Underdog Giants back where they've belonged

The Giants started the season a huge underdog and now they are the underdog again. They are back to having a new coach and new players. Back to having little room for error on Sundays.

The Giants didn't just have their game against Chicago turn around in an eye blink. Their season took an awful turn as well. The Giants went from a playoff lock to a playoff underdog in one 60-minute stretch of gridiron misery.

A season-ending injury to their best defensive player, maybe their best overall player, Michael Strahan. A season-ending injury to the other starting defensive end, Keith Washington.

Poor line play. Poor quarterback play. A bunch of penalties. Dumb mistakes. You half-expected to look down the sideline and see Jim Fassel spitting into the wind.

Strahan and Washington were replaced by the inevitable quarterback controversy. Coughlin's mistake wasn't thinking of replacing Kurt Warner with Eli Manning during the loss to the Bears. Coughlin's mistake was sharing his thoughts with the world.

Coughlin showed his hand. He admitted his uncertainty in Warner, however fleetingly. Think about it: If Coughlin were considering pulling Warner with the Giants 5-2, how would the coach react during a gloomier period down the road?

Asked if it's "easy to say that you haven't lost confidence'' in Warner, Coughlin responded, "Kurt is the starting quarterback.'' Death-row inmates get rosier votes of confidence.

So the Giants now have the potential to turn into a real mess. One story from last season – injuries – and two popular preseason stories had returned. Warner or Manning? Can the Giants defense stop anybody?

Coughlin was the other big preseason story. Would the Giants buy into his program? How much of a difference could he make with new quarterbacks and half a new roster? The Giants have bought in. He's made a huge difference.

But Coughlin's job got a whole lot harder after the Bears game. Strahan's on- and off-field value, no matter how much he plans to be around, can't be replaced. The deep D-line that had a huge hand in the team's success got paper thin in 60 football minutes.

The Giants traded Strahan and Washington for Osi Umenyiora and Lorenzo Bromell. Recent signee Chuck Wiley became the player to be named later.

No Strahan. No Washington. No stability at quarterback.

Warner's a walking controversy regardless of how he played in Arizona. He needs two or three solid games in a row to restore Coughlin's confidence in him. Coughlin is fast running out of patience with the fumbles and sacks and, lately, the interceptions.

Coughlin has talked to Warner repeatedly about keeping turnovers to a minimum, about being fundamentally sound. Warner seems to be battling old habits such as waiting in the pocket and holding the ball loosely.

"We talked about that during the preseason,'' Coughlin said, "about the fact that the quarterback position is THE turnover position in the NFL by virtue of interceptions, fumbles, or whatever. We have to take better care of the ball.''

Coughlin and the Giants need Warner to be consistent. He's not only jeopardizing his starting job if he's inconsistent. He's turning up the volume on critics screaming for Manning. And that negatively affects the entire operation.

Going to Manning would be an enormous gamble by Coughlin. Enormous. Manning has almost no NFL experience. The Jets rattled him during a preseason game in one of the few times he's faced a scheming NFL defense.

So the Giants are left with Warner, for better or for worse. He can still win games. Warner went into the Cardinals game with a 40-18 regular-season record as a starter. But he needs time in the pocket. He needs receivers to get open.

Fans remember how it was watching Kerry Collins get battered last season. They were still trying to rid the memories from their long-term banks when this group brought some reminders.

But let's make one thing perfectly clear. The 2004 Giants have almost nothing in common with last year's crew. By the end last season, the Giants were so beat up their level of effort was hard to determine. In some cases they seemed to be going through the motions for a lame-duck coach.

Coughlin will make sure this team buckles its chinstraps especially taut. Players know Coughlin isn't going anywhere, except berserk, if they start to lose the mental edge. There are too many new faces with fresh approaches and outlooks to provide fans a deja vu.

Coughlin drilled them hard on fundamentals, on attitude, on work ethic, leading to last week's game in Arizona. Those are the variables that helped the Giants get off to a 5-2 start. Those are the variables that would help the Giants return to smooth terrain.

The Giants aren't getting back Strahan and Washington. But the loss to Chicago, and all it encompassed, brought back the team's underdog status. Maybe that's how we should have viewed the Giants all along.

Even Coughlin can't stop injuries: Coughlin during his introductory news conference as Giants head coach: "I am also aware of the injury factor, the number of IRs (injured reserves) and those kinds of things, which is a cancer, let's face it. It is something that has to be corrected. It is a mental thing, I believe, as much as it is anything else.''

Coughlin last week after a flurry of Giants injuries: "What I was talking about was a specific observation that I made when I came, in terms of the numbers of people that were on IR and the mentality that goes along with it. Injuries happen in our game. It is most unfortunate.''

You can decide if Coughlin was taking an unfair shot at last year's team and/or coach Jim Fassel. Because Coughlin clearly is having about the same success with injuries as Fassel did. Coaches can only do so much to prevent injuries. Coughlin is having some of the same lousy luck as Fassel had.

Handle Luke with caution: Once more an NFL team was talking about rushing a player onto the field a week after he sustained a concussion. Coughlin called left tackle Luke Petitgout's concussion "mild," but there is no such animal. There is nothing mild about brain injuries. There is evidence suggesting some concussions are worse than others. But there also is substantial evidence suggesting the increased chance of players sustaining a second concussion when not properly recovered from the first. Ask receiver Tim Carter, who was placed on injured reserve last season after multiple concussions.

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