IT DIDN'T take a rocket scientist to pinpoint the Giants' offensive deficiencies when, minus Plaxico Burress, they flamed out in December. As the headline in the NEW YORK POST read, BIG BLUE BUTTERFINGERS SHOOT SELVES IN FOOT. Nor did it take a stroke of genius to come up with a remedy. As Ahmad Bradshaw—the Fire in the Earth, Wind and Fire backfield that led the NFL in rushing last year with 2,518 yards—declared in camp: "This year they'll depend on us running backs to get the offense started and feed the passing game. We need to step up. We will."
Earth, in the form of 6'4", 264-pound behemoth Brandon Jacobs, was in agreement, boldly predicting that he and his backfield mates would still be the "best running team in the league" even without Wind—a.k.a. Derrick Ward, who contributed 2,190 yards from scrimmage over the past two seasons. "That's not bragging," Jacobs said. "We can be just as good or better than Earth, Wind and Fire." (Ward signed a four-year, $17 million free-agent contract with the Buccaneers.)
While Jacobs was the Giants' unquestioned starter in 2007 and '08, the slashers Bradshaw (5'9", 198) and Ward (5'11", 228) were crucial to New York's ground game, largely because of Jacobs's propensity to wear down. His punishing, bowl-you-over running style has its advantages (witness the Aug. 22 preseason game, in which he twice flattened Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher) and its drawbacks (nine missed starts over two years). Jacobs hits his peak in a game at carries 16 through 20 (5.6 yards per attempt); after that there's a substantial drop-off (4.1 on carries 21 through 25).
Hence the time-sharing. In 2008 Jacobs accounted for 43.6% of the team's rushing attempts, ninth-lowest among starting tailbacks. Ward accounted for 36.3% of the workload, a figure that only four other backups topped last season.
With Ward's departure, Bradshaw slides up the depth chart, a move he was supposed to make last season, his second in the NFL, but failed to because of a nagging calf strain—and inexperience. "Mentally, Ahmad is way ahead of where he was last year," says Jacobs. "He's not thinking anymore, he's just playing. That comes from messing it up one or two times and knowing that you can't mess it up a third time." If Bradshaw does mess up, Danny Ware (6 feet, 234), a third-year back who has looked good as a receiving and special teams threat during the preseason, could make a run at the No. 2 job.
Jacobs, too, hopes to play a bigger role in the passing game, which would lessen the physical punishment he takes (and the amount of run-blocking an aging and banged-up line is called on to do). He relishes getting the ball on the edges and in the defensive backfield, where he'd face tacklers 100 pounds lighter than those on the defensive line. So in the off-season he worked on strengthening his hands and on his pass-catching skills.
One play in the preseason game at Chicago provided a glimpse of his receiver potential: Jacobs caught the ball six yards past the line of scrimmage (beyond Urlacher, 295-pound run-stuffer Tommie Harris and 310-pound nosetackle Anthony Adams) and churned another 10 yards through an outsized secondary before he was dragged down from behind by a linebacker and a cornerback. If Jacobs catches just one pass per game, he will have 10 more receptions than he had last season.
As for the wide receivers, they're liking what they're seeing. "Ahmad had it right," says fifth-year veteran Domenik Hixon, who'll be a full-time starter in the post-Plaxico era. "If those guys open it up for the passing game, we're all good to go."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: TOM COUGHLIN
115--93 in NFL, sixth season with Giants