Sunday, September 16, 2007

Dysfunction Loves Company on Atomizing Giants

Sports of The Times
September 17, 2007

East Rutherford, N.J.

It may sound like a stretch to say that the Giants were good at something yesterday, but who can quibble with their clock management? They sent thousands of fans home early, making for an orderly traffic flow out of a depressing Giants Stadium. And while draining any 2007 optimism from a new season that already feels like the dog days of 2006, their defense treated Brett Favre to a journey through time, escorting him back to his days as the Super Bowl-winning quarterback of 1997.

“He’s squeezing that ball, slinging that sucker,” Michael Strahan said of his old buddy, who six years ago famously crumpled to the Meadowlands turf, conferring on Strahan the N.F.L. single-season record for sacks.

Strahan could have used another one yesterday to become his team’s career leader, but he never got close enough for Favre to fake it. It was that kind of day for Strahan and the Giants — not close to Favre or the Packers or what might pass for a team capable of much more than getting its head coach fired.

Unless the season’s opening two weeks were an 80-point aberration, the staple of this organization’s success, defense, seems to have disintegrated on Tom Coughlin’s watch. More specifically, you could say it was during the third quarter of a 35-13 defeat to Green Bay when a countdown commenced on the Coughlin era, when it became apparent that the Giants’ issues go well beyond the coach’s personality and Eli Manning’s learning curve.

Favre, 37 and typically the subject of retirement talk, pitched a perfect quarter, 11 for 11 in a run of 14 consecutive completions culminating with a 3-yard touchdown pass three plays into the fourth. Favre threw short. He threw shorter. Able to complete 29 of 38 passes for 286 yards with no virulent running game, Favre mixed in the occasional ball downfield. His confidence soared with the realization that the Giants couldn’t rush him, or touch him, beyond one measly and revealingly glacial scramble into the embrace of Justin Tuck for a 1-yard loss.

“We’re not making the plays we need to make,” said Strahan, who let a short first-half Favre pass slip through his hands, made one tackle, assisted on another. Strahan is the most culpable of invisible Giant defenders, considering his Hall of Fame credentials, the $4 million he is being paid to harass the quarterback, the training camp-long watch on when or if he would play.

When Strahan finally showed up days before last week’s disaster in Dallas, the Giants made excuses for him. They couldn’t stop admiring the great shape he was in. They pretended he didn’t need camp when the truth was that he needed it more than most. Now Strahan sweats off his 35-year-old rust as if it’s the first week of August.

He looks like a symbol of the Giants’ crumbling infrastructure, a symptom of frayed leadership. You could also say that about Coughlin, cast him as nothing more than a coach foisted by Wellington Mara, the late owner, upon Ernie Accorsi, the former general manager. But, of course, Coughlin must answer for his Giants becoming fragile and mistake-prone — everything Coughlin once said they were under Jim Fassel, promised they would never be under him and pretty much were start to finish yesterday.

The kicker, Lawrence Tynes, missed a 34-yard field on the Giants’ first possession after Manning had driven them 55 yards. Safety Gibril Wilson roughed the punter in the second quarter. Jeremy Shockey negated a first-down catch on third down in Packers territory by punching the ball to the turf, grounds for a delay-of-game penalty, forcing the Giants to settle for a field goal.

On and on flowed the dysfunction, with the usually restrained Amani Toomer pulling a Shockey, getting entangled with the Packers’ Nick Barnett and taking a 15-yard penalty for taunting. Second-and-goal from the Packers’ 8 became third-and-goal from the 23. Later, Ahmad Bradshaw fumbled a kickoff, and a manageable 21-13 deficit ballooned to a stadium-emptying 28-13.

More Giants limped away from the carnage, down the tunnel and into the shower, including the fumbler, Bradshaw; the receivers Plaxico Burress and Steve Smith; and even the backup quarterback, Jared Lorenzen, sent in to relieve Manning, a mission of mercy.

Manning played well enough in his mini-Willis Reed moment, his quick recovery from the sore shoulder sustained last week. Who would have bet that he would seem the least of the Giants’ problems at this point? But that is where Coughlin’s team is now, not a pretty sight, promises of pending atonement notwithstanding.

“I think we are a better football team than we have shown,” Coughlin said. “Obviously, I don’t have any real grounds for saying that; it is just a belief.”

Based on what we have seen so far, may we suggest a belief in Santa, Coughlin’s best hope for a holiday season rescue.



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