Is Michael Boley too small to play linebacker? No, he is not.

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Naaman Roosevelt and Michael Boley. (nfl.com)
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Each time the Giants or Jets play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about Michael Boley, who played linebacker in the Giants’ 27-24 win over the Buffalo Bills.

“It’s just details,” Giants linebacker Michael Boley told me over the phone last Thursday, referring the two straight shaky games the Giants defense had played, the second of which led to last Sunday’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

“As a unit, we keep missing out on small things,” he said. “We keep shooting ourselves in the foot. A guy not being in his gap, a guy going the wrong way. It’s not like it’s anything big, when somebody just didn’t know what they were doing.”

These “small things” can result in big plays.

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Such was the case this Sunday, when a couple of missed assignments by the Giants yielded two long touchdowns for the Buffalo Bills. The first of these was an 80-yard run by the Bills’ Fred Jackson, on which Boley appeared not to be at fault. The second of these was a 60-yard slant pass, on which Boley failed to drop back into the middle zone in time. If Boley had executed his assignment, he could have limited the play to a short gain.

On the play, Boley “flashed” a blitz, so he was consequently on the line of scrimmage as the play started, instead of four yards deep, where he usually is. Boley immediately dropped into his zone at the snap. But because he had a longer journey to get there, he hadn’t yet arrived when Bills receiver Naaman Roosevelt ran a slant through Boley’s zone. Roosevelt caught the pass on the dead run and raced across and up the field untouched for a touchdown that give the Bills a 14-7 lead, with Boley chasing behind him the whole way.

“It was just a drop in coverage. I didn’t quite get there in time, and [Roosevelt] did a good job getting up the field,” he told me at his locker after the game.

It was a rough first half for Boley and the Giants defense, which was kept on its heels by Buffalo’s spread offense consisting of short timing passes, quick draw and trap running plays, and the occasional “Wildcat” play in which erstwhile Jets jack-of-all-trades Brad Smith lined up at quarterback.

Boley had one of the tougher assignments on the defense: Sometimes he lined up as the middle linebacker; sometimes he was split out on the flanks of the field. The only thing certain was that he was on the field, which shouldn’t be surprising considering he’d played more snaps than all but seven linebackers heading into yesterday.

“They do a lot of shifts and motion, and trying to get people out of their normal spots, and they did a good job of that,” Boley told me.

Buffalo amassed 225 yards on the first half, using big plays to equal the 17 points the Giants offense had scored more methodically. But the second half was different.

Boley rang in the new half on the Bills’ first play from scrimmage, when he knifed through a crease from his linebacker position and flattened Bills’ running back Fred Jackson for a 1-yard gain. Later in that series, he smartly rushed up from the intermediately deep zone he was stationed in to cover a Buffalo receiver he spotted behind the line of scrimmage, making the tackle for a loss. On the next play, he rushed the quarterback on a blitz—the first of only two times he blitzed, by my count—and helped force a hurried, incomplete pass.

The second half wasn’t perfect for Boley or the Giants defense, but it was good enough to limit the Bills to 124 yards and 7 points, and for the Giants to pull out yet another feel-good but imperfect win.

On the day, Boley led the Giants with eight tackles and seven solo tackles. I asked him to assess his performance, and that of the defense.

“It was alright, but we can get better,” he said. “Obviously, we gave up some big plays early on. It was simple things that we messed up on. It wasn’t anything they did that was spectacular. And we gotta correct it.”

It was spoken like a leader of the defense, which Boley—a 29-year-old whose demeanor is sober and laid-back—has quietly become in his third year with the Giants.

BOLEY’S TENURE IN NEW YORK GOT OFF TO A ROUGH START. In 2009, after signing a sizable free-agent contract that lured him from the Atlanta Falcons, Boley missed off-season workouts and training camp while recovering from hip surgery. He then missed the season opener while serving a suspension for a domestic-violence incident. (To be fair, and as a reminder that people are complicated, Boley is well-regarded as a champion for children with autism. Boley’s two sons are both autistic.)

He played in one game when he returned from suspension, but he then injured his knee and needed surgery. He returned to a Giants defense that was in the middle of a free-fall from one of the league’s best in the first half of the season to one of the league’s worst the in the second half. Like his fellow defensive players who saw their season slide out from under them, Boley never really gained a foothold in 2009.

But in 2010, the Giants replaced their maligned defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan with Perry Fewell, who brought in a scheme that better matched Boley’s skills. Fewell runs a defense with elements of the “Tampa-2” scheme, which places an emphasis on linebackers being quick and agile enough to be counted on as pass defenders. That description matches Boley, who at 230 pounds, is small by linebacker standards but is quick and instinctive.

“You’re not looking for your old-fashioned linebacker who makes tackles in a phone booth,” Tony Dungy, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts coach who is credited with pioneering this defense, described to Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden. “You’re looking for an open-field tackler and an athlete.”

That description matches the self-description Boley gave me.

“My strength is my awareness,” he said. “I’m quick, I’m good in the open field. Those parts of my game are what allow me to be such a good player.”

Fewell’s scheme suits him better than Sheridan’s because he’s “able to roam free a little more. Being able to run more, make plays sideline to sideline.”

This anecdotal impression checks out empirically, at least according to Pro Football Focus, a website that grades every player on every play. Of all linebackers in 4-3 defensive schemes (like the one the Giants run) who had enough plays to qualify, Boley ranked a putrid 46th out of 54 in 2009. Last year, under Fewell, Boley ranked 13th out of 41 qualifiers. This year, he was tied for 14th out of 46 qualifiers before yesterday’s game.

He has also authored two of the biggest defensive plays of the Giants season: The first was a fumble he fortuitously picked up and returned 65-yards for a touchdown in Week 2 against the St. Louis Rams (which he famously punctuated by accidentally chucking the ball into a sideline intern’s face). The second was his fourth-quarter, fourth-down stop of the Philadelphia Eagles’ LeSean McCoy in Week 3.

“This is my first year in a long time that I’ve had the same defensive coordinator,” he told me. “I’ve been in the system, I’ve found my comfort zone, and here I am coming into my own.”

CONSIDERING THE RECENT SUCCESS OF THE MOVIE MONEYBALL, about how the resource-poor Oakland A’s (used to) compete with Major League Baseball’s financial behemoths by finding overlooked players using unconventional evaluation methods, the story of how the University of Southern Mississippi landed Michael Boley is instructive.

For Southern Miss, being located in the fertile football country of the Deep South is a good thing. But having relatively limited resources, and playing in the second-tier Conference USA while surrounded by schools in the Southeastern Conference – whose quality of play every year looks less like other conferences and more like the NFL—is a bad thing.

“We can only recruit regionally, not nationally, so it’s really competitive,” Jeff Bower, Boley’s coach at Southern Miss, told me over the phone.

Bower’s recently concluded tenure included four Conference USA titles and victories over national powers Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Nebraska.

“We try to get the best players, but we’re not gonna spin our wheels” on big name prospects who would never consider Southern Miss over an SEC school, he said.

So Southern Miss has to look where other teams don’t, in those extra-rural places in what’s already a rural part of the country.

“We make a living on those two-lane highways,” Bower said.

And they have to look at players other schools ignore, for whatever reason.

The most famous example of this is Brett Favre. His hometown, Kiln, Miss., has a population of 2,000, and he went to a tiny high school that no longer exists. His father was his high school coach, but the team rarely passed the ball. When a recruiter went down to scope Favre out in a game, Favre threw only five passes.

“I can’t offer him a scholarship after seeing him throw five passes,” the recruiter said.

“Ok, come back next week,” said Irvin Favre. “We’ll throw more.”

The next week, the recruiter came back, and watched Favre threw a grand total of eight passes. Nonetheless, Southern Miss took a flyer on Favre and offered him a scholarship. It was the only school to do so.

Another notable example was Adalius Thomas, who made the Pro Bowl twice in his ten-year NFL career and nearly wrecked the Giants’ final drive in Super Bowl XLII as a member of the Patriots by coming oh-so-close to forcing a fumble on Eli Manning.

When Thomas was a junior in high school in Rockford, Alabama (pop. 428), Southern Miss recruiters watched him play a basketball game. They were so blown away by Thomas’s blend of size, quickness and coordination that they offered him a football scholarship without ever seeing him in pads.

As for Boley, he was a running back and a defensive back at Elkmont High School in a rural part of northern Alabama.

“They may have a McDonalds, it probably has two gas stations and probably a coupl’a red lights,” Tyrone Nix, now the defensive coordinator at the University of Mississippi but formerly a Southern Miss coach, told me over the phone.

Boley was something of a square peg—too small for SEC schools to consider him a linebacker, but not quite quick enough to play defensive back or running back. (Boley was much lighter than the 230 pounds he now weighs.)

So while bigger schools moved on to the next blue-chip recruit with more conventional size and speed attributes, Southern Miss spotted a potentially undervalued commodity. Southern Miss and Alabama A&M were the only schools to offer Boley a scholarship.

“We always want to improve our athletic ability, so we try to project guys who could become bigger than they are,” said Bower.

Boley originally wanted to play running back, but the coaching staff convinced him that his future was at linebacker. He blossomed in that role, earning All-Conference honors his final three seasons and the conference’s Defensive MVP award his senior year. But when the NFL draft rolled around, pro scouts held similar prejudices against him as the college recruiters: He lacked ideal size for an NFL linebacker, and he came from a relatively small program. The Atlanta Falcons drafted him in the fifth round in 2005, which is low considering his college production.

Soon, however, the NFL learned what Bower spotted a long time ago.

“This game doesn’t come easy to a lot of guys,” he said. “But Mike picks things up really fast, he picks up schemes fast. He has good football savvy and good instincts.”