Ahead of schedule

The crowds around Tiki Barber's locker have been thicker than ever of late. The expansion is directly in proportion to his growth into the NFL's most productive running back through the season's first four weeks. The stars have a way of attracting the curious. <BR><BR>

Turning sideways to work himself past the outer core of reporters recently, center Shaun O'Hara, a noted observer of current events, offered his endorsement of the man in the middle.

"Tiki Barber for President," O'Hara said. "Vote for Tiki."

As every candidate knows, a leader is worthless without the support of his constituency. And it's clear that harmony reigns between the running back and his offensive line in the Big Blue universe heading into the bye week.

"As improbable as it seems, the offensive line has jelled," Barber said. "They know what they are doing. They are making the right decisions, pulling for me, blocking for me, letting the little scat back do his thing."

That strip of lime that marks the line of scrimmage may be a measure of distance to most. But to Tom Coughlin it represents a state of mind in the militaristic world he coaches. See it then conquer it.

And after the first five games, it seems the offensive line has shown an ability to get it done a lot sooner than anyone may have expected.

"I'm seeing inkling of [the restoration of Giants pride]," Coughlin said. "But we have a lot of improvement that can be made and I like the team's attitude in understanding that."

Back in August the rhetoric wasn't quite as positive.

The more criticism heaped upon it, the more the Giants offensive line sat in its three-point stance and stewed.

The players realized they were struggling. Coughlin was reminding them daily. But they also knew what had to be done and that it wasn't impossible to accomplish.

"They are supposed to be the worst line in the NFL," Amani Toomer said. "But I think they are making a lot of the critics eat crow."

It seems all they needed was time, continued good health and the proper circumstances.

"There's a lot of factors involved," tackle David Diehl said. "We're starting to spend a lot more time with each other and because of it we're starting to become more familiar with each other. As long as we do that, we'll be happy. But are we content? No. We've got a long way to go."

Said guard Jason Whittle: "The truly exciting thing is there is room for improvement and growth."

The Giants are thriving and Kurt Warner is still standing sturdy, albeit on a slightly sore right ankle. And Barber was leading the NFL in rushing and overall yardage as the Giants headed to Dallas. Those are the strongest indications the offensive line is playing cohesively and productively.

"Can I tell I've been hit less? Oh, yeah, I can tell," Warner said. "On Monday morning you can tell right away. They are doing a better job. It allows us to do more things. I feel as if they are meshing. I'm sure they heard they were the weak link. They are not letting it bother them."

Despite a dozen sacks in the first four weeks, the pass blocking has been consistent enough to give Warner the time to at least contemplate his options. And the run blocking has obviously excelled throughout the year. Still, O'Hara isn't totally buying into the theory that his line is simply playing better.

"We're not doing anything different than we did when we lost to the Eagles," O'Hara said. "The difference is we've been ahead lately, so it's allowed us to run more, which takes the pass protection to another level. Defenses aren't teeing off on you as much. The Eagles flew at us, pinned their ears back whenever they could. That's the toughest time to pass block. The difference now is that we've been able to keep defenses on their heels."

Training camp was a tumultuous time for the offensive line. Early in camp, Coughlin benched right tackle Ian Allen and moved Diehl over from guard. Allen was eventually waived. Then Barry Stokes, signed to play left guard, injured his back and was replaced by second-year pro Wayne Lucier. Stokes was placed on injured reserve. Then just before the season started, Whittle was reacquired from Tampa Bay and inserted at the position.

The new line was tossed in a mixer with Coughlin's new system and the hundreds of blocking variations and personality quirks linemen must master in order to operate efficiently.

One of the goals is to eventually become so comfortable that the offensive linemen, depending on their opponent, can begin toying with defenses by making "dummy calls," line audibles designed to make the opponent think blocking schemes are changing when they really aren't.

"It takes time for a new line to jell," rookie guard Chris Snee said. "We're starting to feel more comfortable with each other. It's all about knowing how the guy next to you will handle each movement of the defense."

Much like last season, when nine different linemen started at various points of the 4-12 season, uncertainty seemed like it might be the only certainty. And the personnel flux was exacerbated by Coughlin's insistence that the makeshift line makes progress at a quicker pace.

Intent on controlling scrimmage, Coughlin was naturally distressed when the number of preseason sacks began to grow at a disproportionate pace to yardage. And then ESPN's Joe Theismann brought the situation to light on national television by saying he thought the Giants offensive line was the poorest in the NFL.

The Giants disagreed and set course on proving their critics wrong. Now they can count the Redskins, Browns and Packers as possible converts.

"When that was said, we just told ourselves that everyone has their own opinion. We were just looking to build our own reputation from the first preseason game," Snee said.

"Games like we played against the Browns and Packers gives everyone confidence about what they are doing on the field," Barber said. "It shows us that we have worth as a team. When the big plays start coming you can see why. Everyone is spread out. Everyone is involved. They all know that this can be the play that makes the big difference and that he [the player] can be the one who is responsible for it. And it all started with the front line."

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