Final four

Sometimes seasons fall apart and this one for the Giants certainly has that potential. A collapse is bad enough but it's even worse when the team fading fast limps away without uncovering any valuable information out of the misery.

That can't happen with the Giants. Check that. It shouldn't be allowed to happen. The Giants last season lost their final eight games to finish at 4-12 and the only major news coming out of the terrible slide was the firing of Jim Fassel. The roster was so depleted by injuries that there wasn't much opportunity to learn anything about anyone. The roster has again been hit hard this season but there's plenty the Giants can glean from the stretch run even if a playoff berth is not awaiting them at the end of the line.

This entire season has been set up as an incubator for Eli Manning and at the very least, it appears as if the rookie quarterback will get seven starts to come to grips with life in the NFL. That in and of itself figures to be an educational experience. The Giants would like Manning to learn what it takes to win and would rather he doesn't get too much of a taste for what it feels like to lose. There is no deadline for how long it takes a youngster to get his feet wet and learn the ropes but it is almost a guarantee that Manning will incorporate many of the lessons he learns this season into producing a better showing in 2005.

Hastening Manning's development isn't the only tidbit the Giants need to take out of the second half of this season. Losing is bad enough without learning from the losses. Here's more of what the Giants must find out about themselves to help them shape a better tomorrow:

Are receivers Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard the problem or the solution? Their numbers are down, dramatically, so, and that neither starting receiver had a single touchdown pass after 11 games is unfathomable. By mistake, by accident, a guy gets in the end zone every once in a while, as a defensive back falls down or an opponent lets up in the latter stages of a one-sided victory. There's been nothing doing for these two dependable players, solid citizens and consistent performers, players who helped transform the Giants into a high-octane passing team. Hilliard, 28, is finally enjoying an injury-free season but he's been ineffective. Toomer, 30, has been in a season-long funk and will likely miss out on his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season. Neither player is getting any faster or more elusive. Can Toomer be considered a No. 1 receiver any longer?

Are Luke Petitgout and David Diehl quality starting offensive tackles? Now in his sixth year, the Giants should know what they have in Petitgout, their 1999 first-round draft pick out of Notre Dame. He's been the starting left tackle since 2002 and has not shown himself to be a franchise-type lineman protecting the blind side of his quarterback. He's the best the Giants have but is he more suited to right tackle? Diehl started every game as a rookie last year at right guard before the Giants had the idea that his size and footwork qualified him to move outside to right tackle. It's been a difficult transition at best. His bulk might be better suited to play inside at guard and the Giants must determine if he's progressing at tackle or wasting their time.

Are any of the youngish prospects worth keeping around? There doesn't seem to be much discussion left with Ron Dayne, who was buried last year by Jim Fassel and only barely unearthed this year by Tom Coughlin. Dayne will be an unrestricted free agent and there is no conceivable reason why the Giants will attempt to re-sign him, or any reason why he'd want to stay. Only a serious injury to Tiki Barber (perish the thought) and a handful of eye-opening starts from Dayne could change the prevailing thinking but that's a highly unlikely scenario. Another high draft pick, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, has steadily regressed in Coughlin's mind and has seen his role diminished in recent weeks. There doesn't seem much he can do to change anyone's thinking. As for linebacker Nick Greisen, he's had some good moments but it appears he'd need a monster-closing run to turn heads.

Are Osi Umenyiora and William Joseph cornerstones of the defensive line? Drafted 1-2 in the first two rounds of the 2003 NFL Draft, these two linemen are supposed to anchor the defensive line for years to come. Injuries to Michael Strahan and Keith Washington opened the door for Umenyiora to start and the impressive Troy State product looks to have all the athletic goods to make an impact for years to come. Joseph is another story. His second year has been much better than his first but he's yet to prove he was remotely worthy of his first-year draft status. Perhaps the final month will provide more answers.

Are the young guns ready for expanded roles? The Giants sure like what they've seen from safety Gibril Wilson, linebacker Reggie Torbor and receiver Jamaar Taylor, all rookie draft picks who have made surprisingly positive first-year impressions. It's not a stretch to consider that Wilson can secure a starting job, that Taylor can elevate himself permanently into the No. 3 receiver spot and that Torbor can push for a starting spot on the defense. Wilson's been sidelined by a neck burner, which has hurt his development, but Torbor and Taylor have been thrust onto the field. It's great for them and could possibly be great for the Giants as early as next season.

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