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Friday, January 23, 2009

2007-08 NY Giants: Loose Threads, and a Tapestry of the Lost Post Season

You may consider this post therapeutic, a catharsis of sorts. With the Super Bowl fast approaching, it's high time for me to reconcile the 2008 Giants and let go of what could surely have been. Throughout the football season, the Giants showcased themselves as a team more tightly-knit than most others in 2008. As I asserted in my previous post, they were standard bearers who proved their mettle in tough regular reason play.

But like every other team in the NFL, the tapestry of the Giants had loose threads dangling from its seams, and at season's end we find ourselves asking: by tugging at just a few of these loose threads, is it possible the entire tapestry of a team can become unraveled?

Like most things in life, just one tug at the right loose thread can be all that's needed, and there is little argument that the tapestry of the Giants indeed became unraveled as the playoffs approached. In a vain attempt to explain to myself how they managed to disintegrate (yet again), I realized you can't look just at the loose threads (Plaxico, Jacobs, Osi, etc) without also considering the tapestry into which they were woven. Otherwise, you would know 'how' the Giants collapsed, but you wouldn't know WHY 'how' happened. In any case, here are the results of my inquiry, if you would hear them.

If you're still searching for answers as to why the Giants are sitting this Super Bowl out, look no further than to the 2007 Giants of Super Bowl lore. That's where you'll find our lost post season of 2008. Everything the Giants were in 2008 was an extension of that magical post season run, and ironically that is the basis on which their tapestry became unraveled.

With that said, let's connect the dots.

In 2007, the Giants limped into the playoffs not expected by anyone to beat anybody. You really can't blame anyone for taking that position. Although our defensive prowess was never in doubt, no one is going to pick you if they think you can't score enough points to keep up. In a year when Tom Brady played the way he did, how was anyone to substantiate faith in the Giants?

There were doubts abound. Our receiving corps was not particularly distinguished, although Plaxico Burress is a noted playmaker and well-accounted for by opposing defenses. On the other hand, our prowess on the ground was well-documented and respected. But while a good running game is necessary to win championships, it alone does not (witness the Titans, Panthers, Falcons, Ravens, and Giants of 2008). At that point in time, Eli Manning's effectiveness was constantly doubted and criticized, and his ability to utilize the Giants' potent ground attack was in question.

Yet, by learning to use such strengths and wits as they had about them, the 2007 Giants perfected themselves at the right time and found a way to win out in an indomitable blaze of glory. They used a perfect combination of good coaching, sound fundamentals, and consistent execution. The end result was a compact playbook that relies primarily on balanced team play, a successful formula achieved through the fragile management of a flat talent pool. And by flat, I don't mean the Giants' talent level was low, just relatively underpowered and undistinguished. This is a point underscored poignantly by the record number of Pro Bowlers the Giants nurtured in 2007, namely one defensive end by the name of Osi Umenyiora, a statistic unprecedented for any Super Bowl champ.

2007 ran into 2008, nothing about the Giants changed nor should they have. As any reasonable ball club would have done, the tapestry of the 2008 Giants was woven around the winning formula as pioneered by the 2007 post season Giants. They doubled down on their reliance on balanced team play and got a very memorable 2008 campaign out of it. We achieved success; the 2007-08 tapestry was working great and why shouldn't it? It was fully vetted by fortitude, confidence and most of all, stealing Super Bowl rings from the 18-1 Patriots (HA!). The Giants learned their lessons well, namely in just how perfect an imperfect team can be (themselves) but more importantly, that perfection is incidental.

Those were important lessons. The talent pool of the 2008 Giants remained flat but thanks to the 2007 Giants, they now knew how to transcend inherent limitations in their roster by fully utilizing it in a particular way. They had found a perfect winning formula for an imperfect team that all teams covet, and hence the 2008 tapestry was woven.

But for all the success they enjoyed this season as a result, perhaps even the founding weavers in the Giants organization could not foresee just how precariously imperfect their tapestry was until it was too late. So precarious, as I will argue here, that even one fateful tug at the right loose thread can lead to a full-bodied unraveling.

Plaxico Burress happened, and with him one of the Giants' scarce offensive talent spikes was lost for December, and perhaps forever. One man, one loose thread, and the tapestry of reliance on balanced team play began to unravel. I do not speak to the defense because they were always stout enough to save our butts, but the offense failed utterly. They could not score and they didn't. In the final five game stretch, we managed just three passing touchdowns (only one of any consequence--against the Panthers); it's hardly fitting for the high-powered Giants. This might be considered good for the pitiful Cleveland Browns, who went six games without a single touchdown altogether.

Without Plax, the Giants' receiving corps was reduced to mediocrity relative to our high-powered playoff peers and did not scare anyone. Their vaunted running game also became much less effective, barely cracking 100 yards a game as was routine throughout the season. This latter stigma was doubtless precipitated by the intermittent loss of Brandon Jacobs, unsurprisingly another loose thread in the Giants tapestry; the only surprising thing was that he was not injured much earlier. In any case, this all culminated in our thorough beating at the hands of a hungry Eagles team in January, but it certainly didn't happen overnight. It all took one month.

We went from 10 wins to 1 loss with Plax on the field to 2-4 with him in handcuffs. That's a drop from a 91% win percentage to 33%. Capable teams took the time and adjusted their schemes to find new ways to pressure cook the Giants' offense and it worked. Suddenly their once-indomitable offensive line was forced to block in ways they hadn't had to all season long and wondered why the holes/gaps didn't open/close. At a time when season-long wear and tear begin to take its toll, the Giants' defense, one predicated on speedy power rushing, got consistently gassed because the offense couldn't stay on the field. Or else the defense became demoralized because no matter how well they played, the offense could not score enough points to stay in the game. Remember how inept the defense made the Eagles look in the first half of their playoff meeting? In that game, they really only gave up 11 of the 23 points scored against us, and the offense still couldn't get it done.

Opposing defensive coaches probably had a lot of fun scheming against a Plaxico-free Giants team. I know I would have. Eli Manning's audibles were off or ineffective, probably because he was seeing coverages he hadn't seen all season long or worse, coverages that he thought he had seen before but really hadn't. The play action pass was completely neutralized because the pass could not set up the run and thereby, the run could not set up the play action pass. This is a critical staple of offensive success for any team subscribing foremost to the philosophy of balanced team play, and it was something Eli and the Giants excelled at executing. The play action pass simply disappeared from the playbook.

To reiterate: all this didn't happen overnight, it took exactly one month for the 2008 Giants to unravel. Yes, we lost a star player, but I wasn't the only Giants fan out there who was frustrated by the complete lack of game plan adjustment for Plax's loss. All they did was throw Domenik Hixon to the dogs, unproductively so I might add.

In hindsight, however, I came to realize that there wasn't much anyone could have done. The tapestry was already ripped; the Plax loose thread was able to unravel the Giants precisely because the team tapestry allowed it to.

By December, the offense without Plax was showing serious cracks and Kevin Gilbride, our offensive coordinator, seemed to have done very little about them. I came across many Giants fans in the blogosphere who would love to smite him or cast him out or something. But I don't think there was very much he could have done. As I've argued here, the dynamism of the Giants offense was willingly and pre-meditatively restricted into a playbook built upon personnel balance, experience, and execution. As such, the 2008 Giants playbook was limited by a fragile balance of responsibility between their key playmakers, as evidenced by their heavy use of the play action pass; frankly, it was not a deep playbook that explored the full playmaking possibilities at every position. I suppose you can say that the Giants ran out of operable plays to run when Plax bowed out. However, this was THE implicit caveat for weaving the 2007 post season Giants into the 2008 tapestry, and I believe it was a strategic risk the coaches chose to take. After all, they did win a Super Bowl with this strategy.

Moreover, I suspect that when an offense relies heavily on a quarterback's pre-snap decisions, the influence of an offensive coordinator on the sideline is somewhat diminished, headset or no headset. As we know, a big part of the Giants offense is predicated on Eli's pre-snap adjustments, something that did not change much in December. Now, I'm not criticizing the Giants' faith in Eli, as I believe he has deftly proven his quarterbacking smarts and should be trusted as the Giants have done. But when the parameters in his offense changed as quickly as a gunshot to Plax's stupid thigh, there is little he can do for all his football IQ prowess. Maybe even brother Peyton couldn't have pulled the Giants out of this one. Or maybe he could have.. ? Peyton with the league's top ranked running game would be.....


In any case, Gilbride knew he couldn't just draw up a new playbook in December and expect it to work miracles. Slants, screens, flares, draws, checkdowns? Sorry, not in 2008. I'm not trying to be a Gilbride apologist, but it's my belief that he could not overcome structural limitations that were imposed by the 2007-08 Giants tapestry. And it is precisely from this tapestry that hung all the loose threads I've spoken of thus far.

It was a systemic issue. Plaxico Burress may have been 'how' the Giants collapsed, but it was the overall strategy of the 2008 Giants that allowed him to have a ripple effect throughout the team. In other words, there was nothing anyone could have done to prevent the December collapse, that is unless Derrick Ward could run 200+ yards in every game like he did against the Panthers. By the way, it was Ward's outlier performance that squeaked us by that game to secure the #1 NFC playoff seed. Lucky!

(Ward is now a free agent, and I think we're going to keep Jacobs and part ways with Ward. This will be a painful loss for the Giants offense because Bradshaw is not quite as versatile yet. Jacobs definitely won't be the one catching passes out of the backfield.)

Anyway, this is why loose threads such as the loss of Plax and Jacobs had the power to singularly unravel the entire tapestry of the 2008 Giants. You can blame the unraveling on the loose threads if you want, but by association you would also have to blame the winning formula as pioneered by the 2007 Giants, the one that directed us so well for much of the 2008 campaign. If you're a true fan, I bet you're not quite willing to do that. We doubled down on an imperfect winning formula that we perfected but went bust at the end, but not before forging a memorable 2008 regular season.

If you want to find our lost post season of 2008, put in a tape of the 2007 playoffs. Pick any game; you will recognize a lot of what you saw all season long, certainly more than you would have recognized in the recent Eagles debacle. For the Giants, December 31st 2008 should have turned into January 1st 2007. This is the only way I could make sense of this season and be at peace.

As to the future..

If Coughlin chooses to reelect the incumbent 2007-08 Giants tapestry, there's a lot already there for us to build on for 2009, but issues remain. We need to get a repentant Plax back or else draft/trade for an equivalent talent (how about Kenny Britt???), preferably one without man-child issues. We should start addressing the speed limit on our linebacking corps, and we can definitely use better depth at lineman on both sides of the ball. Install cybernetic implants in Jacobs' long ass legs and pair him with a better developed Bradshaw, keep sure-hands Boss involved, and consolidate the replenished secondary.

But most of all, we need to hire new coaches and coordinators who truly understand the tapestry of the Giants as I've laid out in this post. Even if they decide to ax it and build a new team identity, they nevertheless have to understand who we've been in order to facilitate who we will be. To do otherwise would be to utterly waste the lessons wrought from the 2007-08 tapestry and probably spiral us back into the throes of mediocrity.

This responsibility falls squarely on Tom Coughlin and I'm pretty confident he can make the right choices. I should send him a letter to make sure..