November 11, 2004 Edition > Section: Sports
Are the Giants a Playoff Team?
BY SEAN LAHMAN
Midway through the 2004 season, the Giants find themselves entrenched in second place in the NFC East with a 5-3 record. They have been dominating at times and maddeningly self-destructive at others. While the offense has been mostly productive, the Giants haven't won a game in which the defense allowed more than 14 points.
Half of the remaining games on the schedule are against likely playoff teams (at Baltimore; home for Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh).The Giants will need to win at least one and maybe two of those games to reach the postseason. A top-to-bottom analysis shows that while the team played well in the first half of the season, they face some daunting challenges over the last eight weeks.
Tiki Barber leads the league in yards from scrimmage and is a candidate for the league's MVP award. His problems with fumbling (8.8 fumbles per season since 2000) appear to have been resolved. The addition of center Shaun O'Hara and guard Chris Snee have made the offensive line much tougher, and Barber has found more opportunities to make big plays.
When the team broke training camp, it looked as if a revitalized Ron Dayne might play a larger role in the offense this year. After some disappointing performances as a short yardage specialist, his opportunities have run out. Journeyman Mike Cloud appears to have supplanted Dayne as Barber's backup.
Despite the team's overall success, the passing game simply is not working. Last year, the Giants ranked 11th in passing offense; this year they rank 20th. Tight end Jeremy Shockey has finally become the primary target, but at the same time receivers Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer have seen their roles reduced. It's hard to say how much of this is due to the conservative system of offensive coordinator John Hufnagel and how much is the enigmatic play of quarterback Kurt Warner.
Despite an improved offensive line, Warner has been sacked twice as often as Kerry Collins was last year, and he already has as many fumbles (12) as Collins had all of last season. There's no getting around the fact that the man has thrown just five touchdown passes in eight games. The last Giants' quarterback to reach Week 9 with that few scoring passes was Dave Brown in 1995.The quarterbacking play was clearly a problem then. Why isn't it seen as a crisis now?
The addition of veteran free agents Fred Robbins and Norman Hand has made a huge difference. The two defensive tackles have helped to clog up the middle, which allows the ends to be more aggressive. It also lets the Giants take advantage of the speed they have at linebacker with Barrett Green and Carlos Emmons. Middle linebacker Kevin Lewis leads the team in tackles, and safety Nick Greisen has gotten a lot of playing time in a reserve role.
With season-ending injuries to ends Michael Strahan and Keith Washington, opponents will now challenge the Giants by running outside. That will put more pressure on the linebackers and the safeties to help contain the ground attack.
The pass rush continues to be one of the league's best, even though opposing defenses have always focused on stopping Strahan. When opponents contain him, it creates opportunities for other players. Ten different Giants have at least one sack, a testament to Strahan's influence.
The addition of a pair of aggressive safeties - rookie Gibril Wilson and free agent pickup Brent Alexander - has helped the Giants create more turnovers in the passing game. Cornerback Will Allen has given up too many big pass plays, and as a unit, the Giants have surrendered 13 touchdown passes. If the pass rush is less formidable in Strahan's absence, Allen and fellow cornerback Will Peterson will have to do a better job in pass coverage.
Punt coverage has been very good, with young players like David Tyree and Reggie Torbor bringing an element of speed and aggressiveness that the Giants have lacked in recent years. Willie Ponder leads the league with a 27.8-yard kickoff return average. Mark Jones hasn't made any long returns, but he has the tantalizing speed that makes you think it's only a matter of time.
The veteran kickers have been less spectacular. Steve Christie has missed five field goal attempts from 30 yards and beyond, and he ranks dead last in kickoff distance. Jeff Feagles hasn't done much better with his punting, ranking 22nd in gross average. He has done a good job pinning opponents inside the 20 yard line, though, and has used his veteran savvy to draw some timely roughing the kicker penalties.
There's no mistaking the impact that head coach Tom Coughlin has had. The intense discipline grated some players early on, but he showed no signs of backing down and the grumbling grew quieter as the wins piled up.
Hufnagel's offense is still a work in progress, but he deserves kudos for building a system that gets the ball to Barber and Shockey as often as possible. Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis built a faster, more aggressive defensive with a lot of new faces, and got them playing well together very quickly. Second-half collapses against the Lions and Bears were troubling, and the coaching staff must find a way to avoid those kinds of breakdowns the rest of the way.
After their 2003 meltdown, the Giants know that a good start doesn't ensure a solid finish. The team faces a number of serious questions entering the second half. How much longer should they wait before turning to rookie quarterback Eli Manning? Will the defense continue to excel after losing its best player? Can they score more points without wearing Barber down? The answers to those questions will determine whether or not this is a playoff team.