They were 6-2 at the midpoint of the season, despite a bunch of free-agent losses and an infirmary full of injuries. Eli Manning was on his way to joining the MVP conversation. Tom Coughlin was earning praise as a possible NFL Coach of the Year.
So what happened? How is it that the Giants are suddenly playing for their season, facing two seemingly unwinnable games and the possibility that they’ll be 6-6 and riding a four-game losing streak when they travel to Dallas for a big NFC East showdown in two weeks?
What happened is what always happens to the Giants: Something. It almost doesn’t matter what. Injuries. Poor play. A receiver shooting himself in the leg. They always start fast and they always finish like they’re a kid at a water park flying down the biggest slide.
This latest splash down has put them in a precarious situation. Tom Coughlin -- who has a 47-17 record in the first halves of season, but a miserable 24-34 record in second halves – has to figure out a way out of his mess while his team plays at New Orleans (7-3) on Monday night and home against the undefeated, defending champion Packers (11-0) on Sunday. Otherwise they’ll head into Dallas reeling, and dealing with seemingly annual questions about Coughlin’s job.
Is it already too late? Is the collapse already in their heads? At least one prominent Giant hopes the answer to the latter is “Yes”.
“I hope it is in our heads,” defensive end Justin Tuck said. “I hope it’s fresh in our heads, knowing that we can’t allow ourselves to do that. The good thing is we don’t have any time to feel sorry for ourselves. We don’t have time to be down on ourselves or wonder what’s happening here. We’ve got to figure things out right and figure it out now.”
“You talk about second-half collapses,” Tuck added, “if we get down to the Saints it could be an historical second-half collapse.”
Of course, as Tuck knows, in order to avoid history they need to learn from it first. And the things that led to this collapse are similar what led to their collapses of the past:
They don’t want to use them as an excuse, but they are an excuse. They have 10 players on injured reserve and nine others that have been cut with injury settlements. They lost a starting cornerback and a starting middle linebacker for the season. Tuck has been a physical shell of himself and defensive end Osi Umenyiora lost several games. Lately they’ve been without running back Ahmad Bradshaw and linebacker Michael Boley and receivers Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham have been battling injuries. And they also may have lost their left tackle for the season. No team can seriously be expected to overcome all that.
Lack of emotion
Safety Antrel Rolle blasted his team for being “too calm” and passively letting the Eagles beat them – and beat them up last Sunday. He wanted some sort of response to Philly’s taunting and late hits. Overall, though, this isn’t a fiery team and it doesn’t have a fiery leader. Eli Manning and Justin Tuck are the big voices and their voices are respected, but soft. When things go wrong – as they have the last few years – there’s no fire and brimstone. There’s no Ray Lewis to angrily raise the temperature. Maybe Rolle will be the guy, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Big players come through in big moments, and that’s been sorely lacking in recent years. Eli Manning has done it most of the year, but wasn’t able to come through against the 49ers or Eagles. During the Super Bowl run in 2007, so many players played big in key spots. It was a different player every week. But in the years since? Down the stretch, the biggest players have come up mostly small.
Too much pressure on Eli Manning
This started in 2008, when Plaxico Burress took himself out of the Giants’ lineup with a stray bullet. Everyone looked to Manning to carry the depleted team, to turn someone else into his No. 1 receiver. He never did. He’s great at making the pieces work, at seeing the big picture and doing what he’s supposed to do. But improvising has never been his strongpoint, and when pieces are taken away he has trouble adjusting. It’s subtle. It’s like throwing the ball to where a receiver is supposed to be, without adjusting to the fact that the receiver he’s throwing to can’t get there. Now you want him to win with an offensive line crumbling in front of him, a run game stagnating, and a defense not keeping the score down. This is the first year he’s seemed fully capable of doing that, but it may be too much for him to do it alone.
Too much talk, not enough action
This team loves to talk about their issues and tell everyone how overlooked and underappreciated they are. They talk about needing fire, but don’t show it. They talk about not having another second-half collapse, then go out and lose the first two games of the second half. Their 2007 motto was “Talk is cheap, play the game” which had more to do with all their 2006 griping about their coach. That team loved to talk, too. But it found a way at the end to back up their words. This team, and the teams in 2008-10, never got around to the playing part.
Those are the problems. Those are always the problems. And they need to fix those issues fast, otherwise this whole second-half disaster is just going to happen again.
“It doesn’t matter. The story is still being written,” said defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka. “Regardless of what it says now, it all depends on how we finish the season.”
The finish line is approaching quickly. The end of the story begins right now.
By RALPH VACCHIANO