Lost season

It was a tale of two seasons. No one should be surprised though. When the Giants made the move for Chargers top pick Eli Manning on Draft Day, and turned the young man's palpable snarl after being forced to hold up a San Diego jersey minutes later into a New York smile, everyone knew things were changing.

For one thing, renowned disciplinarian Tom Coughlin was in charge. The Giants were soft, you see, and Coughlin was here to cut out the fumbles, boneheaded plays, penalties and all-around lack of effort.

The next change was personnel. By snagging the NFL's number one rook, the Giants seemed to be already cleaning out quarterback Kerry Collins' locker. New York dealt San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers and a third-round draft pick, plus its first- and-fifth round picks in 2005. And like the line from the song American Pie, Collins took the last train for the coast.

Meanwhile, in the words of David Bowie, everything was hunky dory in Giants land.

"I'm a lot happier now than I was 10 minutes ago," Manning said at a news conference.

Giants fans for the most part were pleased with the deal. Sure, they were giving up precious draft picks. But they had their own Manning. That's like finding a second Hope Diamond in your backyard. Plus, the Giants were 5-11 last year. This was a rebuilding year and what better way to muddle through growing pains than with the top-rated rookie.

Chapter I: However, a funny thing happened on the way to the Giants' expected losing season. After the predictable Week 1 pasting by the defending NFC Champion Eagles, New York started winning. Winning ugly, winning big, winning with passion. Heck, it didn't matter. Every win is huge.

After seven games the Giants were 5-2. They were just one game behind Philly and had knocked off teams like the Packers in Green Bay, Cowboys in Dallas, and the Vikings in Minnesota. Not the easiest places to win.

The Giants were winning with a stingy defense that led the NFL in takeaways. Their offense was efficient with Tiki Barber leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) and a 5.0 average.

In fact, after the Week 1 loss, the Giants went on to win four straight. The only reason to reiterate this is that the first part of the season seems so long ago, chances are, many have already forgotten.

But that all ended on Halloween. Believe it or not, until the final week, the last Giants win was the 34-13 victory at Minnesota on Oct. 31. Talk about scary.

After the Vikings game, the Giants went home for a cupcake game against those cuddly cubs, er, Bears. Chicago instead ferociously forced five turnovers, three of them on consecutive plays. They lost 28-21. At home.

Whispers began about quarterback Kurt Warner looking more like his non-MVP 2003 self. Fumbles, holding onto the ball too long, inability to hit Torry Holt, or even Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard.

The following week at Arizona, the Giants blew a 14-10 halftime lead and lost to the Cardinals, 17-14. Warner was sacked six times, four by Pro Bowler Bertrand Berry. Yet, despite sporting a 92.3 rating, going 13-for-19, 193 yards, a TD and no picks, Warner was blamed for the offense's ineptitude and benched, so the future could take over.

Yes, the team had lost two straight and was slipping at 5-4. But in the pathetic NFC, that kind of mediocrity will win you a division or at least a Wild Card spot. The Seahawks won the NFC West with a 9-7 record, and both the Rams and Vikings made the playoffs sporting ugly 8-8 records. That's like someone with an ‘80's mullet being named one of People magazine's most beautiful people.

But whether it came down from GM Ernie Accorsi, Coughlin, or the two agreeing it was time, Warner was sacked one more time. To the bench.

In the Dec. 19 issue of New York Times magazine, writer Michael Lewis said that Coughlin had timed 37 passes thrown by Warner and discovered he had held the ball too long 30 of those times. In essence, he was being blamed for most of the sacks.

So they determined, despite the winning record and Warner's commendable 86.5 QB rating, it was time to start the $54 million bonus baby. It was hoped that the inexperienced rookie could give the offense a spark.

"It was a coach's decision. They felt it was time," one Giants player said. "As a part of this team you've got to go out and play as hard as you can regardless of who is back there. I think we took it in stride."

Chapter II: While 11th overall selection Ben Roethlisberger was winning his 9th straight, Manning fell short in his first start 14-10. He played decently for a rookie going 17-for-37 and 162 yards, 2 interceptions, and threw his first NFL touchdown to tight end Jeremy Shockey.

The following week, Manning went up against the NFC's best defense and played more like a rookie free agent, completing just 6 of 21 attempts. The Eagles crushed the Giants, 27-6. New York's only points came on short field goals by Steve Christie. Manning's rating was just 16.9.

Manning then faced another NFC East opponent at Washington. Though he played okay, completing 12-for-25, 113 yards, no picks and no TDs, the injury-ravaged defense played like a sieve. Redskins running back Clinton Portis had two touchdowns and 148 yards rushing. The Skins won 31-7 and the Giants suddenly had lost five straight.

If the Giants players were grumbling at having to bear the burden of rookie QB play, many kept their team faces on.

"I thought if that's the direction that our head coach wants us to go, then it doesn't change our focus," another Giant said. "I trust the coaches. If they have confidence in a player, then we all should."

With Manning seemingly getting the hang of being an NFL starter, many were surprised by his meltdown in Baltimore. Playing more like a Division III QB, Manning watched second-year QB Kyle Boller toss a career-high 4 TDs, while he turned the ball over three times, and completed just 4 passes for 27 yards in a 37-14 debacle. In 13 possessions, Manning had marched the Giants to a total of just 58 yards. It was more than his head cheerleader Coughlin could take. He put Warner in with six minutes to play and lucky 13 responded with a 78-yard drive for the team's first touchdown in three games. He finished his two drives with 127 yards passing.

Yet, Manning was still the starter. More unbelievable, the Giants at 5-8 were not out of the playoffs. Even with Manning's nearly improbable 0.0 rating.

Said another Giants player, "If they (the coaches) feel confident that they're going to put someone in there over someone else, I expect that guy to be able to play. ... So he's a rookie. I don't care about that. If you're out there the team expects you to play well."

Manning must have heard the anonymous voices, because in his fifth start he did play like a first-round QB. Despite going up against the inhuman 12-0 Roethlisberger, Manning made his brother Peyton and daddy Archie proud. His stats showed dramatic improvement: 16-for-23, 182 yards, two scores and a controversial pick. The Giants were happy, yet they still lost 33-30 for their 7th-straight loss.

More of the same on Christmas weekend. Pitted against the disappointing Bengals, the Giants seemed to come to play. Barber carried 22 times for 109 yards for his 9th 100-yard game of the season, and even Ron Dayne chipped in, averaging more than five yards a tote with six carries for 33. Unfortunately, except for a 1-yard TD by Barber in the second quarter, Manning could only drive the team to five Steve Christie field goals. Still with less than a minute to play, the Giants led 22-17. But, as you know, the team would give up a 4th-and-10 play, then a TD to Chad Johnson to lose it. Though Manning played well in the second half, he missed on eight consecutive passes in the first quarter.

Then in the final game, after Dallas went ahead 24-21 with 1:52 left, and Giants fans thinking the young Manning would again end up on the losing side, he showed a glimpse (we hope) of the future. With a 1st-and-10 at their own 34, Manning hit Barber for 14 yards and Dallas was hit with a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty. Suddenly with great field position at the Cowboys 28, Barber knocked off a 10-yard run, Manning hit Marcellus Rivers for five, then Barber had two more runs for 10 yards. Now there were just 16 ticks on the clock with a 1st and goal from the 3. Manning stepped to the line and did something entirely Peyton-esque. He called an audible and gave it to Barber for the final 3 yards and the victory.

In snapping the team's eight-straight losses with Manning's first victory, the final storyline of Chapter II may give fans quiet confidence for 2005. Despite Coughlin treating the second half of the season like a second round of preseason games for Manning, he at least stuck his head out of the ground more than mentor Bill Parcells, who, despite also going 6-10, continued to blindly start 41-year-old Vinny Testaverde till the last agonizing second. But, considering that just two more victories may have given the Giants a playoff berth, it's obvious that playing Warner a few more games would have given New York's 2004 season a feeling that it was still the best of times, than the reality that it was the worst.

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