Monday, August 30, 2010

Giants: Ravens game

Take a look at the buttons on the left and click away on the button that captures your current stance on the Giants and their 2010 season. Which camp are you in? Is it: time to wave the red flags, time to send out the SOS signal hoping that the Carpathia gets here in time, time to panic, time to try to sell those expensive PSLs that you invested in while they're still worth something, time to sell the season tickets while people are still interested in buying them and there's still a market for them? Or is it time to take a deep breath, realize that this is just the preseason, that the Giants have had a load of injuries in camp so far which is preventing them from developing any continuity or cohesiveness and that as soon as the players get a little healthier and get to practice together for a few weeks in a row, the Giants considerable talent will show out and they will have a season reflective of this talent. (By now I hope you realize that clicking on the buttons above doesn't really do anything, they are a simulation of "real" buttons.)

Frankly, I am somewhere in the middle. I recognize that the Giants have some talent, but there are definitely some worrying signs and there are some problems and holes on the team from last year that we simply won't be able to judge if they have been closed until they get on the field and start playing. For the past few years, the Giants defense has been open to medium range pass plays in the middle of the field attacking the LBs. Mostly, they have been vulnerable to good pass receiving TEs, but really, anytime they played zone defense, the middle of the field was exposed. The Giants brought in Bulluck, seem to like the athleticism of Goff in the middle and brought in Bolley last year because he is so quick. Bolley did not have an impact last year because he was injured and missed a lot of time and when he came back, the season had already started to slip away. But - on paper at least - the Giants have 3 very quick LBs who should be able to play in space and secure the middle of the field. In addition, last year's performance at the S position was very weak and the deep middle was also exposed making matters even worse for the defense. Here too, the Giants imported two new S players in Grant and Rolle; and they are getting Phillips back from injury, so that part of the defense also seems like it will be better. Last year the DL was injured and did not have a good year, looking like they were beat physically at the point of attack by every OL they played. With many players coming back from injury and the drafting of two new young players, in Joseph and JPP, the defensive front seems like it should be strong. All of that sounds good on paper, but the performance against the Ravens was horrible. There was an occasional pass rush, but for the most part the DL looked like they were handled easily by the Ravens OL. The pass defense in the middle of the field was very weak. It seems like Fewell's strategy is to play a lot more zone this year, give the DBs a chance to play the qb's eyes and make some plays on the ball. But against Baltimore, the holes in the zone were evident and the Ravens took advantage. On the outside, the Giants were evaluating some CBs because of injuries to starters and played a little more man to man, with less S help than might happen in the regular season. These young CBs, particularly Johnson and Courtney Brown did not exactly shine. Flacco threw 34 times in the half (and one series in the 3rd qtr) and completed about 2/3 of his passes for 260+ yards. That was not exactly the type of performance that gives strength, courage and hope to the fans that the defense will step up and have a good year. The young CBs did not seize the moment and did not show that they are ready. Two of the three starting CBs, Ross and Thomas are out; Thomas will probably be back, but Ross IMO will miss some time. This means that the young CBs that had a tryout on Saturday night and played poorly will probably see some time as the 3rd and fourth CBs on the field. Frankly, I would rather use another S and get Phillips more involved in coverage, based on what I saw Saturday night. On the "just calm down" side of the equation, the Giants played a very vanilla defensive scheme and the Ravens came out with a very aggressive offensive game plan - throw all over the field and they even ran a lot of no huddle to keep the Giants defense off balance. Nothing illegal or improper about that, but it is something else that argues for a little patience for the team.

On offense I really don't know what to think. The OL was not very good in pass protection and was mediocre opening running lanes. Particularly embarrassing was the 2nd and 1 that the Giants failed to convert in three tries. Or course, this was a Kevin Killdrive special. Giants ran the exact same play 3 times in a row, straight dive right up the middle, with no player split away from the line, no deception and a virtual advertisement of what play they were going to run. On top of that - I understand that they like Bradshaw in short yardage situations because he is elusive and can make a tackler miss and make that yard. But if you're using Bradshaw, don't run a straight dive. If you're going up the middle, use Jacobs. It seems like the Giants are leaning to Bradhsaw and I think they should not take away too many carries from Jacobs, because he looks ready for a good season to me.

What's the problem with the OL? Are they just not getting the time together and therefore not playing well? Or do they have some key players all getting old at the same time and they will not have a good year? I am sure that is why Reese drafted Beatty and why they signed Andrews, to guard against that possibility. Unfortunately, Beatty has looked a little unsteady and blowing assignments when blitzes are coming, though he has shown some ability. Andrews looked very good in his half of football, admittedly against the 2nd team. If he continues to progress, and doesn't have a relapse because of injury, he may force his way into the lineup.

Eli looked a little jumpy and did not throw the ball strongly, partly because of lack of time to throw.

Overall, the Giants looked much less athletic and less prepared than the Ravens. Is this because of the injuries and because of the lack of game planning in the preseason? Or are we in for a weaker season than we had hoped. We'll see.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Giants: more injuries

Usually I won't do two posts in one day, but I was inspired --- or nervous --- today. Apparently Shaun O'Hara's ankle is not getting better, it was diagnosed as tendinitis. The Giants have put it in a boot for now and are keeping him completely isolated in the hopes that it will heal by the regular season. This is not good. It is a chronic condition and the Giants have to get younger in the OL to avoid all these injuries. It will be interesting to see what the Giants do in these last two preseason games to backfill for O'Hara. They have already announced that Seubert will move into start at C and take most of the snaps with the first team there. The question is - who moves in at Seubert's G spot. They could slide Shaun Andrew in and test him out there. or they could move Beatty in at LT and slide Diehl in at G, or even move Andrews out to LT with Diehl moving inside. The smart thing would be to try a number of these combinations through the evening and see what works. O'Hara will not play in the 4th preseason game against the Patriots either, so there is time for more experimenting. Of course that last game is completely devoid of any real competition between frist team players, so there is not much to be learned from it. These will be interesting moves.

Giants: Injuries

What is going on with the Giants injuries? Presumably these injury things are random in occurrence and go in waves, but if so - it would be nice if this wave would stop already.  Giants were lucky in 2007 and had very few serious injuries that cost key players major time out of the lineup. It's not to say that they had none, but they didn't have high volume of injuries that affected the team. Giants were a little lucky in that regard, but since then it seems like it has been getting worse and worse. The 2008 season started with Osi going down for the year in a preseason game. Then they were relatively healthy until the Plaxico thing torpedoed their season. But last year was a mess and this year so far, things have not been good. Not many players have been injured to the point where they are missing significant parts (or all) of the season, but there have been so many 1-2-3 week injuries in training camp, that the team can not develop practice habits and continuity. Now we hear about the Ross injury being worse than we originally thought and this is a significant one, IMO. At first, Ross was reported to have plantar fasciitis, which is an inflammation in the plantar fascia, the fleshy tissue that is on the bottom of the feet and the arch, connecting the heel to the toe. It often comes from a bone spur or inflammation of the achilles tendon right in the area of the heel. However, the Ross injury involves a partial tear of this tissue and could plague him for the rest of the season, if not the rest of his career. There's not really an opportunity for surgery to be done and fix this unless the whole thing tears completely. Ross will be in a boot for about 10-14 days, will definitely miss the last two preseason games and could miss some time in the regular season. Worst case is that he is limited in his speed and pushing off capability and his effectiveness is diminished. A CB, of course, backpedals in coverage and relies on his feet, his heels and his toes to cut, to pivot and to change direction in coverage. The Giants defense is predicated on a good DL and a good DB-field, with Ross a significant contributor and one of their top 3 talented, young CBs, the others being Corey Webster and Terrel Thomas. They do have some decent players behind Ross, but this is a real loss.

There are lots of other minor injuries floating around too - Canty and JPP have groin injuries and I am hoping the Canty one doesn't linger, because he is an important player in the DL rotation. Of course the OL had been dinged up all preseason, with Snee having a bad knee, O'Hara's ankle swelling up every day (or so it seems) and Seubert out or limited by his broken hand. Boss finally came back to practice but Beckum and some others are still out.

Not a good start - we'll see.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Giants: LB shuffle

A few more thoughts on what appeared in the papers this morning and what I talked about in yesterday's blog post: the Giants have moved Bulluck to the OLB position and have moved Wilkerson back out there as well. It seems like Sintim is being pushed back on the depth chart and is not the presumed starter at the OLB position. You can read this as a positive development or as a negative development. Maybe Goff has been doing so well in the MLB position that the coaches cannot remove him from that slot. Bulluck was brought in to play LB, has played outside all 10 years of his career and they want him out there at that position. Or maybe we can read it negatively. Specifically, maybe Sintim is really not taking to the OLB position and needs extra seasoning and experience before he is ready for prime time. If Sintim is below par, then they had to move Bulluck out there to shore up that spot and are moving Goff in as starter because he's the only one they have there. Of course, there is a more neutral assessment and that is that the Giants just want to get their best three LBs on the field. Goff is playing a little better at MLB than Sintim is at OLB, which is not surprising, because Goff was MLB in college and Sintim was more of a DE. Nevertheless, it's about getting the best LBs on the field and Goff is a little better at MLB than Sintim is at OLB. It's hard to know how to judge this. It is good that the Giants are making these changes now still with two preseason games and three weeks of practice left before the regular season games begin. It also is at least a sign that the coaching staff is alert, is evaluating players and is thinking about the optimal alignments. Sheridan was very much a keep-things-going kind of coach and Fewell, on this basis appears ready to evaluate and make appropriate changes. From the big picture, however, you may not need great LBs if you have a very good DL and a strong secondary. But they have to be good and be able to make some plays; they can't be a liability. Good OCs can pick out a weakness on the opposing team's defense and design plays to go after that weakness. I still remember the Giants-Panthers playoff game in the 2005 season. It was the worst game I ever went to, Eli's first playoff game and the Giants got spanked 23-0. The reason I bring this game up is because I remember clearly the Panthers offensive strategy and execution. Giants had a pretty good DB-field and a pretty good DL (Osi, Strahan), but were ripped up with injuries at LB. All of their starters were out and they had to promote a LB who had played only ST all year and actually had to sign a player that was out of football the entire season. I can't remember his name, but he had been on the Giants the year before when they were 4-12, he was cut and not picked up by any other team (Kevin what's-his-name, wore number 44). Because the Giants were so bad at LB, Panthers game plan was to pick on the LBs. They added extra blockers to help their OL and ran a lot of routes to their TE, RBs swinging out of the backfield, some screens and draws; all plays designed to test the LBs. The Giants also had one weak link in the secondary and the Panthers constructed a few schemes where he was man-to-man with Steve Smith, which they took advantage of to hit a few long plays. I guess the point that I am making is that maybe you don't need studs at all 11 positions on defense in order to field a good defense, but you can't have any major holes either. Giants LBs have to play well, though not necessarily dominate.

At DB, Ross plantar fasciitis is a bit of a worry. I had it a few years back and it can be very painful and can take a while to heal. The hope is that the swelling and pain will go down in a week or so and he can manage through it during the season, but it is a potentially damaging and annoying injury.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Giants: Steelers preseason game

It's really funny - preseason games are exactly the opposite of regular season games in two important respects. In the regular season, you want your team to win and you don't really care how they look. During the preseason, it's exactly the reverse: you don't really care if they win, you only care how they look. Style points matter more than results. You also care about who played, who was injured, who played well, how long the starters played, how long the other team's starters played, what rookies stepped in and looked good - all that stuff becomes important. With that context, I came away from the first two games with completely opposite feelings. Giants won the first game against the Jets, but I was disappointed with the team's performance, primarily because the first team defense got pushed around by the Jets starting OL. It was nice that they won, but this was based on a few big plays in the second half by Giants players that may not make the team against players on the Jets that may not make their team. Cruz made some nice plays, impressed everyone and the coaches will probably try to find him a roster spot. But the fact is - he is definitely on the bubble and might not make the team. Frankly, even though the Giants were high on Ramses Barden and he brings a much different package than Cruz because of his height, he has shown little in the games and apparently has had an uneven camp. On top of that, he's got a back problem. The job of WRs is to make plays; it is not to "be tall". So even though Cruz is small, it's hard to keep a playmaker off the team in favor of someone who has the physical package but hasn't done much. If it comes down to those two right now, I am taking Cruz. The primary WR corps contenders are: Smith, Nicks, Manningham, Moss, Barden, Cruz and Hagan. There are some others in camp that have only a remote chance to make it. If 7 is the number of WRs that they carry, Cruz will probably make the team, but he might not have if Hixon had not gotten hurt.

Conversely, in the second game against the Steelers, the first team defense looked pretty good in the first half. There was some pressure on the qb, though no sacks. There were some big plays against the running game, where the defense got good penetration and made tackles behind the line of scrimmage for a loss. Osi even stepped up and made a play in the running game. Corey Webster made an INT - several good things happened to be pleased about. The Steelers hit one big play for the TD that put them ahead 10-7, but that was against a rookie safety who may not make the team. Even the offense got a TD in the first half, though they did not look very good and fluid throughout the entire half. Of course, you can expect the production to be down because two starting OL-men were out, the starting and backup QB were out, the best WR Nicks got thrown out after only a few plays and the starting TE Boss didn't play either. Some lack of productivity can be expected under those circumstances, but at least we saw some movement. Smith made a great catch and Bradshaw looked like he had some juice. I did not get a good read on Will Beatty at LT and that is an important development. He wasn't terrible, but he wasn't great either. Diehl looked a little clunky at LG.

One more comment on the defense and an explanation on why I am not yet concerned that they were not a dominating group. The Giants are playing their defense so straight, so vanilla, with absolutely no wrinkles in the preseason, that you can expect lack of domination from the complete predictability. They are blitzing only a little bit and when they do, they generally bring another LB and are doing so right up the middle. More important though, is that the DL pass rush is just straight bull rush; no stunts, no twists, no combination loops by the DE with inside blitz by LB. Lots of teams do this in the preseason, apparently in an attempt to keep the defensive schemes hidden, but the Giants seem to be taking it to an extreme this year. They don't want to put anything on film that the opposing OCs can sink their teeth into. Let's hope new DC Fewell has some new ideas and schemes that will give the Giants defense an advantage.

The Giants have a lot of depth in the DL and my good friend Ray pointed out to me in an email, that while most teams usually carry 8 or 9 DL-men, it seems impossible for the Giants to carry lesss than 10. Who are you going to cut? At DE it's Osi, Kiwi, Tuck, JPP, Tollefson and at DT, it's Cofield, Joseph, Alford, Canty and Bernard. I guess Bernard could go, but he is in the 2nd year of a FA contract and probably will stay. Tollefson is not a great player and I guess he might be at risk, but he is a useful substitute and can play some ST.

Ray also pointed out that some shuffling at the LB position might be significant or indicative of their plans and player evaluations thus far. Bulluck is taking snaps at OLB, Wilkerson has been moved from MLB to OLB and Kiwanuka is taking some snaps at LB. All this points to the fact that they are not sold on Sintim at OLB and that Goff is doing better at MLB than they thought he would. So maybe Goff gets the MLB position and Bulluck gets pushed outside to replace Sintim. It also could be that by sliding Kiwanuka to LB you get even more pass rush fire power on passing downs. We'll see.

A recent development of which I am sure you are all by now aware, is the signing of former Eagles G/T Shaun Andrews to a 6 year contract. There is lots of maneuverability in the contract from a Giants salary cap point of view, as very little of the money is guaranteed. If he doesn't return to form, the Giants can just cut him. If he does come back and returns to his dominating all-pro form, the contract in years 2 through 6 is not prohibitive. But, I have to say that I think his signing is indicative of the Giants personnel evaluators view of the team. The Giants have made some interesting signing of veterans in the past several years in what could be considered the secondary FA market. Aside from the big ticket, young player signings like Canty, Rolle, Bolley, etc, who they signed to long term contracts, when they signed slightly older veterans that they viewed probably as stopgaps, they signed them to 1 or 2 year contracts. I am thinking of Kawika Mitchell, Danny Clark and Bulluck this year. Those players were viewed as hole fillers not as long term investments. Mitchell left after his 1 year contract; Clark left after his 2 year contract and probably the same will be true for Bulluck. So when Andrews gets signed to a 6 year contract, it is probably not viewed as a temporary maneuver but as a strategic investment in a player for the long term. Andrews is young and was dominant in his time in Philly, but he had back problems and apparently also suffers from depression. This is a low risk investment for the Giants, but the fact that they signed him to a 6 year contract and are working him out at LT as well as LG shows that they believe that Diehl may not be the answer and Beatty is still unproven.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Giants: Special Teams

Special teams were not too pretty against the Jets. Tynes kickoffs were OK, but the coverage was not sharp. It seemed like the Jets got out past the 30 every time and the Giants had no space and rarely got past the 20. The difference of 15 or 20 yards on every kickoff really adds up in a game, gives a significant field position disadvantage to the team that is short in each game and surely makes a difference over the course of a season. Football is all about field position. The reason turnovers are so critical is because they flip the field position, giving the other team the ball without realizing the net field position benefit that a punt would have given if your offense had simply failed to get a first down. That's also why not all turnovers are equal. An interception and immediate tackle on a long 50 yard pass is not good, because it takes away a possession and an opportunity for your team to score. But at least it pushes the opposing offense down the field. Conversely, a fumble/interception at the end of a short play, and/or if followed by a long return by the defense really hurts the field position and affects the game.

Speaking of punting - I am afraid that Reese and the front office have left the Giants mortally weakened at the punter position. Feagles did the right thing by informing the Giants before the draft that he was retiring (see Brett Favre) and the Giants could at least try to get a new punter. But the kid who Reese drafted looked horrible and apparently has not had a good camp. His hang time is not good and his kicks are not very deep. If you accept my theory that field position is everything in football, then punting is very important and the rookie punter Dodge is a real liability. If he doesn't come around by the end of training camp, I will be surprised if the Giants go into the season with him as the punter; they will pick someone up who gets cut by another team after camp.

When Coughlin replaced Fassel, I was impressed with how he immediately was able to fix the special teams, something Fassel was unable to do in all his time as Giants coach. The success of every unit on the football team is a blend of athletic talent in the players with schemes and strategy of the coaches. Relying on the traditional 80-20 split theory - let's say the success of the offensive and defensive units is a blend of 80% players contributions and 20% from the coaches. I contend that with Special Teams, the blend is almost reversed. While of course you need good athletes, it is surely true that every NFL team has a sufficient number of capable athletes to make a good showing on ST. Maybe the Giants are not as good athletically as we thought, but perhaps the weakness of the ST is another indication that Coughlin and his coaches do not have as good a grasp on football in the '10 decade as they should have.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Giants: Jets preseason game

OK, I am not going to get catatonic, pessimistic or suicidal and predict that the season is going to be a mess off of one preseason game. But what I can say is that there is plenty of stuff from this game that has me concerned. Principally, it seemed to me that the Jets just beat the Giants up at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. To balance that out a little bit, and modify the concern - this being the first preseason game, nobody game plans or schemes for their opponents, so you can't take too much out of it. And - the Jets, presuming that they don't do anything special and don't game plan either, just went with their base defensive looks also. But their base, vanilla defense includes lots of blitzes, overloads of blitzers on one side of the defense, bringing DBs etc. If you don't come up with special blocking packages to pick up their "normal, vanilla" defenses, you look like garbage and can't do anything. The way you have to approach that style of defense is go to some max protects occasionally, slide blocking coverage to the overloaded side and hit some long plays. The Giants are fairly well equipped to do this kind of blitz pickup, because their OL is athletic and can move, their TEs are good pass blockers and their RBs, especially Jacobs, are excellent at picking up the blitz. There's no way you can look good on offense against them by playing simply; their defense is too aggressive to play passively and conservatively. You have to accept the fact that their aggressiveness will blow up lots of plays and that you will look bad on some drives, but you will hit a few long plays because of their gambling defense. (Nevertheless, the Jets defense is really impressive.)

Even if we give a pass to the OL on the basis of the above analysis, which some might consider a lame rationalization, there's still the DL to worry about. The second time the Jets got the ball, they just marched through the defense with not much pressure and few stopped plays. The tackling was good, the LBs were OK, the DBs did not get beat deep and the S play was pretty good, but the DL put no pressure on and could not get the Jets off the field on 3rd down. Most disturbing was when the Jets (easily) converted a 2nd and 23 with two plays that picked it up. Like I said - I am not too pessimistic yet, but there's plenty to worry about.

The good news is that when the subs and rookies got in, there was plenty to be pleased about. Pierre-Paul's sack was against a first team Jets OL and he made Woodie look stupid. He needs to learn to handle the run a little better, but that will come with a little more coaching and experience. His quick outside burst was extremely impressive. Osi had better watch out, because I would play Pierre-Paul a lot. Linval Joseph also looked stout and very quick at DT.

Cruz looked great, even against the Jets second teamers. Remember that the Jets DBs are all first teamers. Jets do most of their blitzing with extra DBs, so they all play a lot and can be considered quasi-starters. This makes Cruz performance even more impressive to me. Sinorice Moss may as well kiss his Giants career goodbye. Cruz is small, similar in size to Moss, and has already made more great plays in one preseason game than Moss has made in his career.

Other observations:

Sintim and Boley at LB looked fine. Goff didn't hurt the defense, but I have to review the game again to really grade him. (On the road, won't have access to my DVR until later this week.)

Barden looked shaky.

Hard to get a read on Beatty. He was OK, though not impressive.

Once again, I don't want to get crazy, but I am worried that the game has passed Gilbride (and maybe Coughlin) by. Our best offensive player is the QB supported by the WR corps, we have a stadium that is supposed to be a little less windy than the old one, we have an OL that is not a huge, road-grading run blocking line, and yet we keep saying that our approach has to be to run the ball in a power running game. I am not sure I agree. Our QB came off his best statistical year and we are still trying to be a run-first team. I am not saying Giants shouldn't have balance, but having old coaches who want to be throwbacks to old school Giants football, might not be the best approach. Let's see if Kevin Killdrive opens up the offense a bit in next few games.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Giants: OL, TE and running game

We keep seeing in the papers that although the RBs are more or less sharing the reps in practice, Ahmad Bradshaw seems to be taking the reps first. People are therefore surmising that Ahmad has stepped up to become the main RB with Jacobs as the change of pace. I am not sure what makes more sense - soften them up with the air force first and then have the ground troops move in, or slam them with heavy artillery then move in with pin point cruise missiles. Whatever. They'll figure it out.

I am sure you don't remember my assertion last training camp (go check my blog from last summer) but I was concerned about the running game when the Giants cut the run blocking TE from the year before, Michael Matthews and retained instead Darcy Johnson, who was thought to be a bigger threat from the TE position in the passing game. Matthews was surely not a star and was second in the depth chart behind Kevin Boss, so it was not a ridiculous move by the Giants to get rid of him. But Matthews had become one of my favorite "in the trenches" players. He was an excellent run blocker and contributed strongly to the quality of the running game. He occasionally stayed in to pass block when the protection schemes called for and he did well there as well.  I was concerned when they cut him that the running game would decline. The running game did in fact decline last year, though there were surely many reasons for that, beyond Matthews being MIA. I am surely not saying "I told you so" and that this was the reason that the running game was poor last year; but it certainly did not help. Matthews was actually not cut - he was traded (to the Patriots, I think) and his absence was felt. Jacobs had a bad knee all year, Bradshaw had bad feet, Seubert had shoulder injuries and lead FB blocker Hedgecock also had injuries that required surgery in the off season, all of which contributed to poorer performance more than Matthews absence did, though it did affect things also. This is a long way of introducing the fact that the TE can be a real positive influence on the running game and I am VERY enthusiastic about the new guy the Giants have, who actually played a few games at the end of last year - Bear Pascoe. He is huge and a good-old rugged country boy; his blocking technique looks good and he can even catch a few balls. I am very high on him, I think he will be a real benefit to the team. And what a perfect name for a football player.... Bear Pascoe. That's an NFL TE's name if I ever heard one.

Speaking of TE's - Travis Beckum seems to be having a tough time adjusting to the NFL. Could be that he's a 'tweener - not fast enough to play WR, not quite big enough to play TE.

Seubert seems to have come back earlier to practice than originally feared after he broke his hand. It's really going to be interesting to see what the Giants do in the OL this year. They will go with their best alignment, because they are going for the gold this year and will not play a young player if he is inferior to a veteran. One likely alignment is moving Beatty to LT replacing Diehl and Diehl moving inside to displace Seubert and send him to the bench.

A wild card in all of this is Mich Petrus, who the Giants drafted in the 5th round. They really like him and perhaps he could sneak in and get some playing time.

A slight variation could be leaving Seubert at LG and moving Diehl in to replace MacKenzie at the RT spot,
even though nobody is talking about that possible alignment. MacKenzie is a punishing run blocker and even though he was injured last year, is still a good player. Seubert is a good player when he's healthy and is valuable because he is a good back up to C O'Hara. There is a lot of flexibility and different possibilities. Whatever happens, I hope Beatty finds some playing time and we find out if he is the LT of the future.

On the DL, the Giants developed the practice of rotating players in to make sure everyone is fresh. The theory is that you can't move people around quite as much on the OL, that it requires continuity and communication. But it is not logical that every OL-man has to play every single snap. I would like to see some rotation of the younger players and substitutes to develop them, keep them ready if they have to go in because of injury and keep the starters fresher.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Giants: Draft strategy - Talent, skill or polish ?

What kinds of players do you want to draft / acquire for your team? Do you want the player that has produced at the college level, is polished, has great technique  and has shown that he has gotten the most out of his ability while playing at the college level? Or do you want someone with uncommon natural talent that may be a bit raw, take a few years to develop and, in fact, may never blossom into a star. I'm framing this question, obviously, in the context of the Giants first rounder, Jason Pierre-Paul, but the question really could be asked more generally about any draft choice and in fact about any sport. This is interesting, especially in the context of Billy Beane/moneyball analysis. He went after high on base percentage guys that were successful at every level of competition. His assertion was that if the player produced at lower levels, he expected him to produce at the highest level as well. He had the stats to back it up, but is that always the route you take? Do you want a pitcher coming out of the minors that has a 90 MPH fastball, perfect control, great breaking ball and really understands how to set up a hitter? Or do you want a pitcher with a 96 MPH fastball, with great action on his breaking ball, but one that he can't quite control? My approach: give me the unpolished guy with a gun for an arm and I can always teach him to throw the hook and set up the hitter, but you can't teach someone to throw 96MPH. Red Auerbach used to say the same thing when he talked about basketball players - you can't coach height. Of course, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes present an interesting contrast to this approach. Hughes will be a star and Chamberlain will always be filled with potential. Joba throws 96 and Hughes' heater is a little less impressive, but he is way ahead of Joba on the career progression curve. We'll see how that turns out and of course, I am simplifying, because they are both already at the major league level. Once you're at the big dance, then technique can make the difference.

Moneyball took the approach to take hitters with proven production records. I guess it's hard to argue with, but it may be different with positions (and sports) other than a baseball hitter. In football, success in the sport is mostly based on pure athleticism. If the man you are assigned to take on is bigger than you or faster than you, he's likely to beat you, no matter how much technique you apply or how much heart you have. It's probably why there is such a high rate of college stars in fotball that are complete busts in the NFL. In college, the great athletes just outrun and overpower their slower or weaker opponents. But in the NFL, everyone is fast and everyone is big. If you're on equal planes athletically, then technique, heart, brains, etc can be a differentiator and can make you successful. But if you are overwhelmed athletically, forget it. As a corrolary, if you are enormously gifted athletically, and you have a chance to dominate even at the NFL level, you have to be given a chance to shine. You may not succeed - other factors may take you down, but you have to give your coaches a chance to take an uncomon athletic talent and turn him into a star.

The Pierre-Paul choice is a risk because of his lack of experience and no track record. But his freakish athletic talent makes him a worthwhile risk, because he could be a star. At the end of the day, there are many ways to build a team. You can build through the draft or through free agency. You can take young players or veterans. You can build around the QB or around the defense and running game. There is no single formula that works, all can be successful. At the end of the day - it comes down to talent evaluation and scouting. Whichever route you go, you have to pick good players. That is why Reese and the talented scouting department that the Giants have is an enormous asset to the team.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Giants: about Coughlin

Tom Coughlin rallied the Giants to a Superbowl in 2007 when he had one foot nearly out the door following a weak 2006 season. Giants made the playoffs that year, but all was not right in Giants land and the state of the franchise seemed to be uneven. The Giants had a worse year in 2006 than they did the previous year, going 8-8 after a record of 11-5 in 2005 (which ended with that horrible 23-0 playoff loss to the Panthers). In 2006, they went out in the first round of the playoffs against the hated rival Eagles and even though the game was tied late in the 4th quarter, you never really had the feeling that the Giants could win that game. The advancement of the franchise QB was a bit choppy. The relationship between the players and the coaches was contentious, and that goes for all of the coaches, not just the head coach. The DC, Tim Lewis, was broadly disliked by the players and he did not get a lot out of them; did not coach and get them to develop their skills. The OC Hufnagel was unimaginative and was relieved of his duties late in the year. A team with a lot of uncertainty and almost dysfunction is what the Giants owners were looking at after the 2006 season in deciding the fate of HC Coughlin. They were this close to sending him packing, but he promised to change his ways and they gave him one more chance. So Coughlin became a bit more of a player's coach, communicated with the players more effectively and although he remained firm, he did not use yelling, scolding and screaming as his only means of coaching the players. He also fired the DC, Tim Lewis, installed Gilbride as OC and hired a new QB coach, Chris Palmer. The team responded to all the changes, went on one of the great playoff rolls in sports and beat the favored Patriots for the title in one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history. Coughlin was hailed as a brilliant coach and when he followed it up with another great year in 2008, which was unfortunately disrupted by the Plaxico Burress gun incident, and ended with a playoff loss to the Eagles, he was widely viewed as one of the top coaches in the NFL. I would like to take a look at Coughlin now, a few years removed from that unlikely 2007 title and analyze his strengths and weaknesses as a coach.

Whenever we analyze the top coaches and examine their legacy to the sport, we always talk about "the coaching tree" that they planted. The great coaches leave not only championships and playoff wins in their resume but also a cadre of assistant coaches that become successful either as coordinators in other programs or as HCs themselves. For example, Bill Walsh had on his staff future head coaches like: Mike Holmgren, George Seifert, Dennis Green, Sam Wyche and Jim Fassel. Just going through this in my head, without looking it up, I think this group had two Superbowl wins (Holmgren and Seifert), two other Superbowl appearances (Fassel, Wyche) and some very successful season by Dennis Green up in Minnesota. These coaches themselves spawned other successful coaches including John Gruden, Mike Shanahan, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid and some others. Therefore, I would argue that the most important job a HC has is picking and training his assistants. Parcells had Bellichick, Crennel, Weiss, Coughlin himself and even had Sean Payton down in Dallas after he left the Giants. Parcells was great at picking talented coaches and did a masterful job training them in his philosophy once he got them. I never loved Jim Fassel as a coach, but give him credit in picking his coordinators: two coaches that went on to great success as HC in the league: John Fox and Sean Payton who now have two Superbowl appearances and one title between them.

If you look at Coughlin's record on the Giants at picking assistants, his record is definitely spotty. He picked Tim Lewis as his first DC, Hufnagel as his first OC and both were complete washouts. As I said, Hufnagel was stripped of his duties before year end and Lewis was fired at the end of the year after poor results and a virtual player revolt. Coughlin also took Gilbride as his first QB coach and Manning did not improve his mechanics or his play at all under Gilbride - he blossomed when Palmer came in to be QB coach. Gilbride got shifted to OC and to be fair, his performance can probably be termed competent, though certainly he is not the most imaginative offensive mind in the NFL. Give Coughlin credit for finding Spagnuolo who did a great job following Lewis, but when Spags left for the Rams, Couglin promoted from within and named Sheridan who also was a total bust. Some of the position coaches are pretty good. Flaherty, the OL coach is one of the best in the NFL and I also like Giunta and Merrit, the S and DB coaches. But he certainly does not have a great record picking assistants. Sometimes assistant coaches can get off to a bad start, not have a good fit with the team or players but then excel elsewhere in the NFL. For example, Sean Payton was bumped by Fassel and went on to success. However, Lewis and Hufnagel are out of the NFL now and Sheridan, after being DC with the Giants was hired as an assistant LB coach with the Dolphins. Hear that??? not LB coach, but assistant LB coach. Obviously, he is not exactly highly regarded among his peers.

I also get the feeling that Coughlin is completely hands-off, to a fault, with his assistants when it comes to their game planning. Just like in business, where a manager of managers has to find the right level of involvement to influence direction but not interfere, the HC has to have input to personnel decisions and game planning while not undermining the chain of command and the authority of his assistants. Last year, when Sheridan was clearly floundering with his schemes and his play calls, Coughlin did not step in and guide or suggest ways to improve things. Sheridan leaked to the press that the Giants defense was not physical and there was nothing he could do. Terrible thing for a coach to do - to throw his players under the bus like that - they certainly are not going to be motivated to play for him then. Players were freelancing because they did not trust the play calls which led to more breakdowns and missed assignments. Sheridan's response was to yell more, to become more removed and distant, and to simplify things even more, as if the blown assignments were because the defenses were too confusing. The players were unhappy, but Coughlin did not step in to guide first time DC Sheridan in how to ameliorate the situation. He let him sink and fired him  summarily at the end of the year. This did not reflect well on Coughlin.

That having been said, the NFL is a results oriented league and Coughlin's results have been good. He took over a 4-12 team in 2004 with a rookie QB. If you exclude that first year, where he was remaking the roster and training his rookie qb, he made the playoffs 4 out of the next 5 years, with one title to his credit. He trained that QB into a franchise player and is set up with a pretty good team in 2010. This is a big year for Coughlin. If he fails badly with this talent, his future tenure may be questioned.

Giants: The defense

Last year was a horror show for the defense, I think we can all agree on that point. I know it's a team game and the entire team finished 8-8, stumbling to a 3-8 finish after the 5-0 start. Blame the entire team if you want, but the offense was decent; the defense was horrible. There certainly is room for improvement on the offense: the running game was not up to its usual standards, either from the RBs or from the OL. The passing game was strong, discovering new weapons in Manningham and an emerging star in Nicks along with the continued performance of Smith who had more than 100 receptions. Eli Manning had his best year statistically.

The defense gave up tons of points and tons of yards. Injuries and unimaginative defensive coaching can account for some of the defensive weakness, but certainly upgrades were required on that side of the ball. Giants recognized this, because there were certainly lots of changes to the defense. The first 4 draft choices were defensive players. Unfortunately, their third round pick, S Chad Jones from LSU was injured in an automobile accident, but the other three players are promising and should contribute this year. Furthermore, the Giants signed two FA safeties, Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant. They also recently signed Keith Bulluck as MLB, which represents an enormous amount of change from last year. If you consider the promotion of Sintim (apparently) to the OLB spot, the comeback of Alford from injury, the return of Kenny Phillips from injury, then it seems like half the defense is changing.

The heart of this defense is still the DL. There is so much talent there, it is eye catching. There are 4 DEs who should see significant time and be very productive pass rushers: Tuck, Kiwanuka, Ueminyora and draftee Pierre-Paul. Add Hall, recently signed from the Eagles and Tollefson, a holdover from last year and it seems like a strong position. At DT there is Alford, Canty, Cofield, Bernard and rookie Joseph in addition to some lesser known players who probably won't make the team. Canty, Alford and Bernard were all injured last year and barely contributed, but should be healthy and strong this year. The questionable spot is definitely the LB unit, which is why the Bulluck signing was such a good move. Sintim hardly played last year and Boley, largely because of injury did not have a good year. They have to be considered question marks and even though I really like Bryan Kehl and Wilkinson, they haven't shown much on the field. Blackburn will never be more than a backup and Goff might be a player in the future, but with all those question marks, some stability at the LB position had to be found. Bulluck has been a strong player for 10 years with the Titans, making the pro-bowl several times. Even though he is coming off an injury, he should improve that unit.

I reread this post and I realize that it sounds really lame. It reads more like a clipping from the Giants press guide or an article from the web site touting how great the team will be, than it does an honest, critical evaluation of the personnel on the team. That having been said, I don't think it is far wrong. There WERE an enormous number of injuries on defense last year and those players coming back strong is like an influx of talent to the defense. In 2008, the Giants were among the best teams in the league until the Plaxico shooting incident, which means that the base of the team was strong. Last year was a bomb because of injuries and coaching, but the foundation of the team is still strong. The big question is the lack of production at the LB position. But the DL and the DB-field is strong and the Giants defense should be much better than last year.

One interesting player to watch is Sintim. When he was drafted, I was unsure of where he might fit. He might be a 'tweener: he played with his hand on the ground, as a pass rushing DE in college. But he is too light to play DE in the NFL and the Giants shifted him to LB. The question is, obviously, does he have the speed and the instincts to play in space in the NFL. He may be a good run stopper because of his size, but may have trouble tracking TEs and RBs running pass patterns on defense. The Giants may envision him not as a 3-down player, but with all the defenses and offenses so situational nowadays, they may view him as playing on running downs only. This is of course risky, because (if you know the rules of football) offenses are in fact allowed to pass on downs that appear to be running downs. He could be a liability if he cannot play in space. The Giants experimented with Kiwanuka at LB when he was playing behind Tuck and Osi to very mixed results. When Osi got hurt, they pushed Kiwanuka back to DE where he has remained since. Look at the terrible results the Jets got with Vernon Gholston, who was a DE at OSU, was shifted to LB in the Jets 3-4 scheme and has been a complete bust so far in the pros. It will be very interesting to see if Sintim progresses. I always liked Wilkinson and Kehl showed me something last year also, so I would not write them off yet.