NY Giants 2009 Preview
New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs said it: “If we had Plax on our team, we go 15-1 and we win the Super Bowl.” Jacobs was referring to New York’s disappointing 2008 season, in which they began the year 11-1, only to lose star receiver Plaxico Burress and four of their final five games after that (including a home Divisional Round playoff contest to the hated Philadelphia Eagles).
Ignore the part about 15-1 and a second Super Bowl title––those debatable details really aren’t relevant. What is relevant is Jacobs’s general message: the Giants were a weaker team without Burress. That is absolutely true.
What’s awkward is that Burress flies in the face of everything that Tom Coughlin and the Mara and Tisch families stand for. He is selfish and notoriously unpunctual. His work ethic would be snickered at even in France. Off the field, Burress is a menace who relies on deep pockets to overcome society’s rigorous demands of common decency. His on-field character can be equally as deplorable when he doesn’t get the ball early in games. And yet, the Giants need him. Or, someone like him.
Burress’s 1,000-yard type production is not what makes him valuable. Rather, like an armed security guard, it’s his mere presence that’s important. Burress is by no means the game’s best wideout. But because he’s 6’5”, 232, lanky as a giraffe and strong as an ox, he has an uncanny blend of skills that makes him impossible to contain one-on-one. Defenses must play Burress underneath and over the top.
The trickle down effect of this is staggering. For starters, double Burress compromises a defense’s ability to be deceptive. This enables quarterback Eli Manning and all his receivers to easily diagnose coverages. Two men on Burress also means, most likely, just one man on everyone else. In a spread offense, this creates huge throwing lanes. Furthermore, the second defender on Burress often would have been the eighth defender in the box. Unable to sneak a safety down, defenses become limited in their blitz packages and overmatched by New York’s three-headed rushing attack (which ranked No. 1 in the league last year). This makes life simpler on Giants the offensive line. All these factors combine to give the Giants enough offensive firepower to build leads that allow their defense to pin its ears back and attack. And there’s your trickle-down effect.
It seems overly simplistic to say that New York just needs another Burress-like receiving weapon in order to recapture its Super Bowl contender status. But it might be true. Every other caveat with this team was nullified by what Michael Strahan called the Ten Table Ring. The erratic Eli Manning became a leader and star under pressure. The volatile Tom Coughlin became a player-friendly disciplinarian. The makeshift offensive line became the game’s most cohesive five-man unit. The defensive front seven was recognized as the best in football. The inexperienced secondary became a bright young secondary. Untried GM Jerry Reese became one of the league’s shrewdest front office execs. It’s amazing how diamond rings can change an image.
This year, every potential dimple of cellulite in the Giants’ firm, golden thigh has been obfuscated. Running back Derrick Ward, who gained 1,025 yards backing up 1,089-yard starter Brandon Jacobs, left in free agency but was replaced by shifty third-year pro Ahmad Bradshaw. Ingenious defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo took the head coaching job in St. Louis, but most observers are confident in his understudy, former linebackers coach Bill Sheridan.
It helps that Sheridan will have a more mature secondary––with third-year corner Aaron Ross ready to fully sprout and second-year safety Kenny Phillips ready to erupt––and a more athletic linebacking core featuring agile ex-Falcon Michael Boley and second-round rookie Clint Sintim. Oh, and did we mention that Jerry Reese reloaded what was already a dynamic front four? Pro Bowl end Osi Umenyiora returns from ACL surgery and will play alongside free agent pickups Rocky Bernard and Chris Canty, two powerful 300-plus-pounders who have enough quickness to consistently fire through gaps.
Every issue is covered. Except the one about replacing Burress. Reese probably could have filled the gaping hole at wide receiver by trading for Arizona’s Anquan Boldin or Cleveland’s Braylon Edwards. But instead of paying a premium for sure-things, he rolled the dice on Draft Day, selecting North Carolina’s Hakeem Nicks at the end of Round One and Cal-Poly’s Ramses Barden in Round Three. It’s a questionable risk for a team that’s ready to win now. But Reese has that glittering ring. So instead of saying what?!, we can only say hmmmm…..
In a perfect world, the 6’6” Ramses Barden steps in and immediately becomes Plaxico Burress, while the 6’1” Hakeem Nicks assumes the part of Amani Toomer. This is essentially what both players were drafted to be. Barden has field-stretching speed and small forward-like hops. Nicks, like Toomer, is not blazingly fast, but he’s well-skilled and adept over the middle. The problem is, while both rookies impressed in mini camps, it’s doubtful they’ll be ready to contribute significantly this autumn (Barden especially).
Thus, Eli Manning will likely be throwing to fourth-year pro Domenik Hixon and third-year man Steve Smith most often in 2009. Though untested until last year, Hixon is gifted enough to start. He’s not a burner but can get downfield. Quick footwork makes him an estimable route runner. Still, Hixon’s no more a No. 1 than Smith is a No. 2. And anyone who has watched Smith knows that he’s not a No. 2. Smith is best served as a mismatch-creating slot receiver. His dependability in short areas makes him Manning’s favorite target on third down.
Mario Manningham’s name will be tossed around in training camp, but if the Giants believed that the second-year pro could comprehend the playbook and adjust to the NFL game, they probably wouldn’t have drafted Barden. It’s way too early to pass final judgment, but Manningham seems like the next Sinorice Moss: talented but mostly irrelevant.
Starting tight end Kevin Boss is a feeble blocker but always a much better receiver than defenses realize. He’s not someone to build a passing game around, which is why, in the future, Boss may not play ahead of finesse third-round rookie Travis Beckum. For now, though, Beckum should hone his craft behind sub-par No. 2 tight end Michael Matthews.
It’s apparent that Manning will have to make more individual plays in the absence of Burress. He’s ready for the challenge. Manning’s grasp of Kevin Gilbride’s offense has improved each year; if he can be more efficient and astute in his complex presnap gyrations, he can be a tempo-controlling field general in the mold of a Tom Brady or Older Brother. He already has a superstar’s pocket presence.
It’s imperative that New York’s rushing attack continue to dominate. At his best, freight train Brandon Jacobs is borderline unstoppable. His violent downhill running style works because, unlike other elite tailbacks, Jacobs isn’t asked to carry a heavy load on a weekly basis. He can get banged up and not derail the offense. Behind Jacobs, the Giants will distribute half a game’s carries between Ahmad Bradshaw and Danny Ware. Bradshaw is undersized but hard to cleanly touch. He may not be as good in pass protection as Derrick Ward, but he can catch and also be just as productive on the ground. At 6’0”, 234, it’s Ware who is actually molded more like Ward. He has a nice blend of power and pop, which is why few are concerned about the fact that he’s registered only two carries in his three-year career.
Hardnosed fullback Madison Hedgecock makes life easier for New York’s ballcarriers. Hedgecock doesn’t have the power to consistently drive piles, but keen awareness and crafty technique allow him to regularly nullify at least one defender every play. The unity of the Giants offensive line––the NFL’s only line to feature the same five starters the past three years––creates a distinct advantage in run-blocking. Gritty veteran center Shaun O’Hara anchors the middle and forces the action to the second level, naturally facilitating the movement that guards Rich Seubert and Chris Snee thrive on. All three interior linemen are superb technicians with mean streaks.
There are a few critics who still disparage Giant offensive tackles David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie, despite the fact that both have played prominent roles in the team’s recent success. Yes, Diehl, a natural guard protecting Manning’s blindside, and McKenzie, a somewhat slow-footed mauler whom coaches hardly bother asking to play in space, both benefit from frequent tight end help. But that doesn’t mean they’re not suitable starters.
McKenzie’s back spasms and the questionable strength of young backups Guy Whimper and Adam Koets prompted the Giants to draft William Beatty in the second round. Beatty is an athletic run-blocker and figures to get on the field at some point. However, versatile and experienced (though sub-par) veterans Tutan Reyes and Kevin Boothe will likely be the first options off the bench in 2009.
George Young taught Ernie Accorsi, who taught Jerry Reese that you can never have enough pass-rushers. So Reese went out and signed one-gap defensive tackles Rocky Bernard and Chris Canty to play behind run-stuffing incumbents Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins. Both newcomers can also play the run––Canty especially––which is important, as Robbins is 32 and coming off microfracture surgery.
In passing situations, either Canty or Bernard will remain inside, likely next to All-World defensive end Justin Tuck. Tuck’s rare ability to dominate on the edge or up the gut is a product of sheer athleticism and cunning technique. Tuck attacking the quarterback from inside allows agile pass-rushing dynamo Osi Umenyiora and speed-rusher Mathias Kiwanuka to be on the field at the same time. With the return of Umenyiora and his underrated run defense, Kiwanuka moves out of the starting lineup, replacing rising and energetic Dave Tollefson as the first pass-rusher off the bench.
There are whispers about moving Kiwanuka back to strongside linebacker, though given that he lacks creativity even in the familiarity of having his hand in the dirt, it’s doubtful he’d be innovative enough to flourish as a standup defender in space. Besides, the Giants are pretty well set at outside linebacker already. Tenth-year veteran Danny Clark is a superb playside run-stopper. Free agent pickup Michael Boley will start on the weak side, where his speed and agility will prove more beneficial. (Boley spent his four years in Atlanta at strongside linebacker.) Boley, unlike Clark, is a fantastic pass defender. The Giants also think he can be a vibrant blitzer, which is critical in Bill Sheridan’s über-aggressive scheme. If he can’t, second-round rookie Clint Sintim, or rock-solid role player Chase Blackburn, will get a shot. The only linebacker who never rotates is middle man Antonio Pierce. He’s a smart, sound-tackling all-around force who acts as this defense’s heart and soul.
Much like with Ray Lewis in Baltimore, Pierce’s dependable leadership up front affords New York the freedom to be artistic with its safeties. Don’t be surprised if Kenny Phillips becomes a superstar in his second season. The latest Miami Hurricane stud safety added 16 pounds to his already chiseled frame, ostensibly making him one of the most violent hitters in the NFL. Phillips is slated to start at strong safety, though given his astounding speed and acceleration, the Giants may want to use him how the Redskins used the late Sean Taylor: as a playmaking free safety. It would work; current solid but unspectacular starting free safety, Michael Johnson, has played strong safety before.
The Giants boast three ascending cornerbacks who are all approaching their prime. Starters Corey Webster and Aaron Ross will both be 27 by Week 2, and nickelback Terrell Thomas is only 24. In the last 18 months, Webster has transformed from scud to stud in a way perhaps never before seen. He is arguably one of the game’s five purest cover artists, which is why the Giants signed him to a five-year, $43.5 million contract ($20 million guaranteed) last December. The willowy Ross continues to hone his craft and sharpen his awareness. Like the unusually-polished Thomas, Ross has the requisite natural talent to enjoy a rich, long NFL career.
Lawrence Tynes hurt his knee last August and coaches couldn’t justify relinquishing his super-accurate 44-year-old replacement, John Carney. Until recently. Carney went to the Pro Bowl, but New York is still going with the big-footed Tynes. Punter Jeff Feagles, coming off his second career Pro Bowl, has seven years to go before reaching his goal of playing pro football at age 50. His punt placement is sublime. Last year, Ahmad Bradshaw returned kicks and Domenik Hixon handled punts. Both were good, but both might be too important offensively to use on special teams.
The defense is outstanding. The first string is loaded with playmakers, the second string is loaded with experience and just about everyone is under 30. Thus, New York’s season rests on the offense. More specifically, it rests on the wide receivers. If the Giants can put together a threatening passing attack, they’ll be similar to what they were 18 months ago. If not, they’ll be similar to what they were six months ago.
Predicted finish: 3rd NFC East
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