- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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See, this is why the New York Giants like to keep their offseasons as dull and quiet as possible. Too often, the news you make this time of the year isn't the good kind.
The Giants' OTA workout Tuesday featured two troubling items. First, there was the absence of wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, for as-yet unknown reasons, along with that of fellow star wideout Victor Cruz, who wants a new contract. Giants coach Tom Coughlin grumbled and expressed his irritation, which is an unfair thing coaches do to players who skip voluntary workouts, but ultimately this is a sign of a long-range Giants problem and not a short-term one. I can't imagine Nicks, coming off an injury-shredded 2012 season, skipping anything mandatory because of his contract.
The other item was a knee injury to fullback Henry Hynoski, who had to be carted off the practice field and will have surgery to repair his MCL. No way to know yet how long he'll be out, but losing a top blocking fullback like Hynoski for all or part of the season would be a major blow to a Giants running game that has already this offseason lost Ahmad Bradshaw and premier run-blocking tight end Martellus Bennett.
Add these receiver and run-game troubles to the questions the Giants already face at all three levels of their defense and on the offensive line, and it would be easy to start doubting them. Yet, when prediction season rolls around, you can bet the Giants will get plenty of pundit love as a contender (or even the favorite) for the NFC East title. The biggest reason is that, for everything else they have going on, they still have fewer questions than any of their division rivals do about their quarterback situation.
Eli Manning is the steadying force at the center of the Giants' universe. The reason they can stick to their guns in contract talks with their wide receivers is their belief that Manning can get the best out of whatever receivers they give him. The reason they don't sweat right tackle is their faith in Manning's ability to get rid of the ball quickly. If they worry about the secondary having another bad year or the defensive line getting thin or the linebacking corps being a patchwork mess, they can get themselves to sleep at night with images of Manning bringing them back from behind to win in the fourth quarter.
This isn't to say the Giants don't have problems or that Manning is the cure-all. But in a division that lacks a dominant, dynastic, Patriots-type 13-win team that is clearly better than the other three, the Giants will remain contenders as long as Manning remains their quarterback. At this moment, if the Giants look around the NFC East and ask themselves, "Where are we better than everyone else?" he's their answer.
The reigning division champion is the Washington Redskins, who admirably managed to hold on to 21 of 22 starters from last season in spite of crippling salary-cap penalties levied against them by a committee chaired by the Giants' owner. People will pick the Redskins to repeat, and they very well might. They should be healthier on defense, which will help, and if quarterback Robert Griffin III makes a brilliant, untroubled recovery from his reconstructive knee surgery, the Redskins will be worthy favorites. But that is an "if" right now on RG III, and reconstructive knee surgery is no joke. As good as the Redskins feel about their quarterback position for the long term, they do not currently have clarity on it for 2013.
The Dallas Cowboys came within one game of winning the division each of the past two seasons, and they also should be healthier on defense this time around. People will pick them to win this division, and there are good reasons to do so. Their quarterback is the excellent Tony Romo, who has this offseason been granted a $108 million contract extension and an increased role in the responsibility for designing and running the offense. The Cowboys like Romo and have plenty of good reasons. But after he threw three interceptions in the division-deciding game in Washington last season (after throwing a total of three in the eight-game stretch that preceded it), the Cowboys have no choice but to wonder whether Romo can really come through for them in a game that decides a season. Romo can play 15 brilliant games in 2013 and still not erase that overarching worry.
The Philadelphia Eagles have a bunch of quarterbacks, but there are serious questions about all of them. Can Michael Vick run the quick-release, up-tempo offense new coach Chip Kelly wants to run? Is Nick Foles better than a third-round pick? Is Matt Barkley better than a fourth? Is there any reason to believe Dennis Dixon is anything more than a backup? A lot of things about this year's Eagles are new and exciting, but the muddle at the most important position is the chief reason to wonder about them and the main reason they'll be the team left out of the discussion about who can win the NFC East.
The Giants have sleepwalked a bit through this offseason, as is their wont. They had their typically unexciting draft, and they don't seem to have done much to immediately improve a team that went 9-7 each of the past two regular seasons and has missed the playoffs in three of the past four years. But they will be contenders, and they will be a relatively popular pick to win a competitive NFC East, because they know exactly what they have at quarterback. More than any other quarterback in this division at this moment in time, Manning offers his team reason to believe everything will be all right.