The Giants, coming off their worst season in 12 years, faced
three critical decisions this off-season. Who's their featured
running back? Who's their quarterback? Who's their coach?
The running back situation came into focus not in March, when
the 49ers tendered a six-year, $16.45 million offer to six-year
vet Rodney Hampton, but a month earlier, when the Giants
re-signed their best player, fifth-year cornerback Phillippi
Sparks. Right now Sparks ranks among the finest corners in the
game, and he could have commanded a fortune on the open market.
He would have been the Giants' transition free agent, giving
them the right to match any offer, but instead he signed early,
at a reasonable price (four years, $9.6 million), citing an
almost unheard-of reason these days: "I'm happy here."
The Giants were happy too. Very happy, because they were then
able to use the transition tag on Hampton, the heart and soul of
their running game. Then the 49ers' offer came in and the Giants
had a big decision to make--Do we match it and stay with
Hampton, who will be only 27 but has a lot of mileage on him, or
do we turn the running game over to Tyrone Wheatley, drafted No.
1 in '95 for exactly this scenario?
They chose to stay with Hampton. After all, last year Wheatley
was an ordinary runner. A burst here and there, perhaps, but no
authority between the tackles, and that's what makes Hampton,
and the Giants, so tough when things are working right.
Decision number 2--quarterback Dave Brown. His contract was up.
The Giants ranked 30th in passing last year. Brown was sacked
more than any other quarterback except Dave Krieg and Trent
Dilfer. The two-minute drill was terrible. Brown's passing would
usually follow a pattern, accurate in the beginning of the game,
skittery at the end. Is he really the future? But what's the
Brown is only 26, and two years ago the Giants ditched Phil
Simms, still with a lot of mileage left in his arm, to give
Brown his shot. So after two years of starts, do you now say it
has all been a mistake and round up the usual suspects and sign
one of them--for more money than Brown would cost? You do not.
So Brown has a new four-year contract. But coach Dan Reeves
realizes Brown needs to learn how to win close games.
"We were in nine games last year when we could tie or win it in
the last two minutes," Reeves says. "We won one of them. Dave
reads. He sees the field. It's just a matter of putting it all
together when the pressure is greatest."
Oddly enough, one of Brown's biggest supporters is Simms, who
now works games from a TV commentator's booth. "He could be a
great leader," Simms says. "He has shown signs of brilliance,
but always early in the game. He struggles late. I told him,
'That's when you have to be a machine.'"
"I've thrown more than I ever have in the off-season," Brown
says. "I've been working with a javelin thrower. I've lifted
weights and done a lot of sprinting, a lot of heavy endurance
work. The whole thing is keyed to finishing a game with some of
the same hot streaks I've had in the first quarter."
Final decision--what to do about Reeves, who's entering the
fourth year of a five-year contract? His record over three years
is 25-23 (last year his team was a dismal 5-11), and he has
publicly complained about management.
Reeves is unhappy about his lack of input in the draft, about
the fact that the Giants haven't kept up with the rest of the
world in the free-agency game--and he's got a point. The talent
erosion has been noticeable. The last five years of No. 1 draft
choices have produced only one starter, Brown. For two straight
seasons no Giant has made the Pro Bowl--the last time that
happened was 21 years ago. The defense was soft against the run
last year, and it collapsed late in games, along with the
offense. But despite their problems, Reeves and the Giants have
agreed to stick together for at least one more year. And then
the question will surely arise again: Will it be extension or
extinction for Dan?
COLOR PHOTO: AL PEREIRA COVER [REGIONAL] Jet Fuel Rodney Hampton: Trying to Make the Giants Go
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON By signing early, star cornerback Sparks gave the Giants' front office a helping hand. [Phillippi Sparks]
BY THE NUMBERS
1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 114.6 (13) 165.6 (30) 280.2 (29)
DEFENSE 131.8 (27) 149.0 (4) 330.8 (17)
Despite the fact that NFL teams going into the fourth quarter
with a lead had a record of 193-32 (.858) last season--the best
such record in any year since 1981--the Giants lost four games
under those circumstances, the most in the league.
Date Opponent Start of Final score
Sept. 10 Kansas City Giants led 10-3 Chiefs won 20-17
Nov. 12 Oakland Giants led 13-10 Raiders won 17-13
Dec. 17 Dallas Giants led 14-12 Cowboys won 21-20
Dec. 23 San Diego Giants led 17-10 Chargers won 27-17
PLAYER TO WATCH
After he was drafted out of Montana State as a 275-pound
noseguard in 1992, Corey Widmer quickly made a name for himself
on Giants special teams, showing impressive speed for a man that
size. So midway through his rookie season, the Giants informed
him that from then on he would be a linebacker; leave 25 pounds
at the door, please. He got his shot in 1994, starting five
games at middle linebacker--on a very sore ankle. Widmer spent
last year backing up a smaller Michael Brooks inside, but now
the Giants are going back to the big-plugger-in-the-middle
approach, and the 250-pound Widmer is the man. "I started five
games on half an ankle, and I don't think I did too badly," he
says. "Now it's time to make a move."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Head coach: Dan Reeves
QB Dave Brown 456 att. 254 comp. 55.7%
2,814 yds. 11 TDs 10 int. 73.1 rtg.
RB Rodney Hampton 306 att. 1,182 yds. 10 TDs
FB Charles Way 2 att. 6 yds. 0 TDs
TE Howard Cross 18 rec. 197 yds. 0 TDs
WR Chris Calloway 56 rec. 796 yds. 3 TDs
WR Lawrence Dawsey[*] 30 rec. 372 yds. 0 TDs
WR Thomas Lewis 12 rec. 208 yds. 1 TD
LT Greg Bishop 6'5" 300 lbs.
LG Scott Davis 6'3" 292 lbs.
C Brian Williams 6'5" 300 lbs.
RG Ron Stone 6'5" 325 lbs.
RT Scott Gragg 6'8" 325 lbs.
PK Brad Daluiso 28/28 XPs 20/28 FGs
LE Cedric Jones (R)[*] 11 sacks 0 fum. rec.
LT Keith Hamilton 2 sacks 3 fum. rec.
RT Ray Agnew 1 sack 1 fum. rec.
RE Michael Strahan 7 1/2 sacks 0 fum. rec.
OLB Corey Miller 0 sacks 0 int.
MLB Corey Widmer 0 sacks 0 int.
OLB Jessie Armstead 1/2 sack 1 int.
CB Phillippi Sparks 5 int. 0 sacks
SS Jesse Campbell 0 int. 0 sacks
FS Tito Wooten 1 int. 0 sacks
CB Thomas Randolph 2 int. 0 sacks
P Mike Horan 72 punts 42.5 avg.
PR Amani Toomer (R)[*] 21 ret. 8.4 avg.
KR Tyrone Wheatley 10 ret. 18.6 avg.
[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)