Kevin Boothe may not look like a prize athlete, but the Giants were right to treat him like one

Kevin Boothe, seated. (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 Kevin Boothe, who played offensive guard in the Giants’ 31-14 win yesterday over the Dallas Cowboys.

When Giants general manager Jerry Reese told reporters this preseason that re-signing Kevin Boothe was “a priority,” Giants fans laughed, or worse.

In fact, they had pretty much laughed at Boothe from the moment they laid eyes on him. He would sub in for a play or a series, and they’d notice his most distinctive feature: His rear end. There’s no other way to say this: Boothe’s derriere is big, somewhat unconventionally shaped, and jiggly. The physiques of linemen often stretch our conception of the word “athlete.” But Boothe is in a class by himself.

Plus, he wasn’t a very good player. Pronouncements about his versatility were undermined by the fact that he wasn’t a starter. A jack-of-all-trades on the line is a lineman who hasn’t mastered any one position in particular.

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Further undermining the notion that Boothe was an elite professional athlete was the fact that he went to Cornell. (He was a member of the Quill and Dagger Society, which is sort of Cornell's unassuming answer to Yale’s Skull and Bones.) While this evidently correlates to Boothe’s aptitude in learning the different positions along the line he’s had to play, it also added to the impression that he is a normal guy who just happens to weigh enough to hold his own on the football field.

So learning that the Giants had made an off-season priority of Kevin Boothe, of all people, was yet another blow to the confidence of a fan base that came into 2011 with its lowest expectations in years. The Giants had lost several key players to free agency while signing only one starting-caliber player, in center David Baas. Steve Smith, the franchise’s single-season reception leader, was lost to free agency. So was Barry Cofield, a longtime anchor of the run defense. So was Kevin Boss, a yeoman tight end and one of Eli Manning’s favorite targets in the red zone.

All the while, Jerry Reese preached the virtues of continuity: That good organizations prioritize keeping players who fit into their system rather than throwing money at big names from other teams. But trumpeting the retention of Boothe seemed like taking this notion a little too far.

But Boothe has been a godsend. Filling in for various injured players, he has played in three-quarters of the Giants’ snaps this year at three positions along the line. After the Giants were forced to reshuffle a starting offensive unit that had been a disaster for the first eleven games of the season, Boothe's regular presence has helped them improve to at least a passable level.

Through their first 11 games, the Giants averaged a ghastly 3.2 yards per carry. In their last five, they averaged 4.0, much closer to the league average of 4.3.

The offensive line was an unsung hero in the first half of last night’s game, during which the Giants rolled up a 21-0 lead that stood up the rest of the way. It was the offensive line that kept Eli Manning untroubled by the Cowboys' complicated blitz packages, enabling him to complete 15 of 20 passes for 199 yards in that half.

Before the season, right around the time he was saying that re-signing Boothe was a priority, Reese defiantly gave reporters a un-Giant-like quasi-guarantee that the team he assembled would make the playoffs.

“If we made a couple of plays here and there, we would have been in the playoffs and who knows what would have happened if that happened. It didn’t happen,” he said of the 2010 season. “So we’ll make the plays this time and get in the playoffs and make a run.”

Thanks in part to Boothe, the Giants are in a position to do just that for the first time in three years. Seriously.