By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
You remember the Giants. The team that reached the Super Bowl last year. The team that beat the odds with a surprise run before getting shellacked 34-7 by Baltimore in the big game. In most sports, Big Blue would be an odds-on favorite to contend again, except that this is the National Football League, which gives its most successful teams the toughest schedules the following year. Based on last season's win-loss records, the Giants have the 10th-toughest schedule in 2001. And that is no surprise.
"We don't have a lot of the same opponents we did last year when we went to the Super Bowl," defensive end Michael Strahan admitted to the Voice. "But you can't look ahead. That's the way we approached it last year, and it worked for us. We're not even worrying about our schedule."
They should be. Given the average winning percentage of their 2001 opponents (.508) versus their 2000 patsies (.488), the deck seems to be stacked against them. But playing winning football is often about beating the oddsas the Giants showed last year. Will they make it back to the Super Bowl, or at least the playoffs? Here's a look at some of the odds in play:
$10 million to $3.5 million: Cornerback Jason Sehorn's 2001 signing bonus versus Jessie Armstead's 2001 salary. To the victor goes the spoiled. Salary squabbles after championship seasons are nothing new. Armstead was reportedly ticked about the oft-injured Sehorn's signing bonus, given that the remaining five years on the seven-year, $33.1 million deal he signed in 1998 are, as with most NFL contracts, not guaranteed.
"It's a dead issue," Armstead told the Voice. We'll see. As Armstead goes, so go the Giants. The last time he had a problem with Big Blue brassmost notably with head coach Jim Fassel in 1999it divided the team en route to a disappointing 7-9 season. If it happens again, bet on an underachieving year.
8 to $20-plus million: Kenny Holmes's sacks last season for the Titans versus the big sacks of money the Giants are laying on him as a result. The Giants signed defensive end Holmes to a five-year free-agent deal in the off-season. He should enhance an already strong defensive line, allowing defensive coordinator John Fox to rely less on the blitz. Fox's corps blitzed more than most NFL teams last year, relying heavily on their corners in one-on-one matchups against opponents' receivers. It was a strategy that worked more often than not, but it definitely backfired against the Ravens. Thus, the acquisition of Holmes should help the Giants' odds defensively.
265 to 245: Fat to less fat. In a league with few guaranteed contracts, running back Ron Dayne, who had no carries in Super Bowl XXXV, obviously saw the writing on the wall after a mediocre rookie year. The former first-round pick's playing weight is down to 245, from a listed 253 last season and a reported 265 in April, and he looks fitter and faster. "Ron committed himself in the off-season to staying in shape," notes Dayne's backfield mate, fullback Greg Comella. "That was his big issue last year."
Tiki Barber will still be the primary back (as his new six-year, $25.5 million contract indicates), but the Giants need Dayne to carry the ball well consistently so that Barber, who already missed most of the preseason with a broken hand, can try to stay healthy all season. If conditioning counts for anything, Dayne won't be the odd man out as he was last year.
21 to 11: The ratio of games played indoors to outdoors for newly signed free-agent kicker Morten Andersen over the past two years. The 41-year-old Andersen has spent his entire 19-year career kicking for teams who play their home games in domed stadiums. His field goal percentage in those 11 outdoor road gamesseven of 11is hardly stellar, but not horrible either, especially when you consider that all of his misses were on kicks of 40 yards or more. Where Andersen may hurt the Giants is on kickoffs. Over the past two years, few, if any, of his kickoffs on outdoor fields have reached the end zone, and only six of 34 have gone for touchbacks. Not exactly a big improvement over the two-of-58 touchback percentage posted last year by Brad Daluiso, and that number got Daluiso booted off the team. Despite Andersen's Hall of Fame credentials, the odds are against his faring any better than his predecessor. Only two of the Giants' 16 games this year will be played indoors.
83.1 to 55.7: Quarterback Kerry Collins showed a lot of heart in overcoming personal strife and helping the Giants to the Super Bowl with an 83.1 QB rating. But as gamblers will tell you, bet with your head, not your heart. Before 2000, Collins last had success in 1996 with Carolina, taking the Panthers to the NFC championship game. With more expectations the following year, however, his personal life crumbled and his QB rating plummeted to 55.7. What are the odds that history will repeat itself in 2001? So far, Collins has shrugged off his abysmal performance (five INTs) in Super Bowl XXXV. He claims his lackluster preseason belies his attitude heading into the regular season.
"I'm a year older and a year wiser," he says. "I actually feel better than I did last year in terms of my grasp of this offense, the way I'm reading coverages. I think I'm actually headed in a better direction now than I was at this time last year." That said, this would still be a "pick 'em," in Vegas parlance.
1 out of 3: The average winning percentage last season of NFC "Easy" division rivals Dallas, Washington, and Arizona was .333. This will most certainly help balance out the Giants' tough out-of-division matchups against Denver (in the season opener), Green Bay, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Oakland.
Here's some history for you: In the Super Bowl's 35 years, only five losers have made it back to the big game the following seasonand three of them were the Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s. But over the past 10 seasons, the Super Bowl losers have posted an average regular season record of 10-6 the following season. If past form holds, the 2001 Giants will be good enough to battle the improving Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC East title or, at worst, earn a wild card.
But sometimes, of course, wild cards turn out to be nothing but jokers.