An unlikely trio has the Giants in the middle of the NFC playoff chase
When the year began, the three men who would ultimately give new life to the Giants' playoff run were about as far from being saviors as they could possibly be. One was in a rehab center. Another was looking for work after having left that noted NFL juggernaut in Philadelphia. The third was trying to convince teams that an oft-injured, back-up running back in college was worth risking a draft pick on.
Today the three former misfits—quarterback Kerry Collins, quarterbacks coach Sean Payton and running back Joe Montgomery, respectively—are experiencing a harmonic convergence of sorts in New York. On Sunday the underdog Giants went to Buffalo and stunned the Bills 19-17, seven days after the offense had enjoyed a coming-out party in a 41-28 romp over the Jets. Collins, with a quarterback rating of 93.5 in the two big victories, looked like the confident, bazooka-armed leader the Panthers had selected with the fifth pick in the 1995 draft. The baby-faced Payton established himself as a play-caller with a good feel for his weapons; the Giants piled up 490 yards against the Jets, another 334 against the Bills. Montgomery, with 188 total rushing yards in the two games, finally showed why the Giants made him a second-round draft choice last April.
"Oh, we're a playoff team," wideout Amani Toomer said in the locker room on Sunday. "Everyone in this room knows it. I just hope we've got time to show the rest of the league."
Time isn't the problem; the schedule is. The Giants probably have to win at least two of their remaining three games—at St. Louis (11-2), home against Minnesota (7-6) and at Dallas (7-6)—to make the playoffs in the watered-down NFC. But considering where they were a couple of weeks ago, at 5-6 after following a 5-3 start with three straight losses, it's amazing the Giants are even talking about the playoffs.
Give Montgomery a lot of credit for the turnaround. After suffering a knee injury in his sophomore year at Ohio State that was so serious a doctor told him his career was over, Montgomery worked himself back into football shape. As a senior in '98 he had 118 carries for 766 yards. Though he's hardly been Joe Durable since arriving at training camp (since July he's had two hamstring injuries and a broken foot), Montgomery proved to be a workhorse when coach Jim Fassel gave him his first start. It came against the Jets, and Mongomery carried 38 times for 111 yards and a touchdown. "Coach Fassel asked me if I was ready to carry the ball all day," the 5'10", 228:pound Montgomery said. "He gave it to me 38 times and said, 'What's the big deal? The ball's not heavy.' I love how he showed so much faith in me."
Give Payton a lot of credit. Because Fassel left the team to attend his mother's funeral in California early in the week leading up to the Jets game, he turned the play calling over to Payton. It was a bold move, considering that the 35-year-old Payton had bounced around die college ranks from 1988 through '96 and had spent the last two years as the quarterbacks coach in Philly.
The Giants' offense had been stuck in quicksand all season, but on the second series against the Jets, Payton called a double reverse that went for 27 yards. The Giants scored 27 first-half points, their highest scoring half since 1993, and Collins and Toomer hooked up on touchdown passes of 61, 9 and 80 yards. "There's an ebb and flow to the game I'm starting to feel," Payton said after Sunday's game.
The play calling could be a touchy subject with Fassel because his assistant is calling a better game than he did. But Fassel has handled it well. "I really like his poise," Fassel says of Payton. In fact, in the third quarter on Sunday, when Payton was getting bombarded with suggestions by players and coaches, Fassel got in the middle, pointed to Payton and said, "Hey! You call the game!"
But give most of the credit to Collins. A year ago he was fighting his reputation as a quitter; Carolina cut him in October 1998 after coach Dom Capers said Collins had asked out of the starting lineup. Then Collins struggled through a short stay in New Orleans, impressing no one as a woeful 49% passer who threw 10 interceptions and only four touchdown passes.