Giants: Hitting for Average
By Brian P. Dunleavy
Former Giant GM George Young once said, “By the time a player’s a household name, he’s on the downhill slide.”
The 2002 Giants, then, must have the two-time Super Bowl-winning executive doing back flips in his grave. With big names Tiki Barber, Jason Sehorn, Michael Strahan, and Kerry Collins locked up in big-money contracts, Big Blue, which kicks off 2002 on Thursday night, has had little room under the NFL salary cap to maintain, much less improve upon, the personnel that finished 2001 7-9. Sixteen players are gone from that already mediocre squad, and the Giants were the only NFL team not to sign a veteran free agent from another team before training camp began.
“That’s a management thing,” defensive tackle Keith Hamilton tells the Voice. “As players, we know the salary cap isn’t what’s going to keep us from making plays out there.”
No, but having enough players to make plays is. Here’s a quick guide to who’s left and who’s left behind:
VETERAN MISSED MOST BY PLAYERS: Jessie Armstead. The linebacker was the Giants’ unquestioned leader and spokesman, especially for the defense. With Washington, he’ll suit up twice against his former mates this fall.
VETERAN MISSED LEAST BY PLAYERS: Jason Sehorn. Oh wait, he’s still on the team. Injury-prone and a step slow, Sehorn, who hasn’t played a full season since 1997 and barely suited up in the pre-season, has done more on TV than on the field in recent years. In only the second year of a six-year, $36 million contract, he will soon lose his job to sophomore corners Will Allen and Will Peterson.
VETERAN MISSED MOST BY MANAGEMENT: Lomas Brown. The offensive lineman showed unwavering support for coach Jim Fassel during his two-year tenure, and he had the respect of teammates as well.
VETERAN MISSED LEAST BY MANAGEMENT: Jessie Armstead. He spearheaded a team revolt against Fassel in ’99 and had a chip on his shoulder most of last season thanks to a contract dispute.
BEST PLAYER WHO STAYED: Tiki Barber. A poor man’s Marshall Faulk.
WORST UNIT—AGAIN: Special teams. New coach (Bruce Read), some new players, same old results. During the pre-season, Fassel described this unit’s play as “horseshit.”
BIGGEST MOUTH: Michael Strahan. The self-proclaimed best defensive end in the NFL (he’s right) has more than replaced Armstead in pissing off management. But he also pisses off teammates.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: Kerry Collins. Signed to a two-year contract extension last month, he still must show better instincts in the pocket—and cut down on fumbles and INTs.
PLAYERS WITH MOST TO PROVE: Offensive line. “Just from being in the huddle, you can see guys are thinking, ‘I hope I don’t screw up,’ ” vet Luke Petitgout says of this group. The Giants let three starters walk—including Pro Bowler Ron Stone—and moved Petitgout from right to left tackle during the off-season.
“We’re thin in some areas,” Fassel admits. “But,” he adds, as if trying to convince himself, “I think we’ll be OK.” At least they’ll have their big-name players to keep fans’ attention during what should be, at best, another 7-9 season.
Jets: Pass or Fail
By Paul Forrester
For all of the changes Gang Green made in the off-season, you’d think the Jets were 6-10 last year rather than 10-6. Incorporating six new defensive starters and three fresh faces on the offensive side of the ball should be a cinch for a coach who last year guided a team that didn’t pass and couldn’t stop opposing running backs into the playoffs. Of course it helps to have 1500-yard rusher named Curtis Martin on your team. As he has been for his eight previous seasons, Martin is a given. Nothing else is.
COACH MOST LIKELY TO BE CONFUSED WITH DR. PHIL: Herman Edwards. During his rookie season, Edwards found himself consumed with hand-holding and counseling sessions to hold together the marriage of quarterback Vinny Testaverde and offensive coordinator Paul Hackett. Last year’s so-called West Coast offense kept the passing game short and the running backs busy. The result was an air attack that ranked next-to-last in the league and a frustrated signal-caller who openly questioned the play-calling by the end of the season. With a playoff berth in the balance, Edwards nimbly mediated the situation, publicly backing Hackett while quietly coaxing his coordinator to loosen up the attack.
WORST UNIT: Offensive line. The last thing a 38-year-old quarterback needs is to line up behind a line in flux. Get ready to run, Vinny. After seven years of molding one of the NFL’s most consistent offensive lines, assistant coach Bill Muir took his gruff but effective technique to Tampa Bay. Following Muir out the door were left guard Kerry Jenkins, also to Tampa, and promising right tackle Ryan Young to Houston in the expansion draft. Free-agent signee Dave Szott was lost for the season when he tore his ACL. Edwards bravely touts new OL coach Doug Marrone’s experience as a player: “Doug stayed in the league by using the proper technique and working on the little things. He preaches and teaches that all of the time, and they are really buying into that.” Sorry, but we’re not.
SLOWEST UNIT: Donnie Abraham and crew. Give these defensive backs oven mitts. Abraham and fellow newcomer Aaron Beasley got burned 57 percent of the time by opposing receivers, according to numbers crunched by STATS Inc. And holdover free safety Damien Robinson gave up almost 15 yards per reception allowed. Edwards recruited his new defensive backfield (including Giants castoff Sam Garnes at strong safety) based more on their familiarity with his zone-coverage schemes than on physical talent. The new final line of defense is a noticeably slower bunch than last year’s model and will need plenty of help from the defensive line—which may very well be up to that task.
BEST UNIT: Defensive line. In 1982 Mark Gastineau led the New York Sack Exchange to the AFC title game. This year’s group bristles with an aggressiveness not seen since then and is even deeper. Defensive end John Abraham (13 sacks in 2001) is the anchor, and the Jets drafted a clone named Bryan Thomas who will soon be the other bookend. Run-stuffing nose tackle Jason Ferguson returns, and so does Shaun Ellis. “They have an attacking scheme with great athletes on the outside,” says Todd McShay, an analyst for the War Room, a football think tank.
But what about that offense? Last season’s post-season appearance calmed the feud between Testaverde and Hackett, but Edwards maintained his counseling sessions during the summer, sitting in on numerous offensive meetings. “This offense can be successful,” says the War Room’s McShay, “but if things do not start well, it has the potential to become an explosive situation.” Keep the couch warm, Dr. Herm.