As a lifelong Giants fan, I’m not trying to say that this doesn’t suck; it certainly does. (For a finely nuanced breakdown of how much it sucks, check out the estimable Big Blue 101’s take immediately following the game.) But today, in the brisk air and all-restoring light of a January morning, I’m suggesting that my fellow Giants fans focus not on this:
Or on this:
Or even, douchetastic as it may have seemed, on this:
Instead, I’m suggesting that we spend today remembering this:
And, of course, most importantly, this:
Call me an apologist, an optimist, a fool, whatever, but I refuse to call this year’s incarnation of the Giants a disappointment. While I’m obviously displeased with yesterday’s result, I can’t help but view this season as a net positive.
Despite losing their longtime leader (Michael Strahan) to retirement, their best defensive player (Osi Umenyiora) to injury before the start of the regular season and their most talented offensive player (duh) to an inexcusably poor decision (sweatpants in a club? f’real? oh, and the gun), the Giants won 12 games and a division title. Not only that, but they did it in enjoyable fashion, slamming the ball down opponents’ throats with a vicious running game keyed by two 1,000-yard rushers (Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward) and a mauling offensive line. Furthermore, they did it by playing careful football, limiting turnovers (just 13, tied with Miami for fewest in the league) and featuring a defense that was not only aggressive (42 sacks, third in the NFC) but also more opportunistic (17 picks, fourth-best in the NFC, and a +9 turnover differential, tops in the conference) than the Meadowlands had seen in recent years.
We saw the birth of stars on both sides of the ball with the emergence of Jacobs and Justin Tuck. Despite the bad taste he left in our mouths with his outing yesterday, we saw our much-maligned quarterback take another step forward, carrying his steady performance from last year’s playoffs into the season and playing (for most of the year, at least) the quarterback position as well as it’s been played here since Phil Simms left. (Granted, that says more about the state of the Giants’ QB position over the past two decades than about Eli’s aptitude, but still.)
We watched the continued development of a potentially fantastic young secondary, with Corey Webster and Aaron Ross proving to be legitimate starters at cornerback and the often promising troika of Michael Johnson, James Butler and Kenny Phillips at safety. We saw underrated defensive tackles Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield get richly deserved recognition for their contributions (particularly Robbins, who leaped out of the gate before being slowed by injuries, and whose absence was sorely felt during the Giants’ late-season troubles).
And it all came the year after they made one of the most improbable championship runs in modern NFL history. As I reminded folks following my live-tweet of the game on Twitter yesterday: “Remember that our boys won the whole fucking thing last year, then take a deep breath.” To have asked for any more would have been greedy.
That said: While Giants fans have a lot to feel good about (whether or not they can feel it just yet), there are major questions going forward. Namely:
- Whither Steve Spagnuolo? The Giants’ sterling defensive coordinator is again among the most sought-after options for teams looking to fill head coaching vacancies, and with New York out of the playoffs, GMs/presidents can now put on the full-court press to land him. Defensive players rave about playing for him, and his pressure schemes have restored a swagger to the unit that has been largely responsible for the team’s resurgence over the past two seasons. If he gets hit with the right offer, he’s gotta follow the John Fox path and skate; the question then becomes who gets the keys to the D, and can they keep it performing at the same high level that Spags did?
- How does GM Jerry Reese resolve the contract situation at running back? Both Jacobs and Ward are up for free agency, and third-stringer Ahmad Bradshaw strict-up admitted that he wouldn’t be unhappy if neither came back next year. (Yes, he did so during a jokey FOX “interview” with Strahan, but dude definitely looked to be kidding on the square.)
- What does the team do about Harris Smith, everyone’s favorite gunman on the fleecy knoll? He’s worn out his welcome like an acrid-farting mother-in-law, but the lack of respect that opposing defenses showed for the Giants’ suddenly pedestrian receiving corps in his absence hasn’t gone unnoticed. Whether or not Reese and co. decide to bring him back, it’s apparent that the offense flourished when Manning had a big-play threat split wide that could beat tight coverage, made defenses pay for choosing to stack the box against the run and forced coordinators to commit additional resources to the passing game. If Plax ain’t that anymore, then a reasonable facismile needs to be found in trade or free agency, because it’s not likely that the Giants are going to find that guy in the draft.
- Can you count on Osi? Despite racking up 42 sacks on the season, the squad was often unable to get QB pressure at critical junctures. O-lines focused on limiting Tuck and dared the remaining linemen to hit the quarterback; on days like yesterday, they too often couldn’t, allowing QBs to keep plays alive and stretch the young secondary past its breaking point, or leading Spagnuolo to bring heat from the back seven, creating dangerous one-on-one matchups in the passing game. On the one hand, plugging an All-Pro defensive end like Umenyiora back into the starting lineup seems like the cure for what ailed the D-line; on the other, dude’s coming off a torn lateral meniscus, so there’s no guarantee he’ll be as explosive or effective.
- Will they find a legit home run threat in the return game? With the exception of Bradshaw’s game-opening 65-yard burst yesterday, the Giants got virtually nothing out of their kick returners after the Plaxident bumped Domenik Hixon’s name up the WR depth chart and off of special teams. The ability to change field position and put pressure on opposing coverage units can help non-explosive offensive teams step on the throats of opponents while taking some of the big-play onus off of the passing game, which might be just what the doctor ordered if Reese can’t find Plax’s replacement.
There are more issues to address — the need for an infusion of speed at linebacker, for one — but to continue would be to belabor a point that’s best made another day. Last night was the Irish wake for the Giants’ 2008 season (I know I sure as shit drank); today’s the memorial service, where we mourn the passing of a good, solid and likable (for the fans, at least) team. The destination definitely sucked, but I enjoyed the road trip to get there. And today, that’s worth remembering.