Sunday, January 11, 2009

A (NY) Giant Season of Promise No More

It's no secret that I'm a fan of the New York Football Giants, living in the I-95 corridor between the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins, with a sprinkling of Pittsburgh Steelers fans in every cul-de-sac. It's tough. So when my Giants lost today in a most disappointing fashion, I was doubly saddened to realize that two of the three "local" teams are still alive to win it all.

Another round of local team hope means enduring a week of Ravens' car flags and Steelers' hats. And though it means that at least one of them won't make the Super Bowl, it also means that one of them will. Despite this, today's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles pains me more than hearing Baltimoreans say, "Howya think them Ravens are gonna do hon?" for another week. It's the Giants who should still be playing.

Now they're everywhere!

Coming off of last year's improbable Super Bowl title, we (meaning all Giants' fans) had high hopes and wanted the team to make a good run to prove last year wasn't the fluke it seemed. I suppose the team accomplished that by having the best regular season in the NFC, clinching a 1st-round bye and home-field throughout. Unfortunately, home-field advantage didn't help the Giants today. It's not any easier to accept because 3 of the 4 home teams in the Divisional round lost, as did 2 of 4 in the Wild Card round. Regular season titles aren't celebrated, playoff wins are.

The Giants just weren't as crisp as I knew them to be this year. A few 20-yard outs that were just missed always seemed to connect before. Uncharacteristic penalties like blocking in the back and hands to the face meant this team would never recapture the magic. Rushing three in a prevent defense to end the 1st half, when blitzing Donovan McNabb had worked, was not the Giants' way.

The defense could have called for Michael Strahan today.

Call me an armchair quarterback, but if Manning was having trouble throwing accurately beyond 15 yards, maybe, just maybe, the Giants should run the ball with the league's top rushing offense and keep passes to under 10 yards. It certainly worked for McNabb converting 7 of 13 3rd downs to the Giants' 3 of 13. John Carney's 2 missed field goals are not to blame here, this was a total team failure and it sucks.

It wasn't supposed to end this way.

Through the first 11 games of the season, the Giants looked, played, and carried themselves like the worldbeaters they were. Outside of a fluke blowout loss to the Browns in Week 5, the Giants rolled through the league beating the likes of the Steelers on the road and running over the Ravens at the Meadowlands. Despite losing Michael Strahan to retirement and Osi Umenyiora to a knee injury in the preseason, the Giants were rolling along with a perfect balance of power running, pressure defense, and a respectable deep passing game with Plaxico Burress.

At least we had a better run than the Redskins season of starting 6-2, but missing the playoffs. There, now I feel better after that reminder.

Now the team just had to avoid injuries, we thought. They needed to avoid any drama or team distractions, we thought. Coach Tom Caughlin wouldn't let that happen, we thought. We also thought the first 12 games came a little too easy for them. Standing at 11-1, my father and I were ecstatic, yet weary for the other shoe to drop.

The shoe dropped, or rather Plaxico Burress' gun dropped from the pocket of his sweatpants, at which point it, or rather he, shot himself in the thigh. Like your atypical gunshot victim, he got the hospital ER docs to not report the wound to police (who found out about it on TV) and was treated under an alias. Oh yeah, he also had no license to carry a gun in New York. So much for avoiding drama.

We'll never know how far they could have gone because someone didn't leave his gun's safety on.

Following Burress' suspension, the Giants lost 3 of their last 4, though the final game wasn't played with the starting team the entire time, but still the team wasn't the same. In a sheer moment of stupidity, the never-neverland of football superiority vanished, but nobody wanted to admit it. Losses to the Eagles and Cowboys were written off as ways to rest the team for the playoffs, especially with a playoff spot already clinched. Plus, the team did beat Carolina to solidify the Conference's top seed. With smoke and mirrors the team was swimming along by treading water.

The 1st-round bye afforded the team the rest it needed, but didn't undo what Burress did to himself, the team, and the fans. His marksmanship cost the Giants a sound run at a repeat title. He was as important to the offense as Eli Manning, the triumvirate of running backs, and the spectacular offensive line. He commanded defenses to double team him leaving one less defender to rush Manning or tackle a ballcarrier. Attention to Burress opened up the field for the likes of Amani Toomer and Domenik Hixon to run crossing routes or sideline routes in single coverage.

When Burress was suspended by the team (coming after missing two games for injury) the franchise chose a drama-less locker room over a singularly selfish player, and a fair chance at a Super Bowl. The Giants ran the playoff table last year and dominated the regular season this year because they played as a team (plus one distracting superstar) in a sport that demands teamwork over the individual (see the Dallas Cowboys when a team has many distracting superstars).

Look how far we've fallen since the winning TD.

That's all well and good, but couldn't the Giants have allowed Burress to play in the playoffs? Penalize him for a few games with the division wrapped up, but let him play when the team needed him most. Cut ties with him after this year, but at least see where they'd go with him. Plenty has been stated anonymously that he's an awful teammate in addition to his training camp holdouts and spouts with the coaching staff so maybe this was the last straw.

Sometimes you look past a player's diversion for temporary achievement. Every sport faces the dilemma of winning with a diva athlete who backs up their talk and brash ways, or letting him go for the sake and sanity of everyone else. I give the organization credit for taking a stand, but I'd be fine if they stood up for their morals after this year.

Sometimes a player is worth his all-cameras-on-me attitude.

All of which leads us to today's loss at home against the Eagles. McNabb made the short throws needed and the Giants never got on track after losing Burress. I don't care who represents the NFC in the Super Bowl anymore. I guess I'll resign myself to watching what should be a classic battle between the Steelers and Ravens, picking the Ravens to win 20 (crabcakes) to 13 (Primanti Brothers sandwiches). Not that it matters after a season with legitimate title dreams didn't come true. Hon.

Excuses are easy to create, but harder to legitimize. You could say it was cold and windy, but it was the same for the Eagles. Perhaps the Giants were rusty having not played a meaningful game in a few weeks, yet the Steelers played just fine today.

Or maybe, just maybe, the team needed Plaxico more than they wanted to admit.

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