No Rest for the Weary
Big Blue improves in some areas, needs improvement in others, and expels a disruptive young man as they strive to be Valedictorians of the 2008 NFL class
I have a good friend that teaches high school in New York City; a not-so-nice part of New York City. I'll refer to him as "Steve" because, well... that's his name. And to that end "Steve" no longer needs quotations around his name. Steve... there, that's better.
Anyway, Steve has been a friend for almost 25 years. He's a tolerant, intellegent guy who understands the in's and out's of how things work in everyday life. To look at Steve you would never imagine him being able to survive teaching 20-30 students six times a day, especially when some of those students are criminals, to be blunt about it. To give you an idea of the type of "kids" he teaches, he's actually had NYPD officers - more than once - knock on his door and escort kids out of his classroom and into their squad cars. When I ask him how he puts up with this, he usually tells me that it's all in the relationships he establishes with his students the very first day. His philosophy is simple: I won't bother you, you won't bother me. If I ask you to do something and you do it, you'll pass; if you don't do it you'll fail. He won't give them a hard time about missing assignments, he won't write letters to their parents. He doesn't get involved in their business, and if he gives them a poor grade and they complain, he reminds them of the ground rules.
I can't necessarily blame him for not teaching them to respect authority. While he'd never openly admit it, the ground rules are not about authority, they're about survival - his survival. And there's a reason he has to approach it this way... the school system, the parents and the laws are not on his side. How can anyone be expected to hold anyone accountable when you have to look over your shoulder when you head for your car at the end of the day? Or have to face angry parents who threaten you with lawsuits if you suspend their kids because "they deserve an education"? Or have school administrators forcing you to pass a minimum of 75% of your students, when 10% of them actually do the work? It's a setup for failure, and fighting the system is futile.
The reason I'm telling you about my friend Steve is because it illustrates two very important facts: First, that discipline and accountability are a necessary element to the success of any group, organization or team. Second, if a system is in place that does not support the authority, then the authority has to create ground rules that are very easy to follow but allow anarchy. Plaxico Burress was handled about as gently as possible by the New York Giants organization, because they know his days as a Giant are over, and there's no reason to rub salt in an open wound. The law - and the public - are taking care of doling out Plaxico's punishment, so there's no need for the Giants to do anything but cut ties and part ways. But because of discipline, authority and owner support, the Giants are able to stick to their guns and put team first. And are better off than most for it.
So Plaxico is escorted out of the classroom in hand cuffs as the rest of the students sit quietly, each feeling good about the choices they've made, and that it's not them. But snapping back into reality, the rest of this class has an assignment to finish; winning the division, having success in the playoffs and reaching the goal of "champions" - valedictorians.
A+ ( no grade last quarter ) Why haven't I graded the coaching staff until now? What can be said to accurately describe the value of a coaching staff that keeps a team prepared, motivated and focused every single game, like Tom Coughlin? That fully understands the strengths and weaknesses of it's players and structures a plan built on exploiting the positives while surpressing the negatives, like Kevin Gilbride? Or finally, a staff that combines intuition and mettle to pick out the opponent's greatest asset, and target it with the sole purpose of blowing it to bits, like Steve Spagnuolo? This is hands down the best coaching staff in the league right now. I'm not implying that Coughlin is the best head coach in the league, or that Gilbride and Spagnuolo are the best coordinators. But right now, they are the best staff in football.
QUARTERBACK: A ( last quarter - B ) Eli Manning dropped from an 'A' to a 'B' at the midterm grading because I had crtitcized him for his inability to scan the field and avoid throwing into dangerous coverage - His passer rating had dropped nearly 10 points from the first four games, and his four interceptions in that span could have easily been ten. In his last four games, he's thrown 7 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, but more importantly his overall performance has improved while being asked to shoulder more of the load. He completed 63% of his passes this quarter, and has been sharper at the line of scrimmage in reading defensive formations and changing plays with successful results. With the running game being featured less prominently over the past two weeks (due to the Brandon Jacobs injury and Ahmad Bradshaw's absence in Washington), Manning has thrown for 545 yards with four TD's and only 1 INT, completing 47 of 67 passes.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A+ ( last quarter - A+ ) When you have five guys that big and that bulky, doing what they do each game, you can't expect them to perform at peak levels as the season progresses. You wouldn't expect them to lay down and take a nap on the field, but you have to be a realist and understand that consecutive games against the Steelers, Cowboys, Eagles and Ravens is a taxing experience for an offensive line. You can almost determine the physical punishement they took in those contests by looking at the results they got in both the running game and in pass protection. They continue to play at an extremely high level, and while the running game has softened up a bit for more reasons that the o-line's effectiveness, Manning continues to leave the playing field with a clean jersey. David Diehl, Rich Seubert, Shaun O'Hara, Chris Snee and Kareem McKenzie are giving everything they physically and mentally can. A few Pro Bowl selections are a lock for this crew.
RUNNING BACKS: B ( last quarter - A+ ) An 'A' for effort, all the way around. Had the last two games in Washington and Arizona been even half as productive as they were against Baltimore and Philadelphia, this grade would be higher. The back-to-back-to-back 200+ yards of rushing that Jacobs, Bradshaw and Derrick Ward had churned out weeks 9 through 11 were nothing short of amazing. The continued ability for the offensive line to push defenders backwards and create lanes played a large role in that amazing feat. Things have quited down over the last two weeks, however. Jacobs has been nursing a sore knee which kept him out of the Cardinals game and clearly affected his running style against the Redskins, where he ran for 71 yards but only 3.3 per carry. Derrick Ward picked up the slack nicely, but his average per carry is down as well. Ward's YPA over the first eight games was 6.1; over the last four games it's down to 3.3. Ward's biggest asset this quarter was receiving, 16 catches for 186 yards. Bradshaw was phenomenal against the Ravens, gaining 96 yards on just nine carries. He wasn't able to do much in Arizona, and he was inactive for last week's game in Washington, presumably due to the Plaxico Burress fiasco two nights earlier. All three backs are valuable to the offense in their own unique way; The upcoming game with Philadelphia will reveal a bit more about the true status of Jacobs' knee, and hopefully Ward gets back on track. Bradshaw has to be careful; he's already done a stint in the house for parole violations over the summer. Consider this 'B' grading a result of Ahmad's simply being present at the Latin Quarter, and the sharp reduction in average per carries as a unit.
RECEIVERS: A ( last quarter - B+ ) Give credit where credit's due; Madison Hedgecock finally held onto a pass - not once - but twice against Arizona, one for a 2-yard touchdown (I'll look the other way on that "celebration" in the end zone, otherwise I'd have to decuct points). Kevin Boss continues to contribute, with 13 receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns this past quarter. What's been a welcomed sight these past four games is Boss' improved blocking skills; he's standing upright more often and extending his arms to get his hands on the defender's shoulders or chest to drive them backwards, instead of curling up and throwing his body at them. Boss has made some huge receptions but is still prone to the occasional drop. The playmaking ability of starters Amani Toomer and Domanick Hixon really impacted the grading this quarter. Toomer looks like he has years left in him, still beating corners of the line and showing the athleticism of someone 10 years younger when having to dive for balls. Hixon's presence in the receiver corps has saved the Giants passing game, or at least has kept it at the level it's been since the end of last season. His sheer physical abitlity is equal to - or greater than - any of the Giants receivers. He's catching balls over the middle, taking hard shots and holding onto the ball. He's been Eli's favorite target in each of the games he started, and has the wherewithal to break out of a pattern when the play breaks down and provide Manning an opportunity to get rid of the ball. Steve Smith remains Eli's security blanket, and Sinorice Moss has started showing flashes of potential.
DEFENSE / SPECIAL TEAMS
DEFENSIVE LINE / LINEBACKERS: A ( last quarter - A+ ) Two weeks ago in Seattle, Redskins running back Clinton Portis ran 29 times for 143 yards - almost 5 yards per carry. In his very next game - against the Giants - Portis ran 11 times for 22 yards. That's the story of the New York Giants defensive line & linebackers; they take away your best player. Sure, Portis got his bell rung by Michael Johnson in the second quarter while being tackled, and was clearly struggling in the rain-soaked conditions. But it was clear from the onset that Portis would be ineffective. Maybe not for the entire game, as I'm sure a player of his caliber would have gotten off a few big runs had they stuck with him. But in shutting him down time after time in the first half and scoring points as early as they did, Jim Zorn had little choice but to find other alternatives. It was the same story for the Ravens and Willis McGahee, as it was for the Eagles and Brian Westbrook. All three runningbacks mentioned were held to 13 carries or less, all were held to 26 yards or less, all were held to under 2.3 yards per carry. That's strong pressure up the middle and solid coverage on the outside. They were able to register four sacks against Jason Campbell last week, but only two in the other three games this quarter. The Eagles and Cardinals both had success throwing the ball on the Giants, but questions or concerns couldn't all be laid at the feet of the secondary. The swarming pressure from Giants lineman and linebackers that opponents had grown accustomed to wasn't always there, but it might have been a byproduct of the defensive game planning. Antonio Pierce anchors the defense and handles the radio, and he's looked a little more involved than usual. He still manages to somehow be standing around piles instead of being buried in them, but he seems to be recovered from the quad injury he suffered in week 3. Fred Robbins is still dealing with a shoulder injury, so Jay Alford has been starting at DT.
CORNERBACKS / SAFETIES: A ( last quarter - B+ ) Rookies Kenny Phillips (S) and Terrell Thomas (CB) have both seen increases in in playing time over the last four games. Phillips as a result of his performance and Thomas as a result of an injury earlier in the season to Kevin Dockery. Both have made strides with the opportunities given to them, but Phillips has been arguably the best member of the Giants secondary, second only to Corey Webster. Steve Spagnuolo finds himself with quite an arsenal of defenders, which he rotates in and out depending on which package he calls for. Michael Johnson and Phillips have been a strong pairing at safety, and Aaron Ross' game has picked up significantly, with three interceptions and touchdown this past quarter. The middle of the field is still a soft spot in their coverage, where tight ends like Chris Cooley and possession receivers like Derrick Mason can rack up yardage in a hurry. The secondary's ability to get to the receiver and limit yards after the catch has been the way they've countered that, which was never more evident than against the "dynamic duo" of receivers in Arizona two weeks ago. As for Thomas, he's started showing some of the physical style of play he displayed at USC which is an encouraging sign.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+ ( last quarter - B ) This is the third straight quarter that Special teams has failed to crack the 'B+' ceiling. Why is that? There are a few reasons, but first we'll focus on the positives. Domenick Hixon has been on fire in the return game, providing the offense with above average field position most of the time. Ahamad Bradshaw has been the kickoff return man, but was inactive last week so Hixon took over. Not too long into the game, Coughlin made the wise decision to give Sinorice Moss his old job back so that Hixon wasn't too heavily taxed. So Hixon's performance and the consistently reliable tandem of John Carney and Jeff Feagles (or "Grumpy Old Men", as I like to call them) are right on target. Where things get dicey are with the (a) kickoffs and (b) kickoff returns. As the season moves along, Carney's kickoffs have been noticeably shorter - usually falling out of the sky at around the 15-20 yard line. I;ve said it in previous report cards, but they'll need Lawrence Tynes to boot a few long ones out of the and zone at some point, so will they need to carry two kickers? the choice is to live with Carney's weaker kickoffs to have his accuracy on field goals, or keep Tynes for the stronger leg but have to deal with a less reliable field goal kicker. Or keep both. As for the kickoff returns, Ahmad Bradshaw hadn't exactly turned any heads so far. Hixon's going to start at WR for Burress, which means Sinorice Moss will see increased action. So it's Bradshaw or bust.
statistical sources: sportsline.com, pro-football-reference.com, nfl.com