Key Questions Heading into the 2007 New York Giants Training Camp

I don’t really agree with the pundits who look at the 2007 New York Giants’ roster and say this isn’t a playoff-caliber team. Aside from Tiki Barber and Luke Petitgout (which I will address below), this roster is not much different from the 2005 and 2006 teams that went to the playoffs, both of which were substantially weakened by a rash of injuries. If the Giants can stay healthy, this team actually could be better than the 2006 team that was 6-2 at the midway point last season. Why? Because key young players – especially Eli Manning – have more experience under their belts and will be better. The Giants look stronger and/or healthier at linebacker, cornerback, wide receiver, and tight end than they did a year ago. Unpopular offensive and defensive coordinators are gone. The schedule will be easier.

The biggest concern for me is not Eli Manning, the offensive line, or the defense. It is the mental state of the team. I’ll start with that first:

(1) How Will the Giants Respond to Adversity? They may be called “Giants” but they have proven to be mental midgets the last couple of years. As has been documented ad nauseum, this team talks too much. It says too much about its own supposed tremendous abilities and supposed weaknesses of its opponents. Worse, the players rip the coaching staff. Tiki Barber is gone now, but most of the players who publicly (i.e., Jeremy Shockey) or anonymously/privately criticized the coaching staff are still with the team. There are lots of strong personalities on this team such as Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Antonio Pierce, Sam Madison, Jeremy Shockey, Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, Shaun O’Hara, and Brandon Jacobs to name the most obvious. Do these players – and others – fear and respect the coaching staff?Since the season ended, everyone is saying all the right things, but that is easy to do in the offseason. What matters is what happens when the bullets start to fly. Every team in every season will face adversity. There will be some sort of crisis. There will be a two- or three-game losing streak. There will be some sort of emotionally-draining defeat that saps morale. How will the 2007 Giants respond to this adversity? Will they rally behind their previously embattled coach who is obviously on weaker ground now than he was at this time last year? Or will they take the easy way/defeatist approach and blame the situation on the coaches again? If they take the latter approach, the season is doomed before it starts. They might limp to a playoff birth in the weak NFC, but they will be knocked out of the tournament quickly once again.This is the big danger that ownership (John Mara/Jonathan Tisch) took when they decided on the half-assed approach of not extending Coughlin’s contract by more than one season or firing him. He’s on the hot seat. He’s hanging on by a thread. Everyone knows it. He turns 61 in August. He hasn’t proven to be very popular or respected by his players. He was forced to fire his two most important coaching hires. He has been a .500 coach with the Giants and he hasn’t won a playoff game since 1999. Is this man capable of rallying the troops when that adversity hits? Will the players listen to him? At some point during the 2007 NFL season, adversity will hit this team.

(2) Will Eli Manning Become a Difference Maker? In many ways, Eli Manning takes way too much grief. He has thrown for 48 touchdown passes in his first two seasons as a full-time quarterback in the NFL. That is impressive. The most Phil Simms ever threw for in any season was 22 and that was in his sixth NFL season. Manning’s accuracy also did improve last year as his completion percentage rose from almost 53 percent to approximately 58 percent. It is not unreasonable to expect him to become a 62-63 percent passer in 2007. On top of all of that, he has demonstrated a repeated ability to lead his team from behind in tough situations late in ball games. Indeed, if the Giants’ defense had performed better in 2005 and 2006 after many of these late drives, the Giants would have even more dramatic wins to show for Eli’s efforts. Most importantly, everyone needs to keep in mind that Eli is still a very young and relatively inexperienced player. He’s 26 years old. Phil Simms was 29 before he won his first playoff game.That all said, only the most delusional Manning-apologists would argue that they are not at least somewhat disappointed about Manning’s development. When you take a player with the first pick in the draft and/or give up a bushel draft picks for him, you expect that player to become a difference maker, someone regarded as one of the best at their position. That clearly hasn’t happened with Eli, at least not yet. The simple fact of the matter is that Manning is far too inconsistent. Are we unfairly expecting too much too soon? Have the coaches hindered his development? Or are we excuse-making and failing to recognize that he simply will not become the player envisioned?For the Giants to become serious Super Bowl contenders, Manning must approach Pro Bowl form. He needs to become a stronger leader, take charge of the offense, become a more consistent quarterback, and be the deciding influence in more football games like he was in Philadelphia last September.

(3) Will the Coaching Staff Fully Commit to the Power Running Game? Despite Tiki Barber’s superlative rushing totals the last few years, one of my pet peeves with this coaching staff is that they have made things too difficult for Manning early in his career. He had the third highest passing attempts in the NFL in 2005 and the sixth highest in 2006. On top of that, the Giants’ system is pretty mentally taxing for the quarterback. The Giants have not treated Manning like the inexperienced player that he is. Some may argue that will pay dividends down the road. I would argue that this strategy – at the very least – has risked his overall development by shaking his confidence (and the confidence of those who watch him both on and off the field).My recommendation is to run the football more. Pound it with the Giants’ two power backs – Brandon Jacobs and Reuben Droughns. Take the pressure off of Manning (and the left tackle position) by throwing less. Force opposing teams to bring a safety up in the box and then allow Manning to throw the football when the numbers are in the Giants’ favor. This should increase Manning’s confidence and accuracy percentage. It should also lead to more big plays in the passing game. A power running game will have an impact on the Giants’ defense. The Giants will likely control the ball longer on offense, allowing the defense to conserve its strength. In addition, the physical nature of the offense should translate to the defense too – giving the team a tougher image overall.But for this to work, Coughlin and Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride must commit to the running game. However, the fact that Gilbride has been criticized throughout his coaching career as “pass happy” is an ominous sign.Many national and local pundits feel the Giants will take a huge step backwards in their running game with the retirement of Tiki Barber, their most productive player by far the last few years. I don’t think so. I am so impressed with Brandon Jacobs that it would not shock me at all if Brandon becomes a more dominating player. The numbers may not ultimately show it, but the fear factor by opposing defenses and how they play the Giants will show it. Brandon is the type of guy who I could see challenging for the NFL’s single-season touchdown record during his prime.

(4) How Will the Left Side of the Offensive Line Shake Out? It appears that David Diehl will be the starting left tackle in 2007. Can he handle the position? He should perform well as a run blocker. The issue is pass protection. In his two games at left tackle last year, with barely any practice snaps at the position, he gave up one bad sack to the Redskins before settling down and playing well. Against Philadelphia, despite three false starts, he adequately handled Trent Cole, a speed rusher who used to give Luke Petitgout fits. That may bode well. We shall see.With Diehl moving over to tackle, Rich Seubert will likely start at left guard unless Zach Piller beats him out. Before his catastrophic leg injury in 2003, Seubert was an up-and-coming guard in the NFL and one of the Giants’ best players.What will be interesting to see – not just for 2007 but beyond – is how young players such as Guy Whimper, Adam Koets, Matt Lentz, and Chris Patrick develop.

(5) How Bright a Future Do Steve Smith and Sinorice Moss Have in the NFL? Many fans don’t fully realize how important a player Plaxico Burress is to the Giants. He is the one receiver on the team that scares the opposing defense. He is usually double-teamed, yet still he comes up with circus catches on a regular basis. Moreover, he is a dominant blocker in the run game. If Manning and Burress can improve their chemistry, Burress will make the Pro Bowl.There is a good chance this is Amani Toomer’s last year with the Giants. He will likely be limited in training camp while recovering from his ACL injury that he suffered last season. What the Giants need – in both 2007 and beyond – is to find a receiver who can adequately replace one of the starters if they miss a game due to injury. The early feedback on Smith is that he looks like a player. But we will have to wait and see how he does with the pads on. What we really don’t know is his true upside. Same story with Sinorice Moss, who missed almost all of last season with a mysterious (at least to the public) quad injury. Last year at this time, it was Sinorice that was receiving the early-return compliments. The Giants got virtually zero production out of Tim Carter last season despite his eight regular season starts. Hopefully, Smith and Moss change that in 2007.

(6) How Will the Tight End Position Shake Out? Jeremy Shockey is one of the best players at his position in the NFL. The Giants are fortunate to have him on their team. However, he is injury prone. Visanthe Shiancoe departed in the offseason and the Giants were not sad to see him go. However, the team does need to find someone who can come into the game and block at a reasonable level. There are many candidates. Kevin Boss and Darcy Johnson impressed at the mini-camp with their receiving ability. Michael Mathews was a blocking specialist at Georgia Tech and may even be an option at fullback. Assuming Seubert starts at guard, Grey Ruegamer is an option as he saw some action at tight end last year. One thing does seem clear – the Giants should have a more dangerous receiving threat depth behind Shockey in either Boss or Johnson.

(7) Can the Giants Improve Their Pass Defense and Get Off the Field on Third Down? It pains most Giants’ fans, who have long been accustomed to strong defense, to have had to endure watching a once-proud unit be reduced by poor personnel moves and coaching (Johnnie Lynn, Tim Lewis). The Giants’ pass defense has become a League-wide joke. And it’s not all due to the secondary, but also the linebacker coverage as well as the pass rush. If you would have told a Giants’ fan last July that Strahan, Umenyiora, Kiwanuka, and Tuck would have finished the season with a total of 13 sacks, they would have said you were crazy. Injuries obviously were the major factor there. But so was a scheme that often had the ends dropping into coverage (though not as much as some fans suggest). Ever since Lewis arrived on the scene, defensive backs were giving huge cushions to opposing receivers. The Giants regularly allowed teams to keep drives alive by converting on 3rd-and-long. It drove fans nuts.The big hope, obviously, is that Steve Spagnuolo will quickly mature from a position coach with the Eagles to the new defensive coordinator with the Giants. Many fans – whether correctly or not – assume he will duplicate the success of Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive guru Jim Johnson. That remains to be seen. What also remains to be seen is if the Giants’ secondary can physically handle more man coverage. Will the secondary shine and accrue more interceptions, or will the defensive backs give up more long touchdown passes?Personnel-wise, the Giants need Corey Webster to become the player envisioned when they drafted him. Or hope that Aaron Ross develops quickly. Or hope that some young, unheralded player such as Kevin Dockery, E.J. Underwood, Gerrick McPhearson, or Travonti Johnson surprises at corner. The Eagles’ system also places a great deal of physical and mental stress on the safety position. The Giants need better play from all of their safeties as this position really wasn’t addressed in the offseason. In particular, Gibril Wilson and Will Demps have to turn it around.

(8) Will the Linebacking Corps Be a Strength or Weakness? Antonio Pierce played hurt last year and still made the Pro Bowl. He’s not the concern. The question this: Is the Giants’ linebacking corps athletic and talented enough to be a team strength? Mathias Kiwanuka is making the tremendously difficult transition from defensive end to linebacker. The early returns from mini-camp were favorable, but opposing teams will try to isolate him in pass coverage. Can Kiwanuka stay with backs and tight ends in coverage? Kawika Mitchell is moving from middle linebacker to weakside linebacker. Is he athletic enough to do so? How will he do in coverage against backs such as Brian Westbrook of the Eagles?

(9) Will the Defensive Line Return to Elite Status? Injuries decimated the defensive line last season. There are still serious question marks regarding the 35-year old Strahan who is coming off of a serious lis franc injury. Osi Umenyiora did not practice fully at mini-camp. Could his hip still be bothering him? And Justin Tuck (lis franc) did not practice at all and is expected to be limited at training camp. Will he ever be the same player again? If Tuck does not return to his rookie form, then depth becomes a big issue at defensive end with the switching of Kiwanuka to linebacker.At tackle, the Giants need to find a viable third tackle to team with Barry Cofield (who played well as a rookie and who should be better in 2007) and Fred Robbins (coming off his finest season). It is expected that player will be Jay Alford, but William Joseph and Marcus Bell are also in the picture.

(10) Will the Giants’ Special Teams Rebound in 2007? In 2005, the Giants’ special teams were a big factor in the 11-5 record and the division title. In 2006, the special teams were a significant reason for the disappointing 8-8 finish. Gone is long-time special teams coordinator Mike Sweatman. His replacement is 39-year old Tom Quinn who only coached at the pro level last year as Sweatman’s assistant. He is very inexperienced in terms of the pro game.An equally big concern is the place-kicking position. The Giants let Jay Feely depart and Lawrence Tynes and Josh Huston will now battle for the critically important place-kicking job. The Giants also need to find a viable and dangerous kickoff returner (they never did adequately replace Willie Ponder) and punt returner (Chad Morton really declined last season and was released). Kickoff and punt coverage must regain their 2005 form.

The NFC sucks. The Giants should not be afraid of the Bears, Saints, Eagles, Cowboys, or anyone else. What they should fear is themselves. Shut up. Listen to the coach. Stop focusing on yourself and focus on the goal of winning a Super Bowl championship. It’s not supposed to be fun or easy. It’s hard work. It’s a job. But just ask Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor, Mark Bavaro, and Carl Banks – there is nothing in the world that beats the feeling of winning it all. That can be your legacy. Long after we are all dead and buried, you will be remembered if you win it all. On the other hand, if you continue to disappoint, bicker, and implode, you will be forgotten as just another chump.