> 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.
> 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."
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."
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.--B.R.