In 1990, while working as the Bengals' offensive line coach, Jim McNally went to the University of Montana to scout a tackle prospect. Kirk Scrafford wasn't getting any attention because, though 6'6", he was only 255 pounds, which most teams considered too skinny to work in the NFL trenches. But McNally worked Scrafford out in the school gym and liked what he saw—a good athlete, strong legs, little weight-training history...and enormous potential. "I'd love to make a player out of him," McNally said at the time. "We'll try to sign him with the Bengals, and I guarantee you he'll play in the NFL." Sure enough, Scrafford wasn't taken in the 12-round draft, and he signed with the Bengals as a free agent. He would play nine seasons, with the Bengals, Broncos and 49ers.
Last season McNally integrated three off-the-street linemen into starting roles for a Giants playoff team that ranked sixth in the league in total offense. But during the off-season he lost the right side of his line in free agency, so this year McNally has another Scrafford-like project on his hands. At right tackle the Giants have Ian Allen, an undrafted second-year player who has never started an NFL game. At right guard will be either another undrafted guy, second-year veteran Tarn Hopkins, or more likely the team's fifth-round choice, David Diehl of Illinois, the 25th offensive lineman taken in the draft.
In their preseason opener, against the Patriots on Aug. 7, the Giants started four former free agents ( Allen, Hopkins, center Chris Bober and left guard Rich Seubert), and the results were disastrous. The first unit managed 53 yards on four drives. Last Friday, with Diehl at guard in a 20-10 loss to the Panthers, Kerry Collins was sacked twice, but New York's starters did pile up 182 yards while playing the first half.
"I've been doing it this way for a long time," says the 59-year-old McNally. "Maybe I'm just not a big enough [jerk] on draft day, because I never pound the desk and say, 'We gotta have a tackle now!' I just try to find hardworking guys with quick feet and develop 'em. If it's not good enough this year? Fire me."
Moderately quick at 6'4" and 300 pounds, Allen was on an island against Carolina pass-rush master Julius Peppers and got beaten for a sack. But he knows he can't come into a game scared. "For a while, after watching so much NFL on TV and watching NFL Films glorify the game, I was in awe," Allen says. "Now I figure, Hey, I block [Michael] Strahan at practice every day. How much tougher can it get?"
It will get a lot tougher if coach Jim Fassel doesn't see progress by the Sept. 7 opener against the Rams. "That right side has to work for us," Fassel said after last Friday's loss. "And we're running out of time."