Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Tale of Two Teams

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, January 11, 2007:
In October, while teams from St. Louis and Detroit played a World Series before invited guests only, this column tucked the Mets and Yankees into their beds for a long winter’s nap. Now it is January, and while other, more skilled or fortunate teams than the Giants or Jets remain in the hunt, the locals are left once more with the ashy taste of postseason tristesse. Will the Chargers and Saints clash in the Super Bowl? Or the Bears and the Patriots? Who cares.

In New York, where football is over, it is revealed — yet again for the ingenuous — that everything is in the expectation, that nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so. The Giants slipped into the playoffs as a wild card entrant with a victory in their final game and then, compelled to play on the road, lost. Their fans are bitter and despairing of the future. The Jets slipped into the playoffs as a wild card entrant with a victory in their final game and then, compelled to play on the road, lost. Their fans are okay with that, and can’t wait until next year.

In truth, neither team is likely to make the playoffs next year, continuing a long pattern of dashed hopes. The Giants did win two Super Bowls under Bill Parcells and competed in another under Jim Fassel, all within the last twenty years or so. The Jets have never returned to the dance since Joe Namath led them to an upset victory in 1969. And yet hope returns each year with the shimmering heat of August; go figure.

The Giants came into the 2006 campaign with high hopes of reaching the Super Bowl, having won the NFC the previous year with an 11-5 record. The Jets, who had endured a 4-12 season marked by quarterback carnage, star player defection, and a coach angling for a job elsewhere, were expected to scrape bottom again. But in the NFL’s dedication to parity, which means weighted schedules based on previous results, the Jets were given a relatively easy ride to guard against their losing a dozen games again. The Giants’ slate, given their success in 2005, was much tougher.

Forgotten by many fans — though not by Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick, who dared to place the Jets’ “comeback” in perspective — is that the Jets of 2004 were only a Doug Brien field goal away from playing in the AFC championship. With the return to health of quarterback Chad Pennington, a 10-6 mark in 2006 was by no means remarkable. Yes, the 2005 team had allowed 115 points more than it scored, and this year’s edition scored 21 more than it allowed, a whopping turnaround. But the Jets of ’06 won only one game against a playoff-bound team (New England in Week 10) while losing three. Their other twelve games, of which they won nine, were against non-contenders.

The Giants, on the other hand, went from a positive point differential of 108 in 2005 to a minus 7 this past year. They squeaked into the playoffs with a mirror-image schizoid season of 6-2 in the first half and 2-6 in the second. Like the Jets, they defeated only one playoff-bound team (Philly in Week 2) ... but they lost to five such teams compared to the Jets’ three.

This two-game difference is precisely the gap between the Giants’ “disappointing” 8-8 record and the Jets’ “surprising” 10-6. Two cheers for parity.

Let’s look coldly at each team, as if we had no rooting interest (I confess I do, equally in both).

The Giants thought they had a rising star at quarterback in Eli Manning, despite his awful performance in the playoff game last year against Carolina in a shutout at home that prompted Tiki Barber to say that the Giants were outcoached. Manning was shaky all year long in ’06, and so was coach Tom Coughlin, whose competence was further questioned by Jeremy Shockey. In my view Manning should return, for reasons discussed below. Coughlin should not. His 11 percent favorable rate in an ESPN poll coming into Week 17 provides perhaps the first example of Vox Populi getting things right.

The receiving corps was a disaster of epic proportion, its awfulness fully revealed when Amani Toomer, the only one to run precise, reliable routes, went to the sideline with a season-ending injury. Tim Carter and David Tyree were non-factors in a passing game marked by scowls from Plaxico Burress and misguided missiles to Shockey, who seemed to run alongside a defender all year long as his previous crossing patterns and deep routes went MIA. Some of this may be chalked up to Coughlin’s game plan, but not all of it. I believe Manning can be a good QB, but not with this corps of receivers and not with a revolving door at left tackle. And what’s with all the false-start penalties—is it Manning’s fault for fooling around with hard counts or are injuries and shifting personnel to blame?

The running game was brilliant when Tiki got the ball — i.e., when his team was not trailing by two touchdowns in the first half. Brandon Jacobs is a mystery, effective as a pounding counterpoint o the slashing Barber, but irritatingly unable to pick up short yardage in the red zone or on third down and one. Next year the Giants will have to face what the Jets did this year when Curtis Martin proved unable to return — the absence of an assured 1500 yards from your lead back. The Jets made do with Leon Washington and a legion of plodders; the Giants will have to do so, as well, though my recommendation is to give Jacobs 250 carries and see what you get. Earl Campbell might be hiding underneath those pads.

The formidable Big Blue pass rush of ’05 never showed up in ’06, not even when Michael Strahan was healthy. As a result, the new defensive secondary was revealed to be no better than it what it replaced — corners who couldn’t cover or tackle, safeties who could not catch the ball when it seemed aimed at their hands. The linebacking corps is solid, though, and with the return of LaVar Arrington next year, this will be the strength of the defense. Special teams were fine, even though Jeff Feagles no longer punts for a high average and Chad Morton’s injury revealed for all to see what a useless draft pick was made in Sinorice Moss.

Summing up, it is not an accident that only one Giant was named to the NFC squad in the coming Pro Bowl (a nod for Shockey as a reserve at tight end, reflecting a conference-wide weakness at the position and a nod for past glories). Despite slim pickings at quarterback, too, Manning was passed over for a reserve spot by Tony Romo, for chrissake ... and Phil Rivers, whom the Giants traded for the rights to Manning, will go to Hawaii as part of the AFC squad. (The Bears will send seven players to the NFC contingent, the Chargers nine to the AFC.)

The Jets’ principal strength is the Giants’ main weakness: their head coach. Eric Mangini ended the season with a 92 percent favorable rating in the aforementioned ESPN poll, and with good reason. He didn’t complain about not having Curtis Martin, or having to stage a quarterback bakeoff in training camp. He made the talent on hand perform better than it had, and he worked his draft picks into the starting lineup with great success, especially at center with Nick Mangold. And the Jets’ talent was judged no better than the Giants by those who voted for the Pro Bowl. The only Jet who will get lei’d will be Justin Miller, as a special teams pick.

Linebacker Jonathan Vilma made far fewer tackles for the Jets this year than last, and is thought to have slumped. But Mangini’s replacement of the former 4-3 alignment with a New England-style 3-4 guaranteed fewer tackles for Vilma, and the no-name defense proved to be the key to the Jets’ success in the second half of the season. John Abraham was not missed as Blair Thomas came into his own and Kerry Rhodes put his stamp on the secondary.

Laveranues Coles and Jeremy Cotchery made an effective complement to Pennington’s dink-and-dunk West Coast offense, and you can be sure the Jets will draft a tall wideout as well as a big running back, both obvious deficiencies this year. But improved talent is not the key to the Jets’ prospects in ’07 ... it is sticking with the system, continuing to have faith in the schemes that Mangini, Brian Schottenheimer, and the other assistants vary so cleverly from week to week. Unlike baseball, where a great manger hardly ever is enough to lift mediocre talent to the top, football is a coach’s game.

Whether Coughlin stays or goes, the Giants will struggle to come in at 7-9, despite getting a few more cupcakes on their schedule. The Jets will improve, but not in the standings; with a tougher slate, they too will struggle to finish 7-9.

There, I’ve said it. And now I’ll forget it and, when autumn nears, root for both teams.

--John Thorn


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