New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin joined local radio station WFAN on Thursday afternoon, and considering how stoic and dry Coughlin usually is, it was surprising to hear so much emotion in the voice of a man who has incredibly high expectations on an annual basis.
Coughlin said the pain of a failed season was "almost indescribable." Some might have trouble feeling sorry for a man who has won two rings in six years, but he also pointed out that these seasons are tougher to swallow when you've been on top of the mountain so often and so recently.
If you're searching for answers, Giants fans, we've got 'em. Here's is exactly what went wrong for Big Blue in 2012...
Where/when it all began to go wrong: Sunday, Oct. 21 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
The Giants' season took its initial turn for the worse in a victory. Strange, I know. And what's even stranger is that New York actually won the game after this one, too.
But this is where it became evident this team had some glaring issues that could interrupt its pursuit of a repeat championship. The G-men were outplayed at home by the division-rival Washington Redskins—the very team that would end up preventing them from making it back to the postseason.
One week prior to this game, the Giants had pummeled the big, bad 49ers on the road. They had won four of five since losing to the Cowboys in Week 1, with that only loss coming by just two points in Philadelphia (before the Eagles began spiraling out of control).
How it all began to go wrong: They were flat
That was the biggest problem against the Redskins in Week 7. They looked exhausted. Before Eli Manning hit Victor Cruz on a 77-yard, game-winning touchdown pass in the dying minutes, it looked like this was a potential trap game. But that wasn't the case, because they were just as flat in the following three weeks against Dallas, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Manning's world-famous fourth-quarter magic saved the Giants (and terrible coverage on that final touchdown didn't hurt), but there were warning signs that week that this team was in trouble. Manning was overthrowing receivers at a startling rate and the pass rush wasn't getting enough pressure on Robert Griffin III. Hakeem Nicks wasn't himself and the Giants just didn't have any rhythm.
Why it continued to go wrong: Manning never regained the magic from 2011 and the pass rush disappeared
The Giants won Super Bowl XLVI because they could score when it mattered most and because they could sack opposing quarterbacks at an exceptional rate. But from Week 8 forward, Manning lost that fourth-quarter magic. That "tired arm" seemed to come back for a week or two after the bye, but the two-time Super Bowl MVP just didn't have that special scoring touch this season.
From Week 7 forward, the Giants averaged only 5.8 points per fourth quarter, which was below the league average. In their 2011 Super Bowl season, they led the league with 9.8 points per fourth quarter.
Overall, Manning's fourth-quarter passer rating dropped from 111.0 in 2011 (with 18 touchdowns) to just 90.2 in 2012 (with just eight touchdowns).
It didn't help that Nicks wasn't himself due to injuries, Ahmad Bradshaw was in and out of the lineup, the offensive line was inconsistent when it came to pass protection and the defense was gashed time and again. But the Giants had overcome huge obstacles like those in previous seasons. The big difference this year—in addition to Manning's mediocre play—was that the pass rush didn't get the job done.
The New York D finished 2011 tied for second in the NFL with 48 sacks, but they had just 33 this season. What's most astonishing about that decline is that Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck were much healthier this season than they were the previous year. They had both of those guys complementing young phenom Jason Pierre-Paul, but they just couldn't get consistent pressure.
They had a season-high six sacks in that superb Week 6 performance at Candlestick, but from that point forward they averaged just 1.9 sacks per game, ranking fourth-last in the NFL during that stretch.
Say what you will about a beatable secondary, but the Giants still managed to record more interceptions and takeaways this year than in 2011. And rip Bradshaw all you want for being fragile, but the league's worst running game from 2011 increased its yards-per-carry average from 3.5 to a solid 4.6. And blame the offensive line if it makes you feel better, but Manning was pressured far less often this season than he was last year.
It's always been about Manning's arm and the pass rush. Both faded by late October and neither fully recovered. That's why the Giants' season concluded before New Year's Eve.
Two plays that defined what went wrong
Sunday, Nov. 4 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Steelers 24, Giants 20 with 3:55 remaining in the fourth quarter. New York's ball on its own 12-yard line.
This is where the Giants shined in 2011. Eighty-eight yards to travel for the game-winning touchdown. But on first down, with no pressure, Manning throws a duck toward a seemingly open Victor Cruz.
It might have been on Cruz, but all that matters is it was poor communication. The Steelers were able to dial up the pressure after that and the Giants went three-and-out. They'd never get the ball back. That's the kind of play the Giants rarely screwed up in 2011.
Monday, Dec. 3 at FedEx Field in Landover, MD. Redskins 17, Giants 16 with 2:19 remaining in the fourth quarter. Washington's ball with a second-and-eight at its own 41-yard line.
This is an opportunity for the Giants' pass rush to step up and get pressure on Griffin with the Redskins trying to hang onto a one-point lead late. They need to make a play here on what is a fairly obvious passing down, but nobody gets even remotely close to RG3.
Griffin would easily find a wide-open Pierre Garcon for a first-down completion and the Giants would never get the ball back. Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora and Tuck had 14 fourth-quarter sacks last season. This year, they had just 4.5.
How to make it right
A healthy Nicks would help, but the Giants need to spend some time, energy and money on the offensive line. On defense, they'll likely cut ties with Umenyiora and have to invest in another pass-rusher to support JPP, because Tuck et al aren't getting the job done.
Obviously the entire defense needs to be upgraded, but the Giants have to ensure that their sack total increases dramatically next season. If that happens and they can support Manning better on offense, there's no reason to believe they can't make a Super Bowl run again in 2013.