A gibbous moon glowed over the meadowlands sunday night, yet you couldn’t see many stars—many Giants stars, that is. Despite their 20-10 divisional playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles, big blue hardly turned in a stellar performance. Nursing a broken arm, all-purpose running back Tiki Barber didn’t return any punts and gained only 48 total yards. QB and comeback player of the year candidate Kerry Collins threw for only 125 yards and couldn’t lead the Giants to an offensive touchdown. Amani Toomer caught only two passes for 23 yards.
And though the stars shined somewhat brighter on the defensive side of the ball—cornerback Jason Sehorn returned an acrobatic interception for a touchdown; linebackers Mike Barrow and Jessie Armstead netted 11 and nine total tackles, respectively; and defensive end Michael Strahan contributed two sacks—the game was typical of most of New York’s regular-season wins. It was marked by small, yet significant, contributions made by lesser-known players. As head coach Jim Fassel said after the game, “That’s what’s gotten us to 13-4: guys you may not expect to stepping up and making big plays.”
With their $56.4 million payroll, one of the lowest in the NFL, the Giants have often depended on second-tier players to help carry them during their surprising run to the NFC Championship Game (in which they’ll play host to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at Giants Stadium). Here’s a look at some of the smaller stars who shined brightly for Big Blue against Philadelphia and throughout the season:
Greg Comella, fullback
After playing primarily on special teams his first two seasons in the Meadowlands, the former Stanford Cardinal had 36 catches this year, four times his career output heading into 2000. He served as the ideal safety net for Collins, making drive-prolonging third-down catches while also assisting the Giants’ revamped offensive line in creating holes for Barber and rookie back Ron Dayne.
“We count on him to do a lot,” Collins admitted during the season. “He’s got good hands and a good feel for the game.”
Though he made only one catch against the Eagles Sunday, Comella once again made huge contributions as a blocker for Barber and Dayne. He delivered the key block on the Giants’ four biggest running plays in the game, each of which resulted in a first down. Big Blue didn’t run wild against the Eagles—they gained 112 rushing yards after averaging 126 during the regular season—but they ran the ball well enough to keep the Eagles honest.
“My primary responsibility is to lead block,” Comella said earlier in the season. True, but Fassel and offensive coordinator Sean Payton deserve credit for developing a pass-catching role for the previously seldom used player, who this season frequently lined up as the fullback in the I-formation or as a quasi H-back behind the tight end. He hadn’t been used in a meaningful offensive role since his days at Stanford.
“The way Sean’s system is set up, it gives the fullback an opportunity to get in the flat and make a catch,” said Comella. “[Former Cardinal and 49er coach Bill] Walsh used to call the pass to the fullback ‘an extended handoff.’ His philosophy prepared me from what I do here.” Given Minnesota’s mediocre run defense (ranked 16th in the NFL), Comella may be relied on less for blocking this week, meaning that he could see a little more action as a receiver out of the backfield.
Ron Stone, offensive lineman
It’s hard to say that as one of two Giants going to the Pro Bowl (Armstead is the other), Stone isn’t a star. But consider the irony: He is the only member of the much-maligned 1999 line playing in the same position (second-year lineman Luke Petitgout was moved from left guard to right tackle) as a year ago. New York indulged in its biggest free-agent spending spree ever last summer in revamping the offensive line—signing center Dusty Zeigler, guard Glenn Parker, and tackle Lomas Brown—and Stone was the one to make All-Pro.
On Sunday, he along with the rest of the offensive line held the Eagles to one sack, and he led the way on a 12-yard screen pass to Barber, a play that prolonged one of the Big Blue offense’s two scoring drives (both field goals). Stone’s excellence this season can be measured in the performance of the running backs. All they did was rush for a combined 2009 yards (the most of any Giant rushing attack since 1993).
“It’s interesting that we bring all these guys in and [Stone] is the one that goes to the Pro Bowl,” Giants GM Ernie Accorsi said Sunday. “But we’ve always felt he was our best offensive lineman. That’s why we kept him. He’s been terrific this year, and he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves.”
Emmanuel McDaniel, defensive back
McDaniel is another player who has benefited from the way he has been used by the Giants’ coaching staff—specifically, defensive coordinator John Fox. A midseason waiver wire pickup in 1999, McDaniel seemed overwhelmed at times as an every-down player when he subbed for an injured Sehorn late last season. His teammates and coaches, however, have always believed in him (Sehorn even defended him in a tirade aimed at local beat writers during the preseason) and in 2000 he showed why, leading the team in interceptions with six as the nickelback in passing situations. He didn’t make any picks against the Eagles Sunday, but he did share (with Armstead) in a critical third-quarter sack of Eagles’ QB Donovan McNabb.
“One reason that I brought E-Mac back here this year is his mental toughness,” said Fassel. “He steps into situations and battles for you.” He’ll be relied on to do so again this weekend against the Vikings’ aerial attack led by receivers Randy Moss and Cris Carter.
Ryan Phillips, linebacker
Another under-appreciated member of the Giants’ defense, Phillips has played well in the shadow of the All-Pro Armstead and free-agent signee Mike Barrow. He has been solid against the run all season and even made the occasional big play, including a key second-half interception in Big Blue’s home-field-advantage-clinching victory over Jacksonville last month. On Sunday, he alertly stepped out of coverage to tackle the nimble McNabb and hold him to a meaningless two-yard gain. After the game, defensive coordinator Fox cited Phillips, a third-round draft choice out of Idaho in 1997, as one of the central players in the defense’s effort to contain McNabb, who had rushed for 629 yards during the regular season but only 17 on Sunday. This week, Phillips and the Giants will face a similar challenge against the Vikings’ mobile QB Daunte Culpepper, who ran for 470 yards during the regular season.
“It seems like we face a quarterback who can run every week,” Phillips joked after the game. “But that’s my job: to keep the other team’s rushers contained and bring them back to the middle of the field so that Jessie and Mike can make the tackle. It’s not something the fans are going to notice, and it’s not going to do much for my stats, but as long as my teammates notice, that’s what’s important to me.”
A jovial Phillips added, “The only glamorous guy on our team is [Sehorn].” That may or may not be true. But what is true is that the Giants have earned the right to face yet another team loaded with more marquee names—Carter, Moss, Culpepper, Robert Smith, and John Randle, for starters—but not nearly as much momentum.
“That’s what’s been great about our team this year: We’ve been a team,” glamour boy Sehorn told the Voice recently. “You can’t single out one guy. Everyone in this locker room has contributed.” If they continue to do so, all of the Giants will have a chance to shine in Tampa, site of Super Bowl XXXV later this month.