Big Blue 'Dogs' Continue to Buck the Odds

Super Bowl Trip Scrubs a Team's Image

January 14—There's an old adage in sports betting: Always bet the home 'dog. And the Giants were just that heading into Sunday's NFC Championship Game against Minnesota at the Meadowlands, where Vegas had positioned the Vikings as two- to three-point favorites. And as the underdogs, Big Blue ended up being a good bet, as they trounced the Vikings 41-0 on the strength of a dominant first half by, of all things, the offense, which generated an amazing 518 total yards for the game.

New York has been an underdog throughout their season-long march to Super Bowl XXXV, but the team, and many individuals associated with it, were dogs of a different sort heading into the 2000 campaign. Back at the beginning of the season, a lot of Giants had flea-bitten images that were in need of a good scrubbing. And now . . . well, there's nothing like a trip to the Super Bowl to clean up a team's reputation—as well as that of its players.

A lot of pigskin pundits, for instance, questioned the Giants' decision to hand the reigns to QB Kerry Collins, a player more famous for his off-the-field problems (accusations of racism and quitting on his team, and an acknowledged drinking problem) than his on-the-field performance (a paltry 66.1 career QB rating heading into the season). By his own admission, New York was the only team that called when he signed his four-year, $16.9 million free-agent contract in the summer of 1999. And sources close to the Giants say many of his new teammates weren't happy about it (including defensive end and team leader Michael Strahan). Whether the stories were true or not, all was forgiven Sunday as Collins led the Giants to victory with 381 yards passing (338 in the first half alone) and five TDs.

"I told Coach Fassel when Kerry got here and all of the things were written about his problems," Strahan said Sunday, "'If anybody in [our locker room] doesn't like him now the second he takes us to the Super Bowl and wins it for us, those people will be hugging him.' I told Kerry after the game, 'I'm honored to play with you.' Even when he was written off, I think he did a phenomenal job of turning his life around."

Ironically, Strahan, too, had been dogged by questions surrounding his play on the field and his leadership off it heading into the 2000 season. He had a very public dispute with Jim Fassel in 1999, when he accused the coach of muzzling team leaders (notably linebacker Jessie Armstead) after they criticized the Giants' then-stagnant offense. The public ripping occurred the day after Fassel had returned from his mother's funeral.

On the field, meanwhile, Strahan's game had deteriorated. After signing a four-year, $32 million contract extension following the 1998 season, Strahan went from 15 sacks two seasons ago to 5.5 last year. He bounced back on the field in 2000 — with 9.5 sacks, and two tackles and one sack in Sunday's game — and has been flashing his famous gapped-toothed smile and verbal charm quite a bit in recent weeks.

"I've just enjoyed playing the game this year, more than I ever have in my eight years [in the league]," he told the media last week. "I have enjoyed being around these guys more than I have any other team [I've been on.]"

Fassel has also been having a lot more fun this season—more than in any other of his four-year tenure in New York. On the hot seat after coaching a divided team to a disappointing 7-9 record in 1999, Fassel guaranteed the playoffs in November and delivered the Super Bowl in January. Signs that things had truly changed were posted as the season wore on: He was seen embracing running back Tiki Barber, a player with whom he has had public disagreements over playing time, following the Giants come-from-behind victory in Dallas last month. On Sunday, Strahan and Armstead carried the coach on their shoulders in celebration as time expired.

"I've always had a lot of confidence in myself and always known players would play for me," Fassel said Sunday. "That's why I thought I could coach in this market. I never thought about my job being on the line. I think [Giants' co-owner] Wellington [Mara] made it clear over the past couple of weeks that there was never a mandate to make the playoffs or else. I never made a move this year thinking about [my job]."

Defensive coordinator Jim Fox never had to regain the respect of the players on the Giant defense, but the 2000 season did help repair his image around the NFL. On everyone's short list of head coaching candidates heading into 1999, Fox's stock depreciated dramatically, along with the fortunes of his defense and his team, last season. He probably would have been out of a job along with Fassel if the team collapsed again in 2000. Instead, he may be a hot commodity again this off-season: The defense ranked 5th overall in the NFL in 2000 and held the vaunted Vikings offense to 0 points, 114 total yards, and nine first downs on Sunday.

"We've been underrated all year long," Fox said during the on-field celebration following Sunday's game. "But I've always liked the focus of our guys and the talent of our guys. We've added guys—Dave Thomas, Mike Barrow, and Cornelius Griffin—who have brought a lot to the table this year. Every year is a new year in this game."

Part of the defense's 2000 turnaround, of course, had a lot to do with the reemergence of cornerback Jason Sehorn. After injury-riddled seasons in 1998 and 1999, many of Sehorn's teammates reportedly questioned his heart and loyalty because he opted to rehab his injuries at home in Southern California and participate in the NFL Superstars competition (while supposedly hurt) in the 1999 off-season. To gain the respect of his teammates, Sehorn needed a big year in 2000. And he got one, finishing with 77 total tackles and two interceptions, not including his acrobatic pick-off and return against the Eagles for the Giants' only TD in last week's Divisional Playoff. On Sunday, he had an interception while shutting down Vikings' all-world receiver Randy Moss (two catches for 18 yards).

"Everyone keeps talking about the pressures on the coaching staff, but the players have a lot of responsibility this year too," Sehorn told the Voiceearlier this season when asked about the team's image. "The name of the game is to win, and that's on the players as well. There's been a lot of turnover on [the roster] too: [19] new players. We as players are judged by how we perform on the field and we have to improve this year or a lot of us will be gone."

The only place these Giants are going is Tampa for Super Bowl XXXV. In doing so, they shed their team-wide image as "paper tigers" who thrived on—indeed, even stumbled against—weak competition. "This is sweeter because of the problems we had this year," Strahan emphasized when asked about the year-to-year image makeover after Sunday's game. "When we were 7-4, everybody wrote us off. I don't think there's anybody in this [press] room that can look me in the eye and say we could be here."

"Sure, we had some problems [last year]," added Armstead. "But when Coach Fassel sat me down and talked to me during the off-season, we got everything together. I apologized for letting my ego get in the way. We came together. Everybody [on this team] came together in the off-season. Now look at us."


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