8:17 am Oct. 13, 20101
“The only time the Giants win is when they get running the ball well,” said NBC commentator Tony Dungy minutes before the Giants played the Chicago Bears two weeks ago. If he were coaching the bears, Dungy said, "I’m gonna load the box up and … force Eli Manning to throw and see if we can get after him.”
Dungy was reading from a well-worn script on the Giants. Two weeks before, Manning himself—who four years from now will probably become the most prolific passer in Giants history—likewise paid homage to the team’s long-held run-first identity.
“We are going to establish the run game,” he said. “That’s Giants football.”
“Giants football.” It’s a cliché used to describe an old-fashioned brand of football played by an organization that takes pride in being old-fashioned. As far as sports memes go, this one is well-founded: Historically, successful Giants teams have complemented stout defenses with strong running games. This was true of Big Blue’s championship teams of the pre-Super Bowl era, which with a few exceptions relied on the run because most teams did back then. It was true of the Bill Parcells-coached Super Bowl teams of the 1980s, which proudly eschewed the complex passing offenses proliferating at the time in favor of a back-to-basics, smash-mouth style reflecting Parcells' “Jersey Guy” persona. And it has been true of the successful Giants teams of recent vintage, including the Super Bowl XLII champions, whose excellent running game buttressed their maturing quarterback.
During Tom Coughlin’s first five years as coach, from 2004 to 2008, the Giants running game consistently ranked in or near the top third of the league in yardage. The passing game, meanwhile, ranked in or near the bottom third in four of five of those years, with the lone exception of 2005. The advanced stats of the Football Outsiders website show the same discrepancy: The Giants running game was good-to-great while the passing game was pedestrian.
But that's not the case anymore. If the Giants are to rebound from a mediocre 2009 and reclaim their status as one of the league’s best teams, it won’t be because of their running game. Last year, the offensive line, an elite run-blocking unit for most of the Coughlin era, slipped markedly because of advancing age. The balance of power on offense has shifted to the passing game. Manning’s ascension from mediocrity to stardom has received plenty of attention. And after last Sunday’s thrashing of the Houston Texans during which the Giants’ passing game blew the doors off the game within the first 17 minutes, so will the Giants talented young trio of wide receivers: Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham. Already, they comprise the best receiving corps the Giants have ever had. In the coming years, they just might give new meaning to the term "Giants football."
"THEY'RE RESPECTING US MORE THIS YEAR," said Steve Smith, the Giants' fourth-year receiver, when I spoke to him at his practice facility locker last Wednesday. Smith was wearing an Arsenal Football Club sweatshirt, a rare bridge of the football-futbol divide. Combined with his California laid-back demeanor and unprepossessing size, it made my conversation with him seem more like chit-chatting with someone at a party than interviewing an elite professional athlete. This was fitting. As a receiver, Smith is a serious threat masquerading as an average guy.
The Giants selected Smith in the second round of the 2007 draft. They entered that draft knowing they needed another wide receiver to complement primary wideout Plaxico Burress, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound talent who seemed genetically engineered to play the position. They still had Amani Toomer, a once-potent deep threat who had aged gracefully into a steady contributor, but Toomer was nearing the end of the line. With Burress figuring to occupy double-teams downfield for years to come, the Giants needed a receiver with a knack for finding the underneath open spaces created by those double teams. They found one in Smith, who had experience being “the other guy” at the University of Southern California, where he was overshadowed by a Burress-esque physical specimen named Dwayne Jarrett (who, like Burress, currently doesn’t have an NFL job). Smith wasn’t all that fast and he wasn’t all that big—around 6 feet and less than 200 pounds. But he still racked up impressive statistics at USC while earning a reputation as a quarterback-friendly receiver.
“Dwayne always had the bigger numbers,” Lane Kiffin, the current USC coach who coached the team’s receivers at the time, told me over the phone. “But Steve was always making the big plays.”
Smith’s rookie year was mostly undistinguished, but he began to emerge in the playoffs. On the final drive of Super Bowl XLII, he made a critical third-down reception that immediately preceded Burress’s go-ahead touchdown catch. The 12-yard catch on 3rd down and 11 was a microcosm for an overlooked guy who is always there when you need him: David Tyree’s “helmet catch” and Burress’s touchdown might have gotten more attention, but Smith’s grab came in more dire circumstances than either.
The next year, Smith matured into one of the league’s better slot receivers. But an event late that season dictated that his role would soon change. This would Plaxico Burress' accidental discharge of his Glock in a nightclub, which wounded the receiver’s thigh, ended his Giants career, and ultimately sent him to prison. Smith became the team’s primary receiver in 2009, but most pundits saw him as an unimpressive number-one option in a weak group.
They were wrong. Smith exploded last year, racking up 1,220 yards and becoming the first Giants receiver to make the Pro Bowl since a fellow named Homer Jones did so in 1968. (Jones is widely credited with inventing the end-zone spike.) Smith’s athletic gifts are not eye-catching but are nonetheless rare. His top-end speed is just average, but his low center of gravity enables him to change direction on his patterns without losing much speed. As Kiffin said, “He’s not the fastest, but he plays fast.” As a former high school basketball standout, he has a natural athlete’s spatial acuity that might not always be visible to the naked eye but explains his knack for getting open and shows up in his production. Said Kiffin, “He’s just extremely natural. Everything we ever did always came easy for him. That’s why he was able to transition so well to a new offense in the pros.”
While Smith excelled in 2009, so did the rest of the receivers. And so did Eli Manning, who set career-high marks in nearly every statistical category. In the span of a year, the receiving corps and the passing game in general had gone from a question mark to an unquestioned strength.
And now, as Smith said to me, he and his receiving cohorts are getting respect. He said this with a mix of pride and weariness. It’s good to get respect, of course. But for the first time in his college or pro career, Smith has been seeing consistent double-teams. This has caused his individual production to slip from 76 yards per game to 60. But that doesn’t mean his overall contribution has suffered.
“They’ve been loading up on Steve Smith and doubling him with regularity,” offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said to me. “But that gives opportunities to those other guys, and they’ve taken advantage of it and played really good football.”
THE PRIMARY BENEFICIARY OF DEFENSES' FOCUS ON SMITH in the early part of the season has been Hakeem Nicks, the Giants’ 2009 first round draft pick. Through four games, Nicks leads the team with 409 yards, and his average of 81.8 yards puts him on pace for 1,300 yards for the year. Sunday was his coming-out party, a 12 catch, 130 yard effort that spawned thousands of remarks in American offices that went something like, Jeez. Nicks is a beast.
While Smith’s athletic attributes aren't obvious from looking at him, Nicks' physical gifts—specifically his 10.5-inch hands—are. His huge hands and long arms make him a much bigger target than his 6-foot-1 height would suggest and enable him to win one-on-one battles with defensive backs even if he is covered.
His big hands also complement his thick frame in enabling him to be one of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers after he catches the ball. Ramses Barden, the 6-foot-6 second-year receiver who oozes Burress-like potential but has yet to crack the regular rotation of talented players, explained it to me thusly: “When you have big hands, it gives you some leeway in terms of ball security. You get a little bit more freedom to make moves. It allows you to use your body naturally.”
Last year, Nicks led the league with an average of 8.8 yards after the catch, nearly a yard-and-a-half better than the next comer. This quality was vividly on display last Sunday in Houston. On a first-quarter wide receiver screen pass, he used his huge hands to snag the ball and turn upfield through a seam in one motion. When an oncoming Texans defender tried to tackle him, he switched the ball from one hand to another, carrying it like a loaf of bread while stiff-arming a defender to pick up seven additional yards. On the next play, he caught a touchdown pass by placing his thick body in front of the defender, essentially boxing him out. On the Giants' next series, he leapt to catch a high Eli Manning throw across the middle. Then, while again holding the ball in one hand, he made a decisive cut to run more than 30 yards to the 1-yard line.
Before last year’s draft, rumors circulated that they were interested in Braylon Edwards, an established receiver then of the Cleveland Browns. It was reported that the Giants would have had to part with their first-round pick and possibly more to get Edwards. At the time, the consensus was that Edwards was a true “No. 1” receiver while those available at the Giants' pick had a lower ceiling. In the intervening year and a half, he has been traded to the crosstown Jets, and he has landed in the tabloids over a paternity suit and a drunk-driving arrest.
In person, Nicks is a man of few words. The only visible sign of ego I noticed lay in his locker, where his cleats are embroidered with “Dream 88,” a reference to his name, his number, and the year he was born. He has a reserved demeanor, a gentle, measured speaking style and a far-away look in his eyes. He is the product of a rough upbringing. Both of Nicks’s older brothers have been in and out of prison on drug and weapons offenses. His youth was peripatetic: He lived with his maternal grandparents in Pennsylvania during his early childhood before moving in with his father in Charlotte at the age of 9. All the while, he carried the hopes of his fractured family.
“It wasn’t easy for him to stay the course because he had things tugging on him from the outside,” said Charlie Williams, Nicks’ wide receivers coach at the University of North Carolina. “The whole thing with his parents, his brothers and the problems that they had—he never knew what was up and what was down with his family situation. But he stayed the course. He knew where he was headed and he knew it was just a matter of time before he got to where he wanted to be.”
On the field, Nicks adopts a similar mindset. “Once I catch the ball, it’s just the determination and will just to get to that end zone. It’s all about having a football mentality once the ball gets in your hands.”
"WE TRYING TO CHANGE THE GAME AROUND HERE," proclaimed Mario Manningham, in response to my question about the team’s run-first tradition. On the surface, it sounds like one of those cocky, declarative statements that wide receivers—notoriously the NFL’s biggest egoists—are prone to making. But in this case, while the sentiment is sincere, Manningham is half-kidding in his over-the-top bravado. That’s because the third-year wideout from Michigan is always half-kidding. Manningham is one of those sleepy-eyed mumblers perpetually on the verge of cracking a joke. In the awkward and mistrustful interactions between players and reporters in which players rarely have anything to gain by opening up, they usually reveal as little about themselves as possible. But Manningham can’t repress himself, entirely.
“They’d probably say I’m the funniest,” he said. “I joke around a lot. I go out of my way to notice things. Like, even if it ain’t that big of a deal, I’m gonna notice it and say something.”
In interviews with the other receivers, it was clear that Mario Cashmere Manningham was a crowd favorite.
“He’s got jokes, he’s funny, but he’s a really caring dude,” said Barden in a sentiment echoed by several of his colleagues.
But NFL decision-makers often aren’t as fond of class clowns, particularly those who have been caught smoking pot. Whispers about Manningham’s immaturity, along with the pre-draft revelation that he had failed two marijuana tests in college and then lied about it to personnel men, made him a suspicious character in the eyes of talent evaluators. Sure, his quickness, big-play ability, and outstanding college production made him a first- or second-round talent. But “character concerns”—a draftnik catch-all encompassing everything from academic trouble to violent crime—caused him to slide to the end of the third round of the 2008 draft. That’s where the Giants, the previous Super Bowl champions, sat waiting.
(An instructive YouTube clip of Manningham in his college days shows him playing the deep safety position in the kneel-down “victory formation” at the end of a Michigan victory. While his teammates stoically go through the motions of the game’s last play, Manningham enters from the side of the frame doing “The Worm” dance.)
“We had him graded a lot higher than that,” Reese told me. “Obviously there were some well-documented off-the-field issues, but we felt the value was too high to pass on him. And it’s paying dividends right now.”
In his first extended action last year, Manningham displayed his signature downfield speed and schoolyard elusiveness on the way to 822 yards. Listed at 5-foot-11, 183 pounds (the height is accurate, the weight is generous), Manningham is slight even by the standards of wide receivers. But his thin frame gives him a flexibility in his hips that is probably his best athletic attribute: It is this maneuverability that gives him his elusiveness in the open field—Manningham ranked 28th in the league in yards after the catch—and ability to adjust his body to deep passes in the air.
“With the ball in the air, he’s one of the fastest players I’ve coached because he adjusts to the ball so easily,” Erik Campbell, Manningham’s wide receivers coach at Michigan, said in a phone interview.
“He was a fun guy to coach. He’s a flamboyant type of guy who enjoys life,” Campbell added. “Some kids are in sad moods all the time. Not Mario.”
"WE'RE GETTING MORE INTO WHAT I used to do in Houston because we have smaller, quicker receivers,” Gilbride, the team’s avuncular offensive coordinator, told me.
This is a significant statement. Gilbride was the offensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers from 1990-1994. In the first four years of his tenure, his “Run & Shoot” offense finished 1st, 1st, 1st, and 3rd in the league in passing yards. Gilbride’s pass-happy system spread wide receivers across the field and relied on the quarterback to quickly locate and hit the open man. When it was in vogue in the early 1990s, it represented a style of football to which the Giants have always held themselves in philosophical opposition.
So it is understandable that Jerry Reese, the fourth-year general manager who has worked for the Giants since 1994, championed the franchise’s traditional values when I asked him if the Giants are becoming a pass-first team.
“I do believe you still have to run the ball in this league to win,” he said. “People think this is a passing league, and I disagree with that.” Then he added, “But we can throw the ball. We have a quarterback who can put it out there and we have receivers who can go get it.”
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