On the second-to-last weekend of the NFL season, with their playoff hopes in the balance, the Giants’ defense walked onto the field at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia needing to make a stand. With his team clinging to a fragile 10-7 lead with 14:20 left in a game they had to win, sack-master Michael Strahan got cocky. Hearing the cheers of the Philly faithful imploring their Eagles to make a play, he waved his arms in the air, egging them on.
He asked for it. And got it. On the ensuing play, Philly QB Donovan McNabb found James Thrash for a 57-yard touchdown pass to give the Eagles a 14-10 lead in a game they eventually won 24-21, knocking the Giants out of playoff contention. New York’s Philly failure wasn’t sealed until much, much later. But the Strahan incident typifies what had been, at times, an embarrassing season for the defending NFC champs. Like their star defensive end, the Giants brought most of their problems this season on themselves, and now they are home watching lesser teams (Tampa Bay, anyone?) in the NFL playoffs. Why?
Because they relied on Jason Sehorn. Sehorn is a gifted athlete. But he’s also injury-prone and inconsistent. So why make him the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback (with a six-year, $36 million deal) after his piss-poor showing in last season’s Super Bowl and with two rookie corners on the other side of the hash marks? Sehorn was part of a mediocre, at best, pass defense in 2000 that ranked 15th in the league. As Viking wide receiver Cris Carter reportedly said earlier this season, Sehorn is the most overrated corner in the league. Look for New York to retain his athleticism, though, by moving him to free safety and jettisoning either unrestricted free agent Shaun Williams or New York native Sam Garnes from the backfield.
Because they didn’t replace Pete Mitchell. True, the former Giant tight end was not a significant part of Big Blue’s game plan during last season’s Super Bowl run. But in today’s NFL, you can’t go into the season without a legitimate pass-catching tight end. As New York head coach Jim Fassel said last fall, “You track down all the teams that go to the Super Bowl and win, and generally speaking they all have a receiving tight end.” He’s right. Among the past 10 NFL champs, only the 1992 Washington Redskins and the 2000 St. Louis Rams did not have a tight end with at least 25 receptions during the regular season. By that logic, Big Blue sealed its fate in training camp by sticking with the stone-hands troika of Howard Cross, Dan Campbell, and Marcellus Rivers, who went on to combine for 17 catches this year. That, along with an off year from fullback Greg Comella, gave QB Kerry Collins few reliable safety valves this season. Big Blue brass will need to address that via the draft or free agency if Collins is to be successful in 2002.
Because they let the offensive line get old. Bringing in vets Glenn Parker, Lomas Brown, and Dusty Zeigler arguably provided a firm foundation for Big Blue’s Super Bowl run last year. But the Giants stuck with the aging Brown and Parker (38 and 35, respectively) one year too long, leaving the slow-footed Collins vulnerable in the pocket. That’s at least part of the reason for the QB’s record-tying 21 fumbles this season. Now with Ron Stone likely leaving as an unrestricted free agent, the Giants will once again need to retool three-fifths of their offensive line in one off-season. A tall order to pull off successfully once, much less twice.
When asked following the Giants’ season finale last week at the Meadowlands if issues such as these had already been considered by him and the rest of the Big Blue brain trust, Fassel replied, “Yes, they have.” Then, when asked if he would discuss them specifically, he tersely replied, “No, I can’t.” He went on: “I will evaluate the team. Somehow and somewhere, we left this season short.”