Feb 282007

Many readers of this site are tired of my recent pessimism with respect to the New York Giants. They contend that I am attempting to orchestrate some sort of witch hunt against Tom Coughlin (not true) or that I am just a fan who is not privy to any inside information that would make my views any more informed than other fans (true).

But since this site’s inception in 1995, it has been one of my functions to provide my opinion on the state of the team. Almost all of my previous off-season articles since 1995 have been optimistic in tone, the last example being my 2005 off-season piece.

If you don’t respect my opinion, then don’t bother reading this article. No one is putting a gun to your head. If you think I’m being overly negative because of subjective personal biases clouding my judgment, then move along. I’m not a rah-rah guy. When I think the situation looks positive, I call it like I see it; when I think the situations looks negative, I do the same.

With all that said, I think you can already tell that I am worried about this team. I see question marks and/or instability in too many areas ranging from player personnel to the coaching staff to the front office to ownership. Increasingly, 2007 reeks of year of transition with a coaching staff that has been given a one-year ultimatum to win now or be toast.

Let’s look at the state of the 2007 New York Giants:

Player Personnel: The key question here is are the Giants better now than they were last season? On paper, the answer is clearly no. The Giants’ best player for the past few season – Tiki Barber – has retired. The team cut its starting left tackle, a player who was having one of his better seasons. And in what was probably the right decision, the Giants are prepared to part ways with their three top outside linebackers (LaVar Arrington and Carlos Emmons have already been cut and Brandon Short is likely not to be re-signed). The top back-up offensive tackle retired before he was cut and the starting center may be departing in free agency. It looks like the Giants won’t re-sign their top back-up tight end.

So let’s look at the offense. Mostly, things depend on Eli Manning. While Manning improved his completion percentage in 2006, he did not experience the type of growth that was expected of him. He remains far too inconsistent and his critics are growing daily – not just because of his performance but because of the price the Giants paid for him, his last name, and the manner in which it is perceived that he forced a trade on draft day. The offensive line was supposed to be the steady foundation of this team for the foreseeable future but now the Giants have to break in a new left tackle – the most important and most difficult position on the line. David Diehl, who struggled at right tackle in 2004, will likely be the new left tackle. With his shift to tackle, the Giants will also need a new starting left guard. That was to be Rich Seubert, but now Seubert may be needed at center if Shaun O’Hara leaves via free agency. Regardless of all of this, depth is now a big issue as Guy Whimper is now the #1 back-up at tackle and Matt Lentz at guard (unless Grey Ruegamer is re-signed).

At the skill positions, I personally have great confidence in Brandon Jacobs. I think he is the least of the Giants’ worries and will become the heart of the offensive team. But he is a question mark. And there is little depth behind him. The Giants have no depth behind the injury-prone Jeremy Shockey, who has never finished a season healthy. At wide receiver, if something were to happen to Plaxico Burress, the Giants would be in deep shit. Amani Toomer is nearing the end and doesn’t really frighten opposing defenses anymore. We have no idea yet what kind of player Sinorice Moss will be. Everyone else at wide receiver stinks.

Defensively, the strength remains the defensive line, especially at defensive end. The only worries at end are the ability of Justin Tuck and Michael Strahan to recover from serious foot injuries. Inside, let’s pray that 2006 was not just a one-year wonder for Fred Robbins. Barry Cofield should be better, but someone to push William Joseph out of the picture would be ideal.

The real problem – not just for the defense but the entire team – is that the back-seven on defense is sub par. Antonio Pierce, who had a down season in 2006, is the only proven commodity left at linebacker. If the season were to start today, Chase Blackburn and Gerris Wilkinson would probably be the starters outside. In the secondary, Corey Webster has not developed and Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters are a year older and probably slower. Will Demps was terrible at free safety and Gibril Wilson far too inconsistent at strong safety. It is my strong opinion that you can’t win without a strong defense and the Giants’ back-seven is a mess.

On special teams, Jay Feely may depart via free agency.

Possible Off-Season Player Personnel Upgrades: The counter argument to all of this is, “Hey Eric, the season doesn’t start on March 1st, it starts in September. Let’s see what the Giants do in free agency and the draft first!” I have a couple of problems with that argument.

First, this is one of the worst – and possibly the worst – free agency markets since the inception of unrestricted free agency. Why? Partly because most teams have learned how to handle the salary cap and re-sign their younger, up-and-coming players before they hit free agency. But mostly it is because more teams have more cap room than ever before. This is because of the dramatic increase in the salary cap (to $109 million) due to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Teams now have more money to re-sign players and/or not be forced to cut players due to salary cap restrictions. Thus, if you look at the quality of those who will soon hit the open market, it isn’t very good. Worse, for the few quality players out there, teams will have more money than ever to spend on them. Look at the Giants. This is a team that is always against the cap but this year they will have $20 million to spend. However, the Giants are still only above average in terms of available cap space this offseason. Almost everyone has millions to spend. Basic economics. Too much money chasing too few players – players will be dramatically overpaid.

Secondly, I don’t think the Giants are an overly attractive destination for free agents. “Yeah Eric, we’ve heard this same shit from you before only to be proven wrong.” That’s true. I expected Tom Coughlin’s reputation as a rule-driven hard-ass to scare off potential free agents. It didn’t because I failed to fully realize the old adage – it always comes down to money. The problem this year is that everyone has money. And worse, the perception out there (right or wrong) is that Coughlin is a lame duck coach on the verge of being fired and that the Giants have terrible team chemistry. If the money is near the same, a player may not see the Giants as the better situation.

Thirdly, just because a player is signed in free agency, it doesn’t mean that that position has been “fixed.” Quality matters. Last year, the Giants signed 10 free agents from other teams – CB R.W. McQuarters, CB Sam Madison, S Will Demps, S Jason Bell, S Quentin Harris, LB LaVar Arrington, LB Brandon Short, DT Junior Ioane, TE Boo Williams, and OC/OG Grey Ruegamer. Not exactly a stellar effort despite the numbers.

So the Giants will have to deal with a poor free agent market in which a lot of teams have money to spend. If the Giants are fortunate, they may get one or two quality starters out of free agency. And that’s if they are fortunate. The other area where the team can improve itself is the draft. But the Giants only have seven picks and will pick in the latter half of each round. The team has a lot of needs and seven picks don’t seem like enough. In addition, it is never, never wise to assume that a rookie can come in and start. It happens, but it is not wise to count on it.

So in summary, I see major needs at linebacker, cornerback, safety, wide receiver, tight end, possibly the offensive line, and possibly place kicker. I also see additional needs at defensive tackle and halfback. That is a lot of needs. And the Giants don’t have a lot of ammunition to fill those needs.

Coaching: I am not going to go off on an anti-Coughlin tilt, other than to say that Coughlin has been nothing more than a .500 coach in New York and 2006 was not one of his better coaching efforts. In addition, he obviously made major mistakes in selecting his assistant coaches as both coordinators were fired.

The big problem here is that Coughlin is in a win-or-be-fired situation. That’s a tough situation given: (1) the personnel issues I discussed above, (2) the savage nature of the NY area media when they smell blood in the water, (3) a fan base that has started to turn on the coach, and (4) a roster of players who has a history of criticizing their coaching staff publicly and privately. Plus, it’s a tough division.

There are also issues with the assistant coaches. New Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride was fired from his previous two offensive coordinator gigs after only two seasons. Plus, he didn’t exactly do a stellar job with Eli Manning as the quarterbacks coach. Now he’s in charge of the entire offense. New Defensive Coordinator John Spagnuolo has never served in that role at the pro level. We don’t know how he will handle the job. Even if he is good at it, his players will now have to learn a completely new system and terminology. There will be growing pains and growing pains equals losses. The new special teams coach, Tom Quinn, is young and very inexperienced. He’s never served as a special teams coordinator at the pro level. Finally, new quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer has an up-and-down record with working with young quarterbacks.

Front Office: I still don’t get the sense that ownership was overly enamored with new General Manager Jerry Reese. If so, why was Reese not promoted before the season ended or as soon as the season ended? Why was loser GM Charley Casserly interviewed? Why did the Giants reach out to Scott Pioli? Why was the decision to retain Coughlin made before Reese was promoted?

It was also a red flag that Reese was far too open when discussing the team’s personnel situation recently at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. In fact, both The New York Times and FoxSports contend that by simply mentioning Bills’ HB Willis McGahee, Reese was violating League tampering rules. He should know better. The Giants also appear to have mismanaged the contract discussions with OC Shaun O’Hara. According to The Daily News, the Giants never intended to meet O’Hara’s original contract demands, but chose to do so once the Cowboys gave a big deal to their center. Now O’Hara has upped his demands and is rejecting his own original offer. The Giants could have re-signed O’Hara weeks ago and now may be forced to pay him more or let him walk.

Reese is also taking a big gamble by releasing Luke Petitgout. We’ll have to see how that one pans out.

Ownership: One wonders if the 50-50 split between the Mara and Tisch families is a bad thing. Every major decision probably has to be negotiated and compromises (instead of drastic changes) are probably the norm. There is a reason why you don’t see 50-50 splits in corporate America.

The jury is still very much out as to whether John Mara and Jonathan Tisch have what it takes to successfully run an NFL team. Their first major decision – to retain the services of Tom Coughlin – was a strange one. Not because they kept him, but because they took the half-assed approach of not providing a firm commitment or firing him. The one-year contract extension appears – on the surface – to be band-aid. It appears that ownership is either hoping that Coughlin has a 2000 season, Jim Fassel-like run in him or they are simply postponing the inevitable. It doesn’t sit well with me. I have a bad feeling about this. I wonder if 2007 is going to be a wasted season. If it is, then 2008 will really be a year of transition – no, make that a year of rebuilding. Michael Strahan, Amani Toomer, and others will be gone. The new coaching staff will be bringing in their own systems and players. It will be 2009 or 2010 before the team contends again.

Do the owners care? I think they do. But their profits lessen their discomfort.

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Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy is Editor-in-Chief of BigBlueInteractive.com, a publication of Big Blue Interactive, LLC. Follow @BigBlueInteract on Twitter.

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