Key Questions Heading into the 2003 New York Giants Training Camp
If this team stays healthy and focused, it is a Super Bowl-caliber football team. The biggest weakness in recent years – special teams – was dealt with in a massive fashion with the import of such players as punter Jeff Feagles, long snapper Ryan Kuehl, returner Brian Mitchell, place kicker Mike Hollis, and special teams ace David Tyree. The Giants also signed a number of players with excellent reputations on special teams such as Calvin Spears, Jim Finn, and Ray Green.
This could be the most imposing and explosive Giants’ offense since the days of Y.A. Tittle, Frank Gifford, and Del Shofner. As long as Kerry Collins plays as well as he did during the second half of the 2002 season, the Giants passing offense will be downright deadly with an abundance of quality receiving targets such as Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard, Ron Dixon, Tim Carter, Jeremy Shockey, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Tiki Barber. Depth at halfback is much improved with the addition of Dorsey Levens and Brian Mitchell and Jim Finn will press Charles Stackhouse at fullback. The left side of the offensive line is set and will only continue to improve. The right side of the line – though it may experience growing pains – will actually probably be stronger despite the departure of Mike Rosenthal and Jason Whittle.
Ironically, it may be the defense that could be the Achilles’ heal of this football team. The jury is still out on second-year defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn and it remains to be seen if the Giants will be able to improve their pass rush – especially from their starting front four. Depth at corner is a bit of a concern as there are no proven commodities behind corners Will Allen and Will Peterson. Too many leads in the 4th quarter have been lost over the course of the past two seasons…it is a disturbing trend.
If the answers to the following questions are positive, the Giants will be a contender for the Super Bowl trophy:
(1) Can Kerry Collins Maintain the Level of His Stellar Play? By the end of the 2002 season, Kerry Collins was playing as well as any quarterback in football. But there have been periods of time where Collins has not played well (most noticeably in 2001 except for the stretch run) and the entire team has suffered.
Let’s be clear about this: The offense of this team is now stronger than the defense. Today, the NFL is a passing league and the Giants are now a passing team. The success or failure of a passing attack rests with the quality of play of the quarterback. If Collins plays well, the Giants will be a very tough team to beat. If he struggles, the Giants will have a hard time making the playoffs.
Kerry Collins is the key to the entire season.
(2) Can the Giants Stay Healthy? Other than Kerry Collins playing well, this is the biggest key to the season. In today’s era of free agency and the salary cap, teams usually do not have much quality depth and those teams wracked by injuries usually find themselves falling out of playoff contention. Players always get hurt and teams will inevitably lose someone in the pre- and regular seasons. Who will the Giants lose and for how long? Will key players miss starts or have their play be affected by nagging injuries? The prime time players on the Giants who must stay healthy include Kerry Collins, Tiki Barber, Jeremy Shockey, Amani Toomer, Luke Petitgout, Michael Strahan, Will Allen, and Will Peterson.
(3) Can the Giants Improve Their Pass Defense? Pass defense involves two key aspects: (1) the ability to rush the passer and (2) the ability to cover receivers. There are question marks with respect to both of these points on the Giants.
First, the pass rush mounted by the front four last year was not good. While DE Michael Strahan faced double- and sometimes triple-teams, DT Cornelius Griffin, DT Keith Hamilton (before he was lost for the season), and DE Kenny Holmes could not pick up the slack. The reserves were even worse. The good news is that overall depth has improved greatly with the additions of DT William Joseph, DE Osi Umenyiora, and DE Keith Washington. The bad news is that the same four starters from last year will be likely starting again this year. What’s worse is that Keith Hamilton is coming off of a serious injury and is facing a whole slew of legal troubles. The new reserves should help keep the starters more fresh and effective. That will help. So should the fact that Cornelius Griffin had offseason surgery to hopefully clear up his chronic ankle woes. But the Giants need another quality year from Strahan; and they need Griffin, Holmes, and Hamilton to play much better than they did in 2002.
Secondly, let’s talk about pass coverage. The Giants have two quality starters at cornerback in Will Allen and Will Peterson. Both are very good, but let’s not put them in the Pro Bowl just yet until they start making more big plays that determine the outcome of football games. Will Peterson also has not proven to be very durable. The play of the safeties is solid and could be a big asset if Shaun Williams ever puts together the kind of complete season that many have expected since he was drafted. While Omar Stoutmire needs to make more plays on the ball, he is athletic and knows how to direct traffic in the secondary. He may be pushed by Johnnie Harris. The battle for the other back-up safety spot will be intense with a quality competition between Calvin Spears, Charles Drake, Clarence LeBlanc, and Ryan Clark.
The big concerns are (1) will the new nickel corner be able to do a good job? and (2) can the Giants find quality back-up corners in case Will Peterson or Will Allen is lost to injury? There are some interesting candidates such as Ralph Brown, Kato Serwanga, Rod Babers, Ray Green, and Frank Walker. But none are proven. With more and more teams employing 3- and 4-wide receiver sets (especially the Redskins and Rams), it is crucial for someone to step up and do a good job.
Lastly, let’s not forget that pass defense also includes the ability of the linebackers to cover in space. Last season I believe the Giants made a big mistake of keeping Brandon Short on the field in obvious passing situations. He is a good strongside linebacker who can play off blocks and stuff the run, but he’s not an ideal candidate to cover a quick halfback in pass defense. The Giants need someone like Wes Mallard or Dhani Jones to step up here as a nickel backer.
(4) How Settled Will the Right Side of the Offensive Line Be? I don’t think most fans were ever that enamored with Mike Rosenthal or Jason Whittle, but to listen to some fans now, you would have thought the Giants just lost Karl Nelson and Chris Godfrey. Believe me…the Giants can do better than Rosenthal and Whittle. The big question is will they? The team really likes right tackle Ian Allen and there will be a good competition at right guard between Tam Hopkins (good run blocker who struggles at times in pass protection) and 5th rounder David Diehl (not a blaster but a good pass blocker who plays with an attitude). My bet is that Allen and Diehl will form the new right side. If true, this will be a far more athletic duo than its predecessors…and therefore these two will have a much bigger upside. The key is how fast can they learn and how many bumps and bruises with Collins and Barber suffer in the meantime?
(5) Can the Giants Improve Their Short-Yardage Offense? The failures of the short-yardage offense last year were attributable to a few factors including: (1) the fact that the Giants’ offensive line is more of a finesse unit, reflecting the nature of the Giants’ pass-oriented offense; (2) the lack of a quality lead blocker at fullback; and (3) the lack of a quality short-yardage back on the roster. Dorsey Levens should help with respect to point #3. He is a north-south runner who has good lower body strength. How good a lead blocker Jim Finn is or how much Charles Stackhouse can improve his run blocking remains to be seen. As for the offensive line, Luke Petitgout is good run blocking left tackle. Rich Seubert and Chris Bober need to get more consistent movement in their drive blocks in order to reach the next level of their game (both are good technicians). How good the right side of the offensive line will be remains to be seen.
(6) Can Jim Fassel Motivate This Team to Excel Without Another Crisis Developing? Under Head Coach Jim Fassel, the Giants have often found themselves playing their best football when their backs were against the wall and there was no room for error. This occurred down the stretch of the 1997 (3 wins to finish the season), 1998 (4 wins to finish the season), 2000 (5 wins to finish the season), and 2002 (4 wins to finish the season). The problem has been what the Giants do in the earlier part of the schedule.
There always seems to be a crisis brewing each season under Fassel. From 1997 to 1999, there were three quarterback changes. In 2000, “the guarantee” was needed. In 2002, Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton was demoted. It has not been a smooth ride. And it’s a dangerous game to live on the edge each season because you might find yourself at home at playoff time.
Is Fassel capable of keeping this team motivated, inspired, and focused for all 16 regular season games? Will he be too conservative on offense once again until the fate of the season is at risk? Can he find the right buttons to push at playoff time in order to prevent late game collapses – such as those that occurred in 1997 and 2002?