Straight Talk with Jim Sabo

Giants hold 5 of 8 championship keys. With the playoffs right around the corner what are the keys to being a championship team and how do the Giants stack up with those keys? That's a good question. There is a formula for being a championship team. Most teams know what it is, however most teams have difficulty obtaining it. If we could bottle it, we would make a lot of money selling it to the teams. Knowing the formula and applying it are two very different things.

1. Consistency of play – To be a championship team, consistency of play must be present. This means that a team does not experience too many peaks and valleys in its play. All three units – offense, defense and special teams – have to work together efficiently, like a well-oiled machine. It is very rare that a one-dimensional team can be a true champion. We have two very recent examples of this. The pre-2005 Colts were a one-dimensional team. They were great on offense, but their defense was poor and their special teams were only average. Now that they have fixed their defense, they are a real contender. The other example we would mention is the Bears. Again, they are another one-dimensional team. They play great defense but their offense is anemic. Their story is yet to be written, but unless they pick it up a bit on offense they will not be true champions.

Unfortunately, for Giants' fans, the team's consistency of play has not been good. They have become consistent on defense and with the exception of one blip (Vikings game) the special teams have been consistently good. The problem we see is with the offense and in particular Eli Manning. We still don't know what we will get from him from one week to the next. He can look great at times and awful the next. Eventually he will be consistently good, but he isn't there yet. They could also use some consistently good play from the receivers. With Manning being still somewhat erratic, they need the receivers to hang onto the ball. When the QB is erratic, dropped balls are magnified. That's why this could be a very frustrating year. The NFC is wide open and the Giants have a great shot, but it certainly looks like their chances will be riding on Manning's shoulders. If this were two or three years down the road, we would be very comfortable, but it's not. It's right now and they need Manning to mature quickly.

2. Run the ball – If a team can run the ball effectively, then their offense should work well. We still firmly believe that the run opens up the passing game. Again, we will use this year's Colts as an example. They can and do run the ball with Edgerin James. Peyton Manning does not have to throw the ball as much because defenses have to respect the run. Defenses can no longer ignore the run and overload the secondary to stop their passing game. If they do, James will kill them. Balance is a good thing.

The Giants, thanks to Tiki Barber and improved line play, can run the ball. The recent Dallas game was a great example. While it wasn't pretty as Barber did not have a lot of long runs from scrimmage, they kept pounding the ball at a very tough Dallas run defense and it worked. It allowed things to happen in the passing game. It opened things up for Manning, but he couldn't always capitalize on the opportunities. If the Giants are going to move toward being a championship team, they must continue to run the ball effectively.

3. Stop the run – It's the inverse of being able to run the ball. If a team can stop the run consistently it can force the opponent into a passing game. When a team has to pass to move the ball, that's where the turnovers should come. This is why this year's Bears defense is so good. They do a good job of stopping the run and when a team has to pass against them, they turn their outstanding defensive line loose and the sacks and turnovers come. It's about getting the opponents in long yardage situations and that's what happens when a team can stop the run.

The Giants can stop the run. They are very good at it because they have two DEs, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, who can play the run as well as rush the passer. When the DTs are clogging up the middle it's a thing of beauty to watch. When Kendrick Clancy, Fred Robbins, Kenderick Allen and a healthy William Joseph are doing their thing it makes a world of difference for the DEs and Antonio Pierce. It allows the others to make plays. When the D-Line is performing at a peak level it also helps the secondary tremendously. When Strahan and the guys are flying around, the DBs have looked a whole lot better. The Giants are in great shape here.

4. Injuries – Avoid them. Obviously, easier said than done, but it is an important key. The demise of the Eagles has a lot to do with the T.O. debacle, but truthfully, they might have withstood the whole thing had they been healthier. Forgetting about the normal bumps and bruises every team encounters, the following key Eagles are currently on Injured Reserve and out for the year: Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Hank Fraley, Tra Thomas, Lito Sheppard, J.R. Reed, Todd Pinkston and Dirk Johnson. In this day and age of free agency it is difficult to build quality depth. So when injuries hit, often teams don't have capable replacements.

Knock on wood the Giants have been in great shape injury wise. The only players of any consequence they have on Injured Reserve are Barrett Green and recently Will Peterson. The linebacker play has been fine without Green, but they have missed Peterson's presence in the secondary. Joseph has missed some time recently, but it has not been a catastrophe without him. Certainly the Peterson injury has been the most critical.

5. Coaching – If you look at the roster of championship teams, they all have had great coaches. The clearest and best current example is the Patriots with Bill Belichick and his staff. It is safe to say that Belichick and his former staff that included Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel out-coached their opposition many times.

The coaching key as it applies to the Giants is evolving. We see some very good signs. The defense has come around after being awful in the first six games. Players like Umenyiora, Clancy, Nick Greisen, Justin Tuck and Chris Snee among others are making good progress. Still, some others like Corey Webster, Curtis Deloatch, Frank Walker and Visanthe Shiancoe are not. Another good sign is that the team is playing hard. Even though it didn't work, we like that this coach will try to make plays to win the game as they did in the fourth quarter of the Dallas game. We also like that this coach is not afraid to throw the ball down the field as so many others are. They also do reasonably well in time management and for the most part, their play calling has been good. As a staff they manage the game well and they now seem committed to offensive balance. There are however, some things we don't like. There are too many penalties. We still think they should have centered the ball for Jay Feely in Seattle. We aren't crazy about the recent deployment of Umenyiora in pass coverage. We love the idea of moving him around but keeping him in coverage makes them weak at two spots. It hurts the coverage and when they don't send him they are eliminating one of their two best rushers. We also don't like their inconsistency with Willie Ponder. He fumbled once and he was inactive for several weeks thereafter, yet Luke Petitgout can make 500 false starts and other penalties and he doesn't miss a down. Let's see what happens to Walker. He started at nickel against Dallas and committed two horrible penalties on the opening drive. After that it was back to Webster. We might not see Walker active for a while.

6. Prosperity – Great teams know how to take advantage of gifts and can handle prosperity. When a great team has another team on the ropes, they deliver the knockout blow. They step on their throat. Great teams win the games they are supposed to win. When they are given a gift they accept it and use it to their advantage. The Eagles, before this year, are an example of a team that always seemed to capitalize on gifts.

The Giants so far, have not shown they know how to handle prosperity. There have been so many examples this year. They still play down to the competition too frequently. Look at the Seattle game. They busted their collective butts in that game but couldn't make a field goal. True championship teams kick the field goal at the end of regulation, get on the plane and go home with a win. Even in the Dallas game, that game should not have been as close as it was. This may be a major flaw with this team.

7. Front office – The great teams like the Patriots put the right people on the roster. They draft well. The sign quality free agents, and not always the high priced ones. They manage their cap well. They make sure they have quality depth. The opposite of the Patriots is the Lions. Their problems start at the top where ownership continues to put its faith and trust in Matt Millen. It's a horrible situation.

Of late, the Giants have done a good job with this. The recent offseason moves they made have turned out well. The only area they got caught a little short is in the secondary, but there are extenuating circumstances. Peterson's injury and the slow development of Webster, Deloatch and Walker have hurt. They made an outstanding move by signing Terrell Buckley, a veteran who should play a tremendous role down the stretch. It's not easy to come up with a quality player at this point in the season, but Buckley should quickly become the nickel at the very least. He should be just what the doctor ordered at corner.

8. Luck – Luck, they say, is the residue of design and we firmly believe it. The great teams make their own luck. Still, it doesn't hurt for a bounce to go the right way from time to time. It can come in the form of a tipped pass that is intercepted, a fumble that bounces right and is recovered, or an official's call. Good or bad luck can happen in any number of ways during a game.

This one is still unwritten. No one knows how this one will play out for the Giants. So far we would say that have been pretty lucky. Some examples are: They went a good stretch against backup QBs. There have not been an inordinate number of bad calls that hurt them and they have had their share of calls that have helped them.

We mentioned eight factors that go into making a championship team. Here's how we would grade the Giants:

Consistency of play (C-). Much is riding on Manning's shoulders

Run the ball (A-). Barber has been magnificent, but the running game still has room for improvement.

Stop the run (A). Because of the tremendous play of the defensive line, they have emerged.

Injuries (A). So far they have been very fortunate.

Coaching (B). With a few exceptions, so far so good.

Prosperity (D). They need to take advantage of what is handed to them more often. It's an old habit they need to break.

Front office (A-). For the most part, they have the right people on the roster.

Luck (Incomplete). So far the luck factor has evened out. Who knows what the future holds?


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