Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Steady Giants keeping things simple
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For those few remaining contrarians who somehow question the Super Bowl potential of the New York Giants, here is a reminder.
In last Sunday's 44-7 dismantling of the woeful Oakland Raiders to remain undefeated after five outings, the resourceful Giants were at less than full strength. As NFC East blogger Matt Mosley pointed out so well during the middle of last week, the Giants have remained atop what generally is regarded as the NFL's most competitive division with something less than a total complement of ambulatory players.
Against the Raiders, the Giants were without at least five projected starters, including top cornerback Aaron Ross, who has yet to play a snap this season because of his hamstring injury. Starting free safety Kenny Phillips is lost for the season to a knee injury. Key nickel cornerback Kevin Dockery (hamstring) has played only one game. Tight end Kevin Boss and linebacker Michael Boley, both starters, are nicked up. Defensive tackle Chris Canty, the team's most notable veteran free-agent offseason acquisition, has been limited by injury to one game and no starts.
The passing game, minus proven veterans Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, features two wide receivers in Mario Manningham and Steve Smith (the NFL leader in catches) who combined for four regular-season starts before this season. In the running game, New York is getting more production early in the campaign from backup tailback Ahmad Bradshaw than starter Brandon Jacobs. And quarterback Eli Manning produced a perfect passer rating of 158.3 in Week 5 despite playing less than two quarters after only one day of practice last week due to plantar fasciitis in his right heel.
Eli Manning is off to a strong start. So are many of the Giants' lesser-known players.
OK, it was only the Raiders, a ragtag bunch who should be an embarrassment to Hall of Fame owner Al Davis. And the Giants probably could have won the mismatch convincingly if they had replaced Manning in the second quarter with David Spade instead of former No. 1 pick David Carr. But give New York and coach Tom Coughlin credit for this: In a game through which they could have sleepwalked, they never took their foot off the throttle.
This is a team, one that heads into this weekend's big NFC matchup against the impressive Saints in New Orleans, that pretty much plays at one speed and is essentially oblivious to the pedigree of the opponent on the other sideline.
"We're a team that goes way beyond the 22 [starting] players," said Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Tuck, who registered a sack, forced fumble and recovery against Oakland. "And we don't look past anybody. I know every guy in the league gives you the old 'one game at a time' deal, but we really do play just the team in front of us on a weekly basis. We don't lose sight of the big prize."
That unwavering fixation aside, some league evaluators seem to lose focus when it comes to the excellence of this Giants team, which is 5-0 for the first time since 1990, when Bill Parcells led the franchise to a 10-0 start and a Super Bowl XXV victory. Perhaps that's because pragmatism and a lack of glitz aren't always appreciated in the NFL as qualities a Super Bowl contender should possess. But only two seasons removed from their Super Bowl XLII upset over New England, and less than three years from when Coughlin was forced to deal with some mutineers in his locker room, the Giants are a very stable team.
They are a club that in large part mirrors the firm image of its coach but won't precipitate many surprises should it claim a Super Bowl XLIV victory.
"I would think we're a pretty efficient team," assessed center Shaun O'Hara, the unofficial leader of one of the NFL's premier offensive lines. "We are very economical in what we do. We might not always be the flashiest [team] around, but we don't have a lot of ups and downs. We just kind of play our game and let things take care of themselves."
In a league where the overall quality is diluted by franchises such as Oakland, and where the fates of some clubs rely on the performance of their most conspicuous players, stability and steadfastness are critical attributes. The Giants have plenty of both. It doesn't hurt that the Mara family name has been on the letterhead since the franchise's inception, or that Coughlin is one of only eight NFL head coaches who had five full seasons or more of continued employment with the same franchise entering this season. The stability of the franchise has engendered an even-keeled culture that doesn't require a roster full of big names to succeed.
Clearly, there has been some change, as is typical in the league. But the Giants have made usually sage free-agency acquisitions and have undergone some addition by subtraction (as was the case with Burress). Also, general manager Jerry Reese has done a perfect job of drafting well and augmenting the solid player inventory compiled by his predecessor, Ernie Accorsi.
Only a healthy cab ride removed from Broadway's bright lights, the Giants franchise ironically has flourished away from the spotlight's glare. That's a reflection of Coughlin, a coach whose ability is often underestimated by outsiders, but who inexorably has built a winning mindset.
Beyond Manning, who owns arguably what is currently the most famous surname in the league, most casual fans have trouble identifying New York's top players. Then again, most Giants fans are anything but casual, and New York's roster is an impressive amalgamation of work-ethic players more concerned with collective results than with individual credit.
"When you play for each other, the last thing you want to do is let down the guy next to you," middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "We're more achievers than overachievers. But the thing is, you really don't want to disappoint any of your teammates."
So far, the Giants haven't.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.