Something Old, Something New
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Last year was a very successful season for the Giants, although it sure didn’t seem that way at the end. An unexpected NFC East title was spoiled when Carolina pummeled them at the Meadowlands in the first week of the playoffs, 23–0. By that point, the defense had been hit with so many injuries that the team was pulling linebackers out of retirement and putting them in the starting lineup, while the offense struggled because star receiver Plaxico Burress and quarterback Eli Manning no longer seemed to be on speaking terms.
Here are the top five issues facing the Giants as they open training camp today at SUNY Albany.
Can Eli Manning improve his accuracy?
It’s hard for any player to live up to the expectations that go with being the no. 1 overall pick. It’s even harder for Manning to live up to expectations that he will become as good as his brother, who happens to be the most statistically dominant quarterback in modern NFL history.
Last year, Manning’s 52.8% completion percentage was the third-lowest for any quarterback with at least 250 attempts, behind only the Dolphins’ Gus Frerotte and the Bears’ Kyle Orton, and neither of those two will have starting jobs this year. Over the first half of the year, when Manning threw just five interceptions, fans thought he was on the way to stardom. But when he threw 12 interceptions in the second half of the year, it didn’t represent a step backwards in his development, rather a few passes that fell to the ground in the first few weeks simply found the arms of defenders instead.
Manning’s completion rate is somewhat connected to the scheme of Giants offensive coordinator John Hufnagel, who favors long passes to stretch opposing secondaries instead of the shorter, safer throws favored in today’s NFL. But even accepting that longer passes more often fall incomplete, a 53% completion rate won’t cut it for a man who is supposed to become one of the league’s elite passers.
Can’t we all get along?
A bigger problem than Manning’s accuracy may be his relationship with his receivers. His connection with Burress soured over the course of the season, and the big receiver had four straight games below 50 receiving yards while the Giants were fighting for a playoff spot in Weeks 13–16. Half the time it seemed like Burress wasn’t running the route that Manning was expecting. After a strong Week 17, Burress didn’t catch a single pass in the playoff loss to Carolina. By the middle of the game it looked like Burress had quit on the team and stopped running routes.
In the off-season, against the wishes of Giants coaches, Burress, Shockey, and rookie Sinorice Moss all skipped voluntary workouts up north to work out together in Miami — separate from Manning. It is important for a quarterback to work with his receivers, and even more important when that quarterback is a) inaccurate and b) inexperienced. It’s one thing when teammates don’t like each other, but it’s another thing when those personality issues hinder the development of the offense.
Can Tiki Barber minimize his inevitable decline?
For two straight years, Barber has set career highs in rushing yards. His 1,860 rushing yards last year are the 11th-highest season total in NFL history, and his 2,390 combined yards (including 530 yards receiving) rank as the second-highest season total in NFL history. Improbably, Barber put up these numbers at the age of 30, even though running backs generally peak at age 28.
But two straight career-highs in yardage also represent two straight career-highs in carries, including 357 in 2005. Last year, New Yorkers saw what happens to an older running back coming off a heavy-workload season, as the Jets’ Curtis Martin slowed down and succumbed to nagging injuries after leading the league in rushing at age 31. The same thing happened to 31-year-old Corey Dillon of the Patriots and 32-year-old Priest Holmes of the Chiefs. Can Barber avoid this fate? The answer is more likely to be yes if Brandon Jacobs can step forward and take a larger share of the rushing burden.
How will LaVar Arrington fit in?
Linebacker wasn’t a big problem for the Giants at the start of last season, but it was a huge problem by the end. In the playoffs, all three opening-day starters were injured, and the Giants were starting Alonzo Jackson, who wasn’t even on an NFL roster most of the season.
This year, the Giants won’t just have their starters healthy again; they’ve also added free agent LaVar Arrington from the rival Redskins. One of the league’s most talented linebackers early in his career, Arrington has played only 17 games over the past two seasons due to injuries and disputes with Washington management.The Giants have to find out how much of his talent is left, and how he fits into their scheme. Arrington could be a huge addition to a pass rush that was led last year by defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan, with almost no help coming from the linebackers. Eightyfour percent of Giants sacks came from the defensive line, the third-highest percentage in the league.
Will the new secondary gel?
While pass defense was not a strength for the 2005 Giants, nor was it a weakness; the Giants allowed 5.7 net yards per pass, 15th in the NFL, and were slightly above-average in both interceptions (17) and sacks (41). Nonetheless, injuries and free agent departures necessitated some changes, and the Giants will probably begin the season with new starters at three of the four secondary positions.
Cornerback Will Allen signed with Miami, and the player he will replace, Sam Madison, then signed with the Giants. It’s a swap of two players of equal quality, with one problem: The 28-year-old Allen is still improving, while the 32-year-old Madison has begun his decline. Madison’s partner will likely be sophomore Corey Webster rather than last year’s starter, Curtis Deloatch.
At free safety, Brent Alexander either retired or was pushed out, depending on who you talk to. He will be replaced by Will Demps, signed from Baltimore as a free agent. That leaves strong safety Gibril Wilson as the one holdover. All of these new players must get used to each other’s habits as well as New York’s defensive schemes and terminology.
Mr. Schatz is editor in chief of footballoutsiders.com and author of “Pro Football Prospectus 2006.”