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.