What’s a middle linebacker? And other questions to be answered by the Giants

Chase Blackburn. (nfl.com)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

A weekly column about what the Giants are doing when they're not playing football.

It's still anyone's guess what the Giants' linebacking corps will look like this season. 

Chase Blackburn is penciled in as the starting middle linebacker at the moment, but defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said Keith Rivers, Greg Jones and Mark Herzlich will compete for the position. Earlier in the offseason, general manager Jerry Reese mentioned Michael Boley, which basically means that every linebacker other than Mathias Kiwanuka and Jacquian Williams is a candidate for the job.

Fewell said that the middle linebacker in particular “is going to be an area of emphasis for us this year. I sense that we are going to put it up for grabs. Whoever can take the bull by the horns and lead us will have the opportunity to step up and play.”

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Last year, the Giants deployed three linebackers on only 44 percent of their plays, according to these game-charting stats by Pro Football Focus.

That's because the Giants’ “base” defense last year was actually the nickel package. The Giants used five defensive backs 68 percent of the time, which was the most in the league. (On average, N.F.L. teams used the nickel 40 percent of the time.) Counting the 10 percent of the time the Giants were in the dime package, they had at least five defensive backs on the field 78 percent of the time, compared to 53 percent for the league as a whole.

Some of this might be a little misleading: Usually, the Giants’ fifth defensive back was Deon Grant, who played 80 percent of defensive snaps, in a safety/linebacker hybrid position.

It will be fascinating to see where the Giants go with this. Passing numbers in the league continue to climb—teams averaged 229.7 yards last year, compared to 204.8 in 2006—and defenses are adapting in kind.

Fewell alluded to the uncertainty at linebacker, saying, “A lot of these teams are one-back spread teams and they throw the ball all over the place. We talk in terms of being a two-down MIKE [middle linebacker] and then having a third-down middle linebacker. But what is a two-down MIKE? So we might have to redefine that a little bit as we continue to evaluate what offenses are doing in the National Football League.”

So there you have it: The role of middle linebacker, one of the game’s iconic positions, is in the process of being redefined, and Giants are helping to redefine it.

ON A RELATED NOTE, A THOUGHT ON MATHIAS KIWANUKA'S three-year contract extension for $11 million guaranteed, which he signed late last month:

Kiwanuka, as the team’s nominal starting strongside linebacker, played on only 33 percent of the snaps during the playoffs last year. Instead, most of the Giants playoff linebacker snaps went to Michael Boley (100 percent) and Chase Blackburn (66), with some going to Jacquian Williams (30).

The takeaway here is obvious: The Giants didn’t give Kiwanuka $11 million to play linebacker one third of the time, meaning that much of his future value is likely at defensive end. This, in turn, basically confirms that if things don’t change drastically in the next few months, Osi Umenyiora isn’t getting that long-term contract offer he’s been after.

I’ve written before about the importance of the Giants’ third defensive end, and how it’s inaccurate to characterize it as a backup position. During last year’s playoffs, Umenyiora, as the nominal third defensive end, received 63 percent of the snaps. Justin Tuck, the starter, received 65 percent. Jason Pierre-Paul received 88 percent and Dave Tollefson received 23 percent.

In other words, the third defensive end is a more important position than whatever Kiwanuka’s linebacker role had been reduced to by the end of last season.

SPEAKING OF OSI, YOU MIGHT HAVE HEARD THAT that he wished his Eagles nemisis LeSean McCoy a happy Mothers Day via Twitter, thereby reiterating his previously-stated contention that McCoy--who Umenyiora had called “Lady Gaga,” and referred to as “she”--is actually a female.

This made for good click-bait, but few of the people who picked it up mentioned the casually misogynystic nature of the insult.

A noteworthy exception was Sarah Spain at ESPN.com, who wrote, “Replace ‘woman’ with race, religion, or sexual orientation and the reaction would be far different.”

Umenyiora saw Spain’s column, and, to his credit, unconditionally apologized, also via Twitter: “@SarahSpain is absolutely correct in her article. I wasn’t thinking about it from that perspective. I apologize to any woman offended. It won’t happen again.”

When a Twitter follower tried to buddy up to Umenyiora by saying that it was “unfortunate” that someone can’t just make a joke these days, he reiterated his apology: “You have to look at things from other people’s perspective sometimes. A joke to me and you might actually offend others.”

Umenyiora gets a bad rap in some quarters because of his contract squabbles the past several years, but he’s always had an appealing thoughtfulness to him that stands out in a sports-media culture dominated by cynicism and mistrust at one pole and pure silliness at the other.

How many other athletes would, say, write a cogent email to the Daily News explaining their side of a contract dispute? Or, after a big win in late 2009 during a game in which he didn’t start due to poor performance, admit that the dishonor was “extremely painful, because I am a man with tremendous pride,” and then say, “I realized I’m alive, I’m making a great living and I get to still go out there and play football.”

Back to the Mothers Day tweets: This seems like a significant moment, culturally. Comment threads are already filling up with laments on this “PC-on-steroids, whacked-out-country,” but good for Umenyiora for apologizing sincerely, and going above and beyond the half-assed “I’m sorry to anyone who may have been offended by the way my comments were interpreted” template.

Maybe soon there will be a commercial featuring football players trash-talking each other, but when one of them says, “You can’t run it up in here, bitch!” a ref's whistle blows, and the amateur trash-talker is admonished by the pros for being offensive and uncreative.

Fittingly, what touched off the feud was trash-talking on the field, during which McCoy, according to Osi, referred to him as an “African fuck.”

But what really escalated it was McCoy’s tweet--which linked to news of Umenyiora’s affidavit against Jerry Reese which was part of a lawsuit against N.F.L. owners--that said Umenyiora was “overrated n soft.”

The episode, at least until Umenyiora's apology, seemed to reinforce the age-old moral code in sports: Racism and misogyny and pretty much everything else is cool, but meddling with another player’s contract crosses the line.

HERE'S THE GIANTS' CHAMPIONSHIP RING.

I don’t have much of an eye for the aesthetics of commemorative jewelry, but I prefer this one to the Super Bowl XLII version solely because of the blue accent. In reinstating the blue to the ring after the white-gold XLII version, the Giants returned to the style of their previous two championship rings, in 1986 and 1990.

Inscribed on the inside of the ring are the Giants’ two rallying cries for the season, “All In,” and “Finish.” It’s a nice memento of an era defined by Tom Coughlin’s blunt version of eloquence. The ring will go nicely with those “Talk is cheap. Play the game” t-shirts.

One cavil: The practice of spotlighting the total number of titles the franchise has won. That would be fine for one of the side panels, but having it front and center shifts the emphasis to the history of the franchise from the specialness of the championship year itself.

As impressive as the Giants four Super Bowl titles are, they’re not so impressive next to, say, the six titles the Pittsburgh Steelers have won. Why even invite this historical pissing contest? The beauty of championships is that each is self-contained within that one season.

Also, this practice deflects glory from the players, focusing it instead on the organization, which essentially means “ownership.” What does Jason Pierre-Paul care that the Giants won the Super Bowl in January of 1987, two years before he was born? The credit and attention should go to the players on the field.

SAD BUT EVIDENTLY TRUE: LAWRENCE TAYLOR IS AUCTIONING off his Super Bowl XXV ring. Its value is estimated between $75,000 and $100,000.

Commenter jcn56 on the Big Blue Interactive Giants message board put it best: “Even if I could afford it, I don’t think I could own LT’s SB ring. Just something wrong about that, karma-wise, if you ask me.”

ALSO SAD BUT TRUE: CHAD JONES WAS RELEASED this week. This is obviously a bummer, but it’s hard to argue with Dr. Scott Rodeo, a team doctor:

“He has made a remarkable recovery to date. However, at this time he has residual sensory loss, muscle weakness, and tenuous soft tissue coverage in the involved lower leg. The resultant functional impairment precludes his ability to perform physically at the level required for professional football.”

Here’s hoping we haven’t heard the last of Chad Jones.

THREE THINGS THAT EVERY FAN BASE, reasonably or not, generally assumes about their team:

1) They have a really hard schedule in the coming season.

True for the Giants. In fact, they have the hardest schedule in the league based on 2011 winning percentage. Their opponents had a combined winning percentage last year of .547, which translates to 8.75 wins per team.

2) They play in the toughest division in the league.

Also true for the Giants. According to this ranking recently published by the Sporting News, which were based on a formula that includes several factors, “the NFC East has been far and away the toughest division in the NFL over the past five years.”

In both record and point differential against non-divisional opponents and winning percentage in playoff games, the NFC East stands alone on top. In the number of conference champions and the number of Super Bowl champions, the NFC East, thanks to the Giants, is tied with some other divisions.

3) They were hit hard by injuries last year.

Once again, true for the Giants. According to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost metric, which counts games lost to injures, “doubtful” and “questionable” listings, and adjusts for the importance of the injured players so that losing a reserve is weighted less than losing a starter, the Giants were the seventh most injury-addled team last year.

This conforms to the narrative surrounding the Giants during last preseason and at several points during the season, but one that was subsumed and all but forgotten about by the larger and completely unexpected narrative of their championship run.

But had Tony Romo hit Miles Austin in stride, it’s likely Giants fans would be pinning their optimism on having better luck with injuries than last year. They’d also maybe be talking about the new coaching staff.

Another noteworthy aspect of these Adjusted Games Lost stats: The Eagles were the second-healthiest team in the league last year, which runs counter to the notion that last year was a freak Murphy’s Law season for them from which they’ll surely bounce back strong.