It's possible that this game was a watershed moment for us Giants fans, and not in a good way. We may look back on yesterday as the point at which the good vibes engendered by the Super Bowl and last year's dominant stretch were replaced with a scarcely remembered feeling, one last felt toward the end of the 2007 regular season. It was around that time that Eli Manning strung together two horrific performances against Minnesota and Washington, causing us to wonder if the fate of the franchised hinged on a deeply flawed player. In the interim, we've come to know a lot about Eli, most of it good. But in the wake of his worst two-game stretch since the stinkers of '07, we still don't know where he fits on the spectrum between "deeply flawed player" and "elite quarterback."
Eli's regression is one problem. But while its disappointing that he hasn't ascended to upper-echelon status in terms of consistency, we can be reasonably sure that he will bounce back as an asset going forward. The defensive backfield is another story. Corey Webster notwithstanding, this is shaping up to be a real Achilles Heel. In two of the last three games, the secondary has been embarrassed. That's bad news, especially considering the powers of the NFC this year -- New Orleans, Arizona, Minnesota, Dallas, Philly -- all have passing games that can get hot and light up our secondary. Two of them just did.
Did I mention Dallas and Philly? Those are the teams that jumped ahead of us in the standings in a three-hour span, rendering us a third-place team. Third place: That sounds about right. Seriously, is there a realistic case that the Giants are better than either of these teams? The Eagles have soundly outplayed the Giants three out of the last four times they've played. And if you're willing to acknowledge that the Cowboys outplayed the Giants in both their meetings earlier this year and the 2007 playoff game despite the Giants' winning those games, the Cowboys have been the better team than the Giants in six of their last seven meetings. (The only exception being the game Romo missed last year.)
The glass-half-full take is that this team is capable of turning things around on a dime. Eli is inconsistent, but there's nowhere to go but up for him. As bad as the defense has looked in two of the last three games (and three of the four we've played against non-atrocious offenses), Michael Boley, Chris Canty, and maybe Aaron Ross will be back after the bye. Boley and Ross alone can potentially change the complexion of the defense. Also, as bad as the defense has been, let's not forget that the New Orleans and Philadelphia offenses both played off their asses against us.
The glass-half-empty take is that the world has seen the best of this vintage of Giants teams. Undeniably, the running game is not what it was. And when you factor in the Plaxless receiving corps, this leaves too much responsibility in the hands of Eli Manning, a good player at best but not a great one. The pass rush was always a bit overrated after playing its best came on the biggest stage in the Super Bowl, and the injuries in the secondary leave the Giants vulnerable in their pass defense.
We shall see...
What's to like:
Hakeem Nicks: This past summer, I was talking to Bill Parcells -- yep, you read that right -- about another Giants receiver who wore number 88: Bobby Johnson. For you neophyte G-Men fans out there, Bobby Johnson was a middling receiver best known for a clutch reception he made in 1986 on 4th and 17 on the final drive of a late-season game against Minnesota. The catch kept alive a drive that eventually led to a game-winning Raul Allegre field goal. The victory was the first of three straight dramatic ones for the G-Men. The momentum generated during this stretch propelled the Giants to three emphatic wins to cap off the regular season, which in turn propelled them to a dominant postseason and Super Bowl victory.
Bobby Johnson was not a great receiver by any means, but he was an adequate one -- good enough to start for the Super Bowl XXI champions. That's saying a lot for a guy who was charitably listed at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, and ran the 40 in somewhere between 4.7 and 4.8 seconds. Now, after reading this first part, you might think I'm now going to write about what a hard-working guy Bobby Johnson was, about how he spent nights in the film room studying defensive backs and how he worked after practice with Phil Simms developing a Manning-Harrison telepathy with him. But you would be wrong. In fact, Bobby Johnson was a drug-addled screw-up who spent his nights and his money partying. Before the San Francisco playoff game that year, he slept though warm-ups and showed up 20 minutes before the game. During training camp of 1987, Parcells had had enough. He traded Johnson to San Diego, but he never played for them. At the age of 25, he had washed out of the league. Around twenty years later, the Daily News reported that he was homeless. Fortunately, some of his teammates saw him at a Giants alumni function since the article ran and said he was doing better.
"He was really a fuck-up," Parcells told me. "I wanted to choke that little sonuvabitch -- I tried to a few times."
So what was his secret? How did a guy with no measurable talents and no work ethic become even a passable NFL receiver?
Parcells had the answer. "He was competitive," he said, flashing his trademark toothy smile and nodding approvingly. It was clear that the admiration contained in this one compliment overrode the negative things he had said about him moments before. Just by being competitive, Bobby Johnson carved out a place of affection in Bill Parcells' heart and a niche as a decent receiver (for a minute). What made Johnson mildly effective, and what Parcells knew, was this: When the ball is in the air, wanting it is the most important thing. The ability to summon one's physical gifts is more important than the sum of the gifts themselves. Bobby Johnson had shitty tools and an even worse approach to his profession, but when he was on the football field and the ball was in the air, he wanted it very badly in that moment. Solely by virtue of this, he was more effective than guys with better physical attributes who weren't on drugs.
This brings me to Hakeem Nicks. Unlike Bobby Johnson, Hakeem Nicks is a model citizen who does not lack for physical tools. While the slump-shouldered Johnson could best be described as "wormy," Nicks is a specimen. He doesn't have the great straight-ahead speed of a bona fide deep threat, but he has the long arms, huge hands, and powerful frame of an elite possession receiver. But his best attribute to me is his competitiveness. When the ball is in the air, Nicks really, really wants it, and he's able to deploy his considerable gifts into getting it. Yesterday, he caught four of five passes thrown his way for 53 yards. It was more of the same for a player who has impressed every single game. This guy is going to be something special.
Seubert getting in Jason Babin's face after a horse-collar on Eli in the fourth quarter: This brings up the question of why Eli was even in the game at that point, but it was nice to see Seubert show some pride.
Kevin Boss: Great catch on the touchdown on a poorly thrown ball by Eli. Clearly Eli wanted to throw it slightly behind Boss, but not that far behind him. Credit Boss, who isn't the most agile man, for making the adjustment when the ball was in the air. Overall, he had three catches for 70 yards. He deserves a place in this column.
Steve Smith: In the first half, he caught 3 of the four passes thrown to him. Two of these three went for first downs on third down, with the exception being that utterly pointless four-yard dump-off on 3rd and 10. On the day, he wound up with 8 catches for 68 yards, catching 8 of the 12 passes thrown to him. One pass he did not catch was the inexplicable bomb on 4th and 4, a recurrence of a weird trend this year. Still, the guy was pretty decent and deserves a place in this column.
Brandon Jacobs: He's running a little better now in terms of being assertive through the hole. For the game, he had 86 yards on 20 carries, a 4.3 average per. In the first half, when his runs were actually relevant, he had 46 yards on 11 carries, averaging 4.2. So he's doing okay. You wish, however, that he would finish his runs a little stronger. For a guy whose calling card is falling forward for the extra 2 yards, he gets turned sideways too often.
What's not to like:
The defense: That's four quality offenses we've played -- Dallas, New Orleans, Arizona, and Philly -- and three embarrassing performances. There were coverage breakdowns all over the place, the tackling was terrible, and guys blew lane assignments in the running game. It was all-around ugly.
A mitigating circumstance is that McNabb was uncharacteristically accurate. On that first half touchdown pass to Celek that made it 13-0, Michael Johnson's coverage wasn't that bad -- it's just that the throw was perfect. Think of it this way: How much more open was Sinorice Moss on Eli's second interception than Celek on that touchdown? Sometimes these things are two-way streets.
It's always chicken-and-egg when it comes to this kind of stuff, but it's worth noting that Drew Brees and Donovan McNabb were completely on fire in their games against us. Was our coverage terrible during these games? Of course. But these guys would have put up good numbers -- though not ungodly ones -- even against good coverage.
Bill Sheridan: It's hard to put a finger on whether it's the schemes or the personnel, but Sheridan has to answer for this train-wreck. I've heard some criticism that Sheridan doesn't blitz enough, which was a fair knock after the New Orleans game. But over the past two weeks, blitzes that Sheridan has dialed up have backfired. The dispiriting Jackson touchdown bomb yesterday that answered our touchdown was one instance. A second-quarter blitz against Arizona, when our defense was dominating and a blitz opened up the middle for a 13-yard completion to Boldin that gave the Cards momentum and led to their first touchdown, was another. So as much as everyone is fond of "being aggressive" - as if answering those who think being weak and passive are the best ways to play defense - it's simplistic to reduce criticism of Sheridan to, "He needs to blitz more."
C.C. Brown: Speaking of Parcells, he probably would have cut this guy. It seems unlikely that Aaron Rouse will be any worse than C.C. (although he looked bad on LeSean McCoy's long touchdown run). Because of this, there's no reason that C.C. should be our starting safety next week.
The secondary: Obviously. If and when Ross comes back, would it be possible to put him at corner and move Thomas to safety? Maybe Thomas hasn't practiced there in a while, but - I'm repeating myself - he can't be any worse than C.C.
Ahmad Bradshaw: Didn't have much running room, but didn't do much with what he had either. Many are speculating about the effects of his multiple injuries, but maybe he's just a little off in his reads. On one play in the first half, he had a clear path off the edge behind Hedgecock, but he chose instead to cut it up inside, resulting in a minimal gain. Then again, maybe the injury and the slump are related.
Tom leaving the starters in until the bitter end: Was this a punishment? If so, that was dumb. If not, what other explanation is there?
Linebackers: When you allow three long, up-the-gut running plays, something's wrong.
Eli Manning: And we thought the maddeningly inconsistent Eli was a thing of the past... Eli's inaccuracy was particularly troubling Sunday, and one has to wonder if his long throwing motion will always make him susceptible to bad stretches. In his defense, the pass protection was very bad. Also, it's not as if he completely melted down. Even as the game was spiraling out of control, Eli was doing some good things. That's different from instances in the past, in which he would get that bewildered, lost expression early in a game and subsequently play like a scared little boy from that point on.
Pass protection: As noted above, they did a bad job. Eli was sacked twice and hit six times.
Lawrence Tynes: Snapped his string of seven straight successful field goals by missing a 47-yarder. Tynes is not a disaster, but if you factor in his short kickoffs, he's slightly below-average at best. There's no reason we shouldn't be looking to improve in this area.
Domenik Hixon: That unforced fumble on a kickoff return was unacceptable. The blocking wasn't great on his returns, but it's unusual not to see Hixon get into the open field at all. Kickoff returners are streaky, so let's hope that he's not on the verge of a stretch of ineffectiveness. Right now, this team needs all the help it can get.
The kickoff coverage: Along with Tynes's short kicks, this is emerging as a serious problem.