Nothing in sports journalism quite matches the pabulum and platitudes of preseason football headlines. Each summer, at least if you read the New York dailies, every journeyman will have a Pro-Bowl season, every undrafted rookie will make the team, and every January we can expect a Subway Super Bowl. But by the time the leaves fall off the trees and the egrets fly south from the Meadowlands, reality falls harder than a Dave Brown incompletion. Even the coaches are sick of reading it.
“I’ve been telling the team, ‘We have a lot to do. All that wonderful stuff that’s being written about you guys right now is just individual stuff,’ ” Giants head coach Jim Fassel said in the preseason. “You’ve got to quit reading that stuff and go out there and work.” Believing your own press is a recipe for disaster in sports. As a public service, the Voice thought it would be nice to make the upcoming season a bit safer for players and fans by letting a little air out of some of those lofty headlines the papers have set afloat.
The Headline: “What, Us Worry?!”
(New York Post, Aug. 25)
The Gist: Giants players dismiss concerns over potential for winless preseason before falling to 0-4 after home loss to Baltimore.
The Reality: Following that exhibition loss to the Ravens last month, Fassel said he had never “looked more forward” to the end of the preseason. No wonder. An 0-4 record when your job’s on the line can’t be good, even if the games don’t count. Record aside, the Giants’ preseason served as a showcase for the team’s major weaknesses—lack of depth along with iffy defense and special teams. And, contrary to popular opinion, the Giants have yet to prove their revamped offense can score points. Although the unit has shown it can move the football, New York averaged only 15.5 points per game in the preseason (9.5 per game with the first-team offense).
“There’s been a lot of turnover on this team, a lot of new players,” said cornerback Jason Sehorn, when asked about the sense of urgency for 2000. “Players come and go just as much as the coaches. We as players are judged by how we perform on the field and [Fassel’s] judged by how he prepares us. We have to improve this year or a lot of us will be gone.” And they’re not off to a good start.
The Headline: “Shades of Simms, Perhaps, in Collins”
(New York Times, Aug. 12)
The Gist: New starting QB Kerry Collins is the first signal caller to demonstrate a combination of “accuracy, strength and poise” since Fabulous Phil, generating excitement about the Giants offense for the first time in years.
The Reality: Collins has “made some throws we haven’t seen around here in a while,” says Fassel. But at least one scout, speaking to the Voice on the condition of anonymity, still questions whether Collins has the decision-making ability and footwork necessary to become an elite QB in the NFL. Exhibits A and B: his 52.5 percent career completion rating and 66.1 overall QB rating. The biggest problem the Giants’ passing game has had in recent seasons, however, has been the lack of a running game. Last year, Giant rushers averaged only 3.3 yards per carry (24th in the league). With no ground game, defenses could focus on stopping the pass. If the Ron Dayne/Tiki Barber backfield combo comes through, Collins should be okay. If not, he’ll look more like his predecessors—Brown, Danny Kanell, and Kent Graham—than Simms.
The Headline: “Giants Barrow Backers”
(News, Aug. 4)
The Gist: New middle linebacker Mike Barrow idolized Giants Hall of Fame LB Lawrence Taylor growing up. Can he restore the Big Blue D to its LT-era glory?
The Reality: No. Blessed with speed and sound instincts, Barrow is a fine player, but not a Hall of Famer. Even with Barrow, Fassel says his defense “doesn’t have a lot of pass rush right now.” That, coupled with an iffy secondary, means the Giants will be lucky if the D can get back to where it was two years ago, much less to when LT played. “We have to show that we can play consistently as a unit, and we haven’t done that yet this year,” said linebacker and leader Jessie Armstead.
The Headlines: “Giant Hopeful Has Golden Opportunity”
(News, July 29);
“Jomo Starting to Impress”
(Post, Aug. 3)
The Gist: Two unknown free agents make big impressions in camp.
The Reality: Despite starting the preseason opener in place of injured Michael Strahan, defensive end Jomo Cousins was among the team’s last round of cuts at the end of August. Jack Golden, a rookie free-agent linebacker from Oklahoma State, made the team as a reserve. His claim to fame? He cost the Giants a preseason win in Jacksonville by tackling teammate and fellow rookie Fred Lewis in the Giants end zone following an interception, forcing a fumble, which was recovered by Jacksonville for the game-winning score (Lewis was later cut from the team). The Giants’ success this year will depend on veteran acquisitions such as Barrow and a revamped offensive line. After all, mistake-prone kids won’t save the coach’s job.
The Headline: “No Key, No Carl—No Problem for Jets”
(Post, July 23)
The Gist: An impressive performance by the Jets’ inexperienced corps of receivers in an intrasquad scrimmage leads to the conclusion that the trade of Keyshawn Johnson and the failure to sign Cincinnati veteran Carl Pickens will have little effect on the team.
The Reality: Without Wayne Chrebet’s 53 career starts, the Jets’ primary quartet of receivers (including Dedric Ward, Windrell Hayes, and Laveranues Coles) opened the season with a grand total of 13 NFL games under their belts. That’s a problem. Compounding the lack of experience is a lack of size: None of the four measure six feet. That’s a problem. And after a fast start in training camp, Ward (who inherits Chrebet’s No. 2 role) faded in the exhibition season, making only five catches in the first three games before coming down with four throws against an increasingly pliable Giants defense. After a year that saw Ward grab little more than a pass a game, that’s a problem.
So after turning their nose up at castoffs such as Pickens and Seattle’s Sean Dawkins, the Jets brass (i.e., Bill Parcells) swallowed its pride and signed New England roster casualty Vincent Brisby, a seven-year vet whose best days may be behind him but whose 45 starts and 6-3 frame bring to mind a certain former No. 1 draft pick now playing in Tampa.
“The Jets were scared stiff to enter a season with two rookies in their four receiver sets,” said Todd McShay, managing editor of the War Room, a football think tank. “He’s certainly not Keyshawn Johnson, but Brisby will help because he provides the passing game with a bigger target and experience.”
The Headline: “Boy Wonder Nolan Focused on Jet D”
(Post, July 17)
The Gist: Onetime hot coaching commodity is on track to reclaim his “genius” with the Jets after his defenses in Washington were considered rotten.
The Reality: How, exactly, is a fan to perceive a defense that rolls over to the tune of almost 400 yards per game? Disturbing? Fetid? Odious? Those were some of the terms applied to Mike Nolan’s Washington defense last year. The days when Nolan, now the Jets’ defensive coordinator, was mentioned in the same breath as his predecessor, Bill Belichick, seem like three years and 16,310 yards ago. Back then, Nolan was coming off a four-year hitch with the Giants in which he crafted a unit that allowed fewer than 18 points per game. Though not the strategist Belichick is, Nolan is skilled at devising effective schemes, provided his personnel can carry out the plan, a trait the Jets understood and addressed in drafting linebacker John Abraham and defensive end Shaun Ellis. “The scheme is more upfield and attacking than Belichick’s was,” said McShay. “Perhaps the best thing [Nolan] has done is to move Abraham around and tell him to get after the quarterback. He’s also working to get more activity from the defensive end position in pass rushing. Nolan will get more pressure and the team will have more sacks and turnovers—some in part to the system, mostly in part to better athletes.”
The Headline: “Jets Martin Is a Role Player Who Can Play All the Roles”
(Times, Aug. 9)
The Gist: Spurred by the loss of Keyshawn Johnson and the words of Bill Parcells, Martin is preparing to increase his role as a receiver in addition to his already heavy running-back duties.
The Reality: The Jets enjoyed last season’s backup quarterback derby so much the team seems intent on duplicating the experiment this year with the rest of their offensive backfield. Martin handled the ball more than 25 times a contest in ’99, a workload precipitated by the lack of respect opposing defenses gave to New York’s passing attack. The five-year veteran figures to be even busier now with the departure of Johnson and the lack of help for Chrebet.
“Curtis and I take it upon ourselves to have the responsibility of keeping the offense going,” said fullback Richie Anderson, Martin’s lead blocker and ball-carrying understudy. A rigorous off-season training regimen should help keep Martin off the injured list (something he has accomplished for all but four games in his career). Still, with 35 percent of the team’s attack in the hands of a player whose primary backup has carried the football all of 17 times over the past two seasons, a playoff-ending spiral of defeats is, as Jets fans know all too well, only a torn Achilles tendon away.
The Headline: “For New Regime, Frost Warms to Defensive Role”
(News, July 20)
The Gist: Freed of the discouraging hand of former defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, safety Scott Frost believes the atmosphere is right for him to have a major impact on defense.
The Reality: Say again, Scott? The converted Nebraska quarterback gets points for making a lot more of his six-tackles-in-two-years than anyone else does. Come to think of it, Frost’s teammates in the defensive backfield make a lot more of themselves than they should. For all of the praise and money heaped upon Marcus Coleman, Ray Mickens, Victor Green, and Aaron Glenn, the Jets’ secondary ranked 24th in yards allowed, a deficiency not entirely of their own making.
“The biggest reason they give up so many big plays and tend to wear down is because the defensive line has done a horrible job of providing pressure,” said McShay. “When you are forced to sit in coverage all day long, it wears on you.”