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1 New York Giants
Paul Zimmerman
August 17, 1998
That division title last year was no fluke. Stocked with young talent and coaches who know what to do with it, this team will only be better
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August 17, 1998

1 New York Giants

That division title last year was no fluke. Stocked with young talent and coaches who know what to do with it, this team will only be better

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at Oakland




at San Diego



at Tampa Bay









at Washington


at Dallas






at San Francisco



at Arizona






at Philadelphia

People still aren't convinced that the Giants are for real. They look at the 1997 season as an aberration. Almost unanimously picked to finish last, the Giants instead swept the board in the NFC East—well, almost; they tied one game—and won the division. Jim Fassel, operating with basically the same personnel that had gone 6-10 the year before, was named coach of the year, and deservedly so.

What you hear now is that the Giants snuck up on teams in '97. They can't possibly do it again. Just look at their '98 schedule. Over the last nine games of the regular season, New York will play both Super Bowl teams—Green Bay and Denver—plus Philadelphia and Kansas City, at home. On the road they'll face San Francisco and their four division foes. Everyone will be ready for them.

Well, here's why the Giants will repeat as division champs: The defense comes back intact, and it's a fundamentally sound, sturdy unit, beautifully coached by John Fox. It's very similar to New York's Super Bowl defenses of '86 and '90. There's no Lawrence Taylor, of course, but the current front line is better than those of the two championship teams, and so is the secondary. Plus, the Super Bowl teams never had an open-side linebacker like Jessie Armstead.

Best of all, this defense is a young unit on the rise. Every defender but one on the roster is in his 20's. (In fact, of the 22 projected starters on both offense and defense, the only ones not in their 20's are wideout Chris Calloway, who's 30, and tight end Howard Cross, who's 31.) Those young legs could be the difference down the stretch. The NFL is an endurance contest these days, and in November and December these guys will be coming on while older teams are fading.

The Giants have been ripped for their drafts in the '90s, but the misses have come on offense. The defensive drafts have produced a steady influx of terrific young talent: Armstead, corners Phillippi Sparks and Jason Sehorn, safeties Sam Garnes and Tito Wooten, All-Pro end Michael Strahan, tackle Keith Hamilton, middle linebacker Corey Widmer, nickel linebacker Scott's an impressive list.

To take advantage of all this wealth, Fox is adding new schemes, more blitzes from the corners and safeties, more nickel and dime packages thrown in to spread confusion on early downs. He smiles when you ask him what's in store for the Giants' 1998 first-round draft pick, 215-pound Shaun Williams, a fine athlete and hitter at either safety or nickel corner. "Just watch," he says.

The offense has more weapons too, including wideout Ike Hilliard, who missed most of his rookie season with a neck injury; former Chargers tight end Al Pupunu; and running back Gary Brown, a low-slung, 230-pound banger who gained nearly 1,000 yards behind a hopeless San Diego line.

Now to the heart of the Giants' story: quarterback Danny Kanell. Last year, after taking the starting job away from Dave Brown in October, Kanell was protected in an offense that stressed ball control. "The idea was to play mistake-free football," he says. "Don't screw it up. Let the defense win it. This year we'll open it up and attack."

Kanell was O.K. for a while, but then he played miserably in a 20-8 loss to Tampa Bay in November. Fassell read him the riot act. Work harder, study more, get yourself together—or you'll be watching Brown run the team again.

"I came in at 9 a.m. one Saturday during December," Fassell says, "to get ready for a one o'clock team meeting, and Danny was already there, looking at tape. I told him, 'When I put the game plan in, I want you to tell me what you like. I want you to ask questions, not just sit there and accept everything.' He responded to the challenge."

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