Since the retirement of Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms after the 1993 season, the Giants have not had many impact players on their roster. For most of the 1990’s there was Rodney Hampton, but that was about it. Any wonder why the team stunk? Defensively, towards the end of the decade, Michael Strahan, Jessie Armstead, and Jason Sehorn began to emerge. But Armstead is slowing down now and Sehorn has been inconsistent since his knee injury. Offensively, the Giants have a triumvirate of rising stars in Kerry Collins, Tiki Barber, and Amani Toomer. None have been to the Pro Bowl, but all have that kind of talent.

For the Giants to remain Super Bowl contenders, it is imperative to find additional “household names”. Fortunately for New York, there appear to be three already on the roster.

DT Cornelius Griffin: Cornelius Griffin impressed me more than any defensive rookie the Giants have had since Lawrence Taylor – including the likes of Carl Banks, Leonard Marshall, Mark Collins, Strahan, Armtead, and Sehorn. Griffin is a 300 pound man who moves around like a linebacker. He is very fluid for one so large. Unbelievably, this enabled Defensive Coordinator John Fox to employ him as a “spy” against QB Donovan McNabb in the playoffs to great success. This is a job normally given to fast linebackers and safeties who still often struggled with the assignment. Not Griffin who was making open field tackles again and again against the elusive McNabb.

But it is not as a spy that Griffin will make an impact, but as a complete two-way defensive tackle. Griffin is not just an athlete, but a powerful football player. He’s a 24-year old player with muscles on his muscles. When he hits you, you know it. Cornelius has a natural explosiveness to his game that flashed quite often in his limited playing time in 2000. Last season, his combination of strength and quickness caused guards and centers all kinds of trouble. His agility and fluidity then allow him to make plays in the open field that most larger men miss. As good as his physical skills are, they will not mean much if he does not work hard. But Cornelius has a strong work ethic and a burning desire to be an outstanding football player. As Griffin matures and gets more experience, he will only get better if he stays healthy. It is important to remember that he was a junior college transfer who has not played much football at a major level.

In my opinion, Griffin has the ability to become THE BEST player on the team and a regular at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he attracts double-team attention from the opposition fairly quickly in 2001.

FS Shaun Williams: Most Giants fans did not like it when New York selected Williams in the first round of the 1998 draft. The Giants had Percy Ellsworth playing free safety at a competent level and there were many other needs on the roster. But in hindsight, the pick is looking to be the correct one. Indeed, Williams and WR Joe Jurevicius are the only players selected by the Giants in that draft still on the team.

Shaun Williams became the full-time starter at free safety last season. Before that, he was buried on the depth chart as a nickel back. In his more natural role, Williams quickly improved with experience and by the end of the season was making plays all over the field. The strength of his game is his hitting and tackling. He is a major league hitter in the mold of his idol – former San Francisco great Ronnie Lott. If you made a highlight tape of the biggest hits in the Giants’ season last year, most of them would undoubtably come from Williams. Indeed, if Shaun keeps up his ferocious patrol in center field, many opposing wide receivers will begin to dread crossing the middle against New York.

The other area where Williams excels is on the blitz. We did not see as much of that as John Fox would have probably liked last year due to the weakness at cornerback. With the drafting of Will Allen and Will Peterson, Fox will probably let him attack the line of scrimmage more. Williams times his blitz very well and delivers a punishing hit when he gets to the target. FoxSports color analyst John Madden is a believer. He came away very impressed with Shaun after his performances late in the season against the Redskins, Eagles, and Vikings.

Williams rapidly improved in coverage in 2000, but more improvement is necessary for him to reach an elite level. Fans were screaming for his head after the early season loss to the Redskins and a number mistakes in coverage in that contest. Shaun was rarely singled out after that game. If he can start making more plays on the ball – be it passes defensed or interceptions – that will be the last hurdle he will face to stardom.

WR Ron Dixon: Dixon will undoubtably be the most controversial player that I selected. After all, we’re talking about a guy who was the fourth receiver on the squad and only had six regular season receptions. Dixon had problems adhering to team rules and is a hotdog on top of that. Based on these facts, how can I have the nerve to label him as a potential impact player?

I have been impressed with Dixon since I saw him in camp last year. This is what I wrote from my early camp report in July 2000:

Another guy receiving a ton of praise from (Wide Receivers Coach Jimmy) Robinson was Ron Dixon the very impressive rookie. Despite having his calf heavily wrapped, Dixon ran like a gazelle out on the practice field demonstrating speed, quickness, and moves. Dixon just reeks of athleticism and Robinson seems clearly pleased with the rookie’s ability to grasp the complexities of the pro passing game fairly quickly (unlike the receivers drafted in 1998 more on that in a bit). Dixon has good height, but he is pretty thin especially in the legs. What stands out about him is that he is able to make his cuts without slowing down very much. Ron is able to accelerate to the ball and shows above average hands.

Physically, Dixon has the entire package. He has good height and very good quickness and blazing speed. Unlike many speed receivers, Ron can cut on a dime (similar to Ike Hilliard) and separate from coverage using his quickness as well as speed. Also unlike many speed receivers, he has good hands. Dixon came down with two very impressive catches last season on deep passes: a diving catch in the first game against Dallas and a twisting over-the-shoulder catch against the Vikings in the playoffs. Simply put, Ron reeks of explosiveness. He is a thoroughbred – the type of athlete who presents match-up problems.

In my mind, there are only two things that stand in Dixon’s way. The first is his ability to learn the intricacies of the pro passing game in terms of the playbook, pre- and post-snap sight adjustments, and route running. That will require hard work and focus – something that separates the dime-a-dozen superb athletes from truly outstanding football players. The other relates to his work ethic and focus and that is his maturity level. One gets the sense that the 25 year old Dixon still has a lot of growing up to do. Missing team meetings was one demonstration of this, but so is the hotdogging on the football field. Great players are often cocky, but cockiness has its limits.

If Dixon can overcome these barriers, then he has the real potential to be a difference-maker in the league as a guy who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball – be it on a long fly pattern or a short slant over the middle. He is the kind of guy who scares you if you are playing against him. Ron most likely will not start in 2001, but after that it will be tough to keep him off the field.

Three players with “star” potential in my opinion. Three men who, if they live up to the hype, can make the Giants an even stronger team in 2001. But more than that, these three can also help to serve as the foundation of the Giants for the next ten years.

Jul 182001
 
Key Questions Heading into the 2001 New York Giants Training Camp

The opening of last year’s article read, “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.” That they did. The Redskins were supposed to win the NFC East, not the Giants. Even the rosiest predictions had them losing early as a Wild Card entry in the playoffs. Well the challenge facing the Giants is not only to repeat as NFC Champions, but to now win the NFL Championship. The road will not be easy. With re-alignment coming in 2002, 2001 will be the last year that there is such a thing as a “first place schedule”. Luck and team health always plays a big role. But the Giants are a better team physically and mentally than they were last year at this time. The young players on offense are a year older and the Giants have added some talented athletes to what was already an imposing defense. But just as importantly, the Giants will be a much more confident team in 2001 from the get-go because they KNOW they can get to the Super Bowl.

Where are there potential roadblocks?

(1) Will the Giants Have a Consistent, Reliable Place Kicker? Brad Daluiso was not re-signed. While his kick-offs became weaker and weaker, he was a reliable kicker inside the 40-yard line. The two men expected to battle for the job are Jaret Holmes and 5th rounder John Markham. Both should do much better on kick-offs, but how sure and steady will they be on field goal attempts? Most NFL games are closely fought affairs often decided by a field goal. Will Jaret or John be able to hit that potential game-winning 42-yard field goal in the closing seconds of a playoff game? Playoff-caliber teams often get burned by inexperienced or mediocre place kickers.

(2) How Strong Will the Punting Game Be? The inconsistent Brad Maynard has signed with the Bears. The leading contender for the punting job is Rodney Williams. How well he performs, including in the windy Meadowlands, will largely determine the field position war in each contest. The better he performs, the less pressure there will be on the defense.

(3) Can the Giants Improve Their Special Teams Coverage? Once again, punt and kick-off coverage stunk last year. Much of that probably had to do with the coaching (Larry MacDuff); much also probably had to do with the talent available. It will be interesting to see how effective new special teams coach, Fred von Appen, is at improving these critically important areas. What Fred really needs is for some head-hunter to step up and shine – a guy like ex-Giants Larry Flowers or Reyna Thompson. The quality of the coverage will also depend on the quality of a the aforementioned kickers and punters.

(4) How Quickly Can the Young Corners Learn? It is obvious that the Giants want to replace CB Dave Thomas with Will Allen or Will Peterson. However, John Fox’s defensive schemes are complicated and take time to learn. Not to mention the obvious fact that the youngsters have yet to prove that they can handle pro-level competition. Even if both end up being super players, there will undoubtably be rough moments for each early in their respective careers. Will those rough moments cost the Giants a game or two in 2001?

(5) Will the Strongside Linebacker Be an Asset or Weakness? Ryan Phillips signed with the Raiders. The new starter, as of this moment, is Brandon Short. In today’s game, the nickel back probably spends more time on the field than the strongside backer – so the value of this position should not be overrated. At the same time, the Giants don’t want a guy in there who other teams feel they can pass or run on. Short has the size and athleticism to be an asset – but he also has a lot to learn and is no sure thing.

(6) Can the Giants Find Some Quality Depth on the Defensive Line? The starting four of Michael Strahan, Cornelius Griffin, Keith Hamilton, and Kenny Holmes is as good as it gets in the NFL. The Giants pass rush should be much improved this year with the athletic additions of Griffin and Holmes to the starting line-up. However, when one of these guys gets hurt or needs a breather, there no proven depth behind them. Fortunately for New York, the Giants landed Cedric Scott in the fourth round and he should help outside. Inside, the Giants need someone like Ryan Hale or 7th rounder Ross Kolodziej to step up and deliver. Things could get dicey if someone gets hurt.

(7) Will Ron Dayne Significantly Improve? Ron Dayne was not a disappointment in 2000. Too many fans forget how effective he was over the course of the first half of the season. He had very strong performances against division rivals such as the Cowboys, Eagles, and Redskins. However, Ron does need to become a much more consistently productive player. And more than that, the Giants drafted him to make an impact – not just get by. To do so, he needs to stop thinking so much and react naturally and aggressively. That should happen with more experience in the Giants’ involved blocking schemes.

(8) Can the Old Guys on the Left Side of the Offensive Line Do It Again? Last season, LT Lomas Brown and LG Glenn Parker were God-sends. Both not only added much needed talent, but emotional stability and leadership to what had been a schizophrenic offensive line. But Brown is 38 and Parker is 35. Both are obviously nearing the end. Do they have it in them for another long marathon (camp, preseason, regular season, and playoffs)? If not, the Giants had better pray that some of the unproven reserves can play well.

(9) Will Dan Campbell and Sean Bennett Step It Up? The Giants want Dan Campbell to improve to such an extent that he allows the coaches to start him in place of Howard Cross. In order to do that, Dan must become a much more consistent blocker and receiver. Campbell will never be the blocker that Cross is, but he can do better than he has done. He can also become a much more threatening potential receiver than Howard.Sean Bennett will be counted on to run the same type of plays that Pete Mitchell did the previous two years. Bennett has the size, speed, and hands to make an impact on the team as a role player. But he needs to stay healthy. The wild cards in the mix are Adam Young and rookie Marcellus Rivers.

(10) Can the Giants Stay Healthy? I say it every year, but with the advent of the salary cap, lack of depth has become a huge issue for every team in the league. In fact, team health often determines Super Bowl aspirations. A serious injury to a guy such as QB Kerry Collins, HB Tiki Barber, WR Amani Toomer, DE Michael Strahan, DT Keith Hamilton, or MLB Mike Barrow could prove devastating.

Jul 122001
 
2001 New York Giants: Reasons for Optimism

The odds are stacked against the Giants with respect to a return trip to the Super Bowl in 2001. There are 14 other teams in the NFC looking to take away the NFC crown so in terms of straight odds, the Giants have only a 1-in-14 chance to repeat. Then there is the first place schedule with four night games. Luck and injuries always play a role as well.

Normally, the favorite also has a big bullseye on its chest and the fact that the opposition goes all out to beat the defending champion usually causes problems. But strangely, the national media and many in the game don’t seem to be giving the Giants much respect. New Redskins’ Coach Marty Schottenheimer says the Eagles – not the Giants – are the team to beat in the NFC East. National media who cover the game point to the Bucs (with the additions of QB Brad Johnson, DE Simeon Rice, and OT Kenyatta Walker), Eagles (WR James Thrash, WR Freddie Mitchell, and DE Nduwke Kalu), and Rams (veteran CB Aeneas Williams and S Kim Herring along with three first round defensive picks). The Giants? A one-year wonder most speculate.

These people are selling the Giants short. The 2001 Giants may not reach the Super Bowl, but they will be a better team. Here are the reasons why:

(1) Quarterback Kerry Collins: Collins is entering his prime right now. He is coming off his best season as a pro despite 2000 being his first year as a full time starter in New York and having to learn a brand new offense before the season started. His performance in the Super Bowl was an aberration against arguably the best defense in NFL history. Before that game, he had dramatically cut down the number of turnovers (both interceptions and fumbles) while throwing for 27 touchdowns (including five in the post-season). Collins also had some superlative games such as his performances against the Eagles, Steelers, and Vikings. There is no reason why to believe that he should not continue to improve – especially given the fact that he will be much more comfortable with the offensive design and surrounding personnel. Also, as Head Coach Jim Fassel and Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton get to know more about Kerry’s strengths and weaknesses, they will adapt the passing offense to his benefit.

(2) Improved Pass Defense: Pass defense is not only about coverage but the ability to rush the passer and the Giants dramatically attempted to improve both these areas in the off-season. While most expected the worst with Dave Thomas playing right cornerback, he actually held up pretty well with an above-average season. Still, Defensive Coordinator John Fox was limited in the types of schemes he could run, including blitzes, given the concern at cornerback opposite of Jason Sehorn. With the drafting of Will Allen and Will Peterson, as well as the healthy return of Ralph Brown, the Giants have added much talent to this all-important position. Indeed, it appears on the surface that the Giants have the perfect cornerback combo: one corner to take away a taller, physical receiver (Sehorn) and one to take away a smaller, speedier wideout (Allen). The Giants will also be a much faster defense with Allen and Peterson.

The other improved pass defense element – maybe even more important – is the upgraded pass rush. Cornelius Griffin moves into the starting line-up for Christian Peter. This move represents a huge pass rush upgrade. Last season, in limited action, Griffin demonstrated incredible athleticism for someone so large on his way to accumulating 5 sacks (Peter only had one all year). The other major change up front is Kenny Holmes replacing Cedric Jones (3.5 sacks in 2000). Holmes picked up 8 sacks with the Titans last year despite playing in a division with two Hall of Fame left tackles and playing with a variety of nagging injuries. He has a variety of pass rush moves and a closing burst that Cedric can only dream about. Holmes will not be an impact player, but he will be a pass rush presence. The addition of both him and Griffin will take a lot of pressure off of Michael Strahan and Keith Hamilton and give the Giants a very rare pass rush threat from each of the four down spots. Also, don’t count out the pass rush potential of fourth rounder Cedric Scott.

(3) Improved Special Teams Play: Why? Because it can’t get much worse. Gone is the unpopular special teams coach, Larry MacDuff. In his place is newcomer Fred von Appen. Brad Daluiso may have been the worst kick-off man in the league last year and that fact put the kick-off coverage unit at a tremendous disadvantage. Punter Brad Maynard flashed ability, but was extremely inconsistent. Kick and punt coverage should improve with the youngsters at defensive back and linebacker. Ron Dixon has become one of the most dangerous kick returners in the game. Wide receiver Jonathan Carter is another speedster who can help out there. Where the Giants do need some positive answers is finding a punt returner to replace Tiki Barber and finding a reliable field goal kicker.

(4) The Youngsters Who Haven’t Peaked: The Giants have a lot of young players who have not reached their prime or are just entering their prime. These include tackle Luke Petitgout, center Dusty Zeigler, tight end Dan Campbell, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, wide receiver Ron Dixon, fullback Greg Comella, halfback Ron Dayne, H-Back Sean Bennett, and quarterback Kerry Collins on offense. Wideout Amani Toomer and halfback Tiki Barber are both young difference-makers. The only place the Giants have age concerns on offense are at starting left tackle, starting left guard, starting tight end, and back-up quarterback. But also keep in mind that the offensive line was completely overhauled last year and the cohesion and familiarity between the five starters should even be more improved in 2001.

Defensively, the Giants are not as young of a unit, but they still have a slew of up-and-coming players such as defensive tackle Cornellius Griffin, defensive end Cedric Scott, linebacker Brandon Short, linebacker Dhani Jones, linebacker Jack Golden, free safety Shaun Williams, cornerback Will Allen, and cornerback Will Peterson. Defensive end Michael Strahan, defensive tackle Keith Hamilton, middle linebacker Mike Barrow, weakside linebacker Jessie Armstead, and cornerback Jason Sehorn remain some of the best in the business.

Because the youngsters will have more experience, they will be much better in 2001 – and thus, so will the Giants.

(5) The Players Know Who Runs the Show: Last year, the players knew Head Coach Jim Fassel was on shaky ground. Because of that, at the first sign of sustained difficulty, Fassel could have lost the respect and command of his men. With two division titles in four years, a NFC Championship, a “Coach of the Year” award, and a fat new 4-year contract, the players know he isn’t going anywhere and thus will call the shots for the foreseeable future. It’s his team and he will define its make-up. Fassel has proven he can get a team to the Super Bowl; now he just has to win it.

The Giants also got lucky last year when no one decided to offer Defensive Coordinator John Fox a job. In addition, respected Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton will be a year older and wiser in 2001.

So there you have it. The Giants will be better in 2001 because their more effective quarterbacking, upgraded pass defense, improved special teams, developing younsters, and respected coaching will make them so. Whether they get back to the Super Bowl and win it will largely depend on their heart, play-making ability, health, and a little luck.