It’s amazing what a four-game winning streak, at just the right time in an NFL season, can do.
Four years ago, in a span of only four games, the New York Giants went from a fifth-seeded, 10-6 playoff afterthought to unlikely Super Bowl champions and one of the greatest stories in sports history.
This year, the Giants were a mediocre 7-7 coming off a head-scratching 23-10 home loss – their fifth in six games – to the Washington Redskins, who entered MetLife Stadium just 4-9 at the time.
Many were calling for head coach Tom Coughlin’s job as a third straight second-half collapse appeared imminent.
And, once again, four games changed everything.
Seeing his injury-plagued team outscored 372-343 through 14 games, Giants general manager Jerry Reese preached of forbearance to an impatient fan base and the relentlessly attacking New York media.
Sure enough, the Giants got healthy, and suddenly became very good.
They beat their stadium and city adversaries (the New York Jets) and their hated division rivals (the Dallas Cowboys) by 15 and 17 points respectively, allowing just 14 points each time, to reach the postseason.
When they got there, the Giants played even better.
Just like Reese predicted.
A 24-2 thrashing of the fifth-seeded Atlanta Falcons – the Giants’ first home playoff win in 11 years – was followed up last Sunday with a dominating 37-20 road victory, as New York handed the top-seeded and defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers only their second loss in 23 games.
Not only had the Giants’ solid 24.5 points per game over their first 14 contests improved to 30.25 points over the next four games, but key defensive players returned to the lineup, and arriving with them, was New York’s overall confidence that it could contend for a Super Bowl title again.
Over that same time, as linebacker and defensive signal caller Michael Boley and defensive end Osi Umenyiora came back from injuries, and while defensive end Justin Tuck got healthier, Big Blue gave up just 12.5 points per game, after allowing 26.6 points per game over the Giants’ first 14 games.
Reese’s earlier pleas for everyone else to believe in his team as he constructed it were vindicated, right down to his coaching staff.
Giants players who were previously skeptical of Coughlin’s no-nonsense approach finally bought in, and they now credit the coach who brought some of them to their last Super Bowl title with being the steady leader they needed to help them ride out some earlier adversity to reach the team’s NFC title game in San Francisco on Sunday.
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell also adapted his approach to help his defense.
Beginning with the win over the Jets, Fewell simplified his defensive schemes, allowing his defense to think less and react more. And, with their reinforced defensive line, the Giants produced 11 sacks in their final two regular season games, and six more (three by Umenyiora and two from Boley) in their first two playoff games as Fewell began to once again rush four instead of three on a regular basis, to terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
Reese had almost lost Fewell when the sought-after coordinator was mentioned as a possible head coaching candidate at other league destinations toward the end of last season, and current Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who often likes to rush only three players, was listed as a potential replacement for Fewell in New York.
However, despite the Packers’ league-best 15-1 regular season record this year, Capers’ defense allowed an NFL-record 411.6 total yards (including 299.8 passing yards), and got very little pressure on Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who passed for a career-high 274 first-half passing yards in Sunday’s postseason elimination of the Packers.
As much as he trusted in Fewell to turn around the Giants’ defensive woes, Reese believed in the roster he had – despite the injuries and shortcomings – and he was rewarded for his allegiance to both.
As soon as last summer’s lockout ended, the preseason free agency frenzy commenced, and it didn’t take long for Giants fans and New York media outlets everywhere to question Reese’s inaction and seeming lack of urgency in trying to return his team to the postseason after a two-year absence, following New York’s divisional playoff loss to the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Eagles, as a one seed, three years ago.
Among public perception, the statute of limitations on Reese being the architect of the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII championship was beginning to run out for both he and Coughlin, and perhaps even for a doubting team president and co-owner John Mara, who was ready to make organizational changes had the Giants missed the postseason for a third straight year.
In the meantime, the Eagles were declared a supposed “dream team” after snatching up high-profile free agents like cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugh and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, defensive linemen Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins, running back Ronnie Brown, offensive lineman Evan Mathis, and backup quarterback Vince Young.
If not the Eagles winning the Giants’ division, the Dallas Cowboys were thought to possess enough talent as the only NFC East squad which could possibly give Philadelphia a run.
Still, Reese stuck by his convictions while absorbing further criticism leading up to the start of the regular season.
He watched, as wide receiver Plaxico Burress was released from prison, and as Giants fans and media members across the New York City desperately clamored for the Giants to re-sign their former Super Bowl hero, Reese had no problem letting Burress play in the same city, for the Jets.
Four months later, Burress produced a season (45 catches, 612 yards, 8 touchdowns) that was as average as the one his new team endured (finishing with an 8-8 record while missing the playoffs).
Before that however, the cocky Eagles chirped, and the brash Jets boasted, including yet more failed guarantees from Jets head coach Rex Ryan of his team taking over New York from the Giants and reaching the Super Bowl.
Instead, the pieces that the Giants general manager put together, and most importantly, stuck with – Reese’s pieces – helped end the seasons of the Eagles, Jets, and Cowboys over the final two weeks of the regular season.
Of course, as with any general manager in any sport, not everything Reese touched has turned to gold.
However, that’s not the goal anyway, as long as Reese’s pieces continue to fit together well enough to secure sterling silver – as in the makeup of a certain 22-inch, seven-pound trophy featuring the legendary Vince Lombardi’s name, which the Giants are trying to get their hands for a fourth time, and second in five seasons.
You might say that over the past four weeks, Reese’s pieces have indeed meshed as well as chocolate and peanut butter.
Or, at least as well as Reese declared they eventually would.
New York’s retooled offensive line hasn’t been perfect, but it’s come together more of late, enough that the Giants have been able to withstand releasing former linemen Shaun O’Hara and Rich Seubert.
Manning had the protection he needed to throw for a franchise record 4,933 yards and toss an NFL-record fifteen fourth-quarter touchdown passes during the regular season. And, a rushing game that averaged a league-worst 89.2 yards per game, has rushed for 122 yards per game over the past four weeks, including a season-high 172 yards in the Giants’ playoff win over the Falcons.
Some of the credit for that type of success in the Giants’ passing and rushing games has to go to a gelling offensive line that Reese believed would take the shape it has by this point in the season.
At tight end, the defection Kevin Boss for more money in Oakland and allowing the Giants’ all-time single season receptions leader (wide receiver Steve Smith) to bolt down the New Jersey Turnpike for Philadelphia each drew heavy criticism for Reese.
Yet, Boss and Smith were each hampered by injuries, something that was of major concern to the Giants with Smith in particular, before Reese let him go.
Two years after catching a Giants’ record 107 passes, Smith finished the current season with just 11 catches for 124 yards in nine games for the Eagles. Boss meanwhile, caught 28 balls for 368 yards in 14 games with the Oakland Raiders.
Reese got lucky with Boss’ replacement Jake Ballard (whom Reese cut twice last season), but the Giants’ new tight end was a key cog in New York’s passing machine this year, reeling in 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games.
As for filling the void left by Smith, undrafted wide receiver Victor Cruz quickly became a household name throughout the NFL, obliterating the Giants’ single-season receiving yards record with 1,536 yards, while scoring five times on plays of over 65 yards, to set a Super Bowl era record.
A definitive line marking a Giants season mired in mediocrity, and the stellar team play which has them one game from another Super Bowl, could be drawn at the point which Cruz torched the Jets for a franchise-record 99-yard touchdown reception. It was a season turning point, a play that gave New York its first lead, late in the first half of a must-win game in which the Giants were being outplayed.
Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (76 catches for 1,192 yards this season), Reese’s 2009 first-round draft choice has similarly developed into one of the league’s most dangerous receivers, especially this postseason, during which Nicks already has 13 receptions for 280 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Giants over their first two playoff games.
Further, wide receiver Mario Manningham, Reese’s third-round pick in 2008, has been a nice complement to both Cruz and Nicks.
On the other side of the ball, defensive tackle Barry Cofield, a 2006 fourth-round draft pick of the Giants, had 25 tackles and three sacks while playing a full season this year for the Redskins after spending the first five seasons of his career with the Giants. That allowed Reese’s 2010 second-round pick Linval Joseph to step in with 49 tackles and two sacks for New York this season.
It was in those ways that Reese continued to have faith and stay the course, steering the Giants’ ship toward championship contention.
To go along with Boley, Umenyiora, and Tuck, Reese’s first-round pick last season, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, turned in a pro bowl regular season with team-leading 16½ sacks, 86 tackles (third most on the Giants), and a game-saving blocked field goal to secure a crucial Week 14 win in Dallas.
Backing up that group, losing last year’s leading tackler, cornerback Terrell Thomas, for the season, in a preseason win over Chicago, was a major setback, but like Coughlin, Reese refused to panic.
Instead, the Giants moved last year’s free agent pickup (after five years in Arizona), safety Antrel Rolle, around the field, making him as versatile as they needed him to be, and all the while, Rolle led the Giants in tackles with 96 during the regular season (three ahead of Boley), and he leads New York with 17 more tackles in the playoffs thus far.
With the Giants struggling to a 6-6 record, Reese also re-signed linebacker Chase Blackburn, a former special teams captain with New York, who was an offseason salary cap casualty.
Blackburn (26 tackles in six regular season games, and 13 tackles in the postseason, third-most for New York) went from his couch to solidifying the Giants’ weak linebacker core, something which has helped strengthen New York’s current run from a .500 team to an NFC title game participant.
Re-signing some veteran leadership in safety Deon Grant (who called defensive signals while Boley was injured when the Giants were losing games mid-season) was also a help to Reese’s injured secondary.
Let’s also not forget something that is often just a postscript in building a football roster – the punting game.
Field position is often vital to success in the NFL, and Reese’s admission of a draft mistake with ex-Giant Matt Dodge in favor of the offseason signing of Steve Weatherford (who played on the Jets teams that reached the AFC title game the previous two seasons) has paid huge dividends for New York this season.
The bottom line is that the NFL is a results-based business.
General managers, coaches, and players are all held accountable when things don’t work out.
Still there’s something to be said for standing by the courage of one’s convictions, especially in a tough market like New York, with fans and media who can sometimes be unforgiving when things don’t go according to the best of plans.
Whether the Giants can finish the job from here and capture another Super Bowl title remains to be seen.
So far though, Reese deserves credit for telling most everyone else, a huge “I told you so.”
The Giants’ appearance in Sunday’s NFC title game alone proves that Reese was right all along.
In the coming weeks, Reese’s pieces could provide the answer to another championship puzzle.
After all of the injuries and question marks over the preseason, and throughout the first 14 weeks of the regular season, that would be the sweetest-tasting treat Giants fans could possibly enjoy.