Friday, October 17, 2003
Giants offense hurt by turnovers
By Greg Garber
East Rutherford, N.J. -- Jim Fassel is a proactive head coach.
When the Giants fell to 7-4 during the 2000 season, the head coach guaranteed his team would make the playoffs -- they won the final five games and went on to the Super Bowl. When the Giants started 3-4 last season, Fassel took over the play-calling duties and the team responded by going 7-2 over their last nine games to make the playoffs. When the kicking game imploded in the Giants' stunning wild-card loss to the 49ers, Fassel was aggressive in the offseason free agent market.
This season, another disturbing problem has manifested itself: the 2-3 Giants cannot seem to hang onto the football. Their turnover net, minus-8, is the league's second-worst total, behind the Arizona Cardinals
Considering that Fassel's teams have historically taken care of the ball -- in six previous seasons, the Giants had 155 giveaways, 1.61 per game, fifth-lowest among NFL head coaches who began their careers since 1970 -- this is a perplexing turn of events. According to Fassel, the turnovers are killing him.
"As a head coach, when you're by yourself, it grinds at me unmercifully," he said Wednesday at Giants Stadium. "I mean, it just grinds me down. But when I get in front of that team, I get in front of my coaches, they see no defeat in me at all. It's not going to change me, it's not going to defeat me -- it's not going to.
"If we don't turn the ball over, we could be 4-1, we could be 5-0 -- you don't know."
This much we do know: The Giants franchise, in business for 79 seasons now, has never, ever had better skill-position players than they do right now. Quarterback Kerry Collins threw for 4,073 yards last year. Running back Tiki Barber produced a combined 1,984 yards rushing and receiving. Amani Toomer caught 82 passes for 1,343 yards and rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey caught 74 passes for 894 yards.
This season's numbers through five games -- points, yards and first downs -- are all running well ahead of last year's. The Giants' offense, believe it or not, is ranked No. 5 in yards per game and No. 3 in first downs per game.
However, turnovers, the oldest maxim in the coaching catalogue, have rendered the offense impotent.
The Giants lost 23-10 to Miami and 17-6 at New England. In their 33 offensive possessions in those games, they scored exactly one touchdown.
After the Patriots loss last Sunday, Fassel had a reel of all the mistakes put together. He said there was no particular pattern to be found in Collins' nine interceptions; two followed hits in the pocket, two were tipped at the line, two came when receivers failed to hang onto the ball, two were bad choices by Collins and one was on fourth-and-6.
Collins, who threw a staggering seven interceptions in those two games, is trying to stay positive.
"You've got to be able to put it out of your mind," Collins said. "I mean, that's what I do. You realize that they're not going to hang you in Times Square if things don't work out. I've thrown bigger interceptions in bigger games and it's not going to scare me."
Considering Fassel's options are backups Jesse Palmer and Jason Garrett, he has little choice but to stick with Collins.
"I can't just pull him out of the game because he is our most valuable player and he's got to carry the load for us," Fassel said. "I'm going to have to live with that."
It's not just Collins. Barber has four fumbles in five games this season, the continuation of a frightening trend. Since the 2000 season, Barber has fumbled the ball 30 times -- the league's worst figure in that span by a non-quarterback.
Fassel said Barber is carrying the ball a little too far back in his arm and is lifting his arm (thereby exposing the ball) when he's making a cut or jumping over a would-be tackler.
"I don't want to hammer the point so much to him that I make him paranoid about carry the football," Fassel said. "I want him to play and run hard. I just talked to him about a few technique things and, at practice, our defense really went after the ball a lot. We didn't say anything to him, just went after it a lot."
The Giants' first three offensive plays at New England illustrate the problem. On the first play from scrimmage, Collins dropped back to pass, but Patriots defensive tackle Richard Seymour reached up and deflected his pass to Ike Hilliard into the arms of cornerback Tyrone Pole. On the second play of the next possession, Poole broke into the backfield and knocked the ball out of Barber's hands and linebacker Matt Chatham returned it 38 yards for a touchdown.
That's a tough act to recover from -- especially for Barber. He admitted fumbles are starting to seep into his consciousness.
"It does, it does," Barber said. "This is where your confidence comes in and this is where your faith comes in. I'm not talking about faith in a spiritual sense. I'm talking about faith in believing -- you can't prove it's true (that he is not a fumbler), but you just know it about yourself.
"The bottom line is, as soon as you stop believing, you don't have a chance. You might as well take the pads off and go home."
While Barber and Collins have been taking the big hits -- literally -- there are other culprits. Hilliard has lost two fumbles and the offensive line has been under siege. The Giants started two rookies against Dallas in the second game and there have been chronic protection problems. The Dolphins and Patriots stacked the line of scrimmage, baiting Collins into throwing into coverage.
"I think what we need to do is start protecting Kerry," Barber said. "When defenses start to think they can get to Kerry, they load guys in the box and, consequently, our run game suffers. All of a sudden, we become a one-dimensional team, and that's when you get forced into turnovers.
"So we need to find a way to stay regular -- stay regular running the ball, stay regular throwing the ball, protect Kerry Collins and we'll be OK."
The Giants remain confident -- at least they're saying all the right things. Collins, for one, feels the offense is on the verge of something big.
"No question," he said. "That's the attitude that I have and I think that everybody else has it, too."
But, with all due respect, people talked about this offense being the team's best ever.
"The season's not over, either," a feisty Collins responded. "Listen, when we put it all together, we're going to be hell."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.