Jacobs, who proved himself as a goal line back, now gets the No. 1 call.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images
at Atlanta (M)
vs. Miami (London)
NEW ENGLAND (S)
The King 500
384David Diehl, Left tackle
With Luke Petitgout, the starter since '02, gone to Tampa, the Giants are counting on the 6' 5", 319-pound Diehl, who's started every game in his four NFL seasons, to slide over from guard and protect Eli Manning's blind side. It's helped his transition to face a Pro Bowl end every day in practice. "Being able to work against a guy like Osi Umenyiora is tremendous for me," he says. "He'll make you learn quick."
It's a make-or-break year for the coach and quarterback, and the team's alltime best runner is gone. No pressure, though
Although he has guided the Giants to the playoffs for the past two seasons,
Tom Coughlin is doing his best to shed the Dead Coach Walking tag, importing
Chris Palmer as quarterbacks coach and Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator.
Palmer, a longtime NFL assistant and the first coach of the reborn Browns, will
assume the task of molding Eli Manning into a dependable QB, which is more
necessary than ever after the retirement of Tiki Barber, the team's rushing
leader in every game over the past five seasons. Coughlin hired Spagnuolo, fresh
off eight seasons under Eagles defensive mastermind Jim Johnson, to inject
aggression into a feckless unit that ranked 25th in the league and produced just
2.0 sacks and 1.7 turnovers per game.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
In camp Palmer frequently ran his charges through a drill new to the
Giants. After the quarterbacks took their drops he'd bark out a color
corresponding to one of six nets positioned 20 to 25 yards away; they instantly
had to set their feet and fire at the appropriate target. "It requires you to be
able not only to focus but to get your body in the right position to deliver the
ball," says Coughlin. "We've already seen progress."
While Jared Lorenzen, Tim Hasselbeck and Anthony Wright presumably benefited,
there's no doubt for whom the drill was meant. Manning had a career-high
completion percentage of 57.7% in 2006, his second full season as the starter,
but that ranked him one spot ahead of -- gasp! -- Joey Harrington. Manning began on a
roll, connecting on 66.4% of his throws and achieving a 95.5 passer rating
in three September games; in four games in November, however, he completed just
52.7% and struggled to a miserable 52.9 rating. The low point was a shocking
Nov. 26 loss at Tennessee, in which Manning threw a pair of ugly
fourth-quarter interceptions to Pacman Jones that helped the Titans score 24
unanswered points and win by a field goal.
Still, by some measures Manning has been one of the league's top quarterbacks
over the last two years. He ranks sixth in completions (595) and passing yards
(7,006), fifth in touchdown passes (48) and, perhaps most impressive, tied for
fifth in wins (19). "It's not like he hasn't done a thing," says new general
manager Jerry Reese. "If he wasn't the New York Giants' quarterback and if he
wasn't a Manning, everybody would be telling me how good this kid is."
Manning's 2006 season didn't really start to crumble until Amani Toomer went
out with a torn ACL after the eighth game. No other receiver -- particularly not
Tim Carter, who caught only 11 balls in six games as Toomer's
replacement -- established himself as a third downfield threat behind wideout
Plaxico Burress and tight end Jeremy Shockey, both of whom regularly drew double
teams. Even if Toomer doesn't completely recover, a healthy Sinorice Moss, who
played just six games as a rookie because of a quadriceps injury, or the
sure-handed Steve Smith, a second-round pick from USC, should fill the void.
Of course, New York's top offensive option this millennium has gone from
being Manning's sidekick to Matt Lauer's. The Giants will try to fill the very
big hole left by Barber with a very big man in Brandon Jacobs. The 6' 4",
264-pound Jacobs has proved his mettle as a short-yardage back, with 16
touchdowns in the last two years -- only 10 players, all of whom have had at least
twice Jacobs's touches, rushed for more -- but in 135 career attempts he has just
one run of more than 20 yards. "I've only done what my team has asked me to do,"
says Jacobs. "Now I'm looking to show people that I'm a running back, all
around." Reese says that Jacobs, despite his bulk, has the speed to be a
gamebreaker: "If he and Tiki Barber raced in a 40-yard dash, I think Brandon
could beat Tiki."
The Giants also plan to feature a Jacobs-sized strongside linebacker in
6' 5", 265-pound Mathias Kiwanuka. In addition to getting the 2006 first-round
pick from Boston College more snaps -- he spent much of '06 backing up defensive
ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora -- New York needs to strengthen a
linebacking corps short on experience and talent beyond veteran Antonio Pierce.
Kiwanuka should help the 'backers improve on their paltry six sacks in '06, and
he has quickly grasped the other demands of his new position. "Our focus as
linebackers is going to be attack-style football," says Kiwanuka. "We're just
going after it. We're going to go get the ball."
In reference to the endless gossip and speculation that many Giants believe
derailed their 2006 season, players and staff began wearing T-shirts
emblazoned with talk is cheap. play the game . Then Strahan's contract dispute
marred camp, and the talk instantly resumed. But chatter will be the least of
Coughlin's worries if Manning fails to improve significantly or the defense
doesn't develop a fiery new identity. Finding a new job will top that list.
-- Ben Reiter