Friday, June 26, 2009

Giants: A look at the 2009 schedule

Ray, a dear friend of mine, also a crazy Giants fan and a former boss of mine when we worked together many years ago, always has some keen insights into football in general and the Giants in particular. We worked at the same company about 25 years ago, each went our separate ways professionally, but have kept in touch and remained friends ever since. We occasionally have long email exchanges about the Giants and push each other into analyzing and understanding the game better than either of us did before. He sent me an email a while ago, right after the NFL published the schedule for 2009, in which he had some really good insights into the Giants 2009 schedule. I have copy and pasted the email below (with only trivial changes and an editorial comment) because he makes some really good points. Here it is:

Can't resist a few comments on the schedule...

First, Giants surely lead the league in away games played on (or near) the banks of the Mississippi with three (Minnesota, Kansas City, New Orleans). Though to be completely honest, to count KC as on the Mississippi is a bit of a stretch. But that does lead to a point - there is only one game which requires travel west of that point - the Thanksgiving day game in Denver. So, for the second year in a row (or, if memory serves me, maybe even the third, though Giants did go to London that year), there is no west coast trip. And that will probably not be true for our NFC East rivals, because the Giants were fortunate enough to get both San Diego and Oakland at home. So it could be a small advantage.
(Editor's note: all the east coast NFC teams have at least one west coast trip. Tampa Bay goes to Seattle, Atlanta goes to San Francisco and Carolina goes to Arizona. Within the NFC East it works out even better, because both the Redskins and the Eagles have two west coast trips: to Oakland and San Diego. Cowboys get Oakland and San Diego at home, but Dallas is of course situated centrally in the country and a west coast trip is not a burden for them. This aspect of the schedule is probably optimal for the Giants.)

Also, the bye week comes well into the season for the Giants - I always thought that was more helpful than having it early.

I also really like the Giants November/early December schedule. Giants have the bye in week 10 before playing two games in 5 days (Atlanta at home and at Denver on Thanksgiving). Then after playing Thanksgiving night at Denver, they have another nice break before playing two straight home division games (Cowboys and Eagles).

But I am also really tired of late season games against Minnesota. In fact, I'm tired of playing them at all. Seems like Giants do so every year.

---Thanks for the insights Ray.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Giants: First Fan Forum and PSL

The Giants sent out an email last week, on Friday June 19th to all people who hold a PSL for the new stadium scheduled to open in 2010. It invited all PSL holders to the first ever Giants Fan Forum. It was a conference call for all these 2010 seasons ticket holders where Eli Manning and Jerry Reese would participate. The email said that the Giants would dial out and call all the PSL holders who would then be on the call. If you did not receive the call, the email gave a toll free conference number to call and PIN to enter in order to participate in the call. As a PSL holder for the new stadium in 2010 I received this email and was very pleased and looking forward to the call. I thought it was a very nice touch and thought that the Giants were showing a fan-friendly side to their organization. I dialed in and participated in the call and I have to admit that it was really pretty good. Eli Manning spoke for about 30 minutes followed by Jerry Reese for another 30 minutes. Bob Papa was the moderator interviewing them. The Giants even allowed fans to ask questions to the interviewees, after pressing a key on the telephone keypad and being properly screened, of course. The sessions were pretty good and I will later in this post give you some detail on the interesting things that were said and the little bits of information that I gleaned from these sessions.

The interesting thing, however, is that while these sessions were somewhat worthwhile, their purpose became fairly obvious a few hours after the call ended. Specifically, on Monday afternoon, in the mail, I received the bill for the second installation of the PSL fee, due on the 1st of August. While it was fun to hear Eli and Reese, the "Fan Forum" was a fairly transparent attempt by the Giants organization to mollify the fans and assuage their anger over the PSL charges. PSL holders are now not just fans and season ticket holders. Rather, they are members of an exclusive club, part of the Giants family and are privy now to information that only they can get by being members of this exclusive group. No doubt, the Giants wanted to moderate the bad feelings that may still exist among the people who have to ante up the cash.

Enough cynicism and sarcasm; on to the meat of the sessions themselves. Because I was on the call I can let you know the interesting things that I heard. Of course one common thread that was pronounced by both Manning and Reese was about how the Giants season ended very disappointingly last year. They played very well, had a rewarding regular season and were poised to go far in the playoffs. They were gratified that the regular season was so successful and that they managed to avoid a post Superbowl let down in 2008. But, they are hungrier now than ever because of the bitter way the 2008 season ended.

The interesting things that you won't see in the papers were, among other things, Eli talking about the Giants passing game:

The WRs are much different this year than the last few years. Last year with Burress and Toomer they relied on their size and ran a lot of hook routes and out patterns mixed in with the occasional deep ball. This year's WRs are much quicker, more explosive and more dynamic than last year's. As a result, we will probably see many more slant patterns and crossing routes this year, where Eli hits the WRs on the move and they get a chance to run after the catch. Eli expects a big improvement in YAC (yards after catch) this year. Manningham and Moss are much faster than Toomer and Burress and we can expect more straight go routes to spread the field. He spoke about Sinorice Moss and how fast he is; that he was always fast, but that now he is learning the medium routes and is much better at his sight adjustments and reads. (Editor's note: of course, that will have to show itself in the regular season against real defenses, but at least Eli was positive about Moss.) More interesting, however was the enormous praise Eli had for Mario Manningham. We've all been reading in the papers about what a great spring Moss has had, but we have only read a little bit about Manningham. Eli said he has a great mixture of size, speed, hands and football IQ. Most important, though was how well he comes out of his cuts. Eli said he is running at full speed the moment he plants and cuts and he has great hands, never dropping a thing. He comes out of his breaks so quickly that Eli has to get used to getting rid of the ball earlier than he did when he was throwing to Burress and Toomer on these routes. Eli did not say it, but I am sure Manningham is one of the reasons that the Giants are going to be running the slants and crossing routes this year. If you catch the ball on the move and have better separation, YAC will follow. He also said that he needs to let the ball go earlier on go routes, or throw it about 5 yards deeper because of the added speed that both WR's have, particularly Moss.

Eli also said that Hixon and Steve Smith are improving and doing very well. Smith should have more opportunities this year and Eli is very comfortable throwing to him.

Jerry Reese also toed the company line about the bitter end to last season. He spoke about how excited he is about the young, talented, fast WRs. He said that this was one of the reasons he did not trade for Boldin or Braylon Edwards (he did not mention them by name, since that would be tampering by NFL rules). He simply said that it is always better to develop talent through the draft and he is very happy with the WR crew he has. When asked specifically about Nicks and Barden he was particularly effusive about the upside that Barden has. He said that with his size, everyone assumes that he has only average speed, but he was constantly getting behind the DBs in the spring practices. Reese continues to scout other NFL rosters and therefore is always ready to improve the middle or back end of the roster with players like Hixon and Hedgecock who were cut by other teams. When asked about his best draft nugget - the player he picked that was a surprise choice and did better than anyone expected, he didn't hesitate for a moment: Osi Ueminyora. He came from a small college, Troy State, that did not play the most challenging of schedules. He came in a little undersized in the eyes of many and he has become one of the top 5 DEs in the NFL. He also said that Osi looks to be completely recovered from his knee surgery and looks like he is in top physical shape. He has never seen a DE as fast as Osi.

Good stuff.

Boley hip surgery

It was announced yesterday that Michael Boley, signed for 5 years and $25M by the Giants from Atlanta this off season, will undergo surgery for a torn labrum. He will be out 8-10 weeks, which, if I calculate right, means that he will miss the entire training camp. That's not good. I was counting on Boley to shore up the Giants defensive weakness in pass coverage by the LBs. We can hope that he will be back and healthy by game 5 or so in the regular season. The Giants have talent at that position in Wilkinson, Kehl and Blackburn, but none of them has shown that they can become upper echelon players. I have high regard for Wilkinson, but he keeps getting injured. Maybe this is the year he stays on the field.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Giants: Coaches performance in 2008

The Giants coaches got a lot of credit for keeping the team together in 2007, for bringing along the young players that joined the team in that amazing draft class and for forming the team concept that pulled the team together. This propelled the team to go on that amazing playoff run and they didn't stop until they brought the Lombardi Trophy back to New Jersey. If the coaches got the credit when they won the championship in 2007, they should also take some blame for the disappointing end in 2008. They took a team that was well oiled, was the best team in the league by consensus, was the highest scoring team in the league after 12 games, was 11-1 and they won only one more game the rest of the year, going 1-3 in the regular season and losing their playoff game against the Eagles.

How did that happen? How did they go down so hard and fast? The easy answer is to blame it all on Plaxico. Burress shot himself in the leg, was out for the season and the other defenses in the league did not have to worry about Plaxico going deep anymore so they could crowd the line of scrimmage and stop the suddenly predictable Giants offense. Except it's not that easy. I certainly agree that Plaxico was a loss, but it was a loss that could have and should have been compensated for by coaching, personnel management and game planning. For one thing, Burress was not a dominant player last year even in the games he played. He averaged only 41 yds per game in the 11 games that he did play. He averaged 13 yards per reception and caught only 35 passes last year. His production was good last year, but those numbers will reveal that it was nothing special and the offense should not have declined so much without him. I certainly understand that the threat of Plaxico going deep is almost as good as Plaxico actually going deep. The defenses having to respect that threat opens up space for the running game and even for the passing game in other areas of the field. If Plaxico is doubled then the defense can not keep that extra safety at the line of scrimmage to stop the running game. However, the Giants had other talented, speedy WRs on the team, they just didn't get them out on the field.

Let's consider Sinorice Moss and Mario Manningham. I have heard the same drivel that you have about Sinorice Moss. He wasn't impressive in practice, he didn't master the playbook, he made some mistakes with his routes and reads during the game. Those sound like after-the-fact rationalizations to cover the coaching staff as to why they didn't get him into the game rather than legitimate reasons for not playing him. If he didn't know the playbook, maybe it's because the coaches weren't coaching him well enough and couldn't teach him that playbook. Even if this is true, certainly he could have been taught a subsection of the playbook and he could have mastered that which would have allowed him to get into the games and spread the field. Look at it this way - Amani Toomer was not re-signed by the Giants and no other team has picked him up as FA either. That makes it sound like the entire league, including the Giants think that Amani has no tread left on those tires; he's done. He didn't lose it in the off-season, he showed that he was slowing down during the last half of last season. He had nothing left, but the coaches still couldn't get Moss onto the field to replace Toomer. Now, during the off-season, when Palxico goes and Toomer is off the team, the coaches don't really know what they have in Moss, because they didn't get him onto the field enough last year. And it's not like every game was a nail biter - Giants won some games by blowouts and they could have easily given Moss some playing time to test him and give him some experience. I think it was a serious failure of the coaches not to get Moss and even Manningham prepared to play and get them on the field enough. That way when Plaxico went down, they would have had a game-tested player ready to go. It may have aready been too late and with the season winding down, they may not have wished to take a chance on a new player. But he should not have been inexperienced. Giants should have gotten him on the field earlier in the year.

As a post script, Moss has been the star of the OTAs, first mini-camp and spring voluntary conditioning proram. That improvement in Moss' game didn't happen between game 17 of last year and game 1 of this year, because there were no games. He has innate talent and Gilbride, Coughlin and WR coach Sullivan kept it buried on the bench improperly.

The same could be said of Manningham. He has a ton of talent and I am hopeful it will come out this year. We should also point out that, in our opinion, one of the reasons that Reese did not make a trade for an established star WR like Edwards or Boldin is because he believes that the talent is there among the young unproven WRs on the team. He wants the coaches to use and develop that talent, He does not want a repeat of 2008, when the passing game was predictable and the offense bogged down. He wants the coaches to use the talent that he has compiled and he was afraid that if he traded for a big time WR, the same situation would occur where the young players are buried on the bench, the team retards their development and they are not ready to step in when and if they might be needed.

This is a big year for Gilbride and the offense. He has the offensive talent on this team, but he has to show that he knows how to optimize its use.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Giants: looking ahead

Sorry for disappearing since the draft. I had good intentions of doing some post draft analysis but never got around to it. Then the outdoor tennis season came around and I had a real good excuse to procrastinate further on making blog entries, so I just avoided. My bad. In fact, I feel so guilty about this that I may do my penance by joining the Procrastinators Club of America. I'll probably get around to joining in a week or two. Anyway, now that we are getting closer to training camp and we have the full veteran mini camp going on right now, I thought it was time to get motivated again and start doing some insightful analysis, as only we can do here on this blog, of our beloved NY Giants.

First some thoughts on the draft:

You can look at the draft in a couple of ways. On the one hand, the Giants made some outstanding picks in LT Beatty, LB Sintim and WR Nicks. Later in the third round, they picked up WR Barden who is a wild card, not that well known or scouted and a player that has some huge upside. On the positive side, the Giants filled their main needs in the draft, without reaching for players that were not good values for the round in which they were picked. Whenever you pick for need, you are inherently compromising on the principle of taking the best athlete available. The Giants did not do that this year - their picks seemed like a perfect match of need and value. Particularly, in my opinion, the Giants may have gotten two players in Beatty and Sintim that may become 10 year starters in the NFL. That starting assignment probably will not happen in 2009, but maybe by 2010 or 2011, Danny Clark moves on and Sintim starts at LB. And maybe Kareem MacKenzie starts to decline, David Diehl moves over to RT and Beatty moves in as LT. But on the negative side, the Giants may not have reached enough and let a real good player slip past them.

I particularly like the Beatty pick. He was rated very high as LT on U-Conn, the college team that led the nation in rushing. To be honest, we all know that U-Conn did not play the same caliber schedule that other top colleges play, so that stat of leading the nation in rushing might be a bit misleading. Nevertheless, Beatty was a very effective LT, and you grab them when you can get them. He has the frame and the size; he has the quick feet, the long arms and the athleticism; and he is an intelligent, well grounded young man. Starting LT's don't grow on trees and they can have a bigger affect on an offense than any other position except qb. If you want to read about LTs, read Michael Lewis' book Blind Side. It's a great summer time read and it focuses on the development of the importance of the LT position in the NFL through reporting on the life of Michael Oher, who was drafted in the 1st round this year. Beatty may be a little bit of a project, but the Giants have one of the best OL coaches in football in Pat Flaherty and I am confident Beatty will develop. Looking ahead to training camp, there will be fierce competition among the backups in the OL, but I'll give a training camp preview in another post. Suffice it to say now that the Giants backups in the OL are all very young and inexperienced. For a team poised to reach for the brass ring this year, they might want some more experience in their backup OL-men. The Giants did bring in a 10-year pro in Tutan Reyes, but it's hard to tell how much he has left in the tank. The young Giants backups will have to show an awful lot to prevent the Giants from picking up a veteran who is released by another team at the end of training camp. This is something Coughlin always emphasizes in training camp: players aren't only competing against the 80 players that are in camp; they are also competing against every guy that gets cut by another NFL team in one of the other 31 camps around the league.

Sintim was a very highly rated LB and the Giants did very well to get him when they did. He has great speed and is a physical player. The Giants LBs were not as good last year as they were in 2007 with the loss of Kawika Mitchell, who was a solid, above average player, though surely not a star. The Giants have a lot of young, slightly raw talent at LB and I am betting someone will emerge as a real good player. Boley will turn out to be a better FA addition than the more highly regarded signing of Chris Canty. Maybe the Giants will finally have a LB who can guard a TE in space. The medium-depth middle area of the field, traditionally guarded by LBs in zone coverage has been a weakness for the Giants defense for a while now.

Hakeem Nicks is a very good WR and will be a very good addition to the young WR stable the Giants have compiled. But here's where you could definitely poke a hole in Jerry Reese's draft execution. I had forecast that the Giants would not use all their 10 draft picks, that they would trade at least one or two of them to move up somewhere, perhaps the first round and get a more highly ranked player than they would otherwise get if they stayed in their 29th slot. The Giants did that in the 3rd round and moved up to get Ramses Barden. My complaint is that even if Barden turns out to be the second coming of Jerry Rice, he was a little noticed WR on a Division II school in Cal Poly. Consequently, it is doubtful that any other team was poised to nab him and the Giants could have waited for him to fall to them. The Giants had a deal to move up and grab Jerry Maclin who they liked in the first round. But the Eagles offered a bit more, moved up higher and grabbed Maclin instead. The Giants afterwards said that they liked Nicks almost as much as Maclin and it was not worth it to throw in extra picks to move ahead of the Eagles to grab the player they really wanted. But this may be after-the-fact rationalization to make them look better. They should have pulled the trigger (sorry for the metaphor, Plax) on the trade and grabbed Maclin who is the more dynamic WR than Nicks. They were a little timid in not spending another pick to get Maclin.

That having been said, I still think the Giants have enough at WR to be really good this year. Moss will emerge as will Manningham, in my opinion. Hixon and Smith will continue to grow. If that's the case, Nicks could be a perfect fit and with his great hands, could become an excellent cold weather, Giants Stadium WR. But still.... Maclin would look good in blue, and he would not be in green in Philly. We'll see.