Art of Conversation: The 2002 NY Football Giants

Rebuilding, Resigning, Renegotiating, Reshuffling, Retiring, Revolving, Returning, Realigning and Recovering? The period after the NFL draft to the start of training camp is arid at best when it comes to sporting news. Sure, there are the rookie and veteran mini-camps, but in reality, it's still a very long way off until the start of the 2002 regular season. Thankfully, training camp opens within hours…To bring everyone up to speed, this is what we know (or think we know) at this point.

Rebuilding


On the defensive side the biggest void will be at weakside LB with the departure of Jesse Armstead. While I personally wish Jesse the best with the reviled Redskins, it was time to part ways. Jesse was and is a warrior and played injured many, many times throughout his Giant career. It's unfortunate that the salary cap cost him the ability to retire with the Giants, but that's how NFL is these days. In any event, art patriot and scholar Dhani Jones will get an opportunity to prove that Ernie Accorsi was correct in letting Jesse go. Jones has the speed and ability, it's just a question as to whether or not his lack of game experience at the position will result in an area that opposing coaches will exploit.

Rookie TE and number one draft choice Jeremy Shockey looks to be the real thing—at least from the two mini-camps he participated in. Training camp and the pre-season will dictate if he's somebody who can play every down, or just as a situational player. Let's hope it's the latter. Jeremy has very large and soft hands that should make him an instant hit with QB Kerry Collins. The question remains is will Kerry have any time to throw him the GD ball?

During the off-season, the Giants have made wholesale changes to their offensive line. Gone are the experienced veterans like LT - Lomas Brown, LG - Glen Parker, and Pro-Bowler RG - Ron Stone. In hindsight, each were short-term answers to the Giant's OL woes. The "Replacements" are very green and are slated to be LT – Chris Bober, LG – Jason Whittle and RG – Rich Seubert, as well as returning veterans: C - Dusty Ziegler and RT – Luke Pettegout. Of the new trio, only Whittle had serious playing time last year, and held his own. However, third round draft choice Jeff Hatch has an opportunity to unseat Bober and that will be an interesting match-up, unless the Giants reshuffle the tackle deck and that we'll discuss later.

While everyone hopes that Shockey will start opening day, TE is just another spot of the offensive line—typically the strong-side. The side most teams run the ball to. It is still unknown how fast Shockey's blocking skills will accelerate and which TEs will be on the final roster, but knowing TE Coach Mike Pope, he probably went to work on improving Shockey's skills right away.

At this point the only blocking TE is veteran Dan Campbell, and after 3 injury plagued seasons, his skill set as a run-blocker finally reaching that of the retired Howard Cross. The other TE is Marcellus Rivers another pass-catching TE with great hands who is in his second year of learning how to block in the NFL. Rivers red-zone production resulted in 2 TDs in his rookie year, (as many as last year's TE phenom Todd Heap). On paper, Shockey and Rivers should be the TEs, leaving Campbell out in the cold. However, it's unknown what Campbell's really worth when accessing the Giants new "speed" offense His roster spot might be better utilized in keeping additional offensive linemen, like Iowa's OT - Andy Stensrud and having Shockey and Rivers handle the pass catching aspects of the TE position this season. Then again, Campbell may make it to the final roster anyway…as a FB.

You see sports fans, gone is FB - Greg Comella and his off-season training ethics. His replacement is FA-FB Charles Stackhouse, who on paper appears to be a devastating blocker, albeit a tad slow-afoot out of the gate. The other FBs on the roster are practice squad and special teams players to which Stackhouse appears to have an edge, leading me to think that Campbell may be assured of a roster spot, perhaps as the starting FB depending upon the development of Stackhouse. Regardless of whether it's Stackhouse or Campbell, somebody's going to have to cover KC's blind-side on certain passing situations.

One thing is for certain, in this era of free agency, being multi-functional, i.e. having the ability to play several positions increases one's chance of making an NFL team's final roster.

Resigning


The top priority during the off-season was to lock up FS Shaun Williams, and this was accomplished. After some discussions of Shaun's ability to learn the play-book, the former number one pick out of UCLA was signed for $24.5 million deal over 6 years that included a $6.5 million signing bonus.

Oft injured and full of potential "H-Back" - Sean Bennett has survived both mini-camps and is, to-date, injury-free. Hopefully he'll survive summer camp, the pre-season and be a contributing factor to the Giant's offensive attack. To be competitive this season the Giants need more than just speed, they need to be less predictable. Having a healthy Sean Bennett provides the Giant offensive with multiple options that opposing defensive coordinators must defense. It's unlikely that given the upgrades in team speed that double covering go-to players will be the exception as opposed to the time-old standard.

Finally, with a Hail Mary completion on another contract negotiation, the Giant signed QB Jason Garrett, leaving no doubt in this fan's eyes that Jesse Palmer, albeit all his training, is not ready to be the team's #2 back-up at QB.

Renegotiating


As to contract discussions, mum is ALWAYS the word from Ernie Accorsi, but sources indicate that Michael Strahan's camp is looking to revisit his contract and apologize for his public gaffs. It's pretty unlikely that anything will happen, since Enrie Accorsi has done a wonderful job in getting the Giant's salary cap woes under control, but like the weather, one never knows. For all the press reports, I'm not convince that this will be Strahan's last season as a Giant, especially if he sets the world on fire again. For the money, Strahan has proved his worth with consistent play, season after season, an inate ability the Giants haven't seen in the QB position.

The Giants re-negotiated Kerry Collins' contract and extended it until after the 2004 season. In his defense this is only KC's third full season under this offense, a make or break season for the most part for the 29 year-old. He didn't have the weapons he'll have this year, nor a consistent running game and there were key offensive injuries during the 2001 campaign. Yet in NY, fans demand a winner, or at least 250% performance on every plan and to that extent KC only delivered glimpses of that in the 4th quarter of the last few games. It's time KC either step-up to the next level of elite quarterbacks, or the Giants must consider who will direct the franchise into the future. In doing so and perhaps more due to doubts about this season, the Giants offer KC a "cap-friendly, less than spectacular contract" so to keep him a Giant, while grooming his future replacement.

This pre-season the Giants will see if that future replacement is going to be back-up QB - Jesse Palmer. If Palmer is not up to the task it may leave no doubt that the Giants 2003 number one draft pick will be a QB and to do so, they may franchise, then possibly trade Michael Strahan. Last year's #2 Jason Garrett is not a long-term option and may likley to become the QB coach next season. While the #4 QB is rookie FA Darnell Dinkens, he doesn't appear to be in the mix, barring injuries. FWIW, Dinkens has played FS in college and could see some action there.

Last year's top FA acquisition, DE Kenny Holmes "took one for the team" in renegotiating his salary for a more "cap-friendly" deal. It's rumored that even though Holmes "did this voluntarily", his arm may have been twisted ever so slightly by Ernie Accorsi, as the Giants have brought in several veteran FA - DE candidates to possibly upgrade the position. Holmes can earn back the lost compensation should he reach a contractually agreed to QB sack amounts. However, it's becoming painfully obvious that the Giants may have taken the wrong person, when one compares Holmes' production to Tampa Bay DE Simeon Rice.

What's interesting in those players who may offer the team a "long-term solution" have contracts that expire at the end of this season. One player to watch especially is right OT Luke Pettigout. Should Luke move to and excel at LT, signing him to a future long-term contract will utilize a good chunk of next year's salary cap savings—not to mention what will be taken up by Collins and/or Strahan and a few other players who's contracts also expire next year. Some of the other players who's contracts expire include: WRs Ike Hilliard, Jonathan Carter and Ron Dixon, TE Dan Campbell, RB Damon Washington, all the offensive line albeit for Dusty Ziegler and the 2002 rookies and rookie free agents, LBs Dhani Jones and Brandon Short, CB Ralph Brown, and SS Clarence LeBlanc.

Gee, and who said that next year the Giants are going to be in great shape cap wise, Ernie Accorsi?

Last year, an injury to DT Keith Hamilton (pectoral muscle tear) and a high ankle sprain suffered by DT Cornelius Griffith created running lanes between the Giant's prided run defense that my old weary body could have run through without issue. It was rumored that the Giants might sign former Giant and Colt DT Christian Peter, but due to his previous neck injuries the Giants apparently weren't convinced that he was 100% healed. When the Giants stuck in a injury clause enabling the team to forfeit Peter's salary should he re-injure the neck, Peter cut-off future negotiations and ultimately signed with the Chicago Bears.

Reshuffling


The first reshuffling occurred in the front office when Coach John Fox left the Giants to pilot the Carolina Panthers. Fox's genius reminded me of another former Giant defensive coordinator, current Patriot head coach Bill Bellichek. Both are masters at the art of defense—except Fox was just much more energetic. Last year's Defensive Secondary Coach Johnnie Lynn has move up to take Fox's spot. While Lynn is unproven as a Defensive Coordinator, it will be interesting to see if there is any reduction in performance by the historic Giant defense. The biggest complaint by current players is that Fox's schemes were way too complicated. Lynn has promised to simplify the play-book, without making wholesale changes.

The next reshuffling occurred LB Jesse Armstead was released, as I alluded earlier. Reserve weakside LB Dhani Jones will become the new starter. While Jones outside interests in the Fine Arts appear to be mutually exclusive from the typical characteristics of Hall of Fame LBs (Butkis, Nitchke, Lambert, Taylor), he did show flashes of brilliance with his speed and athleticism in his first training camp before tearing an ACL. He also showed promise in last year's training camp. However, how that will related to his Special Teams play last season is unknown, since he didn't appear to be much of a factor, unlike his predecessor Jesse Armstead who "won" his starting defensive position via stellar Special Teams play.

Reshuffling also occurred when FS Shaun Williams was moved from FS to SS to the slot once occupied by the now departed and current NY Jet, Sam Garnes. Williams is truly suited for the SS position, and should excel more at this position than he has at FS in the Giants system. He will be a definite upgrade over Sam Garnes. Williams replacement at FS is Omar Stoutmeier. Omar has made an impact on Special Teams and the Giants hope that he will contribute as both a ball-hawking center-fielder, and an open–field tackler.

The next reshuffling just occurred this spring during veteran mini-camp as OT Luke Pettigout appears to be moving—from the right side of the line (strong-side) to the left side of the line (weak-side). The left tackle spot, formerly held by the retired Lomas Brown and then inherited by FA Chris Bober during the off-season, appears to be the long-term solution for Coach McNally and the much debated 2002 offensive line. While Bober is number one on the depth chart now, considering the LT position is the QB's blind spot, leaving an untested FA like Bober to protect KC's blindside maybe as suicidal as the idea of starting rookie number three draft choice Jeff Hatch. Don't get me wrong, I think Bober is a much better run-blocker than Lomas, but when it comes to passing situations, Bober might be more than outclassed.

FWIW, my election for the new name for the OL is McNally's Marauders. A far cry from the "Suburbanites" during the Giant's first two Super Bowls, but who knows?

The left and right OG positions will be held most likely by C-OG Jason Whittle and OG Rich Seubert, with Mike Rosenthal vying to get out of the Jim Fassel dog-house that can become the equivalent of the black hole for many a player (Dixon, Dayne, Wheatley). Whittle saw action last season and appears to be more than adequate. The only reservation in starting him is that he is the Special Teams center on both punting and field goals. Hopefully the Giants have a reserve OL capable of handling those Special Team duties.

Right offensive tackle, the slot formerly (or currently?) held by Luke Pettigout, will now likely fall to either Chris Bober, of rookie third round pick Jeff Hatch or a host of other tackles trying to make the team. It would make everyone's day if Bober becomes the real thing, since Luke has established himself as a formidable RT, and would make Pettigout's contractual worth more cap-friendly once his contract expires at the end of the 2002 season. For the record, it should be noted that Rosenthal has played RT in the past and could indeed end up starting under various OL combinations that are scheduled for the pre-season.

Finally, with the departure of free agent PK Morten Anderson to the Chiefs, the Giants have awarded the PK duties via attrition to last years' FA acquisition from the Patriots, PK - Owen Pochman. However, just to keep things interesting NFL Europe PK and 2001 training camp free agent Matt Bryant will also join in the frey. Pochman has a powerful leg, but his consistency in both kickoffs and field goals may give Jim Fassel the same kind of stomach issues that former Giant Head Coach Bill Parcells experienced. As to the other kicking duties, P Rodney Williams coming off major surgery last year to repair a badly broken wrist will likely face some stiff competition from last year's free agent P - Gabe Lindstron. Lindstron is coming off a wonderful season in NFL Europe where he earned two "Player of the Week" honors.

Retiring


Retiring is such a "nice" word when used in the NFL. It either means the player realizes his skill set is not sufficient to play the game anymore, or that the front office and coaching staff conclude the player's services are no longer required by his team. When used in the later definition, the words, "cut", "exposed", "released", "not matched", "not tendered" or "waived" are terms also typically used. In any sense, the 2002 Giants will be without the following players:

2001 Starters: OT Lomas Brown (retired), OG Glen Parker (released), OG, Ron Stone (not tendered-now a 49er), TE Howard Cross (retired), LB Jesse Armstead (waived-now a Redskin), SS Sam Garners (waived-now a Jet), K Morton Anderson (released, now a Chief).

2001 Reserves: RB Joe Montgomery (waived-now a Panther), CB Dave Thomas (released), QB Jason Garrett (released, possibly a Giant's QB coach), LB Jack Golden (released), FB Anthony Green (waived), RB Lloyd Clemons (waived), OT Jim Goff (waived), TE Brady McDonnell (waived), WR Thabiti Davis (waived).

Revolving


As in revolving door…

The Giants hired their 3rd new Special Teams coach in the past three seasons. This time, they actually hired a REAL Special Teams Coach. Not an offensive quality control coach or a former head coach who's only special team experience came when the 49ers were piloted under Bill Walsh's stint as head coach. Coach Bruce Reed is the real deal and did a wonderful job turning around the Special Teams of the San Diego Chargers. It will be interesting to see if this third new coach works the charm for the Giants. Improved Special Teams play will be a very important part of the Giants success in 2002, since the past few season losses can be directly attributable to poor play in all facets of the game be it coverage or returns.

Returning


Speaking of special teams, the coverage and return teams were in a word…pathetic. To change things might mean putting Tiki Barber on the bench on punt returns. That has been a problem for Coach Fassel since Tiki has been the only person who has ignited the team both as the starting running back and punt returner.

To experiment with a replacement for Tiki, the Giants have brought in FA Delvin Joyce (James Madison University) as well as former Calgery Stampeder, Antonio Warren (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo). Warren has the edge as he is both a kickoff and punt returner. However, the Giant's second round selection, WR - Tim Carter (Auburn) was primarily a kick-off return specialist until starting at wide-out in his senior year, and Miami rookie and seventh round selection WR - Daryl Jones also has much experience returning punts. It should also be noted that Tim Carter excelled as a "gunner" on his college punt coverage team.

While a replacement for Tiki may indeed occur, it's pretty obvious that returning incumbents WR/KR Ron Dixon and WR/KR Jonathan Carter may both be unemployed sooner than later, unless they can impress the coaching staff during both camp and the pre-season.

Realigning


The 2002 season marks the start of the new realignment of the divisions. Gone from the NFC East are the two division games with the Arizona Cardinals, however, the Giants will still play them once this season, since they have drawn the NFC West for inter-conference play. That means the Rams, 49ers, Saints, Falcons, as well as the Cardinals are on-tap--as well as a rematch with the NFC Central Minnesota Vikings. The Giants will have six key division games, two each against the Cowboys, Eagles and Redskins. The remaining games will be with teams in the AFC including the expansion Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Seattle Seahawks, and an "open-date" slated for October 20th.

The Giants are slated for at least 3 nationally televised games, one on ESPN, the others on ABC including: the home opener, Thursday night, August 5th against the 49ers; Monday night, October 28th away against the Eagles, and; the season home finale, Saturday afternoon, December 28th against the Eagles. Fox's and CBS nationally televised schedule is due out later in August, however, one would think that the Rams game on September 15th is a distinct Fox possibility, as well as the Titans game on CBS December 1 .

In addition, the Giants start the NFL pre-season by playing the new expansion team Houston Texans on Monday afternoon, August 5th in Canton, Ohio, the home of the NFL Hall of Fame, and televised on ABC.

Recovering


Rookie FA DE Sean Guthrie who had shown much promise in both mini-camps is out for the season on IR with a torn patella tendon in his knee. He suffered the injury while working on a one-on-one drill going against rookie tackle and number three draft choice Jeff Hatch.

Veteran WR Ike Hilliard and his toe are still sore, but Ike did come to mini-camp and participated slightly. His attendance illustrated that he's a team player, albeit his responses to press questions have been brutally truthful. Yet, when it came to a non-contact, voluntary, but mandatory passing practice, Ike was MIA which didn't amuse Coach Fassel. With the stockpiling of draft choices, free agents and young WR in the Giants stable, 2002 could be Ike's last hurrah. Undaunted by the competition and talent at WR, Ike's comment to the media was vintage Hilliard: "..let's see what happens when the bullets start to fly."

OC Dusty Ziegler, the only player from the 2001 offensive line slated to return to his original position is still recovering from knee surgery and while attended the veteran mini-camp, did not participate, except in the practical joke arena. Ziegler was allegedly responsible for butting blue Rit dye into the pass blocking gloves of rookie third round offensive tackle Jeff Hatch. Should Ziegler not be ready, look for an OL that might feature LT - Bober, LG - Seubert, C - Whittle, RG - Rosenthal and RT - Pettigout.

SS Shaun Williams was excused from participating in drills during the mini-camp due to knee problems, extent of damage unknown, but Williams did leave the season finale against the Packers last year with a knee injury.

CB Jason Sehorn appears to be ready for a season devoid of injury, or at least that's what management hopes for. After signing Jason to a ton of money, the Giants CB has been plagued season after season with injuries that have limited his ability to play at 100%. If his movements during the ESPY commercials are any indication, Jason should be ready for the likes of Issac Bruce and Randy Moss this season.

Rookie WR and number two draft choice Tim Carter had his knee drained the second day of rookie mini-camp and was excused from the last two practices. An MRI proved to be negative and he did participate in the veteran mini-camp, but appeared to be "slower" than some of the other players at his position. At this writing Carter has not signed a contract and may be the lone rookie holding out.

P Rodney Williams had surgery last week to remove a lose screw…no not from his head, from his shattered wrist injury suffered last season. He looks to be in fine shape for training camp.

RB Ron Dayne had some ligament problem in his right thumb that was also cleared up with some minor surgery and will also be ready for training camp without issue. Hopefully, this season Ron will have learned that instead of shoving the football in an opponent's face after receiving a cheap shot, he just needs to run the SOB over leaving his spike prints on the guys chest on the next play.


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