Illustrations have yet to be found for the cover, but when they get around to it, they might want to consider a fiery dragon-eating-man theme. It could get that ugly next year, considering what the now-retired running back meant to the team down the stretch.
It took a team-record 237-yard rushing day in Washington to get the Giants into the playoffs at all. And then Barber popped a 137-yard effort against the Eagles, which the Giants gradually wasted by their usual failure to score deep inside the red zone.
That was only one of a number of issues that plagued the Giants over what amounted to a 2-7 ending to a once-promising season. Injuries, undisciplined penalties, questionable play-calling and the utter regression of Eli Manning served to undermine everything the Giants built in a 6-2 start.
Manning, whose passer rating was up around 90.0 the first part of the season, finished at 77.0 as his completion average dropped and his interceptions rose. He made some horrible passing decisions down the stretch, almost none of which were caused by pressure. Despite the loss of left tackle Luke Petitgout to a broken fibula in the ninth game, Manning remained a fairly well-protected quarterback. Yet, he often appeared rattled in the face of pressure and mystified at the defenses he was trying to read.
There was little doubt that the absence of Amani Toomer, out with a torn ACL after the eighth game against Houston, had an effect on Manning's performance. Without the reliable receiver to go to on the sideline, Manning's only real targets downfield became Plaxico Burress, who often drew double coverage, and tight end Jeremy Shockey, whose sprained right ankle never really healed. Tim Carter, starting in place of Toomer, was never really a prime target option, and fast second-round rookie Sinorice Moss was an afterthought after missing much of the season with a quadriceps injury.
So, too, fell the defense when Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan went out two weeks apart with hip-flexor and right foot sprains, respectively. The pass rush was never the same after that despite the efforts of first-round defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, whose play gradually fell off toward the end of the season.
The defensive middle also showed weakness in the running game. With Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins getting pushed around relentlessly, the once-proud run defense was reduced to a grasping, tackle-missing unit that allowed 100-yard team rushing efforts in eight of its last nine games, including a season-high 236-yard allowance against New Orleans.
The secondary had problems for all but a small part of the season, allowing way too much cushion at most times in a read-and-react style philosophy. As has been the case in years past, there were also far too many dropped interceptions.
Mostly, though, it was the inability of the defense to get off the field. Bad enough that the offense couldn't control the ball most of the time, but then the defense would falter on third down. It resulted in opponents putting together 20 drives of 11 plays or more that further exhausted the unit.
All of that came into play in the playoff game, especially after the Giants came back from a 20-10 deficit to tie the game at 20, with Manning getting out of a first-and-30 jam to produce a touchdown. But the defense failed miserably on the final series, allowing Brian Westbrook to run over Kiwanuka and Umenyiora for 33 of the field-goal drive's 46 yards.
The improvement of Manning, the elimination of undisciplined penalties, and the shoring up of a leaky, battered defense all will be on Tom Coughlin's to-do list for next season. How he fixes them will have a lot to do with whether the Giants make the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
Whatever happens, they'll have to do it with Brandon Jacobs leading the way at running back. Tiki Barber is retired.
--RB Tiki Barber, who finished his career as the Giants' all-time leading rusher with 10,449 yards, received a strange present from his offensive line to commemorate his retirement. It was a leathered bull's scrotum, suitable for holding pens, candy or other small items. At its base was the inscription: "Big Baller. Thanks for making us look good. 2006 O-Line." Barber rushed for 371 yards and three touchdowns in the final two games of his career.
--QB Eli Manning, who regressed throughout the season, finished the year with a 77.0 rating, which put him just under the top 50 percent of league quarterbacks. His 57.7 percent completion average ranked him 21st, 10 spots higher than last season.
--WR Plaxico Burress, who had no catches in the last playoff game against Carolina last season, finished with five catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns in the playoff loss to Philadelphia. One of the big knocks against him is that he spends his offseason at Drew Rosenhaus' training facility in Miami instead of with QB Eli Manning at Giants Stadium. But Burress didn't plan on changing his ways. When asked if he would do his training in New Jersey if a new coach took over, Burress said, "Tell him I'll see him in training camp."
--After becoming one of the league's best special teams units in 2005, the Giants sank to one of its worst in 2006. Partly because of an ankle injury to David Tyree, but mostly because of the inability of anybody including returners to get downfield, the Giants ranked 27th in average starting position off kickoffs, and only 16th in average starting position allowed on kickoffs.
--RB Brandon Jacobs had only two carries for eight yards in the playoff game, but he said he can fill in for Tiki Barber next season. "They gave me a great opportunity to play this year, and I hope they give me an opportunity next year to carry the team," Jacobs said. "There's is not any doubt in my mind the Giants running back of the future is standing right here in front of my locker."
--DE Mathias Kiwanuka, the first-round rookie who started off so well when injuries beset the defensive front, finished quietly. He had only one sack in his last four games and was rarely seen in the backfield on the pass rush. He was also eaten up numerous times by the run blocking, especially in the Eagles' final, game-winning field-goal drive.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Let's not lose track of the good things as well. I know we're in a mood, and we've been that way for most of the year, where it's all negative. But it's not all negative." -- Coach Tom Coughlin on the Giants' 23-20 wild-card playoff loss to the Eagles and, by extension, the 8-8 season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
When Ernie Accorsi decided last season to make 2006 his final season, he made a point of tying up many of the team's key players with contract extensions. As a result, the Giants are in position to come back nearly intact for 2007.
That might not necessarily be good news considering the second-half spiral of 2006. With a very young and still raw RB Brandon Jacobs taking over for the retired Tiki Barber, and with DE Michael Strahan due back from a severe foot sprain at the age of 36, both the offense and defense might be in trouble.
For now, though, the main issue will be getting QB Eli Manning back into a stable, calm frame of mind after an ineffective and nerve-wracking second half of the season. His mechanics -- throwing off the back foot and seeing the right reads -- need straightening out. To help, the Giants probably will go after a complementary wide receiver to Plaxico Burress in the draft or free agency to give him another target downfield if Amani Toomer doesn't make it back completely from ACL surgery.
A new quarterbacks coach might be in order here. It has been suggested that Tom Coughlin bring in Manning's mentor from Ole Miss, Dave Cutcliffe, who currently works at the University of Tennessee. But Cutcliffe has health problems, and the stresses of NFL life might not be conducive to his welfare. Whoever is brought in, if anyone, will have a lot of work to do, since Manning's confidence was rocked by a second consecutive season of second-half struggles.
The team must also concentrating on reworking an ineffective secondary for a second straight year, especially at cornerback, where young Corey Webster took a step backward on the left side. Perhaps at free safety, too, where Will Demps missed way too many tackles as he continued his comeback from knee reconstruction.
The linebackers are suspect, too, with Carlos Emmons probably headed out the door because of declining play.
Overall, the defense needs a more aggressive attitude that can only be attained through a change of coordinator. As of this writing, however, Coughlin had no plans to fire Tim Lewis.
COACHING CAROUSEL: Tom Coughlin was given a one-year extension to the original four-year, $12 million deal that would have sent him into next year as a lame duck coach. The ownership duo of team president John Mara and treasurer Jonathan Tisch sat through two days of meetings with Coughlin, and they were convinced that his vision for the future success of the franchise fit in with their own philosophies. Plus, the absence of big-time coaching candidates this year caused them to stick with the gruff taskmaster for another season.
The same cannot be said for some of Coughlin's assistants. Though no changes have been made as yet, it is believed Coughlin may jettison defensive coordinator Tim Lewis for the early problems against the pass and the late problems against the run the group experienced. Dom Capers could be a candidate to replace Lewis, who on Wednesday interviewed for the Miami job.
Quarterbacks coach Kevin Gilbride is also on the hot seat for the regression of Eli Manning. But he may well stick around as the offensive play-caller, since Coughlin likes his style, with a new quarterbacks coach being brought in to tutor the mechanically flawed Manning.
FREE AGENT UPDATE: The Giants are in good shape as far as potential free agent losses, as outgoing GM Ernie Accorsi made it a point to lock up most of the key players on offense and defense last season. The only big unrestricted free agents are C Shaun O'Hara and K Jay Feely.
The Giants like both players, and both players have said they'd like to come back. The team should have no problem re-signing Feely, a reliable and physical kicker who won't ask for an exorbitant sum. But O'Hara may be a problem.
He's a good center, but not great. Yet, he's one of the best centers on the open market and could command a big number. The Giants probably will be unwilling to pay him his price, especially considering backup G/C Rich Seubert proved he can handle the position during O'Hara's injury absence this year. Unless O'Hara is willing to play for the Giants' offer, they'll gladly let him go and hand the job over to the gritty Seubert.
SS Gibril Wilson is a restricted free agent who undoubtedly will be offered the draft-position tender and be kept as a starter.
Starting LB Brandon Short, backup TE Visanthe Shiancoe, backup CB Frank Walker and backup G Grey Ruegamer are also unrestricted. Short said he'd like to be back, and it's unlikely he'll have a big market after an up-and-down year. Shiancoe is needed, but Walker and Ruegamer are probably gone.
Don't expect anyone to get a franchise tag, since the Giants are loathe to use the designation. Besides, if they're not willing to spend a lot of money on O'Hara, there's nobody else worth those kinds of numbers.
FEELING A DRAFT: The Giants will draft 20th. As things stand now, they sorely need some young, aggressive cornerbacks who can cover and tackle, a couple of linebackers, a smallish and fast running back to serve as a change of pace for Brandon Jacobs, and another fast wide receiver.
They probably will try to rebuild the secondary again through free agency. But with former second-round pick Corey Webster regressing this year, they'll need to draft at least one player who can push him at left cornerback. The secondary was an absolute disaster this year, despite a complete overhaul last offseason.
They also proved they're in sore need of a few more special teams types who can run downfield and make a tackle.
Cornerback: Sam Madison is old, Corey Webster had a horrible year, and R.W. McQuarters is best used at the nickel. So they would do well to spend a first-round pick on a sure-tackling cover corner who can at least push Webster the first year, and maybe take over at one side or the other the following season.
Wide receiver: If Amani Toomer isn't the same following knee reconstruction, they'll need somebody else to complement Plaxico Burress downfield since they have no faith in Tim Carter or, at this point, Sinorice Moss.
Running back: The Giants have their new featured back in Brandon Jacobs, but now need a set of young, healthy and fast legs to present a counter to his power running style.
MEDICAL WATCH: DE Michael Strahan will not need surgery on his sprained right Lisfranc ligament, but it's uncertain how far along the 35-year-old pass rusher will be once training camp arrives.
--WR Amani Toomer, who underwent left knee reconstruction nine weeks ago, is rehabbing and probably won't make it for minicamp. But he said he's aiming for training camp.
--KR Chad Morton, who underwent left ACL surgery, said the doctors were happy they found the situation better than expected once they went into the knee. He's expected back for training camp.
--LB LaVar Arrington, who went out with a torn left Achilles tendon, should be ready for training camp.
--CB Corey Webster, placed on injured reserve at season's end with a torn hip labrum and turf toe, will have cleanup surgery and could be ready for minicamp.
--T Luke Petitgout, on injured reserve with a broken left fibula and high ankle sprain, was close enough to returning that he should be ready for the offseason program and minicamp.
--DE Justin Tuck, who had a screw implanted in his left foot a month after suffering a Lisfranc foot sprain, will need another surgery to take the screw out. He should be ready for training camp.
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