Giants Let Go of Rope Way Too Early

Few teams are able to build off huge starts and coast into the playoffs. The NFL is largely a collection of grunts that must fight to the very end, spitting out adversity, moving their legs and accelerating their heart rates non-stop to snatch a playoff berth.

Baltimore and the Jets, for example, made the playoffs because of their toughness. The Cowboys showed toughness down the stretch while being reminded of past December failures.

The Giants missed the playoffs because they lacked toughness. They lacked mental toughness. They lacked physical toughness. They were fragile.

The Giants had enough talent to sneak into the tournament. Even with all their injuries, and they were significant, the Giants could have used the cushion from a soft early season schedule to make the dance. But they weren't tough enough. Picture two contenders in a tug-of-war for the last playoff spot – both playing hurt, both without key personnel – the Giants were the team that let go of the rope instead of digging deeper.

They allowed those injuries and flawed defensive schemes to keep them from the playoffs. They severely lacked leadership. They were mentally weak. Put it all together and you have an underachieving 8-8 team; its first season out of the playoffs since 2004. Put it together and you have an organization with an enormous task to build a championship contender for next season.

How do you define intangibles such as toughness and heart? One way is to study how teams respond to bad luck and poor play. Tough-minded teams find ways to win games after experiencing such problems. The Giants? They failed to make one significant comeback all season.

You know how many games the Giants won after trailing in the second half? Two. Both were against Dallas. And both were slim second-half deficits: four points in the first matchup, three points in the second.

Worse, the Giants displayed a startling propensity for turning early deficits into blowout losses. They lost a remarkable five games by at least 20 points. They allowed at least 40 points on five occasions.

They seemed unprepared against New Orleans. They looked disinterested in the first Eagles game, a 40-17 loss. The Giants showed up in Denver in body only. They lost to Carolina, which was out of the playoff race, by 32 points with their own postseason berth at stake.

"We definitely have to regain some of our hard-nosed toughness, the physical aspect of the game,'' Coach Tom Coughlin said a day after the Giants capped an embarrassing season with another embarrassing loss, 44-7 to the Vikings. "And that will be accomplished.''

It will be accomplished only if the Giants improve their leadership void. Every Super Bowl contender has a handful of guys who keep their team on the straight and narrow. Some of them, like Michael Strahan, are rah-rah guys. Others, like Amani Toomer, are more reserved. But the common denominator is that they are productive pros who have the ability to influence teammates.

"Somebody has to step up,'' general manager Jerry Reese said. "This is a great opportunity for some people to step up and be the leaders. We felt like we would have more leaders to come forward, and I still do think there are some leaders on this team. But they have to come forward and be the leaders.''

Exactly who led the Giants this season? Linebacker Antonio Pierce, usually credited with handling the responsibility, showed a decline in production before his season-ending injury. Defensive end Justin Tuck admitted he felt misplaced as a steady leader while enduring a sub-par season because of his nagging shoulder injury.

Fellow defensive end Osi Umenyiora had a down year, no matter what he says, and might be a poor candidate to lead anyone given his odd behavior during the year. He certainly wasn't leading anyone when he skipped out on the team after an apparent tiff with rookie defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan. Umenyiora wasn't leading anyone when, upset over playing time against Carolina, he suggested a change of scenery.

"I think sometimes we try to be too nice and not say anything that might ruffle a feather here or there,'' Tuck said. "Obviously, we need to evaluate that and I guess (have a) more hands-on approach with it.''

The Giants' greatest leadership needs were on defense, the unit that failed them most, the unit that was often out of sync under Sheridan. There was a lot out of Sheridan's control, namely God-awful tackling and mental mistakes. But far too often, the Giants were in the wrong defense, confused by the defense called or simply unable to execute the scheme.

The unit showed only flashes of improvement throughout the season. Sheridan paid for it with his job, a move the Giants had no choice but to make. Now it's clear, even with all the injuries, that the Giants need some new players to join a new coordinator.

There are other issues, of course. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw together might lack the durability to provide a sound running game. They played much of the season with an assortment of bumps and bruises. Jacobs didn't run all that well when he was seemingly healthy.

DJ Ware doesn't appear to be the answer. Gartrell Johnson had 13 carries as a rookie after being plucked off waivers. Andre Brown, of course, missed his rookie season after rupturing his Achilles' tendon during training camp.

Eli Manning and the growth of his young receivers are the shining stars of the season. But the offensive line showed some chinks. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride was typically hot and cold in his play-calling and game preparation. Gilbride might have done enough to save his job. But Coughlin and management figure to take a long hard look at Gilbride's body of work before keeping him on board.

Heck, even punter Jeff Feagles, historically as reliable as a baby's smile, had a bad season. His punts weren't as accurate as in the past, and he seemed to have lost a fair amount of foot strength.

The Giants have a lot of work in the offseason. They need better players. They need tougher players. And they need leaders.

Kevin Gleason covers the Giants for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y.

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