On Nov. 22, three days after mistakes by the New York Giants'
special teams had contributed mightily to an embarrassing 31-21
loss to the Detroit Lions, Giants coach Jim Fassel called a
special Wednesday meeting for the players on his kicking and
return units. Fassel had already cut one member of the special
teams, Bashir Levingston, who in the game against Detroit had
negated a 67-yard punt return with a holding penalty and fumbled
away a kickoff. Now Fassel, a fourth-year coach who in the
public's mind appears more Milquetoast than tiger, was going to
remind the others of how ruthless he could be. As Fassel recalls
the scene, he asked, "Do you understand why you're here?"
"You're all backups on offense and defense, and starters on
special teams," he said. "I'm going to explain the facts of life
to you. I'm ready to put guys like [veteran defensive starters]
Jason Sehorn, Michael Barrow and Jessie Armstead on special
teams. If we don't play well and one of these guys has to go in,
somebody in this room is going to be gone. And I'm going to keep
going down the list of players in this room until we start
playing well on special teams again."
Fassel got his point across. Since that outburst--not to mention
his ballyhooed public guarantee the same day that New York would
make the playoffs despite horrific back-to-back losses--the Giants
(11-4) have won four straight games, including a 17-13 victory
over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night that clinched the NFC
East title. Now New York needs only a win over the Jacksonsville
Jaguars this Saturday to clinch home-field advantage throughout
the NFC playoffs. In another dramatic turnaround the 51-year-old
Fassel, whose job was on the line a month ago, has emerged as a
candidate for NFL coach of the year and seems likely to receive
an extension on his contract, which expires at season's end.
"The first 11, 12 games are about setting yourself up," says New
York general manager Ernie Accorsi. "Then you hit the
homestretch, and Jim knew exactly when to push the button with
Few observers expected the Giants to be sitting atop the division
at season's end. That wasn't lost on Fassel, who last Thursday
gave his players copies of preseason magazine predictions, most
of which put New York no better than fourth in the NFC East. With
good reason. The Giants in 1999 were a dysfunctional, backbiting
bunch that finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the second
straight season. Then New York failed to sign a single marquee
free agent during the off-season.
Fassel's top priority was to improve team chemistry, so last
summer he sent the Giants on golf and bowling outings, and
chartered a boat for a cruise on the Hudson River with their
families. "Every team needs to get close," says safety Shaun
Williams, "but we needed it more than others. We've had a
tendency to point fingers at each other when things went wrong."
On the field Fassel focused on improving the offense. New York's
leading rusher in 1999, Joe Montgomery, ran for all of 348 yards.
In fact, the reputation of the Giants' offense was so bad that it
nearly cost New York its best free-agent pickup, former Carolina
Panthers middle linebacker Barrow. When Barrow met with Accorsi
last February, he brought a legal pad filled with questions, the
first being, "Everybody in the league knows your offense stinks,
so what are you going to do about it?"
The Giants already had a plan in place. They would sign three
free-agent linemen--left tackle Lomas Brown, left guard Glenn
Parker and center Dusty Ziegler--and use their first-round draft
pick on Heisman Trophy-winning running back Ron Dayne. Though
Dayne has been somewhat of a disappointment (not plowing over
tacklers as expected and averaging only 3.5 yards per carry), he
has teamed with Tiki Barber to form an inside-outside combo that
has produced more than 1,500 rushing yards. Also, Kerry Collins,
who had failed with Carolina and the New Orleans Saints, became
the fourth starting quarterback in Fassel's four years and has
exceeded expectations by throwing for 3,289 yards and 20
touchdowns (both career highs), with only 12 interceptions. New
York might still win primarily because of a defense that ranks
second in the league against the run, but the offense is at least
pulling its weight.
As for Fassel, he hasn't been held in such high regard in the Big
Apple since 1997, when he guided the Giants to the division title
in his first year as coach. After the extended illness and death
of his mother late last year and knowing his job was on the line
at the start of this season, Fassel loosened up and has enjoyed
coaching more than he did in the past two years. Formerly viewed
as a soft-spoken offensive specialist known for his work with
young quarterbacks, Fassel is now perceived as a master of
motivation. "I do get tired of it," he says of the perception
that he has no fire in his belly. "When I talk to the media, I
try to carry myself in a certain way. The players have seen the
other side of me."
Some of the Giants aren't sure what to make of their coach.
Although Fassel has his supporters among the players, others
profess not to understand him or his methods. Consider Fassel's
playoff guarantee. "He was in a no-lose situation, because if we
don't get to the playoffs, he gets fired," says defensive tackle
Keith Hamilton. "We had lost two in a row, and when that happens,
doubt starts creeping in. It meant a lot because he was saying we
should follow him. But even if he didn't say it, he had some
doubts about us, too."
Last season, following a 23-13 loss to the Washington Redskins,
Armstead, a Pro Bowl linebacker, ripped the offense to the media.
He claimed his statements were taken out of context, but Fassel
still told him to keep his comments in-house. Armstead felt
Fassel had been overly harsh in his criticism, and Armstead's
bitterness carried into the new year. He refused to participate
in the team's off-season program until Fassel called him in early
February to apologize.
Says cornerback Phillippi Sparks, who left New York as a free
agent after last season and signed with the Cowboys in August,
"It's hard to figure out what kind of coach he is. I guess that's
the way he wants it. One day he's cool. The next day something's
wrong. And the day after that something's specifically wrong with
you. I couldn't define him."
After the Giants fell behind the Lions 21-0 at halftime in that
Nov. 19 game, they were taken aback by Fassel's declaration that
they could not sit on the benches during the second half. He
thought that they would stay more focused if they were standing
and watching the action. New York closed to 28-14, but some
Giants contended that by staying on their feet, they were too
fatigued to complete the comeback. "I was tired when I came out
of the game, and I wanted to sit down," Armstead says. "But as
soon as I got over there, I would hear, 'Get off the damn
No other game has been as significant to New York's season as
that defeat by Detroit. It was the Giants' fourth loss against a
playoff contender, and in each of those games the opponent jumped
to a big lead: Washington led 16-0, the Tennessee Titans 21-0 and
the St. Louis Rams 28-7. Fassel came up with the playoff
guarantee while sitting in traffic on the way home after the
Lions game. The next day he summoned his captains--Armstead,
Brown, Collins, defensive end Michael Strahan and right guard Ron
Stone--and told them he needed their support to turn around the
team. He put a gag order on his coaching staff and ordered his
players not to talk about one another with the media. In practice
Fassel became even more detail-oriented, riding players over the
"He's down with the linebackers one minute, the offensive line
the next, then over with the defensive line," says Brown. "He's
all over the place making sure everything is done to his liking.
His attitude has been that if he was going down, he wanted to
know he was in control of everything."
Following the Detroit game, New York whipped the lousy Arizona
Cardinals, slipped by the Redskins with the NFC East lead on the
line and thumped the Pittsburgh Steelers, who still had playoff
Fassel's determination to unify the Giants paid off in their win
over the Cowboys. After digging itself into a 13-0 halftime hole,
New York turned the tables, forcing three turnovers and holding
Dallas to 27 yards. It wasn't Fassel who rallied the Giants at
intermission. Barber, whose 13-yard touchdown dash midway through
the fourth quarter would give New York the lead, made a rare
speech. "I told the offense that all year we had been told we
can't do this or that, and we had proved people wrong," Barber
said after the game. "The only thing we hadn't done was come back
to win a game. So I said that we should go out and break down
that criticism, too."
Added Armstead, "This is the kind of game we would've lost last
year and probably at the beginning of this season, but as the
season has gone on, we've learned to keep fighting together."
Fassel deserves the lion's share of the credit for that. He was
walking through the locker room last Friday when Collins called
him over. While watching television a few minutes earlier, the
quarterback had seen the coach in a clip from the 1997 season.
"You've put on some years since then," Collins told Fassel. "I
barely recognized you."
Fassel laughed, but he didn't need Collins to remind him how
tough his job is.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER BOMBS AWAY With career highs in passing yards and touchdown throws, Collins is enjoying the best season of his six-year career.
COLOR PHOTO: LOUIS DELUCA/DALLAS MORNING NEWS COLLARED Cedric Jones (94) and the New York defense held Dallas quarterback Anthony Wright to 145 yards running and passing.
COLOR PHOTO: LOUIS DELUCA/DALLAS MORNING NEWS THE CLINCHER Barber (21) spoke up at halftime and then beat Sparks to the corner of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
"The first 11, 12 games are about setting yourself up," says
Accorsi. "Jim knew exactly when to push the button."