By Jena Ardell
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By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Something's noticeably missing in Giants camp this fall. It isn't veteran wide receiver Chris Calloway, who was cut last spring despite placing third on the team's all-time receptions list. And it isn't run-stuffing defensive end Chad Bratzke, who followed free-agent riches to Indianapolis during the off-season.
No, it's a quarterback controversy. For the first time since 1993, when Phil Simms last donned the Big Blue, the Giants will leave camp with the incumbent signal-caller firmly in place. Kent Graham, who came on to replace a shaky Danny Kanell in the 11th game last season, and led the Giants to a 5-1 finish, entered camp as the No. 1 and his preseason play has left few questioning the wisdom of that decision.
"I have a lot of confidence right now, both in myself and in the players around me," Graham told reporters following a preseason victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars on August 21. "I feel like I'm the starting quarterback and I am comfortable in that role. I feel like this is my team right now."
Despite his relative lack of experience entering his eighth pro season, he has only 24 starts Graham has always demonstrated a strong arm, sound pocket savvy, and a flair for the dramatic. In 1997, for instance, he and the Cardinals were down 19-10 to Dallas after a miserable first half in a nationally televised Sunday-night game. Graham went 21-23 for 220 yards and two TDs in the second half to give Arizona a stunning 25-22 last-second victory. Last year, he helped the Giants hand Denver its first loss of the season by orchestrating an 86-yard touchdown drive with less than two minutes to play in a December game at Giants Stadium. The final play of the drive was a stunning 37-yard touchdown pass to Amani Toomer.
Still, Graham has yet to make it through a full season as an NFL starter. In 1996, he started a career-high eight games for the Cardinals before being benched in favor of Boomer Esiason. In 1997, his second and last season with Arizona, he started six games before getting injured.
Will things be any different this year? Head coach Jim Fassel has changed starters each of his two years at the helm, switching from Dave Brown to Kanell in 1997, and from Kanell to Graham last year. When the Giants signed troubled free agent Kerry Collins to a four-year, $16.9 million contract in the off-season, it appeared to be déjà vu all over again (Graham is in the second year of a less lucrative three-year, $4 million deal). Instead, due in part to injury, Collins has played sparingly during the preseason while Graham flourished, completing 40 of 62 passes for 609 yards with 5 touchdowns and 1 interception. So far, he has shown a knack for turning broken plays into first downs (on a third and 23 in the Jacksonville game, he threw a 47-yard pass to receiver David Patten on the run following a breakdown in pass protection) and an uncanny ability to step out of the pocket and avoid the rush (on a third and 17 against the Jets, he sidestepped an all-out blitz and ran 18 yards for a first down).
"He's been playing really well," says Fassel, who was the offensive coordinator during part of Graham's tenure in Arizona. "I've always thought he had excellent size and arm strength and that he was fairly fluid on the run. He has been making very definitive reads and playing with a lot of confidence. He came into the season as the starter. He wasn't coming in battling for a job. He needed to act like this was his team and he's done that."
That said, the coach stopped short of giving Graham a full endorsement, and he may be quick to pull the trigger again if the quarterback, and the team, get off to a slow start. When asked whether the QB situation was stable, Fassel responded, "[It's] the preseason. It's too early for stability. Ask me that question in week 15 and I might have the answer for you."
If he makes it through the season, Graham could be leading an offense with a solid, young nucleus into the playoffs. He has several speedy targets to haul in his deep bombs, including Toomer, Ike Hilliard, and second-year man Joe Jurevicius. In free agent Pete Mitchell, the Giants may have added their best pass-catching tight end since Mark Bavaro (Mitchell averaged 41.5 catches per season in four years in Jacksonville). If he recovers fully from an off-season motorcycle accident (and now a knee injury suffered in the final preseason game), workhorse running back Gary Brown should gain around 1000 yards on the ground. The offensive line, aided by the return of center Brian Williams, should be improved. Look for rookie first-round draft pick Luke Petitgout to start at right guard in place of the injured Lance Scott, who may miss the season.
On defense, New York is young and aggressive. Even without Bratzke, the defensive line is still the team's strongest unit, led by ends Michael Strahan (he has the most sacks of anyone in the NFL over the past two seasons with 29) and Cedric Jones, and tackles Robert Harris and Keith Hamilton. Look for third-year man Christian Peter to also see a lot of action at the tackle spot. The linebacker corps of Jessie Armstead, Corey Widmer, and Marcus Buckley is sound, but the secondary is prone to the deep ball. The unit should be improved, however, when talented cornerback Jason Sehorn returns from a hamstring injury that has sidelined him for the entire preseason (he missed all of last season with a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee). Safeties Percy Ellsworth and Sam Garnes are young and improving.
So with the starting quarterback job decided at least heading into the season, and the rest of last year's 8-8 squad virtually intact, the only question in Giants camp now is how far the "new" old QB can take the team. With his tough playing style and affable personality, Graham has already made believers out of his teammates. "We have a lot of respect for Kent, the type of player he is and all the work he does," says Toomer. "With him and all the good young players we have here, I think we have to be a contender in the NFC East."
Adds Strahan: "I've been asked a lot about Kent and the job he's doing, but let me just tell you, the guys on this team are not surprised at all." Given the recent history of Giants QBs, they may be the only ones in the tristate area.