Way back in August when the Giants let Steve Smith and Kevin Boss flee via free agency to the Eagles and Raiders respectively, Giants fans were catatonic and borderline suicidal about their team's chances. These were two of the more productive and popular players on the team, there were no apparent adequate replacements on the roster and we thought that the front office was giving away its chances for a successful season. Jerry Reese, they said, was like Nero, fiddling while the Giants burned. Giants even lost out to the Jets on Plaxico Burress, when they had him in for a visit, but the Jets snatched him up with a better offer. Reese stayed the course, refused to overpay for players he thought were overpriced and did not want to cripple the Giants salary cap structure which was somewhat strained. Reese's big FA signings were C David Baas and signing Giants own FA Kevin Boothe, both definitely unsnazzy signings. It sure looks like Reese hit the nail on the head with these decisions: Steve Smith caught 11 passes for 124 yards on the season while Kevin Boss caught 28 passes for 368 yards out in Oakland. Their replacements were Victor Cruz who was third in the league in receiving yardage and didn't even start the first two games of the season. Jake Ballard, Boss' replacement caught 38 passes for more than 600 yards. Boothe was an integral player, substituting at G and C at various times during the season and while he did not overwhelm his opponents, he played solidly at both positions.
This leads me to the following analysis - from the depths of Giants fans despair during training camp, what were the most surprising, unexpected and important developments and additions to the team that made this Super Bowl run possible.
Two were mentioned above in my introductory paragraph - Victor Cruz had an incredible season and it looks like the Giants have found a budding star to pair with Hakeem Nicks for the future, creating a dynamic, explosive pair of targets for Eli.
Ballard had a very good season and had a direct hand in several Giants wins - he caught the winning TD in the Patriots game and caught several huge passes in the Giants win against the Cowboys in Dallas. When the Giants were down 12 with about 5 minutes to go, Ballard caught the first TD that brought the Giants back to within 5. He also caught the pass that set the Giants up on the 1 for Jacobs winning TD run. His contributions were really important, since he balanced the field, catching lots of underneath routes allowing Nicks, Cruz and Manningham to go deep.
Those are the obvious surprises, but I want to highlight some other less noticeable ones. FB Hynoski really improved as the season progressed. His blocking at the beginning of the year was weak - he missed blocks entirely and did not get down field enough aggressively, allowing defenders to penetrate in the backfield. By the end of the year, he was much more feisty, finishing his blocks well, successfully blocking LBs, helping to double DL-men and sometimes take them on as single blocking assignments as well. He improved his pass catching and made some nice runs after the catch, including one in the Super Bowl. Giants have found their FB of the future - a very good replacement for Madison Hedgecock who had a great couple of years with the Giants before retiring because of injury.
Deon Grant and Aaron Ross had very poor beginnings to the season in pass coverage but improved dramatically towards the end of the season. Grant still has lost some speed, but his guile, leadership and smarts made him a valuable asset in the DB-field. If he is willing to come back at a reduced price, Grant may be someone the Giants bring back next year. Ross is a great run support guy at CB and his coverage skills were better at the end of the year. Tough decision for the Giants in the DB-field, but that discussion is for another day.
Let's not forget JPP. He started to show last year that he was a great athlete, but this year he blossomed into a star. He is still learning the nuances of the game and I think he will be the best defensive player in the league over the next 5 years. It is scary for this defense that Osi Umenyiora is one of the top 5 or 10 DEs in football and he is 3rd best on the Giants behind Tuck and JPP.
Jacquian Williams had a difficult beginning to the year, but his athletic skill is scary. He is strong and extremely fast. At the end of the game, when Giants were trying to defend Brady's deep balls, and on the last Hail Mary attempt, it was Williams who was back playing safety because of that incredible speed. When the Giants used him in a package of defenses he could manage, instead of throwing him in the whole system, he had a big impact, mostly covering TEs and rushing the passer.
You have to include Antrel Rolle in the surprise contributors, because he was playing out of postion from the middle of the season on. Giants hoped that Amukamara would contribute, but when it becamse obvious that he wasn't ready, they shifted Rolle out of his normal S position and had him play nickel CB against slot receivers and TEs. He did a very good job and it was a big part of the Giants defensive turnaround.
Eli - I know he's been around for a while and he won a Super Bowl before. But his improvement in performance was so noticeable that we have to include it in this listl.