When a season starts to go bad, as this one has given every indication of doing for the New York Giants, right after the finger-pointing comes the drive for individual accomplishments.
Clearly, this is not the motivating factor. All professional athletes would rather win than lose, which is belaboring the obvious. But when losing begins to permeate, then winning individual battles becomes somewhat more appealing and attractive.
Running back Tiki Barber, for instance, has gained 918 yards in the 10 games played thus far (in which the Giants are 4-6 heading into a Monday night game against the equally 4-6 defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers). That gives him a mathematical goal of 1,468 for the season if he merely continues his average game production, 91.8 yards.
Since his season career high was set last year at 1,387 he is shooting for new heights, as well as his season high yards from scrimmage. That career-best was established in 2000, when he combined rushing and receiving for 2,085 yards. At this juncture, he has gained 1,209 combined yards, or 120.9 per game. To continue on that road would leave him short of his record, at 1,934 for the season.
"I don't usually look at the statistics and the records," he says. "I know basically what I'm doing, of course I do. Rushing yardage is important to a running back. But I would give it all up if we could have won some of those games we should have won, games we had in hand late in the fourth quarter."
As the Giants head to Tampa, Tiki is more than just normally thrilled with the prospect of meeting his twin brother, Ronde, a starting corner for the Buccaneers. "We have been as close as any two brothers can be," he said, "and when he does well, I am thrilled. But there is also a fierce competitive thing between us, too. It's going to be interesting."
Since joining the Giants in 1997 (second round pick), the twin brothers have met on the playing field just three times. Tampa Bay holds a 2-1 lead. The three games were played in the brothers' first three seasons, which means they haven't faced each other in four seasons.
"We were hoping for a playoff game meeting last season," Tiki said, "but we lost that game in San Francisco." That was the near-miraculous 49er comeback that overcame a 38-14 Giants' lead and sent San Francisco to Tampa Bay for the second round game and not the Giants.
"I was with him from that point on," Tiki said. "I went to the playoff game his team played against San Francisco and the next week for the conference championship in Philadelphia, and I was there for the Super Bowl. I was thrilled for him, but now it's my turn to get a ring."
That doesn't look like a possibility for either team -- or either twin -- this season.
SERIES HISTORY: This will be the 15th game between the franchises with the Giants holding a 9-5 edge. The most historic meeting was the one that never happened, last winter's playoff game that seemed like a sure thing when the Giants went into the final quarter of their game in San Francisco with a 38-21 lead (it had been 38-14 in the waning minutes of the third quarter).
The Giants won the last game between the teams, 17-13, in 1999. Previous to that, the Buccaneers had won two straight, and before that the Giants took three in a row.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--The injury misfortunes have appeared to grow, with the loss of both strong safety Shaun Williams and defensive end Kenny Holmes for the season to knee injuries.
Williams said he "felt something pop in his knee" during last Sunday's game in Philadelphia. It is likely that Williams will have surgery on the knee. Holmes underwent arthroscopic surgery on the knee Saturday.
Both Williams and Holmes were placed on injured reserve Wednesday. The roster spots vacated by Holmes and Williams will be filled by defensive end Frank Ferrara and safety Clarence LeBlanc.
--Head coach Jim Fassel has instructed defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn to "simplify" the amount of communication necessary between the linebackers and the secondary, hoping that will make things simpler and eliminate the gaping holes seen lately in zone coverage.
"Things change," said defensive end Michael Strahan. "I know we aren't there, and it doesn't look like it, but we can be a great defense. There have been times this season when we looked like a great defense and other times when we haven't look like much of a defense at all."
The Giants' last two games have resulted in a 55-10 score against them, against the struggling Atlanta Falcons and an Eagles' team that has only recently (with help from the Giants) managed to get its defense untracked. Running back/wide receiver/kick returner Brian Westbrook has scored five touchdowns this season -- all against the Giants in their two meetings. His 84-yard punt return with 77 seconds left provided the winning points in the Eagles' 14-10 victory Oct. 19.
When the Giants failed to sack Eagles' QB Donovan McNabb last Sunday, it broke a six-game streak for Strahan, who had recorded at least one sack per game over that time. More dramatically, it was the team's first game without a sack since the Jan. 5 playoff game in San Francisco, and the first regular season game since opening day of last year, also against the 49ers.
--Fassel insists he isn't thinking about the possibility of losing his job and says that any coach who accepts a job is eventually going to be replaced. "You'd be a fool if you thought that you'd stay and stay indefinitely," he said. "It's the nature of the beast that if the team isn't doing well it is usually the coach who pays for it." Asked how he felt about the prospect, he simply said: "You aren't going to see me sweat over this."
--Quarterback Kerry Collins has his own theory about the sudden losing. "We are definitely in the middle of a case of underachieving," he says. "We are not taking full advantage of our opportunities, ones that have been given to us. That has been consistent for us all year and it has cost us some games."
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- The number of games the Giants must lose (of the six remaining) to equal the last worst season record, which was 5-11 in 1995; they haven't lost 12 games since 1983, when they were 3-12-1 under Bill Parcells.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They are running successfully, and that opens up a lot of other things. We pride ourselves on our defense but this kind of situation makes you look hard at yourself." -- Keith Hamilton, the Giants' veteran DT, on the slumping defense.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Giants' roster, at least in its starting players, is beginning to look less and less like the one with which they opened this once-promising season.
They are now 4-6, and part of the reason, although not all of it, has been the inordinate number of injuries that have crippled most of the defensive options and severely limited the offense as well.
Going into Monday night's game in Tampa, the Giants will be without former starters TE Jeremy Shockey, RCB Will Peterson (and his replacement, Ralph Brown), RDE Kenny Holmes, SS Shaun Williams, possibly WRs Ike Hilliard and Tim Carter, LG Rich Seubert and maybe rookie RCB Frank Walker (who replaced Brown).
In addition, defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn has been told to simplify the communications network that exists between the linebackers and the secondary, mostly for ease of understanding and hopefully to prevent lapses in the zone coverage.
---WR Tim Carter suffered concussions in two consecutive weeks (last Sunday vs. the Eagles, the week before vs. Atlanta) and such conditions are viewed with extreme caution. It would not be surprising if he doesn't play, leaving a spot for rookie David Tyree (who caught five passes for 106 yards last week in his first NFL action).
---TE Jeremy Shockey (partially torn knee ligaments) has been slowly working his way back, and might begin practicing later this week. But he is definitely not available for the game Monday night; however, his return would be a boost since he was first thought to be out for the rest of the season.
---RG David Diehl, also a rookie (fifth round) has been playing extraordinarily well and may emerge as the team's Offensive Rookie of the Year. The 6-5, 315-pounder, according to head coach Jim Fassel, "doesn't play like a rookie or think like a rookie or make mistakes like a rookie."
---LDE Michael Strahan had his streak of six consecutive games with at least one sack snapped last week, and during the game was credited with only one tackle. "Hey, I had more than that," he said. "Just watch the films."
---RB Tiki Barber gained 111 yards last week, now has 918 for the season and is on pace to beat his season-high career best of 1,387 yards set last season. He also gets to display his talents for the benefit of his twin brother, Ronde, the Buccaneers' starting RCB. It will be only the fourth time the two have met on the field since being rookies in 1997.
---RDE Osi Umenyiora, a rookie (second round pick) will start again for veteran Kenny Holmes, who underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his knee last week and is out for the season after being placed on injured reserve. Recently signed DE Frank Ferrara will spell Umenyiora.
---RCB Kato Serwanga would be in line to start (the fourth player to start at the position) if rookie Frank Walker can't make it. Walker suffered a concussion last week.
GAME PLAN: The Giants have less to fear from the Tampa Bay offense than they do the defense, and as a result they will attempt to throw the ball short and medium range, so as to stay away from the front four of Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, Greg Spires and Anthony McFarland.
This is made all the more difficult with the absence of TE Jeremy Shockey (knee) and the probable absence, or at best limited duty, of WR Ike Hilliard, their possession receiver. Look for RB Tiki Barber and FB Jimmy Finn to get more than the usual amount of passes thrown their way, and if that succeeds in bringing up the LBs, then QB Kerry Collins might be able to go deep to WR Amani Toomer or rookie wideout David Tyree.
Defensively, the Giants hope to put pressure on QB Brad Johnson, before he can find WR Keenan McCardell or RB Michael Pittman, who has turned into the Buccaneers' leading receiver in terms of catches. The absence of WR Keyshawn Johnson (deactivated for off-the-field behavior) will help the Giants' injury-riddled defense.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Giants' LDE Michael Strahan goes against a former teammate, Tampa Bay LT Roman Oben, who is one of the quicker but lighter OTs in the league. Strahan has 10 sacks, Oben can be beaten; it might be an advantage for the Giants.
--Giants' LG Wayne Lucier and RG David Diehl, both rookies, and center Chris Bober will have to seal the middle against the likes of Sapp and McFarland, a near Herculean task for rookies; Bober is in his fourth season but hasn't played well, and spent the first part of the schedule at RT.
--Giants' CB Frank Walker (or Kato Serwanga), neither of whom have had much experience and/or success, will have to guard McCardell, who is tricky, shifty and experienced. Be sure that Johnson will look for him at almost every opportunity.
INJURY IMPACT: The injuries that have crashed down on the Giants will exact some sort of price, probably seen most obviously in the secondary. SS Shaun Williams is lost for the season. It is not clear if rookie Frank Walker, the third starter this season at RCB, will make it (concussion). If not, the job of starter goes to journeyman Kato Serwanga.
--Rookie Visanthe Shiancoe replaces TE Marcellus Rivers as the blocker, so that Rivers can move up to replace the injured Jeremy Shockey (knee) as the starter and receiver from that position. It has become crystal clear that the UFA loss that hurt the team the most was TE Dan Campbell, who had become the best blocker at his position in the league. He signed with Dallas.
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