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December 17, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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A Familiar Fade At Giants Stadium

BY SEAN LAHMAN
December 17, 2004

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of the Giants' firing of head coach Jim Fassel. His team was mired in a six-game losing streak, derailed by injuries, poor special teams play, lack of production from their top draft pick, and a porous offensive line. Sound familiar?

Twelve months later, the Giants are mired in a six-game losing streak, derailed by injuries, poor special teams play, lack of production from their top draft pick, and a porous offensive line. Fans have been left to wonder whether this organization has made any progress at all under Tom Coughlin.

The Coughlin era started with a bold move, a draft-day trade to acquire quarterback Eli Manning. The Giants believed that his physical skills, poise, and pedigree could make Peyton's younger brother a franchise quarterback. Whether or not their assessment of Manning turns out to be accurate, the decision has already hurt the Giants in two ways. First, they paid a big price - two first-round draft picks, a third-rounder, and a fifth-rounder - to get a player at a position that was not their biggest area of need. Second, by expending so many of their resources, they've made it difficult to solve other, more glaring problems. As the 2004 season winds to a close, it's those other needs, and not Manning's horrendous performance as a rookie, that should be the biggest cause for concern.

The Giants tried to address their offensive line problems during the past off-season, but it's clear now that their efforts were woefully inadequate. The two veteran free agents the team signed have been disappointing; guard Barry Stokes injured his back in training camp and has been on injured reserve ever since, while Shaun O'Hara has been unspectacular at center and has had trouble staying healthy. The holdovers haven't been any better. Second-year tackle Dave Diehl continues to struggle, both with his run blocking and in pass protection. Guards Jason Whittle and Wayne Lucier have yet to prove that they're good enough to be starting in the NFL.

The only positive step the Giants made with their line this year was the addition of Chris Snee at right guard. The second-round pick is a ferocious run blocker, and he was the main reason for Tiki Barber's outstanding start to the season. Snee and left tackle Luke Petitgout appear to be the only two pieces of the offensive line puzzle firmly in place.

What about the defense? The run defense ranked 18th last year, and the Giants tried to address that problem with the addition of four free agents: Defensive tackles Norman Hand and Fred Robbins, and linebackers Barrett Green and Carlos Emmons. After 13 games this season, the Giants' run defense has dropped to 26th, and their opponents are averaging 4.4 yards per carry (up from 3.8 last year).

The secondary hasn't fared much better. A year ago, injuries sidelined three starters, and the team felt that the return of players like Will Peterson and Will Allen would improve the unit markedly. Unfortunately, the high-paid cornerbacks haven't fared much better than the second stringers the Giants were using at the end of last season. They still rank in the bottom 10 in interceptions and touchdown passes allowed, even though the porous run defense is causing opponents to pass with less frequency.

Making matters worse, new problems have emerged this year. The Giants' sack totals have fallen by 15%, and while you might guess that owes to the absence of Michael Strahan, the real problem was his dramatic drop in production. Strahan had 18.5 sacks last year and has averaged nearly 14 sacks over the last seven seasons. This year, he had just four in nine games before suffering a season-ending injury. Strahan turns 34 next year, and the Giants must face up to the fact that they don't have much of a pass rush without him.

Another new cause of concern is the receiving corps. Last year, Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer combined for 11 touchdown catches; neither has scored a touchdown this year. Their inability to get separation from their defenders and provide targets for Manning has enabled opponents to double team tight end Jeremy Shockey and commit defenders to stopping the run.

Even if Manning were living up to the lofty expectations plaved upon him, it wouldn't be enough to get this decaying team out of the doldrums. The Giants aren't in any better shape than they were a year ago, and some would argue that they're actually worse. The addition of a promising young quarterback is exciting, but the Giants can't expect to win if they continue fielding a lousy team around him.

***

Heading into the last three weeks of the season, the Jets are leading the race for the AFC's wild card. Five teams are vying for two spots, and the Jets might have the toughest schedule of any of the contenders. Their remaining opponents have a combined record of 25-14, and each is still battling for playoff position.

The Jets would clinch a playoff berth with wins in all three games; two wins would do the trick unless the Ravens and Broncos both run the table. What's worrisome is the possibility that the Jets might lose two of their final three games, at which point their chances of making the playoffs drop dramatically. Gang Green would lose a tiebreaker with the Ravens by virtue of their loss to Baltimore in Week 10. The Jets would also lose a tiebreaker to the Broncos if both teams finished 10-6, based on their respective conference records.

The key game for the Jets will be against Seattle this Sunday. The Seahawks have a potent offense that can score points both on the ground and through the air. Shaun Alexander is the type of between-the-tackles runner that can control the clock if his team establishes a lead. But the pressure will be less on the Jets defense than the offense.

In five of their last six games, the Jets have scored 17 points or fewer, mostly because of their own mistakes. Against Seattle's banged-up defense, they need to avoid the sort of self-destructive play that has plagued them in recent weeks. If they can put some points on the board in the first half, they'll be very tough to beat. If they don't, their chances of making the playoffs will take a damaging blow.

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