‘What has happened to us’: The indescribable collapse of the incomprehensible 2012 Giants

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BALTIMORE—This is a day for the Giants and their fans to ask: how.  

How can the Super Bowl champs, the team that not long ago blew out the Packers and Saints, the team that convincingly stayed on message with we-got-this assurances, go out and ruin their season with two straight no-shows?

Of course, these spectacular flameouts are nothing new with the Coughlin-era Giants, whose seasons seem to end with an abject collapse or a Super Bowl ring and nothing in between.

So it’s just as valid to ask the opposite question: How can a team that’s capable of such collapses win two Super Bowls in a five-year period? Are Giants fans cursed with a brilliant team that regularly goes into the tank? Or are they blessed with an good team capable of unforeseen, exquisitely timed stretches of brilliance?

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We'll never quite get a straight answer with the Giants, the poster child for randomness in the N.F.L.

When Tom Coughlin told reporters after yesterday’s 33-14 loss in Baltimore that “What has happened to us over the last couple of weeks is very difficult to explain,” he was half-right: It’s true that there’s no explanation that fits neatly into the pat narratives we like to apply to sports.  The slogan of the Coughlin-era Giants ought to be the one from that old bumper sticker. With this team, shit happens.

Still, reporters pressed for answers in the visitors locker room. It was crowded and dank, with equipment bags and athletic tape and sweaty gear strewn on the floor. It was a foul place, in terms of smell and temperament: The players oozed contempt, directed at themselves for how they played, but also at the schlubby, tape recorder-wielding army of interlopers that would ask them to explain the inexplicable. For their part, reporters’ faces strained for empathy, but mostly conveyed trepidation about confronting these huge men about their failure to amass more points than the other group of huge men.

What was there to ask? What was there to say?

Did the Giants come into the game with sufficient “fire,” Jason Pierre-Paul?

“There was definitely fire, but [the Ravens] threw water on it,” the young defensive end replied, helpfully.

Are these two straight blowout losses more attributable to poor execution or poor effort, Antrel Rolle?

“I think everything goes into play at this particular point in time, especially when you lose games by such huge margins. I’m just kind of at a loss for words right now,” the famously loquacious safety said.

Did winning the Super Bowl last year diminish the Giants’ motivation, Chase Blackburn?

“It’s not a ‘not wanting to.’ It’s not a ‘satisfied.’ It’s a, ‘we didn’t show up,’ but it’s not because we were satisfied from last year. There’s a lot of guys who weren’t here last year,” said the earnest linebacker.

Are you and your teammates angry and confused, Martellus Bennett?

“What do you think?” snapped the idiosyncratic and philosophical tight end, half-mockingly, before humorously cutting to the bone of post-loss interviews. “I mean, how would you feel? However you would feel, that’s how we feel. So, take all that, bottle it, and put it in complete sentences.”

The guy with whom everyone wanted to speak was cornerback Corey Webster, whose nightmarish game stood out even by the standards of his team's day. By my unofficial count, Webster allowed eight completions for 136 yards and two touchdowns on balls throws in his direction.

Webster has had a tough year in coverage, but yesterday was different: Several times, as with Torrey Smith’s 43-yard reception that set up the Ravens’ second touchdown, and Dennis Pitta’s improbable 36-yard reception on a 3rd-and-19 play that helped ice the game for the Ravens, Webster was in good position to make a play. But for whatever reason, maybe because shit happens, he just didn’t.

In a sense, Webster is a microcosm for a team that positioned itself to make a playoff run but didn’t come through when it was time. Throughout his career, Webster’s fortunes have mirrored that of the Giants to a striking degree: His sudden emergence in the 2007 playoff run from a second-round bust into a good corner both coincided and contributed to the Giants’ surprising turnaround from mediocrity to champion. In 2008, he became an elite cornerback, just as the Giants were turning in their only season of undisputed excellence of the Coughlin era. He backslid during the next two years, during a playoffless stretch for his team. Last year he bounced back as a very good corner for the Super Bowl champs.

And this year he has bottomed out. Not even including yesterday’s disaster, he was ranked 65th out of 68 cornerbacks who have played at least half their team’s snaps, according to Pro Football Focus stats. Quarterbacks who have targeted him have amassed a 107.5 quarterback rating.

So reporters wanted an explanation for this awful game, this awful season. Webster wasn’t in the mood; he left the locker room abruptly. The only thing he offered was something that made absolutely no sense. Except, that is, in the context of a team that emerged from a collapse to win the Super Bowl, only to collapse again the next year.

“It’s football," he said. "That’s what they call it. It’s football."