12:50 pm Nov. 26, 2012
One of the pleasures of arriving early to a Giants game is observing Tom Coughlin's ritual of shaking hands with all 46 players who dress.
If you were new to football and completely ignorant of the hagiography surrounding Coughlin and his old-school brand of nobility, you could pretty much infer everything you need to know from watching this.
First, the shake itself: Up-and-down, formal, fundamental, clipped. Coughlin hasn’t capitulated to the pound-hug, because he’s an old white dude and he’s not ashamed to admit it. He’s also not one to get in between a player’s ears with some specially crafted morsel of mindfuck motivation. It's just a handshake from one professional to another: Good luck to you out there, young man.
There's also the angle of his elbow, which Giants fans will fondly recognize as the signature angle of his encouraging but spastic sideline claps. Coughlin is a relic from an era where looking cool and being involved in sports had little to do with each other.
Second, it's significant that every player gets the same handshake. Egalitarianism is a tenet of Coughlin’s moral philosophy. Even during his Camp Coughlin days in Jacksonville, before his current gruff-but-decent image took hold, he was an equal-opportunity screaming sadist who made the stars as miserable as the scrubs. Last night, Eli Manning got roughly the same handshake as Spencer Paysinger.
To be an aging running back is to confront the reality that everything, from the holes you run through to your window of effectiveness as a player, is rapidly closing.
Lately everything has been a struggle, every inch of the field to be bitten and scratched for urgently as if your professional survival depends on it, because it does. Two weeks ago in Cincinnati, during one of those frantic scrums, you resorted to old habits and fought with your hands, thus neglecting the ball. This was a problem at the beginning of your career; will it hasten the end?
Your team loses two dispiriting games, and the running game, after some earlier promise, is a game-to-game proposition. Maybe, fans wonder, it’s time to go with the younger guys. One younger guy is averaging nearly a full yard per carry more than you. The other younger guy chases down rabbits in Virginia, and makes you look creaky and ponderous by comparison. Maybe the holes won’t close in as quickly around these guys as they do around you.
Then you get a week off, and then some chilly weather blows in. Then, on your fourth play in Chapter 2 of the season, the field suddenly looks huge, an expanse of shimmering plastic grass.
You hurdle a guy, get a downfield block from Hynoski, and you hit speed-burst at precisely the right time. It’s not as fast as it used to be, but you still know when to press it. You’re flying now, but you don’t get as much lift from your legs as you used to, so you’re running with your upper body more than ever. Fifty-nine yards later, you get caught from behind, at the 2. No cigar but close enough. Tonight, things look open.
After the game there’s a pack of reporters pinning you against your locker. You just averaged 5.8 yards per carry. One of the guys behind you on the depth chart broke his leg, and won’t be back for awhile. The team will ride or collapse on your beat-up feet.
But you’re not in the mood to stand there and wax self-congratulatory. You’re betraying your impatience with the rapid-fire banal questions by bobbing back and forth, like an Orthodox man davening in a shul. Constant motion is the key; for the aging running back, it’s move forward or die.
About that screen pass, which went a long way toward immediately alleviating the sneaking fear among Giants fans that the rest of the team’s games would be ugly slogs in which the offense appeared to be playing under water, you praise the offensive coordinator:
“It was just a great call. We usually run screens on third downs,” you say of the second-down play. “And with the fake draw, reverse – it was just a great call.”
A few more questions come in. Enough. It’s midnight already.
You recite some lines in response to the question, “How big of a win for you guys was this?” Then you don’t allow a moment’s pause for another question before saying, “I’m outta here.”
It’s abrupt but not quite rude. The reporters part for you, and you stride out of the locker room untouched.
The losing streak, the absurd tired arm debate, the return of the absurder elite debate. Maybe it all conspired in that glorious moment ten minutes into the game, when Eli surprised everyone by eschewing his customary slide and bucking Tramon Williams.
The last time I can recall him not sliding was that disastrous indecisive head-first dive in Philadelphia in 2010, which resulted in a fumble that clinched the game for the Eagles. There was no indecision here: Eli dished that shit out, eliciting uproarious delight from the crowd, a nervous clap from Coughlin, and even an appreciative head-slap from Williams himself.
Eli being Eli, his explanation after the Giants' 38-10 thrashing of the Packers was ho-hum and informational.
“It’s kind of one of those circumstances where if I slide, I wasn’t sure if I had enough yardage for the first down, and the new rule that if you do slide, it’s from where you start the slide,” he said at the press conference podium.
Instead, leave it to Justin Tuck, that grumpy ambassador and crafter of press-friendly nuggets, to describe the real significance of the play.
“It just lets you know how much he wants to win this game," Tuck said. "He was able to go that extra mile to get that first down. It really energized not only this team, it energized the crowd. It really was something that showed where our mindset was throughout this night.”
That scramble set up Rueben Randle’s touchdown reception, also on third down, which gave the Giants a 14-7 lead and put them up for good, it turned out.
It was a straightforward pitch-and-catch against a quarters coverage. Randle told me afterward that the Giants had schemed for this coverage in the red zone because the Packers use it frequently.
On the play, tight end Martellus Bennett was on Randle’s side, and came straight up the field to draw the attention of the safety on that side before stemming his route. This freed up Randle in one-on-one coverage against cornerback Davon House. Randle ran a post pattern, got plenty of separation, and snagged one of Eli’s patented well-placed wobbly ducks.
“[House] was head up, man-technique. Beat him at the line of scrimmage with kind of an inside release,” Randle told me at his locker.
“It’s kinda stemming out a little bit: Jump outside, then kinda give him the move,” he said, doing for my benefit a dynamic shoulder swirl.
“And Eli placed the ball high so I could go make a play on it.”
“I don’t think we rattled him, we just hit him,” Chris Canty told reporters at his locker, speaking of the effect of the pass rush on Aaron Rodgers. “Everybody’s got a plan until they get hit.”
In the case of Canty’s biggest play of the night, the word “hit” is an overstatement. On a 3rd and 3 play midway through the first quarter, Rodgers had a clear path to run for a first down, but was unexpectedly cut down from behind when Canty “flipped just enough of his heel to get him to fall.”
That sack came with the game tied 7-7, when a first down would have given the Packers a small degree of control over the game. According to the win probability graphs of AdvancedNFLStats.com, Canty’s heel sack increased the Giants’ chances of winning from 40 percent to 50 percent. Mason Crosby’s ensuing missed 55-yard field goal increased their chances to 56 percent. Randle’s touchdown followed on the next drive.
Canty’s mother is an ordained United Methodist minister, and Chris, who grew up in the Eastchester section of the Bronx until he moved to Charlotte at 12, has some of that motivational speaker in him.
How’s this for firing up his Giants teammates, as well as Giants fans:
“It’s kind of a familiar feeling. It’s a familiar place for our football team. I think guys are recognizing the opportunity that’s in front of us. I can’t emphasize enough that going into the second season, this is a six-game season. That’s not that long to commit yourselves to what we’re trying to accomplish. We can go all in, and then after that we’ll see what happens.”
Indeed, it all came back last night: “All in.” Thumping the Packers. Pushing around the defense in the running game. Eli returning to form. Most importantly, the pass rush coming to life, with five sacks and seven additional hits.
The Giants’ peculiar quality of being equally capable of blowing out the Packers as being blown out by the Bengals is mirrored by the fickle nature of their pass rush. You’re never surprised when it dominates, and you’re never surprised when it no-shows. It’s not the best pass rush in the league, but it’s the most dangerous.
No player illustrates this unpredictable vascilation between dormancy and brilliance more than Osi Umenyiora. He’s a “game changer,” everyone said about the strip-sack artist last year. But he hadn’t changed many games this year.
Until last night. It’s easy to forget that when the Packers took possession with 1:50 remaining in the first half, things were a bit more precarious than the 24-10 score let on. The Packers had the ball, and because their worst-case-scenario-laden night on offense hadn’t taken shape, it seemed likely that they would drive for some sort of score to close out the half. After that, they’d get the ball back to start the second half, which meant that it was possible for the Giants’ to lose their lead before the offense had a chance to do anything about it.
But then, after the Packers converted a first down, a signature job by Osi: The stance several yards wide of the tackle, the quick acceleration upfield to the outside, the stadium crescendo as everyone realizes what’s about to happen, the preternatural hand-eye coordination to knock the ball out of the quarterback’s hand, the odd, Jets-like “Flight Boy” celebration, which strangely underscores the somewhat odd fit this finesse player has in the pantheon of all-time Giants greats.
It’s no coincidence that Jason Pierre-Paul scooped up the ball either: Justin Tuck was actually better positioned in the scrum, but JPP just gets from Point A to Point B with more alacrity than anyone these days.
The strip sack set up an Ahmad Bradshaw touchdown. It was so easy that it yielded just a muted hop-spike, a far cry from Bradshaw’s usual 360-degree angry jump-spike.
After the game, Osi was nowhere to be found in the locker room. He’s as temperamental off the field as he is on it, disappearing from the press for months but then emerging unexpectedly for an emotional pronouncement or a swipe at LeSean McCoy.
JPP is more consistent. On the field, he’s pretty much always great. Off it, he’s pretty much always gregarious.
What enabled the Giants to get to Rodgers, he was asked?
“Just came out here and pass rush, man. Just pass rush and do what we do best.”
It seems so straightforward, and it is: For the Giants defense to be great, they just need to do what they do best.
More by this author:
- Gary Cohen, the anti-Michael Kay, also broadcasts during his time off
- Blue blood: The harsh logic behind the cutting of Bradshaw, Canty and Boley