Under fire

We regret to announce that John Hufnagel will not be joining us live in this article. He had a prior commitment. He did not send word that he's sorry for being unavailable and has not promised to make an appearance in any articles written at a future date.

Instead, for your reading pleasure we are pleased to bring in Tom Coughlin, who has a few choice words and tidbits about the state of the Giants offense. We will hear from Eli Manning, the rookie quarterback, and Amani Toomer, the frustrated veteran receiver. We're hoping to bring you some Jeremy Shockey whenever he gets through imitating a bird flapping its wings.

And, before we forget, if the Giants continue to bumble and stumble along, get ready for a holiday sale, with their offensive playbook reduced to the low, low price of $1.99, batteries not included but needed.

If only it was as simple as inserting a battery and hitting the "on'' button to start the Giants offense. What was a sagging attack directed by Kurt Warner regressed badly once Manning took control, as the Giants offense managed just 16 points in Manning's first three starts. When teams struggle to gain yards, pick up first downs and navigate anywhere near the end zone, predictable scenarios and comments surface. Those depressing scenarios were coming fast and furious as the Giants sunk to five consecutive losses.

The play calling is too predictable. That one could be heard back when Dan Reeves was running the show and could be heard when Jim Fassel's offense bogged down. The opponents are calling out the plays before the Giants run them. Reeves, Fassel and now Coughlin heard that accusation. The offense needs to open up, take more chances, throw the ball downfield. You guessed it. Reeves, Fassel and now Coughlin were hit with those suggestions.

Reeves never really adjusted and was gone. Fassel tried to stave off the inevitable by taking the play-calling job away from Sean Payton, his offensive coordinator, and thrusting it on himself, with some wonderful results in the 2002 run to the playoffs. Coughlin is fighting change as he defends Hufnagel, his own offensive coordinator, and tries to fast-forward Manning's learning process.

Hufnagel's play calling came into question as the losses mounted and the offensive production fluctuated between paltry and pathetic. In the dreadful 31-7 loss to the Redskins at FedEx Field, Manning and Co. did not produce a single point – the lone touchdown came on Derrick Ward's 92-yard kickoff return – and barely ventured into Washington territory. The Giants time of possession of 19:31 was their lowest in more than four years and their 145 total yards was their lowest total in more than five years. When the game was still a game, with the Redskins leading 7-0 in the first quarter, the Giants faced a third-and-7 from their own 27-yard line. Two plays earlier, Tiki Barber was dropped for a one-yard loss. Hufnagel's third-down call? A pitchout to Barber that gained nothing.

"It's difficult to play-call right now, it really is,'' Coughlin said. "The continuity is not there, the consistency is not there. Nobody works harder than John Hufnagel. I have a good, hard-working staff, obviously there aren't many results right now so everything comes under scrutiny.''

Coughlin did not agree that Hufnagel's calls are predictable, a contention made by Shockey and Barber in recent weeks. The plays may not be shocking, Coughlin explained, but the plays are run out of a variety of different formations and movement, which helps make them difficult to detect. As for the grumbles of his players, Coughlin added "I don't think they're losing faith in the calls.''

There might not be a rampant loss of faith but there is concern by players that at times they're not put in the absolute best position to succeed. Toomer and Ike Hilliard went the first 12 games without a single touchdown catch and both have private issues with the way they've been used.

"At some point it becomes a guessing game and you have to be able to out-guess the other team's coordinator,'' Toomer said. "When they're dropping all their people you should be running the ball but when they're eight in the box you should be throwing it. That's the whole guessing game.''

Just how good of a guesser is Hufnagel? Well, he's never before called plays on a full-time basis in the NFL and this is the first time in his NFL coaching career that he's even been a coordinator. He was the quarterbacks coach for the Browns, Colts, Jaguars (under Coughlin) and Patriots, mostly serving one-year stints before Coughlin elevated him to coordinator status with the Giants. Prior to coming to the NFL, Hufnagel – a former Penn State quarterback who spent three years with the Broncos and 12 seasons in the Canadian Football League – was an assistant in the CFL and the head coach of the New Jersey Red Dogs in the Arena Football League.

The last time anyone in the media was allowed to converse with Hufnagel was in mid-October, during the Giants bye week. At that time, Hufnagel was asked about his development as a play-caller. Those were happier times for the Giants, who were 4-1, riding high with a four-game winning streak.

"I believe I'd have to say I'm getting more comfortable with it,'' Hufnagel said. "There's lots of room for improvement there also. As a team we've recognized what our strong points are and we're trying to stay within that scope.''

Asked if he ever wished he could take a call back, Hufnagel said "I always second-guess myself, I'm not going to give you examples.''

This is the first time Hufnagel has been entrusted with the full-time play calling but he has had smatterings of experience. "In Cleveland I called the plays for the last part of the 2000 year, and the first year [1999] with Cleveland I called the last two games that year, so I have called plays in the NFL.

"I don't think I, or we, have a certain style; we game-plan accordingly to that team and call the game according to that game-plan and any adjustments that need to be made hopefully we have the ability to make 'em.

"I think it's good communication that will help us get the right play called, when we have time to talk about things. Honestly, for the most part it's all been worked on through that week and you dial 'em up for the different situations and make the adjustments on the fly.''

Is Hufnagel making the correct adjustments? The results say no, but any coach will tell you it's all about execution on a certain play and far less about which particular play is called. What was an absolute certainty was that the Giants offense was in shambles. Any time that happens there's plenty of blame to go around.


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