It has been an off-season of coach bashing for the Giants now
that Dan Reeves is down in Atlanta. He battled with the brass on
draft day, they say; couldn't coach an offense, they complain;
gave his quarterback such a complicated and time-consuming
play-calling system that he couldn't get his audibles in. And so
Sorry, but that doesn't fly.
If Reeves was such a disaster, how come none of this was written
last season? All you read in those days was what a good job
Reeves was doing to keep the operation together. And if his
system was so inflexible (after all, in modern football, if you
can't call an audible, if you can't switch out of a doomed play,
you're a dead duck), how did New York ever beat Minnesota and
Miami and Dallas and take the Super Bowl-bound Patriots down to
the last 1:23 before losing by a point? And how did Reeves get
the Broncos into the Super Bowl three times? No, the problem
with the Giants goes much deeper than Dan Reeves.
For one, they have never figured out the whole free-agency game.
They've picked up a starter here and there, but never anything
more. "Build through the draft" has been the Giants' credo, and
while they have selected some young defensive talent--like
cornerbacks Phillippi Sparks and Jason Sehorn, linebackers
Jessie Armstead and Corey Widmer, and end Michael Strahan--they
have not done the same on offense. The last drafted Giant to
make the Pro Bowl, tailback Rodney Hampton, was chosen in 1990.
He's coming off his least productive season in six years and is
showing signs of wear.
That was the kind of hand Reeves had to play. No Giants wideout
had made the Pro Bowl since 1968 (the team's leading receivers,
Chris Calloway and Thomas Lewis, tied for 50th in the league in
receptions last season). Reeves inherited a quarterback he
didn't believe in, and when he tried to bring in his own guy,
Tommy Maddox, people laughed. Reeves struggled through a season
when everyone knew he'd be gone, and he still kept things from
getting completely out of hand.
O.K., enough history. The Giants finished next to last in
offense in '95 and last in '96--with a passing game that
produced almost 400 fewer yards than the 29th-ranked Buccaneers.
So the Giants decided to open the door and let in some fresh
air. Along came a smiling, studious-looking 47-year-old coach
named Jim Fassel, whose entire reputation is built on his
familiarity with the quarterback position. Look at what Fassel
did in Arizona last year: He turned Boomer Esiason from a stiff
into a guy who terrorized the league (at least for a few weeks)
and breathed life into Kent Graham, a perpetual reject. And
remember what he did in Denver in 1993: John Elway's rating
jumped 27 points that season, Fassel's first as the Broncos'
Can Fassel work the same magic with Dave Brown, who has heard
more boos than any nice young New Jersey gentleman should have
to? Well, if he can't, nobody can. How many NFL head coaches
really understand the quarterback position? Half a dozen? Maybe.
One of them is certainly Fassel, who used to take snaps himself:
In 1975, as a member of the Hawaii Hawaiians, he threw the last
pass in the history of the World Football League.
Brown raves about how the whole tempo of the offense will pick
up, how his play-calling has been simplified, how his
fundamentals have been addressed. "Best of all, Jim's in my
corner," he says.
"The biggest thing I saw about Dave was that he didn't have a
fluidity about him," Fassel says. "Things looked hurried,
forced. He was trying to power the ball. If the receivers
weren't where they were supposed to be, he'd throw the ball with
an anger to it. All that can be corrected."
Another problem may be tougher to address: Brown's tendency to
start off fine in some games, then gradually fall apart. "Part
of that might be a loss of fundamentals as things become
unfamiliar in a game," says Fassel. "Part of it might come back
to competitive instincts, and I won't know about that until we
get on the field."
General manager George Young seems to be leaning over backward
to give Fassel what he wants. There were receivers in the draft
who were faster than Florida's Ike Hilliard, but Fassel liked
him, so he became the Giant's No. 1 pick. Ditto halfback Tiki
Barber, who was the team's second-round selection.
The offensive line is about average for the NFL. The defense is
good enough to keep the Giants in just about any game. Now it's
up to Fassel to work some miracles.
COLOR PHOTO INSET [REGIONAL] The Other Guy: Jim Fassel Takes on A Giant Task
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Fassel's task will be aided by promising defenders like Armstead and Widmer. [Jessie Armstead and Corey Widmer in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Record: 6-10 (fifth in NFC East)
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 100.2 (21) 146.2 (30) 246.4 (30)
DEFENSE 109.3 (16) 206.2 (15) 315.4 (14)
Handing It Over
Tyrone Wheatley has been unable to supplant the Giants' alltime
rushing leader, Rodney Hampton, as the team's featured back. One
reason is fumble frequency--Wheatley led all NFL running backs
last season (minimum 100 handles from scrimmage) by averaging
one fumble for every 25 times he got the ball.
Running Backs Who Fumbled the Most per Handle from Scrimmage in
Handles Fumbles Handles/fumble
Tyrone Wheatley, Giants 124 5 24.8
Leonard Russell, Chargers 232 6 38.7
LeShon Johnson, Cardinals 156 4 39.0
Mike Alstott, Buccaneers 161 4 40.3
Lamar Smith, Seahawks 162 4 40.5
PLAYER TO WATCH
Jim Fassel says he sat through the early stages of the NFL draft
"with my fingers crossed." The player he'd drawn a bead on was a
5'10", 205-pound halfback from Virginia. Atiim Kiambu Barber,
a.k.a. Tiki Barber--"My mom took the ti from my first name and
the ki from my last," he says--is the school's alltime rushing
leader and a talented punt returner. When Fassel saw him on
film, however, he saw a pass catcher out of the backfield, a
David Meggett, whom Fassel had coached as a Giants assistant, or
a Larry Centers, whom he had coached with the Cardinals. "He's
an instinctive runner," Fassel says. "He'll start off as a punt
returner and a third-down back, but I can see him eventually as
an every-down back."
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Jim Fassel
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Dave Brown 169[*] 398 att. 214 comp. 53.8%
2,412 yds. 12 TDs 20 int.
RB Rodney Hampton 76[*] 254 att. 827 yds. 3.3 avg.
15 rec. 82 yds. 5.5 avg. 1 TD
FB Charles Way 324[*] 22 att. 79 yds. 3.6 avg.
32 rec. 328 yds. 10.3 avg. 2 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Ike Hilliard(R)[A] 144[*] 47 rec. 900 yds. 10 TDs
WR Chris Calloway 180[*] 53 rec. 739 yds. 4 TDs
WR Amani Toomer 302[*] 1 rec. 12 yds. 0 TDs
TE Howard Cross 244[*] 22 rec. 178 yds. 1 TD
PK Brad Daluiso 266[*] 22/22 XPs 24/27 FGs 94 pts.
KR Tyrone Wheatley 125[*] 23 ret. 21.9 avg. 0 TDs
PR Tiki Barber (R)[A] 97[*] 19 ret. 12.7 avg. 1 TD
LT Greg Bishop 6'5" 300 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Rob Zatechka 6'4" 315 lbs. 15 games 6 starts
C Brian Williams 6'5" 300 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
RG Ron Stone 6'5" 325 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Scott Gragg 6'8" 325 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Michael Strahan 63 tackles 5 sacks
LT Keith Hamilton 37 tackles 3 sacks
RT Robert Harris 45 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
RE Chad Bratzke 52 tackles 5 sacks
OLB Corey Miller 50 tackles 2 sacks
MLB Corey Widmer 103 tackles 2 int.
OLB Jessie Armstead 114 tackles 3 sacks
CB Jason Sehorn 97 tackles 5 int.
SS Percy Ellsworth 45 tackles 3 int.
FS Tito Wooten 65 tackles 1 int.
CB Phillippi Sparks 61 tackles 3 int.
P Brad Maynard (R)[A] 59 punts 45.9 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)