Monday, January 26, 2009

Giants Personnel Needs - II

The other huge need that the Giants have is to upgrade greatly and improve the LB unit. Giants defense seemed to decline towards the end of the year. The pass rush from the front 7 was not as strong as it was last year and they had to rely on creative blitzes from the DB-field to get good pressure. I think there are several reasons for this, but among them is the lack of big play makers from the LB unit. Pierce had a pretty good year, but the outside LBs were very quiet. Think back to the 2007 season and how many big, game-changing plays were made by Kawika Mitchell at LB. Just off the top of my head, without researching it: in game 3, when the Redskins had a 1st and goal, Mitchell made a great play to stop Clinton Portis on the 2nd down run (Redskins spiked the ball to stop the clock on 1st down) and he was involved in the 4th down stop also with Tuck and Aaron Ross. He returned a fumble for a TD against the Eagles in the 6-sack game by Osi; he intercepted a pass in the Buffalo game and ran it back for a TD to turn the game in the Giants favor in that game that clinched the playoff spot; and he put all kinds of pressure on Brady in the Super Bowl. He is not a great player and I am not saying the Giants should have met his salary demands and kept him - but the LBs did take a real turn for the worse since he left and I cannot think of a single impact play that Danny Clark made this year. Giants need to upgrade their LB corps. The Giants were very high on Gerris Wilkinson, drafted a few years ago. He shows some very good skill and great speed when he gets into the game, but he can't seem to stay on the filed because of frequent injuries, so they may have soured on him. Last year the Giants drafted two LBs that they were also very high on: Kehl and Goff. Goff had an injury disrupted first year and Kehl showed some skill at times, but if he could not outplay Clark or Blackburn, how high could they be on him. Actually, Blackburn is not terrible, and in contrast to Clark, I can think of one big play he made this year - stopping Westrbook on the 4th down run at the end of the game to win the first Eagles game. But Blackburn is a solid player at best - he is an average player, not a big play maker. The OLBs are supposed to be your team's defensive play makers and the Giants just don't have any. The LB's, especially the OLBs, have latitude to blitz, to drop back into coverage, to play the TE, to watch the RB's in pass coverage and to roam the field and create havoc. The Giants OLBs this year did none of that and it limited the defense. Just as the absence of Burress allowed opposing defenses to ignore the presence of a play maker on the outside and freed them to blitz and play aggressively, the absence of play makers at the OLB position allowed offenses to ignore them in devising their blocking schemes. They did not have to game plan on how to stop them and could direct their blockers to the few play makers that the Giants had on the DL itself.

Accepting the fact that the Giants need to make an upgrade at LB, they also have a choice to make between filling the need from the draft or FA, just as they do at the WR position, although the draft seems shallower at LB than at WR. Aaron Curry from Wake Forest is considered first round material by most and Nic Harris, a big safety from Oklahoma might be a gem if he is converted to LB, but he probably will not be a first round selection. The big FA gem at the LB position is of course Terrell Suggs from the Ravens. He will cost a lot of money, because he is a great player and he is playing in the spotlight of being on a great defense, on a team that went to the conference championship game and next to Ray Lewis, who draws a spotlight on the entire team.

There is another possibility at the LB position: move Kiwanuka back to LB after his stint at DE this past year. Kiwanuka had a decent year at DE, but certainly not overwhelming. I think he suffered from not having good LBs behind him and from bearing the load of playing the entire season. I am not sure that he will ever be a pro-bowl caliber player at LB and his best position may be DE. I would leave Kiwanuka at the DE position and, next year, when Osi comes back from injury, the Giants will have a very good 3 DE rotation of Osi, Tuck and Kiwanuka. I saw less rotation in the DL than i did last year. Tuck was starting DE and in passing situations, he would often move into the DT position to get a rush inside. I like this move occasionally to change it up on the OL, but not too often. Tuck also may have worn down because of being in for way more snaps than he was last year. In 2009 having 3 good DE's will make a big difference.

The Giants have to manage their salary cap carefully and not mortgage the future for a move or two this year. They have to address the RB situation with both Ward and Jacobs as FAs and it does make sense to extend Eli Manning's contract, since he becomes a FA at the end of the 2009 season. I saw it reported in several sources that the Giants are 10M under the cap for 2009 which is not a bad number. This does not include the Giants redoing Darcy Johnson's contract at the end of the year and converting a bonus into a LBE (likely to be earned) amount. When that bonus will not be earned, it gets carried over in to the succeeding year, so the Giants actually have about $7M more in salary cap space, or $17M. That should be enough to sign all the rookies, and make a few moves to improve the team. This does not even include the sure-to-be cut players: Sam Madison and RW McQuarters which gives the Giants another $4M or so in cap space with which to maneuver.

Please take a look at this link from a Miami site which analyzes the salary cap situation of all the teams: Salary Cap estimates NFL 2009

Also take a look at this article about the LTBE loophole that the Giants too advantage of: Giants Salary Cap Maneuver

Probably, the Giants will be able to fill one of their important needs from FA/trade and the other from the draft. The Giants have not had a great track record of developing WRs in recent years. Steve Smith did very well, but neither Tim Carter, Sinorice Moss nor Manningham jumped forward to make a contribution in their first year. With Suggs the only LB available from the pro ranks, it makes sense to try and get LB from the draft and WR from one of the available pros, as I recommended in previous post. Lots of teams will be pursuing the one stud LB available and his demands could make him a salary cap crusher.

Regardless, with the extra draft picks that they have, this is probably the year to use some of them to trade up and get a stud player from the college ranks.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Giants Personnel Needs - I

The Giants offense declined badly after the Burress incident and subsequent legal troubles forced him off the team. There is little denying this assertion and the statistics seem to support it. Giants were the best team in the NFL at week 13, coasting through the league with a record of 11-1 and 4-0 in the tough NFC East. Their record to that point against teams that would eventually make the playoffs in 2008 was also 4-0, having beaten the Steelers, Cardinals, Ravens and Eagles, coincidentally all four of the conference finalists. Furthermore, the last 6 games of this 12 game stretch were all against teams that had a winning record when they played them, and the Giants won all 6. However, after Burress was declared out for the year, every team could adjust their defensive game plan, without concern that he would play - much different than if he was out with an injury, where the team still had to worry that he would show up and play with one of those 'game-time-decisions'. Giants closed the season by losing 4 out of their last 5, including the playoff loss to the Eagles. But that is just the won/loss record, I claimed in the opening that the main decline was in the offense and the statistics clearly support that assertion. In those first 12 games, the Giants averaged 366 yards offense per game; in the last 5, they averaged 56 yards less, 310 yards per game. Most of that reduced yardage came from the passing game: in the first 12 games, Giants averaged 219 yard per game and in the last 12, the average dropped by 40 yards to 178 yards per game. More statistics from the passing game: Eli did not fall apart throwing INT's in these last 5 games, his numbers were nearly the same: he threw 4 for an average of .8 per game in the last 5, whereas in the first 12 he averaged nearly the same at .7 INT's per game. But the offense threw only 3 TD passes, 2 by Eli and 1 by Carr, in these last 5 games for an average of .6 per game, where they threw 19 for an average of 1.6 per game in the first 12 games. That is a dramatic drop off and is indicative of weakness in the passing game and the affect that Burress had on the ability of the offense to score TD's in the red zone. Finally, the biggest indicator of the diminished offense after Burress went out is the most fundamental way we measure offenses - points scored. In the first 12 games, the Giants were the highest scoring team in football and averaged a very impressive 29 points per game. In the last 5 games, the Giants averaged only 17 points per game, a dramatic drop off of 12 points per game. Averages can be somewhat misleading over fairly small samples. However, the offensive drop off over those last 5 games includes one huge offensive game against the Panthers, where the Giants scored 34 points and generated more than 450 yards of offense. If you exclude that one game, where the Giants punished a Panther team that simply could not stop the run, the Giants statistical collapse after the Burress departure was even more severe.

The conclusion seems clear - the Giants missed Burress enormously, much more than they expected. In retrospect, it is not really a big surprise, because a passing offense needs three things to be productive: a passer who can deliver the ball, an OL that can give him time and a WR who can catch it on the other end. We were all smitten (myself included) by the Giants offensive success of those first 12 games, by Eli's outstanding play in those games and by the glimmers of excellence that we saw from Hixon in the games that he replaced Burress. Hixon was excellent in the Seattle game, played well in the Ravens game as well and looked like he would step in seamlessly and the Giants offense would not lose a beat. We were way wrong. Perhaps Hixon is not as good as we thought; perhaps he needs a little more experience or maybe it was just the match ups of the opponents in those last 5 games that made the offense look worse than they really are. The Eagles CBs and blitzing style matches up well against Hixon, the other Giants WRs and the Giants OL. Cowboys just overwhelmed the Giants with their pass rush - sacking Eli an incredible 8 times in the game in Dallas. Nevertheless, the Giants will face the Eagles and Cowboys 4 times next year and a host of other teams that will learn from the game film of the two Eagles games and the Giants need to upgrade their offense with a weapon at the WR and improved OL play in order to compete offensively with them and the rest of the league next year.

Based on the above, the biggest off-season need on offense is to replace Burress with a big time WR threat. Exactly how to do that is a subject for very good debate. The Giants have done very well building this team from the draft. The drafts from 2004 through 2008 have brought in core players, stars and the foundation of the team. Just take a second and remember what the Giants drafts since 2004 have looked like. In 2004: Eli Manning and Chris Snee; in 2005 it was what I called in another post the best draft in the history of the NFL - Corey Webster, Justin Tuck and Brandon Jacobs; in 2006: Kiwanuka and Cofield; in 2007: Aaron Ross, Steve Smith, Jay Alford, Kevin Boss, Michael Johnson and Ahmad Bradshaw; in 2008: Kenny Phillips and Terrel Thomas. That is a very impressive list which, by my count provides 15 top players on the current roster. With that yield from college, it is very tempting to let Reese stick with the draft and find a stud WR in the 1st or 2nd round, especially this year, where the draft seems very deep for WR. Everyone is buzzing about Crabtree as a special player, probably a top 5 pick and an impact player from day 1 in the league. Also high on every draft board are Jerry Maclin from Missouri and Hakeem Nicks from UNC. The big question is whether the Giants should take a player from college and risk developing him or try to get a proven professional player either as a FA or through a trade. The big fish out there on the FA agent market is Houshmandzadeh from the Bengals. He is a very good player with excellent size and skill, but I am not sure he is a star and a huge deep threat. Anquan Boldin is unhappy with the Cardinals not extending his contract as they did with Fitzgerald, leading to completely unfounded and unsupported speculation (hope?) that he may be available in a trade. There may be some other creative things that the Giants can do in the trade or FA market. But the big question is whether the Giants will or should go the draft or the FA/trade route for this important position.

With the Giants so close to another title, it seems that this might be the year to toss away the draft playbook that has served Reese so well and try to go for a proven WR. That decision has salary cap implications and is affected by what the Giants do to extend Eli's contract and what they do with the RB situation with Jacobs and Ward. I will talk about the RB's in another post, for now I'm sticking with my ideas at WR. The idea I am about to float is one that I posted earlier and came as a synthesis of my brother's thoughts and my own. Trade for Calvin Johnson. Giants would offer a 1st, 2nd and 5th round draft choice and throw in Mario Manningham for Calvin Johnson. The trade actually makes sense for the Lions. They need to rebuild their entire team after having a perfect 0-16 season and are desperately in need of draft choices. The league is very pass oriented now, so it might seem foolish to give up a star WR, but they need an OL and a QB before they get to the point where a stud WR like Calvin Johnson will make a difference. The Lions are conservatively 2-3 years away from the point where Johnson will have an impact on turning them into a winning team. Getting 3 draft choices for him speeds the process to get them back to respectability. Getting local college hero Manningham (U-Mich) in the deal and someone that could develop into a very good WR himself sweetens the deal and makes it more palatable to the local fans. The Lions traded Roy Williams to the Cowboys for the same 1-2-5 draft choices, and this proposed trade recognizes that Johnson is a better player than Williams and throws in Manningham. I think it makes sense for the Lions and it makes sense for the Giants, because that title window is open now, and you may as well try to go through it before it closes, despite giving up so much talent for one player.

If the Giants can't make a trade for Calvin Johnson, I would try to make a trade for Anquan Boldin, but would not give up as many draft choices for him. If the Boldin route is not open for them, and if the Giants have a very strong feeling that Crabtree is a sure fire star, offering one of the first 5 teams some draft picks to move up into their slot is an intelligent, aggressive move to make also. Frankly, I am not sure about Crabtree - he does not have blazing speed and his overall football skills might get him by in college but might not make him the definite star some think he will be at the NFL level.

Another alternative is to sign Houshmadzadeh and draft a good WR in the first round. This is a conservative approach and might be a good way to go, depending on how highly the Giants evaluate Houshmadzadeh and how much of a dent signing him will make in the salary cap. As good as the Giants college drafting has been, their pro talent evaluation has also been excellent. Their FA signings have been excellent over the last several years: Burress, O'Hara, MacKenzie have all worked out very well. In addition, they have picked up several FA's cut loose by other teams that have all done very well. These include: Hedgecock, Ward, Hixon and Danny Ware, who will probably get a chance to show his stuff next year. My point about listing the Giants success in evaluating pro talent is that I will trust their judgment on evaluating Houshmandzadeh and Boldin. This is the time to be bold and aggressive. The Giants have a lot of very good players, but not many stars. Adding a star to the mix would push them up to be true title contenders.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Giants: Spagnuolo, coaches, Cowboys


It is no surprise that Steve Spagnuolo left the team. With all the HC job openings, and his impressive accomplishments, it's hard to imagine any other result. In fact, although I hate to see him go, I am happy that he went to the Rams this year, instead of, say to the Cowboys or Redskins next year. Furthermore, I am really happy that Jason Garrett did not get the Rams job, for which he too was being considered. If Garrett had left the Cowboys, it would have given Jerry Jones the opening to make some coaching staff changes. Specifically, he might have brought in Gruden or Shanahan and moved Wade Phillips over to be the DC. With Garrett still in place, as OC, with the title of Assistant HC and the putative future HC designate, there is less room for Jones to maneuver. You can never tell with Jerry Jones - he might make a move with Wade Phillips and his coaching staff anyway, but the movement of Garrett might have given him the opening and the stimulus to act now.


There are rumors flying around that the Cowboys are going to cut TO, but that is more likely if the Cowboys were to make a coaching change now and bring in a legitimate, big name coach that does not want to put up with the daily TO soap opera. It is amazing with TO - the same act plays itself out over again and he has now undermined seriously the locker room chemistry on all 3 teams of which he has been a member. He excelled on the field, played nicely with his friends and was a good citizen for his first few years on the team. But after a while, when things did not go perfectly to his liking, he reverted back to his modus operandi, demanded the attention that very diva requires and made the team explode. It is not surprise that he behaved when Parcells was in charge, because he is a strong willed, hands-on, take charge coach, that does not put up with nonsense from his players. Wade Phillips is not a good disciplinarian or strong leader of men, so it is equally not surprising that TO started acting up with Phillips in charge. It is a little surprising that Andy Reid could not keep him in line in Philadelphia, but I get the feeling that he is not a strict coach and relies on picking players that are internal team leaders to keep things clean. Nevertheless, when TO calls out the qb, the coach, the play calling and the OC, it has several negative affects on the team. First, it forces the team to take sides: some defensive players and some other offensive players agreed publicly with TO that the team was not feeding him the ball enough and was not getting Roy Williams involved enough in the offense. The charge that Romo and his TE Witten were conspiring to keep TO and Roy Williams out of the offense was so insane that it should not have been dignified with an answer. But, when Romo, Witten and others did respond, denying the charge, it gave the story just enough legs and credence that it may have made players on the team actually mumble about it, if only amongst themselves and consider whether there may be some truth to it. There may have even been a racial component to the unrest thus created, though it was surely unintended. But more important, it gave confirmation, if only tacit, that the game plan was a mess. Romo and Witten only replied that they were not hijacking the game plan secretly. They did not say that the game plan was fine and that TO should shut up. So - the discussion on the team became: "Who is messing up the game plan? Romo and Witten?". The denial by Romo, Witten and even the coaching staff was in effect saying: "Romo and Witten are not secretly messing up the game plan; the coaches are doing that all by themselves". I think this creates a mood and an air of denigrating the coaching staff's ability and we saw other statements by other offensive players consistent with that. Romo was quoted as saying that the coaches did not figure out how to attack particular defenses or make mid-game adjustments to the game plan. It's not good when the qb is doing that. I hope Phillips, Garrett et. al. stay in place for a while. Cowboys fired their DC but if they stand pat and the Cowboys have another down year in their new stadium, Jones will surely make a coaching change next year.


I am very happy that the Giants promoted from within and moved the LB coach Sheridan up to replace Spagnuolo. It creates continuity with the defense, it creates good feelings with the coaches on the staff, who then feel that they have an opportunity to advance where they are and will work hard and diligently to get recognized. I liked and preferred the DB coach Giunta, rather than the LB coach, but Sheridan is also very well respected and will do a good job. Giunta was a DC before and you have to be very impressed with how well the DB-field has improved. He never gave up on Corey Webster and has turned him into a star. Aaron Ross had some unsteady moments this year, but is a very good CB and Terrell Thomas has great promise. You could simply say that this is a result of good drafting, but each player has improved his fundamentals, especially Webster, since Giunta took over. The defense is not just a product of the schemes and blitzes that Spags put in, but is a product of the individual players improving their techniques and their play at their position. In my opinion, no unit improved as much as the DB-field and Giunta gets credit for that. I would like to seem some movement on the offensive coaching staff. Gilbride is a solid OC and is a capable play caller, but is not as imaginative or creative as I would like. I am not saying he should be fired, but he is not very creative and there have been times when the play calling lacked deceptiveness. The Giants offense is simply the sum of its parts. When Burress went out and they lacked the deep threat, the offense declined - not surprising - but there was nothing there to replace it. No deception, no trick plays, little variation in the type of routes that were run, no injection of new blood from Moss or Manningham and most of all - no new schemes to replace the Burress threat at the goal line. I would like to see Coughlin get more involved in scheming and the offense and making it more dynamic. It's easy to say that the Giants need a big play WR, which they certainly do. But even if they get one, Giants offense succeeds when they dominate or simply outplay the other team; they never get any cheap scores with deception. Did you see the Colts-Ravens opening wild card game? Peyton Manning got a cheap TD by hurrying his team to the line, calling a play and running it before the defense was set. Giants never do something like that. A little creativity is important.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Eagles game - coaching mistakes

Even though the game is a week and a day old, the conference championships have been played and the Super Bowl teams have been set, I am still not finished talking about the Giants game and their loss to the Eagles. This is going to bother me for a long time. Looking at the championship games and how mediocre I thought all 4 teams were, I am more pained at what a good chance the Giants had to take it all the way. The team with the best chance to beat the Giants was the Eagles, because of match ups and style of play, as I said in previous posts. Giants beat all four of the conference finalists during the year. They had a real good chance to get back to the big game. Truthfully, without Burress, the Giants big passing weapon, Eagles were free to attack and blitz all game long. Look how they played the Cardinals - much more conservatively - because of the weapons that the Cardinals had at the WR position. I think the Giants coaching has been very good all year, but one of my big misgivings is that they did not develop Moss or Manningham at all as a weapon. Toomer was a non-factor down the stretch. Truthfully, once Burress was out, the Giants passing game went south. Eli played poorly against the Eagles, that's for sure. But a qb needs weapons to throw to and Eli did not have a lot of open WRs. I'm not giving Eli a free pass on that game - it was probably his worst game of the year - I am just saying, he wasn't helped out by having lots of open WRs to throw to.

Just to emphasize this point once more and really ruin your off-season: Giants beat all four teams that were the conference finalists during the season and had a 5-2 record against all of the 11 other teams that made the playoffs this year - including that meaningless season-ending loss to the Vikings. I think the Giants were up there as one of the best teams in the league and if Burress had not been off the team, they would have had a good chance to go deep in the playoffs.

I am going to highlight a few questionable coaching decisions from that Eagles game and i recognize that some of it could sound like second-guessing and making decisions with the benefit of retrospective analysis (aka hindsight). Nevertheless, take them for what they're worth and consider them on their merits.

It seemed like Gilbride moved away from Jacobs and the power running game too early. In most games this year, Jacobs was the main back, got about 2/3 of the carries and Ward came in as a change of pace or when the defense was softened up. In this game, Jacobs and Ward alternated series. Jacobs had only 9 carries in the first half and he seemed to be carrying the ball effectively in that half - I am not clear why he did not get to carry the rock more often. Ward was certainly great against the Panthers and played well against the Vikings in the season finale, so I can understand why they wanted to get him some touches. Furthermore, they may have wanted to make some big plays in the running game, knowing that the Giants best deep weapon in the passing game was about to be indicted, and Ward has better breakaway ability than Jacobs. But still - the formula most of the year has been - start with Jacobs, pound the defense, get Ward some touches late in the first half and then go with the hot hand. Jacobs was hot and Gilbride put him on the bench. This is a close call, because Ward can certainly be effective, but it was also the type of running plays and the formations that the Giants used. Eagles have a quick smallish defensive front and the Giants should have tried to pound them straight ahead especially when they showed they were able to attack the Giants outside runs, by bringing safeties up to the provide run support on those Giants outside stretch runs. Giants were effective running between the tackles and did not stick with that enough. Of course, the Giants got stopped on those 4th down plays on runs up the middle, so who's to say that they would have stayed effective running there.

In the Panthers game, Giants ran often out of shotgun formation and this was very effective. It was a change of pace for the running gameand it gets the Giants personnel match ups that is favorable to them. The Giants hardly did this against the Eagles and their play calling was very predictable.

The biggest coaching mistakes happened at the end of the half and it had a profound impact on the game. Giants had moved the ball very well down to the Eagles 26 with a first and 10. They had several bad play calls and bad clock management that ruined this possessions in the waning moments of that 1st half. With the clock running down to the 2:00 minute warning, Giants ran Jacobs up the middle for 5 yards for a 2nd and 5 on the 21. However, it turns out that the Giants did not get the play off before the clock hit 2:00 and so the play was called back, reverting to 1st and 10 on the 26 with 2:00 minutes left. This clock mismanagement was indicative of bad coaching but did not hurt the Giants because on the first play after the 2:00 minute warning, Eli drew the Eagles off side, giving the Giants 1st and 5 on the Eagles 21. Giants had run the ball well on this drive, so it seems to me that they should have run the ball 3 times and probably would have gotten a first down inside the Eagles 15. Instead, Eli went into a shotgun on 3 straight plays and threw 3 straight incomplete passes, leading to a FG. If they wanted to pass and catch the Eagles off guard, they should have run play action pass instead of advertising a pass with shotgun formation. Giants felt that the Eagles have excellent goal line defense (I heard Coughlin and the coaches mention that several times during the regular season) so they must have felt that their best chance to score from the red zone was to throw it in from just outside the 15, and this was obviously in their game plan. I disagree with that evaluation, but I certainly respect the Giants coaches judgment. But where I think the Giants coaches erred, is that this theory applies only to a 1st and 10. When you have a 1st and 5, instead of 1st and 10 at the 21, and the Giants running game was moving the ball well, running the ball should have been the call. This is the problem I see with Gilbride - he is capable, but not that nimble or able to think on his feet and change directions quickly.

There was another side effect of throwing the ball all three times - it stopped the clock each time and gave the Eagles the ball back with more than 1:30 left and sufficient time to move down the field for a late FG at the end of the half. Giants should have run at least once to get the clock moving and prevent them from getting the ball back. This was very uncharacteristic of Coughlin, he is the best I have seen, since Parcells at clock management and game time decisions. This however, was not his best game.

The pass plays that were called were not deceptive at all. When Ward lined up on the outside on the 3rd down play, we (those at the game with me) immediately anticipated that they would run that bubble screen, which they did; it gained only 4 yards and never really had a chance to succeed. If we can anticipate it from the stands, and the Eagles sniffed it out and stopped it, then I guess it was too predictable.

After this Giants FG, the Eagles got the ball back and then it was Spaguolo's turn to make some bad coaching decisions. Giants had been pressing the Eagles the entire half and they did not move the ball at all. Giants often used 7-8-9 guys at the line of scrimmage and were mixing in some blitzes on the passing downs and completely neutralized the Eagles offense with this aggressive formula. Then when the Eagles got the ball back at the end of the half, Spagnuolo switched to a prevent defense, used only 3 DL-men to rush the passer and McNabb had lots of time to throw the ball. He moved the ball down the field way too easily and almost scored a TD on the drive; it was a real momentum changer. Eagles had done nothing in the first half offensively, were given a gift TD on Eli's INT and a gift FG at the end of the half and despite being dominated, were winning the game. Furthermore, it gave them the formula for success in the 2nd half - they went away from the run and started passing almost exclusively, mixing in a few runs to keep the defense honest.

It seems clear that the Giants decided to pass the ball when they got close to the end zone, instead of running it in, because they did the same thing each time they were there. In the first drive of the 2nd half, after Robbins intercepted McNabb and ran the ball down to the Eagles 33. Jacobs ran on first down for 11 down to the 22, then ran for 5 yards down to the 17. With 2nd and 5 at the 17, Eli threw twice and the Giants were forced to kick another FG. Was this bad game planning, bad coaching or bad execution? I think it was a little bit of all of them. The game plan may have been correct, but when the coaches saw that the game plan was not working and the Giants were unable to pass it in from just inside the 20, they failed to adjust and revert back to the running game.

The main components of the game plan that represented a shift from the Giants standard offensive patterns all failed: (1) when inside the red zone, try to pass instead of running the ball (2) put the bubble screen to Ward into the gameplan as a key play at the goal line (3) alternate Ward and Jacobs, limiting Jacobs normal load. I am not putting all of this on the coaches, because certainly Giants had a chance to win if Eli had played better and if a few key plays went the Giants way, but the coaches did not distingusih themselves with the offensive game plan.

In the second half, the Eagles realized that they were not able to run the ball and they came away from the run. McNabb threw the ball nearly the entire second half and the Giants did not adjust defensively to stop the passing game.

Coughlin made a really bad decision to challenge the spot on the 3rd down early in the 4th qtr and Giants could have used that time out later to stop the clock. Of all the referee's calls that get challenged, bad spots are the most difficult to overturn. It's probably because the spots are so arbitrary to begin with. If the line to gain is on a yard line, then the ref can see whether the runner crossed it and can possibly move the spot from the replay. But if the ball is between yard lines and the challenge is to move it forward, but still jeep the spot between those two yard lines, it is almost impossible for the ref to judge whether to move it forward, so they usually leave it. Again, this was uncharacteristic of Coughlin who is usually very good with his challenges.

I thought it was a bad move to let Eli carry the ball on the first 4th down try. Now - this could be considered a complete second guess, because there was only an inch or two to go for the first down, and you might think I am criticizing only because he didn't make it. Fair point, I guess, especially because my son, sitting next to me at the game, said that they should let Eli run the ball before the play was run. I disagreed - when you have a 265 pound RB, I would prefer to give it to him.

Finally, even Coughlin admitted that it was a bad move to go for it on 4th and 2 later in the 4th quarter. He did not get a good look at the sticks and thought it was less than 2. That's bad communication - I don't understand how that could happen.

I think the Giants coaching is good, but they were out-coached in this game by the Eagles. I think the Giants need to be a little more deceptive with their offense as they are on defense.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Eagles - Giants post mortem II - 6 plays that lost it for the Giants

I hate to whine. Really, I do. I feel so much like a Cowboys fan or an Eagles fan when I do. Cowboys fans are always complaining about how they're America's team and therefore entitled and empowered to win every game just because they show up. When they don't win, it's the refs, it's the league, it's a conspiracy, sunspots, you name it. They always want to change the qb, change the coach, change the WR, in other words - find the one thing that is wrong that is ruining what would otherwise be their guaranteed trip to the promised land, because everything else on their team is superior. Eagles fans.... it's not really whining so much as being constantly and permanently ticked off about their city and their sports franchises. I am sure you know the famous line(s) about Philly sports fans that aptly describes their approach to life. Actually, there are two: Philly fans would boo a funeral. Alternatively: Philly fans would boo Santa Claus. It's perfect really - Eagles have never won a Superbowl and they have to be ticked off about something all the time. So when McNabb, that brilliant student of the game, didn't quite grasp the rules about overtime and the difference between a regular season and playoff game, the Eagles fans were ready to kick him to the curb. Andy Reid, the brilliant coach was also thought to be half out the door. (His other half was stuck inside the room, because it couldn't quite fit out the door). Side point - I can't wait to see Andy Reid's tearful retirement press conference, when he says that he wants to spend more time with his family, nurturing his children. (Sorry - that was a cheap shot.) Eagles fans were alternately kicking McNabb to the curb for never quite taking them to the promised land, and lauding him for leading them successfully to (now) their 5th conference championship game in his 10 year career. It's perfect for Eagles fans, really. They can root hard for McNabb and love him for getting them so close and then boo him like crazy for not pushing them over the top. They can talk about what a great qb he is and admire his wins, compliment him for his stats while never having great WR's to throw to and then call him a bum for choking (literally) in the one Superbowl that he took them to. So I won't whine on this blog at all. Rather I will take a dispassionate approach to analyze what happened in that dreadful, disappointing loss on Sunday. If I start doing what sounds like whining, please stop me.
The reason this loss was so darned disappointing is that the Eagles are not a better team than the Giants. The Eagles offense is mediocre and definitely inferior to the Giants. The Eagles defense is better than the Giants, but not by much. The problem I think that the Giants ran into on Sunday is one of matchups, the undercurrent in every sporting event that make teams over perform or under perform slightly. In this case, the Eagles defense matched up very well with the Giants offense. Of course, they were further helped by a substandard performance by Eli Manning and the windy conditions which exacerbated his off game. But - that sounds like whining - the Eagles defense themselves forced a lot of what happened to Eli and deserve credit for a superior defensive performance. They know the Giants offense so well and know their personnel so well that they were able to blunt what the Giants do. The absence of Burress and the inability of the Giants to hit deep in the passing game allowed the Eagles to blitz often with impunity, and allowed the S, even when they weren't blitzing and weren't playing tight up to the line of scrimmage at the snap, to come hard and aggressively forward on running plays. They charged hard on the outside and stripped the Giants blockers on their outside runs, the bread-and-butter of the Giants ground game. The Eagles DE's are quick and the Giants T's are athletic, not huge. In fact the same is true of the Eagles LB's - they are quick rather than big. The Eagles DE's did enough to disrupt the flow of the Giants outside runs and prevented the pulling G from leading the play in good shape. The Giants ran more effectively inside, but Gilbride did not stick with Jacobs or the inside runs enough, in my opinion. Quentin Mikell played particularly well and Dawkins is always a hard charging aggressive safety. Without the deep ball to worry about and with the Eagles CBs matching up well against the Giants WRs, the Giants offense was out of synch. Giants ran super power personnel grouping more in this game than I have ever seen them throughout the entire year. They used 2-TEs and a FB very often, especially in the 2nd half. Those 3 blockers in the game means that you only have 1 WR and it strongly advertises that you are going to run. Still, the Giants occasionally tried to pass out of this formation with little success. Furthermore, all year long the 2-TE set was a running formation and the Giants would use Boss and Matthews in those spots. This game, they used Darcy Johnson instead of Matthews as the second TE. I am not quite sure why - Johnson is a good receiver for a TE and is an inferior blocker. It just didn't make sense to me - it wasn't deceptive enough to create confusion in the Eagles defense if the Giants passed and it hurt the blocking if the Giants ran out of that formation. Back to matchups - I guess Gilbride wanted to go extra big to use the power running game against the somewhat smaller Eagles defensive front, but the blitzing LBs, the quick DE's and the S that are particularly good in run support ruined this plan.

On defense, there were no real matchup problems for the Giants. They actually played well, certainly well enough to win. McNabb made one great play (more about that later), but Giants were very effective stopping the run and the Eagles did not make a lot of yards in the passing game. The Giants defense gave up only 16 points and set up 5 itself with the safety and the Robbins INT. Furthermore, they were hampered by bad field position on the scoring drives that they did allow.

Notwithstanding all the above analysis and matchup challenges, the Giants ran for 140 yards, outgained the Eagles significantly in the running game and were only 37 yards less in the passing game. In fact, 50 yards of the Eagles 217 yard passing total came when the game was already effectively decided, with Giants trailing 20-11 and having been stopped on the second of their two 4th down tries. But of course, that sounds like whining about statistics, and I won't do that here. My point is that the game was closer than it seemed. Giants played very well all year - they were crisp, they were sharp, they had very few ugly games and ugly wins. We fans expected not only a win against the Eagles, but we expected to see them play well and show that they were the superior team. Style points. They did not. It left a bad taste in Giants fans mouths, that although our team lost and when the clock ticked down the final score was not close, the game was very winnable.

An analysis of the six key plays that cost the Giants the game. (subtitled-field position)

1. The unfathomable INT that Eli threw to Asante Samuel setting up the Eagles first score. I simply don't get why Eli threw the ball. The play call was a little risky - Giants had just scored on their first possession and forced an Eagles punt after allowing them only one first down on their possession. Giants had the ball apparently in good field position after the punt and a 16 yard return by Hixon to the 42. But two penalties on that punt return against the Giants: Blackburn for an illegal block and Phillips for pushing the gunner while he had a foot out of bounds, took away this great field position and gave them the ball instead on their own 13. That's a 29 yard penalty, even though the stats only show it as 13. Eli looked a little shaky throwing the ball on the Giants first possession, letting a wobbly pass get knocked down by the wind instead of throwing a nice tight spiral that might have reached the intended target, a wide open Steve Smith. On a windy day that would probably be dedicated to lots of defense and not much offense, you should be conservative in that position on the field. Then again, I can't blame the play call that much, because Eli should have known better than to let the ball go. He had two rushers with their arms up right in his face and he probably could not see Hixon, the intended receiver when he let the ball go. Furthermore, with the two rushers right in his face, he was forced to step back and throw off his back foot instead of leaning into the throw and stepping forward, which is what caused the ball to sail on him and hit Samuel right between the numbers. It was a terrible decision by Eli to throw the ball, he should have thrown it out of bounds since he was outside of the pocket or if he couldn't, he should have taken a sack. In addition to the bad decision, it was also a terrible throw. He hasn't made a play like that all year. And I mean that literally, not figuratively. With the meager offense the Eagles were able to generate in the 1st half and even in the entire game, giving the the ball away at the 2 for an easy TD was inexcusable. The main improvement in Eli's game this year versus last year was not turning over the ball and this turnover was a killer.

2. Carney missed FG # 1. Giants had just forced a safety and got the ball back at their own 32 after the free kick. Giants moved the ball down to the Eagles 28 after a sharp 21 yard pass from Manning to Boss. Jacobs ran on 1st down trying to go outside behind McKenzie and was stopped for no gain. A run up the middle might have been better, but then Manning attempted two passes, one on which he slightly overthrew an open Hixon. Hixon was bumped by the CB right before he made his last lunge to adjust and reach the ball and the refs should have called either PI or at least illegal contact, but the pass fell incomplete. After another incompletion, Carney came out for a 46 yard kick, which he missed. This would have given the Giants the lead and some momentum, but instead, the Giants left the field with nothing and gave the Egales good field position at their own 36. From there, Eagles got 2 first downs followed by a McNabb INT to Dockery on a deep throw. However, Giants were pinned back on their own 20 and this INT did not hurt the Eagles - it was almost like a punt. Safeties are often game turning plays, but Giants got only the 2 points and nothing more.

3. Carney's successful FG to give the Giants the lead 8-7. The reason that I say this was a key play in the game was the failure of the Giants to push it in for a TD and the curious play calling by Gilbride that contributed to it. After the INT by Dockery, Giants moved down well to the Eagles 21. On first down, Jacobs ran for 24 yards out to the 44. Sheldon Brown made a great play to make a saving ankle tackle on Jacobs preventing a TD. Brown came from the complete opposite side of the field and made a great hustle play to stop him. If Hixon had engaged Brown in a block before he started running cross field for even a second, something that Plaxico and all good WRs should do, Brown would not have made that tackle. After that play, Ward ran for 5 and Eli hit Boss for 26 yards down to the Eagles 26. There was an offside penalty on the Eagles and the Giants had 1st and 5 on the Eagles 21. Call me crazy, but with the Giants running game showing some signs of life, I would've tried to run it from there. With three tries at 5 yards, Giants would probably have gotten another first down and may have been close enough to the goal line to push it in. Instead, Gilbride called 3 passes from shotgun formation advertising what the Giants were going to do. All three were ineffective. The first two were incomplete and the last, with Ward lining up split out to the right, was an obvious bubble screen to him which gained only 4 yards and did not have a chance of success. Pay attention to this bubble screen call later in this post. Carney kicked a FG to put the Giants ahead 8-7, but they should have scored a TD with that possession.

4. Carney's other successful FG. Robbins INT on opening kickoff of 2nd half set the Giants up at Eagle's 33. Jacobs puts together 2 nice runs for 11 yards and 5 yards pushing the ball to the Eagles 17. On 2nd and 5, Eli goes into shotgun and throws 2 incomplete passes. Giants had trouble in the passing game all day and had particular trouble with the passing game in tight quarters around the goal line. Gilbride made a bad mistake by not sticking with the run there. The FG put Giants ahead 11-10 but they should have come away with 6.

5. McNabb 3rd and 20. With the 11-10 lead and apparently gaining some momentum, Giants had Eagles in a 3rd and 20 at the 15. McNabb was back to throw, Giants generated a pass rush and had McNabb in their grasp, but he made a great athletic play to pull away from the tackler and complete a pass 15 yards downfield to WR Avant. Webster was not in good enough position to make the tackle right after the catch and Avant made a nice play to lunge forward for the 1st down. Eagles went on a nice drive for a FG to retake the lead and that play by McNabb/Avant was the game changing play. Giants would have gotten the ball back in very good field position with a chance to add to their 11-10 lead and instead found themselves behind 13-11. I guess we can't complain too much about a play where a qb wiggled out of a sure sack to complete an important pass (remember Manning to Tyree?). What goes around comes around.

6. Carney's second missed FG. Eli hit a nice pass to Hixon for 34 yards but Giants offense stalled. Carney tried a 47 yard FG which he missed badly. Eagles then had the ball in good field position, with momentum swinging in their favor after the results of the previous two possessions. They went on a killer TD drive helped by an obvious facemask penalty against Pierce. The next two possession for the Giants were their two missed 4th and short attempts, but the game was close to over by then. Eagles had clearly taken control of the game.

These 6 plays / sequences were the killer plays of the game. If the Giants had any two of the six go in their favor, they would have won the game. Instead, all six went the Eagles way and the Giants were done.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Eagles - Giants post mortem I

Webster's New World Dictionary
post mortem: adj. [L., after death] 1. happening, done or made after death

What a disappointment. I said I was nervous about the game going in. Sometimes you can over analyze a game and look at every minute detail and fail to step back and look at the broader trends that control the flow of the game or the flow of the season. Eagles have a top defense which was playing better and better as the season went along. Giants, though they had a wonderful regular season, had their offense slowly decline after Burress shot himself in the leg which ended his season. It is true that they had a productive game against the Panthers, but look what the Cardinals just did to the Panthers - they have an awful defense and Giants productivity in that game can be somewhat overestimated (not misunderestimated as "W" might say). Furthermore, the defensive line and the overall defense declined somewhat in the second half of the season and seemed to generate a pass rush rarely, mostly when they brought a blitz. You have to say that the Eagles defense really has the Giants number, matches up well against them and knows how to stop them. In the last two games that the Giants played against the Eagles, the Giants scored only 1 TD on offense - a late, meaningless garbage time TD at the end of the regular season game in Giants Stadium. On Sunday in the playoff game, the Giants scored 1 FG set up by the opening kickoff return and 1 FG set up by the Robbins INT, which means that the offense scored only 1 FG generated by its own meaningful drive. It is true that Carney, the soon to be ex-Giants kicker, missed 2 FGs after some movement by the offense. It is also true that the Giants gained more yards than the Eagles and they were not dominated by the Eagles. They were not blown out. It was a close, tough typical playoff game. Giants offense moved the ball a little bit here and there. They ran for 140 yards and made a few successful passes here and there, but the Eagles defense was sufficiently disruptive to the Giants offense that they could never put cohesive drives together. The Giants offense moved deep into Eagles territory 5 times and came away with 5 FG attempts, 3 of them made. That is where the loss of Burress really came to hurt them: deep in the opponent's territory. Ever since Burress left, Giants success rate in scoring TDs declined greatly. Gilbride and the offense were never able to compensate for his loss. The conversion rate on 3rd and long also declined after Burress incident. Replacing Burress and finding a real passing threat is a priority in the off-season. I am not quite sure why Moss was never worked into the offense. We have no idea if he is a pro player because of how little he was used. As a result of not using him, when Burress went out, the team did not have confidence in him and he was not game tested.

Eagles DB's were able to shut down the Giants WRs. Eli did not have a good game throwing the ball, but he did not have a lot of open targets to throw to. Giants WRs just could not get separation from the Eagles defenders. Eagles blitzed on well more than half of the defensive plays, both run and pass. When a defense gambles that much, you are supposed to be able to burn them some of the time, because if they don't get to the qb, you should have 1-on-1 coverage everywhere. It rarely happened for the Giants - Eli did not get sacked, but the pocket was always collapsing around him and he did not often have a nice clean pocket to throw from. I am still reviewing the video of the game and will have some interesting stats tomorrow as well as some breakdown of some of the key plays, but for now: there were not many opportunities for Eli to make plays that he missed. It was a real team effort: inability by the OL to block consistently, inability of WRs to get separation and Eli missing a few throws when he had the chances.

OF course, the big play was the INT that Eli gave away. It was a mystifying play. he hasn't made a play like that all year. He was rushed, had Hixon open for only a second and because of the rush, had a defender right in his face with his arms up, blocking the passing lane. Eli let the ball go without really seeing Hixon and threw it leaning back off his back foot. He should heave thrown the ball away or taken the sack. It was a terrible decision to throw the ball and a terrible throw, with his mechanics out the window. Eagles did nothing offensively in the first half until the last drive, when Giants sat back in a prevent defense, inexplicably. Even when they had the ball at the 2 after the INT, it took them 4 plays to get into the endzone. Still after a dominant defensive 1st half, the Giants went to the locker room trailing 10-8, when they should have been ahead.

The crusher play, the game turner was the 3rd and 20 that the Eagles converted on a great play by McNabb in the 2nd half. Giants had just taken the lead 11-10 after the FG following Robbins INT. They almost had McNabb sacked on that 3rd and 20, but he escaped. if they had gotten the sack, they would have gotten the ball back at about midfield and might have been positioned to take control of the game. But McNabb made that great play and the wind came out of the Giants sails. From that point on, Eagles were in command.

The 2 missed FGs by Carney were absolute killers. In addition to taking 6 points off the board, they left the Eagles in great field position and they moved in for scores on both possessions. The two failed fourth downs later on hurt, but the Eagles were already in control of the game at that point and the Giants were desperate.

More analysis tomorrow.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Giants - Eagles part trois

OK - I am officially nervous about this game. I'm a glass half empty kind of guy. Giants still have a good OL and a good running attack, but there's no denying that the passing attack and the overall offense is diminished with the absence of Burress. Eagles defense has been playing outstanding in the latter part of the season. Giants have to be careful with the ball and not turn it over, because it could be one of those 13-10, defensive struggles, where punting and field position is all important. In those kinds of game s one turnover that flips the field position could mean everything.

Maybe Giants should use Hixon on punt returns - forget about kickoff returns. If I'm right and there are not a lot of points scored, there won't be many opportunities for kickoffs and many more opportunities to make plays on punt returns. It's a chance to get the ball in the hands of your play makers more often.

Weather report has been revised and it looks now like there might be some snow showers on Sunday afternoon. Giants have to be able to throw the ball and take advantage of any opportunity they get that is presented by Eagles DBs in press coverage.

Finally - Eli, Eli, Eli. Play big like you did last year in the playoffs. I was listening to the radio today and the "experts" are still saying that Eli is not good enough to win the game for you. I guess they missed the playoffs last year. Nevertheless, we need him to play big, to play smart and not give away the one or two opportunities the team may have to hit a deep ball down the field.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Giants - Eagles preview part deux

Since this is a playoff game, I thought I would do a little more preview of the game.

It would be really nice if the Giants could improve their kickoff coverage. Coughlin likes to not put too much of a burden on his starters, consequently he limits how many of them he uses on special teams. When Hixon moved into the starting lineup as WR with the Burress incident, he removed him from kick return duties. This is very unfortunate, because he is a great kick returner. But there's another thing I noticed: Giants kickoff coverage got worse at about the time that Chase Blackburn was promoted to starter at OLB. It may not be coincidental because Blackburn might be the Giants best special teams player and kick coverage guy. I am not sure why Kehl and DeOssie can't do just as well in kick coverage, since they have similar physical attributes to Blackburn. Nevertheless, I wonder if the Giants might take a chance in the playoffs in putting Blackburn and Hixon back on the kick coverage and return teams. I would be tempted with Blackburn and would be inclined to leave Hixon out.

I wondered in an earlier post whether Coughlin would consider dressing Tynes in addition to Carney, letting Tynes handle the kickoff duties. Eagles don't have a particularly great kick return game, but field position may prove to be very important in this game, so he might just do it.

Eagles will try to take advantage of Giants LBs in the middle of the field. They will use their talented TEs Celek and LJ Smith and will try to get Westbrook out in pass routes and screens. Giants were deadly stopping screens last year but have been a little vulnerable lately. Since Eagles are a great screen team and this play gets the ball into the hands of their best play maker Westbrook, Giants have to be very wary of those screens.

Giants need a big game out of their OL and their DL because of the specific way that the Eagles play. Giants will try to run the ball against the Eagles, but if a defense really sells out to stop one phase of the opposing offense, it can often do a decent job doing so. Eli and the Giants WRs have to have a productive game and make some big plays for the offense to operate efficiently.

The first round playoff bye and the week off was a real boon to the Giants. The team had several players that were nicked up and needed rest to heal. Robbins and Cofield were battling shoulder and knee injuries respectively and the rest helped them tremendously. Against the Eagles, Cofield did not play and Robbins was banged up so the DTs did not get the big push they usually do. It is very important for DTs to make penetration against McNabb. If the DEs can get some pass rush from the outside, they can greatly limit McNabb's ability to get outside of the pocket and limit his effectiveness. The Giants last 10 games of the year were against teams that were over .500 at the time they played them, which has never happened in the league before. 7 of those 10 teams ended up making the playoffs, adding to the difficulty of this part of the schedule. Furthermore, the Giants regular season bye came after week 3, the earliest in the league, so in addition to the degree of difficulty of the games, they have also been playing the longest stretch of consecutive games possible in the league. I think they were physically and mentally exhausted; and the week off will help restore their pep and put some spring back in their step. Kiwanuka in particular has never played so many games before in his life. The college season is of course much shorter than the NFL and in his rookie year he did not take snaps in every game. Last year he was injured and did not play the last several games of the year, so this is the first year that he has played a full NFL schedule while taking most of the snaps as starter. Tuck was nicked up and also played a fuller load than he ever has before. I am hopeful that both took advantage of the week off and will come back refreshed. Neither one vacationed in Cabo, Mexico.

Brandon Jacobs is not listed on the injury report, which should mean that he's ready to go. As important as Jacobs is in the running game, he may be even more important in the passing game. He is an absolutely deadly pass blocker picking up the blitz. He always picks up the right blitzer and is very quick to move from side to side to do so. When most RBs pick up a blitzing LB, they are usually able to slow them down for a second or obstruct the lane they are rushing in so they have to take a slightly wider route to the qb. If the RB is successful, he is able to give the qb an extra second or so to throw, but often the pocket is collapsing as he makes his block so the qb will not have a clean pocket to step into his throw. Not Jacobs - he's like having an extra G on the field, but one that is as quick and nimble as RB. When he picks up the blitzer and blocks him, he stands him straight up and the guy STAYS blocked. With the propensity that the Eagles have to blitz, his presence on the field will be really important. Too bad he drops half the balls thrown to him, otherwise he'd be really deadly.

As much as we think that this game is all about establishing the run and stopping Westbrook, it will also be really important for Eli to have a big game. I'd be a lot more confident in this game if Giants had Burress playing. Unfortunately he is injured, suspended and nearly indicted. Hixon is going to have to step up, but I think we are going to have to see another WR - not Toomer - make plays down the field this week. Using Smith or Boss as a surprise deep threat, or even TE Darcy Johnson might be an unexpected change that will surprise the Eagles defense. I would love to see Moss on the field, but I'm not holding my breath.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Eagles - Giants preview

The Eagles of 2008 fancy themselves as the Giants of 2007. They are hoping they will get on a run like the Giants of last year and get the rings. On the surface, there are some similarities: both teams had uneven regular seasons and made it into the playoffs as a wildcard; both had qbs and coaches that were under fire and seemed to have their futures with the team in question; both came in as wildcard and won their first game on the road. But there is something slightly demeaning of the Eagles talking about the 2007 Giants as being a mediocre team that just happened to get on a roll and play their best in the playoffs. That would be a reasonable assessment of last year's championship if the Giants followed up their title last year with a record of 8-8 or 9-7 this year and did not make the playoffs or barely squeezed in as a wildcard. Then, asserting that the Giants playoff run last year was a mirage would be a defensible position. However when they follow up the title last year with a division title by 3 games in a tough NFC East, with the # 1 seed in the conference and a 12-4 record, some other explanation is appropriate. Specifically, I would assert that the Giants and their qb came into their own last year at just the right moment and continued their growth into this year. Giants had (and still have) a very young team with several rookies and 2nd and 3rd year players. Many needed a season to gain experience, hit their stride at the right time and continued their growth into this year. As an example, let's not forget the explosion onto the scene of Corey Webster at the end of the year and the contributions of Ahmad Bradshaw at the same time that gave the Giants some extra juice. Their excellence has continued into this year.

To the game itself, the Eagles beat the Giants a few weeks ago in Giants Stadium and really stopped the Giants offense from being effective all game long. Their strategy was simple and straightforward. The 40 mph winds and the absence of Plaxico Burress made the Eagles completely unafraid of the Giants passing game. Eagles, therefore, dropped a safety or two down to the line of scrimmage and even more, had the LBs shooting the gaps and run blitzing often to challenge the Giants running game. Then, when they got the Giants in 3rd and long, they would blitz the bejesus out of Eli. They were confident that their improved db-field could handle the Giants WRs man-to-man. They did not sack Eli (maybe once) but did put some pressure on him. Mostly, however, the Eagles aggressively stopped the run and the wind stopped the passing game. Everyone remembers the wide open pass on a post pattern that would have been a sure TD had Hixon not dropped the ball. The Giants will need him to hold on to the ball this weekend.

There are a few tactics that the Giants can use against this aggressive, run stopping and run blitzing defense:

(1) Notwithstanding the extra guys at the line of scrimmage, the Eagles have a smallish front and the Giants can road grade them and just overpower them at the point of attack. This is what the Giants did to the Eagles in their first game at the Linc in Philadelphia. The presence and health of Brandon Jacobs will help this. I would run right at Trent Coles, who, though quick, is small. You should hit them with quick traps and counters to take advantage of their forward push. Some additional deception in the running game would help also. Using two RBs at the same time, faking to one into the line and pitching to the other on an outside run might be an interesting wrinkle.
(2) Line up Boss in a slot or split out wide in 2-TE personnel groupings, out of which the Giants usually run. This forces the Eagles to send someone out to cover TE Boss and opens up the middle for the OL to handle more easily. It also gives Boss better blocking angles from the slot, rather than getting down low in tight formations.
(3) Run out of shotgun formations, and not just straight draw plays. Pull a G or T and let him lead to the opposite side of the field, running between the T and G on the other side. Eagles take fairly wide splits at the line of scrimmage and this should be open. Snee, because of his great athleticism would be the best choice to pull for Giants, running back to the left side of the offense. Giants used all of the above techniques against the Panthers and they were very effective in recharging the running game.
(4)Finally, don't be afraid to throw on first down or in typical running situations. Eli is very good with the play action fake and can be selective and effective throwing down the field.

In order to get the Eagles off the line of scrimmage, Giants have to be able to throw down the field, using Hixon and maybe one other target to go deep. Giants don't have to hit 60 yard pass plays all day long, but they will have to hit some 20-25 yard balls to make the Eagles pay for what will surely be tight man-to-man most of the day. Hixon is very important player this week, but Toomer is not as capable of gaining separation against faster, younger DBs in man coverage. He is very good at finding the spots in zones, but Giants are not likely to see much zone this week. Consequently, it would be a bold, if somewhat risky move to try and make some plays to Sinorice Moss and/or Manningham down the field. I know it was only garbage time in the Vikings game, but both young WR's made some catches and looked pretty good in that 2nd half. I think there's a good chance that Toomer will not be coming back next year and I would have liked to have seen more form these young players, so Giants would know what they have in them, can determine if they are valuable assets and can decide a future course of action.

Another wrinkle might be to have two RB's in to max protect on passing downs when the Giants expect a blitz from that Eagles defense. Pick up the blitz with extra blockers and use a double move on the outside to take advantage of the Eagles db's aggressiveness. If the blitz doesn't come, it leaves the second RB 1-on-1 with a LB and he could leave the backfield and be a target with a short throw. Ward is a great pass catcher out of the backfield, and -who knows - we may even have an Ahmad Bradshaw sighting this week.

Another important wrinkle is how the Giants handle the red zone and get a little more efficient there. My answer is the same it has been for several weeks: Kevin Boss. He is not as fast as Burress but he is a bigger target (both taller and in bulk) and is sometimes ignored by the defense at the goal line. He has caught several short TD passes this year, but he should become a bigger part of Giants goal line package. Boss 45 yard pass reception in the Superbowl was the longest in his career. Maybe Gilbride could pull that play out of mothballs, because with Eagles blitzing, Boss may be open on a seam route.

With this active Eagles defense, it goes without saying that the game could rest on the shoulders of the OL. They open up the holes for the running game and give Eli time to make plays in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Giants try to overpower the Eagles right away, regardless of the defensive strategy they employ. Alternatively, they could use the pass early to set up the run.

On defense, the Giants need to keep Westbrook contained. He is a little beat up now, but he's still dangerous. Giants might consider having an extra DB on the field even in running downs, when he is in the game. He is mostly about speed, not power and having the extra speed on defense might be interesting. Giants have to put pressure o McNabb, but need to be disciplined in their pass rush and stay in their rush lanes. It is important to put pressure on, but it might be more important to keep McNabb contained in the pocket. I think the Giants should try to make McNabb a pocket passer and challenge him to beat them with his arm, rather than by breaking the pocket and making plays with his legs. I think McNabb is not a great pure passer, though he has been playing well lately.

Eagles beat the Giants last game, but they showed their cards and Giants certainly have had a sufficient amount of time to come up with some adjustments (maybe some that I've suggested in this post) and get their offense going.

Giants need to be patient in this game and not take needless chances on offense. I don't think Eagles will put up lots of points and it is important not to put them in good field position because of a bad turnover.

About Eli

Eli Manning has to be the most under appreciated, underrated, flying-under-the-radar player in history. Consider that: he has led his team to the playoffs in all 4 years as a starter; that he led the Giants on a magical playoff run in 2007 where he completely outplayed 2 guaranteed first ballot HOF qbs in Favre and Brady; that he also completely outplayed the 2007 probowl starter and the public's favorite future HOF qb in Tony Romo; that he put the team on his back in critical moments in the playoffs, like the 47 second TD drive at the end of the half against the Cowboys and the 2:00 drive to win the Superbowl; that he threw for 150 yards and 2 TDs in the 4th qtr of the Superbowl, something no qb in history has ever done; that he was part of what everyone agrees is the greatest single play in Superbowl history with his scramble and throw to Tyree; that he plays in the freaking media capital of the world.... and he still is barely noticed.

I'll admit it - I am a huge Eli fan. I have been going to Giants training camps every summer for a day or two every year and I saw his enormous talent the first time he walked on the field. My favorite Eli training camp story... Giants were running a drill where the routes the WRs were running were flag patterns - in this version, the WR would start from around the +40, run about 20 yards down field and then cut diagonally towards the pylon (used to be a flag in the old days, hence the name) where the sideline meets the goal line. The qb would throw it from around the 50 and had to place the ball over the WR shoulder, timing it so he got the ball there as the WR was getting to the goal line. The objective for the qb, therefore, is to try and hit the pylon. They ran this play 5 or 6 times and I noticed that every ball from Eli seemed perfect. Some passes were complete, some were incomplete because the DB knew what play was coming and could anticipate the throw. On the last play, the DB and WR were running towards the pylon and their feet got tangled and both fell to the ground, but Eli had already let the ball go before they fell. The ball kept floating through the air on a perfect arc... and hit the pylon dead on. There is no throw that Eli can't make. I'll admit that Eli took a little longer to grow into an elite qb than I thought or hoped that he should have, but there is no doubt that he has arrived, and he's going to keep getting better and better.

I think there are several reason for his somewhat delayed development. Perhaps the most important of them is that he needed expert qb coach Palmer to tighten and perfect his mechanics. There is no doubt that physically he is throwing the ball better and more consistently these last two years than he did in his first two years of starting and we have to credit Palmer for part of that. But I think there is another factor that contributed to his slower development and I got this from snippets of various interviews I heard from Coughlin and other NY coaches as well as an interview I heard from Bill Cowher. Coughlin did not limit what he put on Manning's plate in terms of qb play, in terms of managing the game, difficult throws etc, from the very beginning. Therefore his development was slower until he could incorporate and integrate all of the aspects of the very complex Giants playbook. I heard Coughlin interviewed once when he was explaining a less-than-wonderful performance by Eli earlier in his career. He talked about mechanics and bad decisions on some throws, but then wanted to emphasize that when it came to changing plays at the line of scrimmage and changing the protection scheme in response to the defensive front, Coughlin said that Eli always made the right call. The interviewer followed up on this point and asked: "Always??? He always gets them right? You mean surely that most of the time he gets them right." Coughlin answered very firmly - "No. Always. He gets 100% of them right. He is a very cerebral player".

The flip side is a recent interview I heard with Bill Cowher. He was talking about the prospects of Flacco, Ryan and rookie qbs in general doing well in a playoff run. He said that he had some experience with it because of the success he had with Ben Roethlisberger. He said directly that the way to manage the young qb is the way they managed Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. he did not put too much on his plate, he had a great running game and did not ask him to do too much. He did not have to make many plays in pressure situations and tried to stay away from 3rd and long situations. Looking at the way the two qb's have progressed, Eli now looks like a much more polished qb to me than Ben R. That's not to say that the Giants won't lose this week and the Steelers won't move on and win the Superbowl. That doesn't change the fact that despite the many spectacular looking plays that Roethlisberger makes, Eli is a better passer and a smarter player. Eli's development was slower because he had more to digest. Roethlisberger rise was quicker, but ultimately, will not be as high, IMO.

Maybe this last statement about spectacular plays is why Eli is under appreciated. You'll never see Eli scramble for 30 yards, or shrug off a big hit by a rushing LB and stand to make a throw, or flip the ball underhand while falling to the ground so he ends up on SportsCenter highlights. Eli's statistics are somewhat ordinary as well. Eli completed 60.3% of his passes, 19th in the league; he passed for 3,238 yards which was 17th in the league. But he threw only 10 INTs which was exceeded by only 3 qbs that started regularly all year like Eli did: Kerry Collins, Chad Pennington and Jason Campbell. Of those three that were intercepted less frequently, Eli is the only one that threw more than 20 TDs this year. I think this highlights how good Eli has become - he is very productive, takes care of the ball, makes good decisions, but is unspectacular in his stats. He wins. Giants have won 41 games and 4 playoff games in the last 4 years. He's a keeper.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Wildcard weekend postmortem

This is a Giants blog, so I am not going to go way off topic and turn it into a general NFL blog, but it is worthwhile to review a few interesting points from some of this last weekend's games.

Colts - Chargers: Field Position (again)

In a piece I posted on this blog a few weeks ago reviewing the Giants-Panthers game in week 16 of the NFL regular season (that game seems like just a distant memory now, doesn't it?), I tried to emphasize the importance of field position in any football game. Seems obvious to all football fans, but my point was that football is ALL about field position and it is much more important than we give it credit for. In that Giants-Panthers game, the biggest play of the game, without which the Giants would not have won was the punt by Feagles and the downing of the ball on the 1 by Terrell Thomas. It allowed the Giants to get great field position back and push the ball in for the tying TD. The same field position lesson can be taken from the Chargers-Colts game on Saturday night. Chargers won the game in OT and the teams had essentially the same yardage in the game, but the difference in this game was the punting and resultant field position gained by Chargers punter Scifres. At the pure statistical level, the Chargers averaged a net of 51 yards and the Colts averaged a net of 31 yards on 6 punts. That's a 20 yard difference on 6 punts, for 120 yards in total field position for the game. I've never seen a punter dominate a game like that with so many 50+ yard punts, no return yardage and pinning the opposition inside the 10 several times. You could argue that the punter set up all 17 points that Chargers scored during regulation. Here's why:

In the first quarter, with the Chargers down 7-0, Scifres hit a 50 yard punt from his side of the field that pinned the Colts down on their own 3. The Colts punted back and the Chargers got the ball back with improved field position, in Colts territory and moved in for the tying TD.

In the 2nd qtr with the Chargers trailing 10-7 and a 4th down on their own 28, Scifres hit a ridiculous 67 yard punt with a 2 yard return giving the Colts possession on their own 7. When the Chargers defense held, they got the ball back on their own 45, for a nearly 30 yard improvement in field position. They drove in for a TD to put them ahead 14-10.

Finally, in the 4th qtr, with 2:50 left in the game, trailing by 3 and a 4th and 19 at their own 47, Scifres hit a 50 yard punt that was downed at the Colts 1. Manning failed to move his team off the goal line and when they punted back, the Chargers regained the ball on the Colts 38 for a 15 yard gain in field position from their previous possession. From there they moved in for the tying FG.

Applying this lesson to the Giants game, we can say that Feagles does a good job punting for the Giants. He does not have a huge leg and is not likely to nail any 67 yard punts like Scifres did. But he is accurate, does get good hang time and is very capable at placing punts down inside the 10 yard line. The problem with the Giants is with the kickoffs and the kick coverage. Giants have been giving up way too much field position on kickoffs this year and it is largely due to Carney's somewhat shorter and somewhat lower kicks. I would stick with Carney because of his deadly accuracy and decent length on FGs. But it will be interesting to see if Coughlin dresses two kickers, as he did once before this year and lets Tynes kickoff and Carney handle the FG duty. It means that the Giants would have to dress one less ST player to accommodate that. But in the playoffs, you might want to use an extra starter or two on ST coverage, and perhaps you can get away with dressing two kickers.


Eagles looked pretty strong in the second half. The things I take away from this game going into the Eagles-Giants match up is: Eagles secondary plays very aggressively, lots of press coverage, tries to read the WR routes and the eyes of the qb, and jumps every route they possibly can to make a pick. Samuel did this to Tavaris Jackson for 6 points on Sunday. Jackson locked on to the WR early and sent Samuel a Western-Union about where he was going with the ball, so it did not need a lot of smarts to jump that route. Furthermore, the WR on the play ran a very poor route - he slowed down noticeably before he made his cut to the outside, chopping his feet, and leaning to the outside before he cut to the sideline. It was obvious what route he was running. Samuel played back making it appear like he was playing a soft corner and giving a big cushion to the WR. But he broke forward well before the ball was thrown, because it was so obvious what the play was, where the qb was going with the ball and had an easy pick-6 on the play. I am hoping Eli-Gilbride and the Giants WRs saw this and recognize how to play this. It seems to me that the Eagles DB's could be vulnerable to double moves because of the aggressive coverage that they use, but more about that when I do Eagles-Giants preview.

The good thing from the Giants point of view is that it looked like the Vikings were able to run the ball against the Eagles a little bit. They totalled 150 yards rushing, though 17 of the yards did come on scrambles by Tavaris Jackson. It will be critical for the Giants to move the ball offensively against the Eagles - in the December 7th game against the Eagles, Giants had trouble because of aggressive Eagles defense, ganging up against the run and letting the wind do its job against the pass.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Bye week musings

Think back to where Giants were at this time last year. Let's be honest and not take a revisionist history I-knew-it-all-along type approach to the Giants playoff run of last year. Most Giants fans were probably relieved rather than excited and eager that the Giants wiggled into the playoffs with that bad weather win in Buffalo. Truthfully, Giants fans had to be a little nervous about what we would see from Coughlin and Eli after an inconsistent second half of the season and particularly discouraging games against the Vikings and Redskins. After the well played Saturday night closer against the Patriots, there was a little bit of hope, but I know I would have been happy with a playoff win against the Bucs in the wildcard game and a decent showing against the Cowboys in the next round. I thought this would give Eli a chance to mature in the playoffs and that with a little growth, the Giants would be a legitimate contender in 2008.

Look where the Giants are now. Giants won 3 more games than the 2nd place team in the NFC East and finished with the best record in the NFC and the # 1 seed. Coughlin is being hailed as one of the top coaches in the NFL, the DC and the OC (rumored) are being pursued by other teams for HC jobs, Eli and a few of his teammates made the pro bowl and the GM is widely lauded as one of the very best in the league. Nothing is guaranteed, and the first game against the red hot Eagles will be a very tough one to win - after all they just beat the Giants a few weeks ago in Giants Stadium. But Giants fans are at least hopeful rather than fearful and pessimistic as they might have been last year.


I know this is Giants blog, but I can't help putting up some comments about the team every Giants fan loves to hate - the Cowboys. I still can not figure out the Cowboys. It is remarkable to me that Wade Phillip is still coaching the Cowboys. He is a terrible coach. He has never won a playoff game. NEVER!! He has zero wins. 0. Nada. Zilch. Not like Marty Schottenheimer who has a bad record in the playoffs but at least has won 5 or 6 playoff games. Phillips has taken several teams to the playoffs including some very talented ones in Buffalo. He was the genius that got beat by the Music City Miracle in Tennessee. You remember - Bills score with almost no time left and have to only cover the kickoff to get the win. Titans lateral the ball all the way across the field on the kickoff return and run it in for a TD to steal the win. Perhaps lots of coaches would get beat by that brilliant ST play..... but lots of coaches didn't - Wade Phillips did. My contention is that coaching is very important in all of the phases of football, but for special teams coaching is even more important. In fact, I assert that special teams is virtually ALL coaching. Every so often, you get that great special teams player who has the speed, the size, the motor to elevate your special teams and go beyond what coaching can do. But most of the time, it is not the players, it is the coaching. Every NFL team has a sufficient number of great athletes to field capable special teams. You might need that star to make your special teams great: Reyna Thompson of the '90 Giants, Devin Hester, Dante Hall, Dave Meggett, even David Tyree and perhaps a few others. Other than that it is the coach who coaches, organizes and gets the players to perform. In addition to that Music City Miracle play, I can point to a few important ST failures by the Cowboys this year: blocked punt in OT of the Cowboys-Cardinals game that gave the Cardinals the win; fake FG run by the Ravens against the Cowboys. In fact, in retrospect, that successful fake FG was 100% coaching. The Cowboys tactic to block FGs is to overload the left side of the defense with extra players and rush from that side. Ravens saw this on film and faked by running to the right side of the defense which was left almost completely undefended by the overload attempt. They made an easy first down leading to a TD. All coaching.

But it's more than that - Wade Phillips has no class. On the morning after the Giants beat the Cowboys in last year's playoff game, his press conference was filled with statements about how the better team lost. "We were better, we outplayed them, we wore them down in the first half, but we lost." Coaches and players are supposed to show some sportsmanship and class after a loss and Phillips did not. I am reminded of a similar opportunity for a coach to give credit to his opponents and how he handled it. The situation was the 1986 playoff game between the Giants and 49ers, a game in which the Giants led 21-3 near the end of the half. 49ers were trying to mount a 2 minute drill at the end of the half and get back into the game, but Jim Burt nailed Montana as he was passing causing the ball to float off course. LT intercepted, ran it in for a TD to make the score 28-3 at halftime and iced the game for the Giants who went on to win 49-3. But early in the first quarter, with the game still scoreless, Jerry Rice had caught a pass and was behind the defense, apparently on his way to running for an easy TD. Inexplicably, he simply fumbled the ball without being touched, the Giants recovered and dominated the rest of the way. Bill Walsh was asked after the game if he thought that Rice fumble changed the complexion of the game. Perhaps if the 49ers had taken the lead, it would have been a different game and a different result. Bill Walsh showed incredible class by answering (I'm paraphrasing here): " The Giants were the better team. They beat us and controlled the game. If Rice had scored on that play, we would have lost 49-10." That is class and sportsmanship.

There are several reasons why Jerry Jones is holding on to Phillips, IMO. He wanted to encourage his players before the Eagles finale and motivate them to play hard for the coach who would be here for a while, so he announced that Phillips would be back next year. Once he announced that, he was too stubborn to admit he was wrong and was afraid that he would appear to be weak if he was vacillating on this decision. So he stuck to his guns and is keeping the coach. Furthermore, Cowboys are opening an expensive new stadium with ridiculous PSL charges and the owner doesn't want to give the impression to the customers that the team is desperate. Continuity is important, so he is sticking with Phillips.

But I really think this may be temporary. Jerry Jones may see all the coaching changes and may want to jump in on the carousel himself. The bloom is definitely off the Jason Garrett rose, the designated coach-in-waiting. The Cowboys offense was not as productive as it should have been despite the wealth of skill positions weapons that they have. Players, including the qb Romo, have started complaining about coaching and play calling. If Jason Garrett leaves to take a HC job somewhere else and some high profile, attractive coach becomes available, Jones might just change his mind and make a coaching change. Maybe Mike Shanahan.

In that context, I almost hope Spagnuolo takes one of the HC jobs available now. I don't want to lose him from the Giants, but I think it is certain that one and perhaps two NFC East jobs will be open next year. If Jerry Jones sticks with Phillips for now, I only give him one more year in that tenure, and I am sure the Cowboys job will be available after 2009. I think it is also possible that Snyder will become disenchanted with Zorn after 2009 and the Redskins job will also become available. I don't want to see Spagnuolo take one of the NFC East jobs next year, so it might be better for the Giants if he takes one of the current job openings.

Eagles-Giants preview later in the week