The incidental masterpiece of Giants general manager Jerry Reese

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Jerry Reese and the product of his labors. (nfl.com)
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For much of the Giants' regular season, general manager Jerry Reese watched many of his best-laid plans turn into worst-case scenarios. Unit after unit —from the secondary, to the offensive line, to the running backs—failed to meet expectations and justify Reese’s investment.

While Murphy’s Law was visiting the parts of the roster that were supposed to be good, the Giants were kept afloat by a handful of otherworldly performances nobody could have predicted. There was Eli Manning’s transformation, in his eighth year, from a pretty good quarterback to an MVP-caliber one. There was Victor Cruz’s emergence from a no-name undrafted free agent in 2010 into the franchise-record-holder for receiving yards in a season. There was the superstar play of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who everyone thought would be good, but not this good, this soon. There was Jake Ballard, another undrafted free-agent afterthought who turned into a reliable starter at tight end.

Plan A might not have initially worked out, but everything else did. Call that “luck,” and credit it for helping the Giants survive a roller-coaster regular season in which they've finally come together into a team very much like the one Jerry Reese imagined all along.

Of course, there were many reasons the Giants were one better-thrown Tony Romo pass away from being out of the playoffs altogether, and heading into an offseason of painful reckoning which might have already cost coach Tom Coughlin his job and surely would have spawned discussions about Reese being "on the hot seat.”

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Injuries were the obvious one. The Giants' starters missed a combined 68 games to injury, by far the most in the N.F.C. East and sixth-most in the N.F.L. The team’s murderous schedule—during which they played the teams with the four best records in the league—was another.

But what looked all year, to all the world, like a series of poor roster decisions by Reese was a big factor as well. Had a couple of things gone differently, Giants fans would be harping on different units of the team that failed rather than psyching themselves up over safety Antrel Rolle’s latest rallying cries.

Take the offensive line, which was revamped this year with two new starters, and proceeded to plunge from the league’s 7th-best yards-per-carry average in 2010 to the league’s worst this year, at 3.5, compared to a league average of 4.3.

One new starter, center David Baas, the recipient of a decent-sized $11.5 guaranteed free-agent deal before this year, was particularly disappointing, ranking 25th of all starting centers in the Pro Football Focus play-by-play rankings. It wasn’t until Baas and Will Beatty, the other first-time starter at left tackle, were lost to injury that the running game got rolling. Through the first 11 games, they averaged 3.2 yards per carry. Beatty went down with a season-ending injury in the season’s tenth game, and Baas missed several games starting with the eleventh game, forcing the Giants to reshuffle their line. Since then, they have averaged a more respectable 4.3.

Of course, some of the blame for the running game’s struggles falls on the running backs themselves. In assembling this group, Reese bucked the truism of roster-building wisdom, which states that veteran backs who command substantial money are not worth the investment given the surplus of capable, inexpensive solutions to be found in the draft.

Until about a month ago, this looked like a big mistake. After an outstanding 2008 season, Brandon Jacobs signed a four-year, $25 million contract, and has since then proceeded to have a bad year (3.7 yards per carry), a great year (5.6), and then another bad year (3.8). Ahmad Bradshaw, who the team signed to a contract containing $9 million guaranteed, rushed for 3.9 yards.

But the Giants’ bigger problems this year were on the other side of the ball. Their defense was bad any way you look at it, allowing the league’s 8th-highest average points per game and the 11th-most yards per play. They were poor both against the run, allowing the 10th-most yards per attempt, and pass (12th, factoring in sacks as negative yardage).

True, the defensive backfield had to absorb the loss of Terrell Thomas, the team’s best cornerback in 2010. But they were still left with four players Reese had made substantial investments in: Corey Webster, a former second round draft pick the team retained by signing him to a large contract in 2008; Aaron Ross, a first round pick in 2007; Antrel Rolle, a free agent signee who received $15 million in guaranteed money before the 2010 season; and Kenny Phillips, a first rounder in 2009.

Some players performed better than others—Webster allowed passers who threw in his direction a 71.6 rating, while Ross allowed a 102.8. Either way, it was a disappointing regular season for this group as a whole.

Much of the blame for the poor pass defense belonged to the linebackers, a position group in which the Giants have deliberately under-invested during the tenures of both Reese and his predecessor, Ernie Accorsi.

“The N.F.L. is a passing league,” the latest conventional wisdom cliché goes. To that end, the Giants have focused their resources on defensive backs who can cover receivers and linemen who can rush the quarterback.

This strategy left the Giants thin at linebacker this year, especially after Jonathan Goff, a solid presumptive starter, got injured during training camp. For much of the year, Michael Boley was the only experienced linebacker on the field. Mathias Kiwanuka, a converted defensive end who entered the season having started fewer than 16 games at linebacker, manned another spot, while the third linebacker spot was filled with unheralded rookies.

When Boley got injured late in the season, forcing the stable of rookies to assume a more prominent role, the Giants promptly were exploited in the middle zones of the field during two consecutive losses, to Philadelphia and New Orleans. The answer to the Giants' problems came from an unlikely source: Chase Blackburn, a veteran who had been cut in training camp and, fortunately for the Giants, hadn’t received a single offer from any other team since. The Giants lured him away from a middle-school teaching job in Ohio for the twelfth game of the season, and Blackburn has combined with Boley’s return to health to stabilize the position.

So the Giants’ body of work during the 16-game regular season was mediocre by any definition. Any claim that the team’s 9-7 record was commendable given their difficult schedule is undermined by the fact that they were outscored on the season by their opponents by six points.

They were the only team in 2011 to post a winning record while being outscored, while two teams—Seattle and Miami—had losing records despite outscoring their opponents. If the Giants win on Sunday, they’ll become the only team ever to be outscored and still make the Super Bowl.

But if there’s ever to be a team to become one of football history’s great anomalies, it’s these Giants. Even as these units played poorly, there was still the sense among Giants fans that they weren’t actually a bad team. The discrepancy between what the Giants were and how they were playing was illustrated by their inconsistency. They started off 6-2 before dropping their next four games to move to 6-6. They are 5-1 since then. They were a team capable of beating elite New England on the road and losing to lowly Washington at home.

But the Giants have finally hit their stride. The running game, which had been inching closer to respectability as the regular season wound down, broke out for 172 yards in the first playoff game against Atlanta for an average of 5.5 yards per carry (albeit before backsliding to a 3.5 average against Green Bay).  

Defensively, after a ghastly three-game stretch in the second half of the season against New Orleans, Green Bay, and Dallas, in which they gave up an average of 346 yards passing, the Giants have given up 216 yards over their past five games, a little better than the league average of 230.

It took nearly all season, and it also took some things to break their way. They needed Eli Manning to lead the league with six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter. They needed Cruz to turn around the momentum in the second-to-last game of the regular season against the Jets by somehow catching a short pass and breaking it for an astounding 99-yard touchdown. They needed Pierre-Paul to play one of the greatest games ever by a Giants defender to lead the team to a late-season win against Dallas, when a loss meant elimination. And they needed Ballard to reprise Super Bowl XLII hero David Tyree as the latest Giant who wears number 85 to make an improbable catch to extend a game-winning drive against New England.

If all of those things didn’t happen, the Giants wouldn’t be here. But they did. Now, nobody wants to play the team that Jerry Reese built.