The New York Giants embark on a critical season for the franchise Monday night, and they begin that journey as a great unknown. If anyone tells you they have this team figured, don't buy whatever they are selling. This is a team that enters the season riddled with question marks.
Can their overhauled offense come together and play, at least, representative football? Or, will this be a repeat of last season's offensive disaster? Can their vaunted secondary be as good as it appears on paper? Can the Giants rush the passer? Can a team that underwent such a massive offensive change gel together quickly enough to avoid another awful start? Is this a five-win team? Is it a 10- or 11-win team?
Most of all, is this the last ride for the incredibly successful coach-quarterback combo of Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning? The answer to that could well lie in how the answers to all of the other questions surrounding the Giants play out.
There are negatives to the decade during which we have watched Coughlin and Manning lead the Giants franchise. There are two straight playoff-less seasons and a string of four playoff misses in five syears. There was the huge missed opportunity of 2008, when an 11-1 start ended in a first-round playoff defeat after the Plaxico Burress incident.
Yet, if you are honest with yourself even the most negative of Giants fans has to admit that the last decade of Giants football has been a glorious one. The Giants have two Super Bowl titles during that time, something only the Pittsburgh Steelers can claim. I think every fan of the other NFL teams would take what the Giants have accomplished in Coughlin's time and be happy with it.
Since 2005, there has been one losing season -- last year's 7-9. Nearly every football game the Giants have played for the last nine seasons has been a meaningful one. How many NFL teams can say that? Not many.
So, is it all coming to an end?
At 68 and with this year and next year left on his contract the specter of how much longer Coughlin will patrol the Giants sideline constantly hovers over the Giants. Coughlin says he feels like a young man, and his passion and energy has not seemed to wane at all over the years. The man still wants to coach -- and, yes, he still CAN coach.
That doesn't mean he WILL coach beyond the 2014 season -- especially if the Giants suffer through another miserable season.
Let's be realistic. No one in the Giants organization wants to fire Tom Coughlin. The man has brought two Super Bowl titles to East Rutherford. He is a tremendous coach, possibly headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and along with Bill Parcells one of the two best coaches in franchise history.
Beyond that, Coughlin is a terrific man. As beloved as Parcells was, Coughlin may be the best representative of the franchise the Giants have ever had as a head coach. He is respected, admired even, all around the Giants and NFL circles in general.
Yet, nothing lasts forever. In a revealing two-part interview with Conor Orr of the Star-Ledger, Giants' co-owner John Mara alluded to that fact.
"I don't want people to ever get in a comfort zone here where they think they have a position for life and that there's no expectations. That is the worst thing you can do. There are expectations, and people understand that," Mara said.
That comment was not directed at Coughlin, but you can infer that the head coach is included under that umbrella. The ideal scenario for the Giants would be to at least make the playoffs this season. If that happens, the pressure is off. If that doesn't happen, the Giants organization could find itself in the uncomfortable position of having to consider whether the time has come to 'gently' force Coughlin to retire -- something everyone knows he does not want to do.
Perhaps that window for the Giants extends two seasons -- that is how much time both Coughlin and Manning have left on their contracts. Maybe the Giants are willing to ride out the next two seasons and see where it goes. You could certainly argue that would be fair considering the massive change the Giants underwent this offseason.
In the end, everything comes back to Manning. He has twice led the Giants to the highest mountain, but individually once he scaled that mountain Manning has never been able to stay there. He was, and there really is no other way to put it, terrible in 2013. Can he still be a franchise quarterback, a guy who can lead a team to that mountain top?
The Giants asked the question this past off season without really ASKING the question. First, with two seasons left on his contract and in need of salary cap space, the Giants never broached the subject of a contract extension that would tie their future to the 33-year-old Manning beyond next season. They want him to show them deserves their future loyalty, not to mention their future cash.
Second, they stripped Manning of everything he has ever known as an NFL quarterback. They replaced Kevin Gilbride with Ben McAdoo, who brought with him a much different offense than Manning has run. Manning admitted being "nervous" with the new offense and also that he has had to study and prepare more this season than ever before. Coughlin admitted that making Manning and other uncomfortable was part of the reason for the change.
How will all of these questions be answered in the end? Nobody really has the foggiest idea. Thus begins one of the most intriguing seasons in recent memory for the New York Football Giants.
After months of talking, wondering and asking those questions we finally begin to get our answers on Monday night.