Off-season Giants: Parcells, passing up the Saints job, always said he’d need less as he got older

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Parcells talks at Simms. (nfl.com)
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A weekly column about what the Giants and Jets are doing when they're not playing football.

When word first spread that Bill Parcells was considering returning to the N.F.L. to coach the Saints, I kept going back to a passage from Michael Lewis’s insightful 2006 profile, from when Parcells coached the Cowboys.

“As you get older,” Parcells tells Lewis toward the end of the article, “your needs diminish. They don’t increase. They diminish. I need less money. I need less sex. But this - this - doesn’t change.”

Lewis takes it from here:

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What this is, he can’t – or won’t – specify. But when your life has been defined by the pressure of competition and your response to it, there’s a feeling you get, and it’s hard to shake. You wake up each morning knowing the next game is all that matters. If you fail in it, nothing you’ve done with your life counts. By your very nature you always have to start all over again, fresh. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but it’s nonetheless addictive. Even if you have millions in the bank and everyone around you tells you that you’re a success, you seek out that uncomfortable place.

Parcells was 65 when the story was written, and now he’s 71. I know most explanations for why he didn’t return centered on his Hall of Fame candidacy: Parcells didn’t get elected on his first year on the ballot last year but is expected to make it one of these next several years, and returning to the field would have set back his clock for five additional years. For a man who cited health problems when he quit the Giants two decades ago, returning to coach would mean there was no guarantee he’d be around for the honor.

But perhaps it has to do with what Parcells was talking about: his needs’ diminishing over time. He’s always been endlessly fascinated by the idea of competition and pressure: “That’s the only thing any of us really responds to,” he once told the Harvard Business Review. But maybe now, even that has subsided with age. Maybe the boxing gyms he goes to in Jersey City and his horses in Saratoga are enough to scratch that itch.

THE GIANTS ARE RETURNING THE CORE OF A TEAM THAT just won the Super Bowl. As of the end of last month, they only had around $3.5 million in salary cap space. So their offseason has been quiet, as expected.

But on Wednesday, their general manager Jerry Reese made several low-risk moves, acquiring linebacker Keith Rivers, offensive tackle Sean Locklear and cornerback Antwaun Molden.

The trade of a fifth-round pick for Rivers, 26, was the most high-profile move. Rivers was the ninth overall pick in the 2008 draft, and by 2010 had blossomed into one of the better linebackers in the league: That year, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the ninth-best outside linebacker in 4-3 schemes.

But he missed all of last year with a wrist injury that was rumored to be degenerative—he disputed this—and has not once played a full 16-game season. The most well-known of his various injuries was the broken jaw he suffered when Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward sent him airborne with a block, a play that subsequently led to a rule-change prohibiting blockers from launching themselves at unsuspecting defenders.

Rivers is a weakside linebacker by trade, which leaves the Giants with three key players whose best position is weakside linebacker: Michael Boley, Jacquian Williams, and Rivers. Earlier this offseason, Reese floated the idea that Boley could be moved to middle linebacker, and rumors of that picked up steam after the Rivers acquisition.

While Boley, listed at 230 pounds, doesn’t fit the classic image of a boxy, run-stuffing middle linebacker, such players are no longer in demand in the pass-centric N.F.L. Also important with regard to the composition of the linebackers is that the Giants are in their base 4-3 defense package less than half the time. More often, they use nickel and dime packages designed to stop the pass, in which Boley mans one of two linebacker spots.

How much Rivers plays and which linebacker plays where are open question now; the Giants still have Mathias Kiwanuka penciled in at strongside, and still have Mark Herzlich and Greg Jones, who both showed some degree of promise as rookies last year. What’s most likely is that Reese and the coaches don’t have the answer to these questions themselves. They’ll try a bunch of combinations in training camp, and, as always in football, let performance and injuries decide the rest.

The important thing about this move is that Reese proactively acquired a player with significant upside, thus adding depth to a position whose thinness threatened to derail the season last year. It was only after the Giants dipped into the ranks of aspiring Ohio middle school teachers and re-acquired Chase Blackburn 11 games into the season that the linebacking corps was stabilized.

Also credit Reese also for making the moves within the narrow parameters of the Giants salary cap situation: Rivers is scheduled to make $2.16 million next year, although the latest reports say he and the Giants restructured his contract.

LIKE THE RIVERS TRADE, WEDNESDAY'S SIGNING of offensive tackle Sean Locklear—for 1 year and less than $1 million—provides another serviceable body to another positional group whose composition is an open question.

According to the Pro Football Focus rankings, Locklear had an outstanding 2010 with the Seattle Seahawks, ranking as the third-best pass blocker at tackle, ahead of such luminaries as D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Joe Thomas. But last year, Locklear played poorly at both right tackle and left tackle as a member of the Washington Redskins, allowing four sacks and twelve pressures in roughly the equivalent of five full games.

He’ll be 31 when this season starts, so it’s reasonable to wonder whether Locklear is experiencing the same precipitous age-related decline suffered last year by Kareem McKenzie, the incumbent right tackle who the Giants declined to re-up this offseason.

The Giants have expressed interest in having second-year man James Brewer take McKenzie’s spot. What the Locklear acquisition does is provide insurance and competition at both tackle positions, the other of which is expected to be manned by Will Beatty, who had a so-so first season as a starter last year before he was lost to injury after 10 games.

The move will also enable David Diehl, who switched back to left tackle from left guard last year, to move back to a position for which his massive fire hydrant frame is more physiologically suited.

THE LAST OF WEDNESDAY'S MOVES WAS THE SIGNING OF CORNERBACK Antwaun Molden.

The signing provides some illusory comfort because Giants fans recognize Molden’s name, and in general, football players that you’ve heard of tend to be better than those you haven’t.

You’ve probably heard of Molden, for two reasons: First, his name rhymes—twice!—with that of Anquan Boldin, the longtime stellar wide receiver, so it therefore sticks in the head. Second, he was one of the several overstretched cornerbacks Bill Bellichick trotted out last year, frequently on national television, to populate a pass defense that allowed the league’s fourth-most net yards per attempt (and was third-worst in the FootballOutsiders DVOA rankings).

Molden’s a semi-adequate N.F.L. player at best and a bad one at worst. The Patriots were only able to pick him up last year after he had been cut in training camp in the Houston Texans, who made a third-round investment on him in 2008 that he never justified.

Last year, Molden allowed quarterbacks who threw in his direction an average passer rating of 94.7, compared to the league-wide rating of 82.5. A particular lowlight was the Super Bowl, during which he allowed five completions on five balls thrown his way.

Included among these was a 14-yard slant to Hakeem Nicks on the Giants final drive, which turned a 2nd and 8 from the Patriots’ 34-yard-line into a 1st down from the 18 (at the 3:45 mark here). According to the win probability graphs of AdvancedNFLStats.com, this play increased the Giants’ chances of winning from 65 to 80 percent. In other words, it was the moment Giants fans went from thinking their team probably should win to thinking they would almost definitely win.

On the bright side, Molden had nine tackles on special teams last year and is known as a solid contributor in that area.

APPARENTLY JAKE BALLARD, THE TIGHT END WHO CAME out of nowhere and did yeoman work for much of last season, not only tore his ACL in the Super Bowl, but also tore cartilage.

Previously, most thought the ACL was the extent of his injury, but Jeff Roberts of the Bergen Record reports that he underwent both ACL surgery and the dreaded microfracture surgery, in which doctors drill holes into the kneecap and transplant stem cells in the hopes of spurring the growth of new cartilage.

The list of athletes whose careers have been derailed by microfracture is long and distinguished, but success rates have improved in the past decade since the operation’s early big name casualties like Penny Hardaway, Alan Houston, and Tracy McGrady. Still, for every Amar’e Stoudemire or Marques Colston—players who seemingly have fully recovered—there’s a Steve Smith, another Giant who blossomed into a better-than-expected receiver only to see stardom snatched away by the surgery.

The sad thing about Ballard’s situation is that he thinks he tore the cartilage during an infamously gruesome sideline incident, captured on television, in which he tried to run on his injured knee and collapsed in a heap of agony. Apparently the Giants medical staff initially misdiagnosed Ballard’s injury as a torn meniscus, which would have left the slight possibility that he could play through it. But because it was the ACL, which stabilizes the joint, Ballard’s knee completely collapsed on itself once he tried putting weight on it.

“My knee just collapsed,” Ballard is quoted as saying. “I definitely tore [my ACL] on the field. I’d say [the cartilage damage] probably happened on the sideline from trying to run with no ACL.

“But I don’t regret trying to get back in the game. It’s the biggest game in any football player’s career.”

THE NFL FILMS SUPER BOWL XLVI HIGHLIGHT compilation—the sort that fills up afterhours programming time on ESPN during football season—hit YouTube this week. These things don’t have the singular grip on mythmaking that they once did, what with the riches of highlights to be found on the internet. But for any fanbase, it’s still an anticipated part of the spoils for winning a Super Bowl.

Giants fans will probably be pretty disappointed in this one, however. The tone seems Patriots-centric, focusing less on the Giants’ glory than the Patriots’ doomed struggle. Perhaps this stems from the fact that Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Vince Wilfork were mic’d up for the Patriots, and they wind up saying more interesting stuff than the Giants’ duo of Victor Cruz and Michael Boley.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments. Among them:

—Justin Tuck’s pregame speech to his teammates (1:10): “How bad do y’all want it today? I got a ring. Chris [Canty], you ain’t got one – you don’t know what it feel like! Rock[y Bernard], you ain’t got one – you don’t know what it feel like! Linval [Joseph], you ain’t got one, you don’t know what it feel like! Baas, you ain’t got one, you don’t know what it feel like!”

—A great shot of Victor Cruz juking Patriots safety James Ihedigbo (6:30) at the line of scrimmage to free himself for his first quarter touchdown catch. It’s one thing to talk about quickness and to see it on television. It’s another to see it like this and picture what Cruz would do to your ankles.

—This is followed by a mic’d up Cruz’s high-pitched convulsions of “Let’s go!” as he leaps his way down the sideline. At around the 6:50 mark, he gets an incredulous look on his face that makes it look like he’s taking it all in and thinking to himself, “I can’t believe this—all of this—is actually happening.”

—A nice montage, set to a swelling score, of course, of the Giants’ defensive line battering Brady and batting down his passes, culminating words of admiration from Brady.

“It’s just they’re so athletic,” he says to teammate Wes Welker. “It’s like throwing in a forest, dude. Those fucking guys’ arms are like…” And then he trails off.

—Belichick’s now famous last words (14:15) on which Giants receivers to cover: “This is still a Cruz and Nicks game,” he tells his defensive backs. “Make ‘em throw to Manningham, make ‘em throw to Pascoe, alright? But let’s make sure we get Cruz and Nicks.”