OK, so we know who will be in Super Bowl XLV. The Green Bay Packers will face the Pittsburgh Steelers (thank you, Steelers for KO'ing the New York Jets) in a very cool matchup of two historic NFL franchises.
Good for both teams. Aaron Rodgers gets to erase the ghost of Brett Favre from the Packers. Ben Roethlisberger gets to chase a third ring. Good for them. You know what I really want to discuss today? I really want to discuss how, at this time next year, our New York Giants can be where the Packers and Steelers are now. How can the Giants, Super Bowl champions not all that long ago, get back to that level?
Truth is, I believe the Giants are not that far away. They won 10 games this season, which is usually plenty good enough to get to the playoffs. They are hardly a bad football team.
I have put together a list of five things I think need to be addressed for the Giants to have a shot at a Super Bowl in 2012 -- provided, of course, a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached and there is football.
How could I not start here? In 2008, the Giants turned the ball over just 13 times. They did have 18 fumbles, but recovered all but three of those. In 2010 they turned the ball over 42 times, more than any other team in the league.
Why do the Giants, with the same coach and offensive coordinator, and the same quarterback, suddenly treat the football like a grenade?
We know some of those turnovers are on Eli Manning. After some of the ill-advised throws I have watched throughout the playoffs, though, including a red-zone interception Sunday by Aaron Rodgers and two interceptions in 19 throws from Ben Roethlisberger I am a lot less inclined to go ballistic on Eli. Yes, he makes some awful decisions at times. But, I realize now more than ever that all NFL quarterbacks do.
Tom Coughlin talked about his team's "careless disregard for the football." Where does it come from? It comes, largely, from a change in personnel.
In two seasons sharing the load with Brandon Jacobs Derrick Ward carried the ball 307 times and fumbled it four times, once every 76.8 carries. In two seasons since Ward has been gone, Ahmad Bradshaw has 439 carries and 10 fumbles, one every 43.9 carries.
In 2008, the Giants had a receiving corps led by veterans Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer. Eli knew where these guys would be, first of all. The other receivers were Steve Smith and Domenik Hixon. A much more dependable group in terms of route-running and communication with the quarterback than what the Giants had in 2010. As exciting as Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham are, they are still young players prone to mistakes. Youth, combined with the plethora of injuries, contributed mightily to the turnover issue.
Kill Kevin Gilbride all you want, but the Giants have had one of the league's highest-scoring offenses the past two seasons? How good could it be if they could simply cut those turnovers in half?
2. Kick Returns
The Giants simply have to find a game-changing return man. Not everybody can have a Devin Hester or a Leon Washington returning kicks, but the Giants did not get one real game-changing or field position changing kickoff or punt return all season.
They were 31st in the league returning kickoffs (19.0 yards per return) and had just one 40+ yard return (a 42-yarder). The Giants had 27 returns of 20 or more yards, and only the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers had fewer.
The Giants and Super Bowl-bound Steelers were last in the league returning punts (6.1 yards per return). The team's longest punt return of the season was a 22-yarder.
We have seen again and again the past few seasons how much difference an explosive returner can make when he touches the ball, and how much fear he can strike into an opposing team even when he doesn't.
Even if Domenik Hixon is healthy next season I am not sure the Giants have a guy who can put that kind of fear into the opposition. They need to find one.
3. Punt Coverage
Only three teams in the league gave up more punt return yardage than the Giants, and only two had worse net averages than the 34.3 compiled by Matt Dodge and the Giants. Blame the rookie Dodge all you want, and he deserves plenty of the heat, but the guys covering the kicks didn't help him very much. How many missed tackles did we see? How many breakdowns in lane discipline did we witness? More than likely Dodge returns next season and he should improve. The coverage has to get better, too.
Nos. 2 and 3, of course, lead me to my least favorite topic. Why have the Giants not replaced Tom Quinn as special teams coach? Quite obviously, he is not getting the job done. What makes anyone in the organization think he will suddenly start getting it done next season? The guy must have compromising photos of Coughlin stashed away somewhere.
4. Explosive Plays
The Giants give them up on special teams and don't get them, as we just discussed. As we discussed the other day in our review of the safety position, the Giants have given up far too many of these the past two seasons.
Despite a massive upgrade in personnel, the Giants gave up 10 pass plays of 40 or more yards in 2010. That is the same number the team surrendered in 2009, and only seven NFL teams gave up more. In terms of plays of 20 yards or more, the Giants surrendered 44 of those in 2010, just seven fewer than they gave up in 2009.
That, friends, is completely ridiculous. Perry Fewell did an excellent job as defensive coordinator for the most part, and probably will work his way into a head-coaching gig somewhere. But the Giants have too many good, veteran players in the secondary to be surrendering so many game-changing plays. It's on Fewell to figure out why that kept happening in 2010, and do something about it.
5. Running Game
This one encompasses a lot of things. By the numbers the Giants did a good job running the ball, finishing sixth in the league at 137.5 yards per game. If you watched all 16 games, though, you know it was inconsistent. Some games it was there, other games it wasn't. Despite the numbers, the Giants also still struggled on third down and in short yardage.
We know what is needed here. GM Jerry Reese has to pay some attention to an aging, injured offensive line in the draft. He has to get a big-time blocking tight end, and probably a road-grader at fullback. Both of those issues could be solved by finding a fullback and letting Bear Pascoe play tight end. The Giants also have to figure out if they have the right running backs.
It seems like a lot, but it really isn't. No one knows what will happen, but as we deal with all the Super Bowl XLV hype the next couple of weeks keep in mind that -- with luck -- the Giants could be there a year from now.