Thursday, May 10, 2012
Giants an odd sort of defending champion
By Dan Graziano
Despite a strong nucleus led by Eli Manning, right, and Justin Tuck, the Giants have a lot of questions.
The defending Super Bowl champions get back to work this weekend, as the New York Giants hold their rookie minicamp in East Rutherford, N.J. Repeating is hard work, though, and there are good reasons why only one team this century has been able to do it.
You lose players. You lose coaches. You become the No. 1 target for teams that have identified you as the biggest obstacle standing in their way of getting what they want. The people who run the Giants, and many of the people who play for the Giants, were in this position four years ago, and they know all about the challenges that face the defending Super Bowl champs.
But this year's Giants are not your ordinary defending champ. They were, speaking strictly in terms of winning percentage, the weakest Super Bowl champion in history. They didn't even secure their playoff spot until the final game of the regular season. With two weeks to go, they were 7-7 and in real danger of finishing under .500.
All of these things are facts, just as much as the title they won. So as they get back to work this spring and summer, the Giants face the seemingly incongruous dual task of maintaining the magic that brought them their title while also improving a 9-7 team.
Rather than wait for problems to present themselves, or roster holes to open, the Giants constantly churn the middle and the back end of their roster, developing players in their system so they're ready to step in when need arises. There are running backs and wide receivers on the roster who have been waiting for the opportunity created by the free-agent defections of Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham, and those players will get the chance to do what Cruz and Pierre-Paul did last year when presented with similar chances. The Giants never allow themselves to get so thin at any one position that they don't at least have options for replacing those who leave or get hurt or decide to sit out training camp.
That said, this Giants team does have holes to fill and problems to solve. They finished 32nd in the league in rushing offense -- a fact that, while mitigated by the improvements the run game showed in December and January -- didn't sit well with their running backs and their offensive linemen. They will need to get better there, and to do so they'll need Ahmad Bradshaw's feet to stay healthy for the first time in years. Plus, they must find someone to replace the 167 touches and eight touchdowns Jacobs contributed to last season's cause.
They'll need to shuffle the offensive line again. While Kareem McKenzie was not what he used to be, he was the starting right tackle on a team that won the Super Bowl, and they did not replace him. They hope that Will Beatty (a) comes back healthy from his eye injury and (b) plays better than he did at left tackle in the first 10 games of last season.
David Diehl isn't around to slide over and bail him out this time. Diehl's got to play right tackle in place of McKenzie. The Giants have some offensive linemen they like for the long-term, but this looks like another transition year on the line. While they have enough good veterans in place to pull it off, that's a tough tightrope act to try too many years in a row.
They have bodies at linebacker, with Keith Rivers brought in as a good veteran reinforcement and some of last year's promising rookies hopefully ready to take a next step, but they have no clear man for the middle. They have bodies at cornerback, but they have question marks there, too.
Don't think for a second that GM Jerry Reese isn't concerned. He used each of his first three draft picks on positions at which he lost a player in free agency -- running back (David Wilson for Jacobs), wide receiver (Rueben Randle for Mario Manningham) and cornerback (Jayron Hosley for Aaron Ross). And he's smart to be concerned, because while these Giants rightfully consider themselves a championship team, they're also a team that won one less regular-season game in 2011 than it won in 2010. Had someone in the NFC East won 10 and the Giants missed the playoffs, their offseason narrative would have been that of a team moving in the wrong direction.
Instead, the Giants have a two-front problem to solve. They have a division and a conference and a league full of teams that saw what they did and now consider Super Bowl glory more attainable than ever. And they have an internal mandate to be better this year than 9-7, because they know first-hand that it's not usually good enough to get you the chance to make a Super Bowl run.
They're capable of doing it, and they'll deservedly enter the season among the favorites to win it all again. They have superstars at quarterback, wide receiver and defensive end, and in this day and age that can carry you a long way. But as far as defending Super Bowl champions go, these Giants have more issues than most -- and more work to do.