KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Had he been in a joking mood, New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks might have explained his own disappointing performance in Sunday's 31-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs by pointing out that Eli Manning can't catch the passes himself. After being targeted only once last week, Nicks dropped a couple of catchable balls this week and took ownership of his own role in the loss that dropped the Giants to 0-4 for the season.
"Definitely, on my end, I felt like I could have come down with two or three that I didn't come down with," Nicks said. "That's on me, and I know I have to play better. As an offense, I know we can play better. It wasn't that long ago we were all out there making big plays. I still believe we will bounce back."
And the truth is they probably will. The Giants' skill-position players on offense are very talented. The line is awful right now, but offensive lines have a way of improving as the season goes along. And next week's opponent is the Philadelphia Eagles, whose defense is far more vulnerable than those against which the Giants have played their first four games. Nicks and the Giants are justified in thinking things will get better for the offense, if for no other reason than they can't get worse.
Where Nicks is wrong, though, is in his expectation of what "bounce back" means. Inside the Giants' locker room, as there should be, remains hope that something can still be made of this season. They are professionals, still getting paid, and they will continue to work and believe until the math tells them to stop.
But the long view says it's over, before October has even hit. Only one team ever has made the playoffs after an 0-4 start. The Giants right now have so many problems at so many positions that it's impossible to imagine them replicating the 1992 Chargers' 11-1 finish. And even if the NFC East persists in its top-end mediocrity of the past three seasons and can be won with eight or nine wins, and even if the Giants could go 8-4 the rest of the way and pull off something like that, it only would obscure their larger problems. This is a team in need of major work. And with this season lost, it's time for the Giants to start thinking about 2014 and beyond.
So, yeah, Nicks might "bounce back" and post big numbers the rest of the way. He's a talented-enough player to do it, and if he did, it wouldn't be a surprise. But the Giants are going to be watching very closely to see whether he can, or whether the leg injuries of the past few seasons have diminished him as a player. The Giants are going to have a decision to make on Nicks, who's a pending free agent. The final 12 games of this season are a chance for him to show he's healthy enough to deserve the big-money deal he wants.
And he's not the only one. The Giants are going to have offseason decisions to make on decorated veterans such as Justin Tuck, Chris Snee, Corey Webster and Antrel Rolle. And while some of those decisions seem obvious from here, it's not crazy to think they could be affected one way or the other by what those players show in terms of health and productivity over the final 12 games of this season.
They have a decision looming not long from now on Jason Pierre-Paul, who has one sack in his past 11 games. The Giants still believe Pierre-Paul is a special-enough talent to be a foundation piece for their defense. But if he continues to languish through the final three-quarters of this season the way he has since the midpoint of last season, they may find themselves re-evaluating that assessment.
They are stuck with Victor Cruz (who's playing great) and Will Beatty, but the performances of those players in the next 12 games could help them determine how much and what sort of help the team needs to find at their positions next spring. If Beatty, for example, doesn't play like a franchise left tackle (and to this point, he certainly has not), do they think about drafting one next year and using Beatty on the right side (and Justin Pugh at guard) long-term? Personally, I think they need to give David Wilson the ball as their feature back the rest of the season and find out whether he's a keeper or whether they need to find someone there, too.
And, yes, of course, there are coaches to evaluate. Tom Coughlin gets to coach the team as long as he wants, and he's earned that right. But it's entirely possible the performance of the team over the final 12 games could cause Coughlin and/or Giants management to re-evaluate the coordinators and other assistants. The Giants prefer to wait until the end of the season to make those decisions, and with no obvious replacements on staff, one has to believe offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell get these final three months to keep the team convinced they're the right men for their respective jobs.
Manning is 32 years old, so there's plenty of window left for him. Heck, his brother is 37 and making a mockery of the league. The questions are about what kind of team the Giants can put around him, and how quickly they can retool at the most important spots. The issues on the offensive and defensive lines are the result of a failure to develop replacements for aging veterans, and now general manager Jerry Reese and the front office have two things to do: figure out which current members of the team look like important parts of its future, and then go out and find replacements for the ones who don't. That's a bitter realization for a team on Sept. 29, but that's where the Giants are, and that's what they have to do.