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The making of a Super Bowl champion: The 2007 New York Giants

Is luck the residue of design?

New York Giants David Tyree, Super Bowl XLII SetNumber: X79478 TK2 R3 F118

If you’re reading this article, there is most likely no game more firmly etched into your memory than the New York Giants’ stirring 17-14 victory over New England in Super Bowl XLII. (You can watch the full game here if you haven’t done so 37 times.) What more can I tell you about this magical season that you don’t already know? Maybe nothing. Time has a way of distorting things in our memories, though, so it is still useful to revisit that season and what came before it to better understand how the Giants got there, and to think about what it might tell us about where the Giants are now and how they might bring back the glory days.

Building a Super Bowl champion

After the 1990 Super Bowl season, the Giants went into a mini-wilderness again. Ray Handley replaced the retired Bill Parcells as head coach and had a disastrous two-year tenure. He was followed by Dan Reeves, who appeared to have brought the Giants back with an 11-5 record in 1993, but they were blown out by San Francisco in the Divisional Round after defeating Minnesota in the Wild Card game. Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor retired at that point. Under new QB Dave Brown, the Giants missed the playoffs for three consecutive years, leading the Giants to fire Reeves and replace him with Jim Fassel, while Danny Kanell took over at QB. Fassel and Kanell got the Giants to the Wild Card in 1997 but no further. In 1997 General Manager George Young retired and was replaced by Ernie Accorsi. In 1999 Accorsi signed free agent Kerry Collins. Collins led a mini-resurgence of the Giants, getting them to 12-4 and the Super Bowl in 2000, but a great Ravens defense was too much for them.

By 2004 Fassel was out, replaced by Tom Coughlin. The Giants signed QB Kurt Warner, who had been benched in mid-season by the Rams the previous year, but they obtained Eli Manning in the bizarre trade with the Chargers after drafting Philip Rivers. Warner got off to a 4-1 start but the team lost three of their next four, and Coughlin decided to bench Warner for Manning. On the surface, the decision seemed strange since the Giants were in the playoff hunt, but Warner was having a season that looked good but wasn’t: Only six TD passes in nine games with 4four INTs, and 39 sacks in nine games, more than he’d ever had in a full season running the Greatest Show on Turf.

Eli was awful that first half-season, and not a whole lot better after that:

Courtesy of Pro Football Reference

Fortunately, the Giants already had some of the key pieces in place and were adding more in the draft. DE Michael Strahan in Round 2, 1993; WR Amani Toomer, 1996, Round 2; RB Tiki Barber, Round 2, 1997 (that’s three pretty good Round 2 picks in five years); CB Will Allen, Round 1, 2001; TE Jeremy Shockey, Round 1, 2002; DE Ose Umenyiora, Round 2, and G David Diehl, Round 5, plus a sparingly used WR, David Tyree, in 2003; and while everyone was buzzing over the Rivers-Manning trade, G Chris Snee in Round 2, 2004. A core formed over 12 years of drafts.

It didn’t do much good in 2004, as the Giants under rookie Manning went 1-6 and finished 6-10 for the season. The 2005 season, though, brought an 11-5 record and a division title. The Giants had further bolstered the roster, using three of their four total draft picks (they’d given up their first and fifth-round picks in the Rivers-Manning trade) on CB Corey Webster, Round 2; DE Justin Tuck, Round 3; and RB Brandon Jacobs, Round 5). They had also signed an elite WR, Plaxico Burress, as a free agent. Manning played somewhat better, throwing for 24 TDs but with 17 INTs.

There was excitement as the Giants hosted NFC South champion Carolina in Manning’s first playoff game. The Giants were back, baby! Rivers wasn’t even playing and Manning had gotten us to the playoffs! Then the game was played. Carolina skunked the Giants, 23-0. Manning went 10 for 18 for 113 yards and 3 INTs.

In 2006, the Giants further strengthened the defensive line, drafting Mathias Kiwanuka in Round 1 and Barry Cofield in Round 4. They dropped to 8-8, though, losing 7 of their last 9 games, but got a Wild Card spot and had to travel to Philadelphia. They came back from a 10-point deficit to tie the Eagles, 20-20, with 5 minutes left, then allowed the Eagles and backup QB Jeff Garcia to drive down and kick a last-second field goal to eliminate them.

There was speculation that Coughlin might be fired, but he was allowed to stay on. There were ominous signs for their quarterback, though, as reported by The New York Times:

Most maddening has been the slow progress of quarterback Eli Manning, the first choice overall in the 2004 draft, who appears to be idling among the league’s average quarterbacks.

“Obviously, that was a major part of our discussions, that Eli does need to play more consistently, and he’d be the first one to admit that,” Mara said.

Coughlin had problems in the locker room, with many players openly criticizing his “militaristic” (to quote the Times article) ways. He took the step of forming a leadership council and wound up relaxing some of the rules and regulations he had set for the clubhouse, as well as communicating better with the players.

Still, as the 2007 season approached, things did not look good, as Chris Pflum reported in Big Blue View:

I can still remember walking out of a grocery store, getting sandwiches for move-in (the next day), and telling my dad that I didn’t think the Giants would do much that year. The cacophony surrounding the team was reaching a fever pitch. The ever-rabid New York media was trying to run Tom Coughlin out of town, Michael Strahan was considering retirement, Tiki Barber had retired and was now launching barbs (no pun intended) at his former coach and quarterback, and the Giants had a new (and unknown) defensive coordinator. There was little reason for optimism and no indication of what was in store.

Accorsi had retired, and Jerry Reese had taken over as GM. In the 2007 draft, the Giants had picked up CB Aaron Ross, Round 1; WR Steve Smith, Round 2; DT Jay Alford, Round 3; TE Kevin Boss, Round 4; and with the No. 250 pick, a little-known running back from Marshall, Ahmad Bradshaw. Sports Illustrated described him as “not built to be a heavy-duty running back” and... could make a good “change of pace/third-down back.”

The 2007 season

Aaron Schatz, the inventor of the defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) metric, recently ranked all 57 Super Bowl winners by their team DVOA. DVOA assigns a value to each play in terms of what it accomplishes relative to what the team needs to accomplish (e.g., how close to a first down it gets the offensive team depending on the down), adjusted for the strength of the defense it is facing, and the same in reverse for the defensive team. The analysis is at ESPN+, but a summary of the results for the Giants’ two most recent Super Bowls can be found here.

The bottom line is that the 2007 Giants ranked 53rd out of the 57 Super Bowl winners. Their regular season DVOA ranked 15th in the NFL that season, the lowest rank that any Super Bowl winner has ever had, at 4.5% (meaning that the team played only 4.5% better than an average NFL team that year). They were 14th in points scored and 17th in points allowed on defense, although their No. 7 rank in yards allowed may have been a clue that the defense was better than it had shown.

That season got off to a 0-2 start, with the usual loss in Dallas and then a 35-13 whipping by Green Bay at home. The Giants righted the ship just in time with a gutty goal-line defensive stand at the end of a 24-17 victory in Washington. They went on to win 7 of 8. It wasn’t Manning’s doing most of the time though. Five times during the winning streak he passed for fewer than 200 yards, once only for 49 yards. Then, at home against Minnesota, he had perhaps his worst game ever, a 41-17 loss in which he was intercepted four times, as I wrote about last fall. At 9-5 and with a playoff berth in jeopardy, the Giants won a tough battle in Buffalo, 38-21, to finally clinch a Wild Card berth. Again, it wasn’t Manning’s doing (he only passed for 94 yards), but rather the running of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw that did it (289 yards rushing total that day).

This looked more like another one-and-done team than a Super Bowl team. The offense didn’t scare anyone even though there was talent there, and the defense sometimes played well but also had games in which they gave up 45, 35, 31, and 41 points.

Then came the now-legendary “meaningless” home game against 16-0 New England. The Giants traded punches all night with the Patriots, Manning threw for 4 TDs, and New England escaped with a 38-35 win that so moved John Madden that he had to leave a phone message for Coughlin complimenting him and the team for their effort.

The playoffs began with a satisfying 24-14 road victory against 9-7 NFC South champion Tampa Bay. The Giants fell behind 7-0 but then scored 24 straight points to salt the game away midway through the fourth quarter. Manning had an efficient if unspectacular game with 20 for 27, 185 yards, and 2 TDs.

The legend of the 2007 Giants and Manning’s Exhibit A for the Hall of Fame began the following week in Dallas. The top-seeded Cowboys, who had beaten the Giants twice in the regular season, took a 17-14 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Giants drove down and regained the lead when Brandon Jacobs ran it in from the 1-yard line, “with a kiss” (h/t Bill Raftery) of the ball off the play clock:

Dallas drove for the winning score, but R.W. McQuarters made the biggest play of his career by intercepting Tony Romo in the end zone to seal the 21-17 upset victory:

Again, Manning was efficient, with 12 for 18, 163 yards, and 2 TDs, both to Amani Toomer. The key was that for two weeks in a row Manning had played mistake-free ball and gotten the Giants into the end zone.

The NFC Championship Game was in historically frigid conditions in Green Bay. The 14-3 Packers had obliterated Seattle in the Divisional Round, and the upstart Giants were not expected to overcome Brett Favre at Lambeau. Nonetheless, the game went back-and-forth, neither team ever leading by more than 6 points. The game went to overtime, and ultimately Corey Webster picked off Favre to put the Giants into field goal range:

Finally Lawrence Tynes kicked a rock-hard ball 47 yards for the winning field goal to end the Giants’ seven-year absence from the Super Bowl. Manning did not have a TD in this game, but he did throw for 251 yards without a turnover, and that last achievement was the difference.

The Super Bowl game

We all remember the important, spectacular plays in the fourth quarter of this game that made Manning, David Tyree, and Plaxico Burress heroes in the Giants’ pantheon. Most of the game, though, was a defensive slugfest. Manning didn’t play especially well during the first three quarters. He drove the Giants into scoring position twice in the first half and had only three points to show for it, once because he threw his first interception of the playoffs to Ellis Hobbs (who had also sealed the Patriots’ win over the Giants in Week 17 with an interception).

The other thing we all remember about the rest of the game is the two sacks of Tom Brady by Justin Tuck, plus one sack each by Kawika Mitchell and Michael Strahan. New England had terrorized offenses all season with their revolutionary spread offense. The Patriots had scored fewer than 30 points in only four regular-season games. They had scored more than 40 four times and more than 50 twice.

The pressure the Giants put on Brady was a big reason the Giants were able to stay in the game. It wasn’t the full story, though. Steve Spagnuolo, who had become the Giants’ defensive coordinator that season, disguised his rushes. Tuck would sometimes rush out of a 2-point stance, sometimes out of 3-point. Sometimes rushes would be delayed, or come from the safety or linebacker while Tuck acted as a decoy. Brady had difficulty reading the defense when the Giants did not blitz but got delayed pressure:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

He was pressured 43.4% of the time, and his Pro Football Focus grade was much lower on those dropbacks than when he was kept clean. Brady’s NFL passer rating when under pressure was only 69.4, vs. 90.3 when kept clean. This approach has become much more common in today’s NFL but was a new wrinkle back then.

Not surprisingly, other than guard Stephen Neal, who left early in the game with an injury, the rest of the Patriots offensive line had mediocre to poor pass blocking grades, especially in true pass sets (i.e, neglecting play action, screens, etc.):

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

The problem was, the Giants’ offensive line wasn’t doing any better. Actually, other than Kareem McKenzie and Chris Snee, they were doing worse. A lot worse. I’ve included the Giants’ offensive line pass block grades in the chart above to illustrate that. Left tackle David Diehl had a terrible time all night mostly blocking Adalius Thomas, giving up 2 sacks and 7 hurries. Center Shaun O’Hara had his problems too, giving up a QB hit and 4 hurries.

Why am I pointing this out? Because it explains the most memorable play in Super Bowl history - the helmet catch. You’ve watched it a zillion times, I’m sure, but this time watch the offensive line:

Thomas (96) immediately blows past Diehl on the edge as if he were a mirror image of Evan Neal and gets the first grab of Eli’s jersey from behind. Meanwhile, IDLs Richard Seymour (93) and Jarvis Green (97) run a stunt on the inside that Seubert and O’Hara can’t handle. (Does anything ever change for the Giants’ OL?). Snee (76), who has no one to block, doesn’t look back in time and Seymour gets past both of them. Green closes in on Eli and gets a piece of his jersey, but Eli has the presence of mind to climb the pocket and then escape to the rear, while Snee just stands and watches from three yards away as if he’d bought a ticket. Somehow, Manning escapes back and to the right, gets his eyes downfield, sets, and gets the throw off before the onrushing linebackers get to him. Was Eli lucky? Yes. Did he know how to escape the initial outside pressure by moving the pocket forward? Yes. Did he keep his deep target in mind the whole time? Yes. Would Daniel Jones do the same thing in the same situation? Ye....well, maybe not.

The other end of the play is simpler. Was Tyree lucky to catch the ball? Absolutely not. He timed his jump perfectly, high-pointed it, and got both hands on the ball before Rodney Harrison could get there. Was there any luck involved? Certainly. Harrison quickly gets a hand on the ball and tries to knock it away. Tyree is fortunate that Harrison’s hand pushes the ball toward his helmet and not in another direction where he could have knocked it loose. Still, Tyree has the presence of mind to get his second hand back on the ball so that he can maintain possession to the ground.

The luckiest play in Super Bowl history? Yes. But also a great play on both ends.

The winning TD might have also seemed lucky. It wasn’t. How was Plaxico Burress so wide open? Burress had been double-covered the whole game, but as they broke the huddle Manning told him he’d go to him if he got single coverage. It was single coverage, in fact a blitz was called. Burress realized that Hobbs, the lone defender, had to protect the field side in case a receiver filled the space left open by the blitz, so he gave Hobbs a quick inside fake and thus had the corner of the end zone all to himself when Hobbs went for it. Design, not luck.

What made this a championship team?

If there were easy answers to that, someone would bottle it and make a fortune. There were many things that contributed. First this was a veteran team that had been built over a long time period. Strahan was in his 15th year as a Giant, Toomer his 12th. Other foundational pieces had been acquired over the previous five years. Just one and two years earlier, a very similar group of players could not get past the first round of the playoffs. Those players had experienced adversity and remained focused on their goal. In that sense, they resemble the 2023-24 49ers, a veteran team who has not yet won a Super Bowl but has been collecting elite players for many years and may be ready to do it.

The 2023 New York Giants were not that. The vast majority of the roster consisted of players who have been in the NFL for only 1-3 years. The longest tenured Giant, Sterling Shepard, has probably played his last game after only eight seasons. Mark Glowinski, a nine-year veteran, and Jihad Ward, an eight-year veteran, are likely gone as well. The same may go for Adoree’ Jackson, a seven-year veteran. Rakeem Nunez-Roches, a nine-year veteran, and A’Shawn Robinson, an eight-year veteran, may or may not return. In any case, none of these players are team leaders, just supporting players.

The Giants have only two true veteran leaders: Saquon Barkley, who may or may not be back, and Tyrod Taylor, who might have become that if he’d been able to stay healthy for the rest of the season after replacing the injured Jones. Now he is likely to be gone too. Darren Waller has the seniority to be a team leader, but he hasn’t accumulated that capital as a Giant, and he has to stay on the field to plausibly play that role. The only plausible leaders who might emerge in 2024 are Andrew Thomas, Dexter Lawrence, and Bobby Okereke, who only have five, four and five years in the NFL. This is the second-youngest team in the NFL.

It is difficult for Giants fans to be patient. Giants history shows, though, that success with this franchise comes when you least expect it. Is there a Brady-type or Mahomes-type dynasty being built at 1925 Giants Drive? Probably not. The occasional Super Bowl, though? Don’t rule it a couple of years. A third year under the same GM and head coach is not all that much time for a phoenix to rise from the ashes, regardless of what you read on Twitter.

What is true, though, is that defense is beginning to make a comeback in the NFL. It’s become gospel that championships are no longer won by defense in the NFL. Yet defense is what made the Brady-led 2007 Patriots 18-1 rather than 19-0. Defense, if you didn’t notice, is why the Chiefs are in the Super Bowl rather than the Ravens. Both of those lie at the feet of Steve Spagnuolo. Spagnuolo had limited success as defensive coordinator his first few years with the Chiefs, finishing 17th, 16th, and 27th in yards surrendered. The past two years, with better talent acquired from the draft at linebacker and in the defensive backfield, his defenses have finished 11th and 2nd in yards, while the takeaway/giveaway ratio went from 11 to 22 to 28. The Giants have some pieces on defense. Perhaps they can accumulate a few more the way the Giants teams of the early 2000s did.

The 2007 Giants were anything but an offensive juggernaut. Even in the playoffs they weren’t. Helmet catch play aside, though, they usually gave Eli good pass blocking (89.3 PFF pass block grade in 2007) while he was still figuring out how to play quarterback. The other thing they had was an elite wide receiver in Plaxico Burress, an excellent veteran in Amani Toomer, and an underrated slot receiver in Steve Smith. This year the Giants have an opportunity to add a potential elite receiver at No. 6 in the draft to the pieces they already have. Rome Odunze (6-foot-3, 216 pounds) in blue might bring back memories of Plax.