Despite that disclaimer, Coughlin opted to make a change at quarterback, benching Warner in favor of prize rookie Eli Manning. Not at all lost in the quarterback shakeup was the palpable feeling that if the Giants offensive line had played better, Warner might have held onto the job longer than he did.
Scapegoat? Yes, and no. It is almost never one player's fault when things on a team go awry. Often, though, an individual must be singled out for blame, because wholesale changes are difficult and usually impossible to pull off. Is the quarterback the only reason why an offense cannot function? No way, but there aren't a bevy of receivers, a stable of running backs or a new crop of linemen to substitute into the lineup. Moving one quarterback out and another in is the most reliable and comfortable way to make the transition without mass upheaval.
If he could, though, you get the sense that Coughlin would have sacked a few of his offensive linemen for all the sacks they've allowed.
"I'm sure everyone that does Monday morning quarterbacking is saying go out and find five offensive linemen,'' center Shaun O'Hara said. "I'm sure everyone thinks there are five guys out there that can play better than us.''
At times, it sounded like a reasonable theory. Hailed earlier this season for its improvement during a four-game winning streak, the offensive line regressed as the Giants lost three of four games to sit at 5-4 after nine games, prompting the move to Manning. Anyone with two working eyes (or even one) could see that Warner at times held the ball too long and caused many of the ghastly 24 sacks the Giants allowed in a ridiculous four-game span. Anyone with clear vision could also see that there were times when Warner had no chance and that was mostly the failings of the linemen paid to protect him.
After studying tape of the 17-14 loss to the Cardinals in Arizona – which must have been horror-show viewing – Coughlin came to the conclusion that only one of the six sacks allowed in that game was the result of Warner simply holding the ball too long. Coughlin pointed to blocking problems with his running backs and tight ends as well as his line, meaning the entire protection package caved in once the Cardinals fell behind 14-3 and started applying heavy pressure.
"We worked probably 70 percent of the time [in practice] against the pressure package, and acted like we never saw it before,'' Coughlin said in a scolding tone. "We got overrun at certain spots.''
Harsh? Not really. Asked about the performance of the line in Arizona, Tiki Barber said, "It's good sometimes, bad most of the time. It puts Kurt at such a disadvantage that he can't make his reads, he can't wait for the guys to get open and he ends up getting sacked.''
There are two distinct reasons why an offensive line falters. Either the players get confused, rattled or out-schemed by the opponent, or else they flat-out get beat, one-on-one, their guy dominating your guy. Against the Cardinals, Coughlin said, there were "a couple of mental errors'' but that was not the major reason for all the problems.
"The majority of it was just getting beat,'' he said.
Was that more worrisome than mental errors?
"Yeah, it worries me more,'' Coughlin admitted. "But that means more people have to hang around to take care of things that should be handled by one. And that is why you will have less in the pattern. But that is the way it is. That is the way it goes.''
If that indeed is the way it will be for the Giants, then Manning will have fewer targets to hit, as reinforcements as far as backs and tight ends will stay in to block. It's a conservative approach but a common one whenever a team has no confidence in its ability to keep the quarterback in an upright position.
The feeling with Coughlin and others, certainly with more than a few players on the offensive side of the ball, is that the line will look better with Manning in the pocket because he won't be gun-shy to unload the ball rather than take a sack. Warner took an incredible 39 of them in nine games and the Giants not-so-grand total of 40 after nine games – Manning was dropped once in mop-up time in the opener – was far and away the highest and worst total in the league.
The sacks may go down, but that does not take away the onus on the line to play better. Much better. Or else Manning has little or no chance to succeed.
"You have to look at it,'' Coughlin said, "and say to yourself, 'this is the NFL, these people were brought here for this purpose. It is their responsibility.' Change is not necessarily going to be the answer. Playing a lot better is the answer.''
Is the line any good? It's been good enough to help Barber past midseason play not only like a Pro Bowler but also like an MVP candidate. No one can accuse the Giants of standing pat after last year's terrible offensive line woes, as injuries crippled the ability of the line to play at anything close to a competitive level. Only Luke Petitgout at left tackle returns to the position he played in 2003, and Petitgout has battled back and concussion issues and has not had a banner season. David Diehl moved outside to right tackle and the growing pains in his second NFL season have been noticeable. O'Hara at center, signed as a free agent from the Browns, is a solid performer. Chris Snee, a rookie second-round pick, has had trouble with false start penalties and is a superb run-blocker learning the ropes in pass blocking. He has the goods to be a future Pro Bowl player at guard. The other starting guard, Jason Whittle, is a new/old member of the Giants, having left via free agency to sign with the Buccaneers after the 2002 season and re-signed by the Giants this summer when Barry Stokes was lost for the year to a back injury.
It's a hard-working, studious, cohesive group that gets along well. It won't ever dominate but should be able to deal with pressure better than it has.
"I will tell you, everyone on this offense is taking the blame for everything,'' O'Hara said. "Kurt's heart and soul is in this team and he's battered and bruised just like the rest of us. He's never complained one time, never yelled at an offensive lineman. He's never blamed anybody.''
There's been plenty of blame to go around for the offensive struggles. In that regard, the line goes to the head of the line.
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