The New York Giants are not purposefully attempting to tank, though with countless injuries sustained and unlikely names brought in on a weekly basis, what may soon be an incidental 0-7 season is indiscernible from a more calculated failure.
This Monday, rookie Michael Cox was the lonesome Giants running back at practice and, should he remain healthy until next Monday night (seriously, knock on wood), will be the starter in the backfield against the visiting Minnesota Vikings (1-4).
"He’s young," Tom Coughlin vaguely told the New York Times on Monday. "He obviously has a lot going, and there are some things right now we feel good about."
There isn't much to feel good about in New York, as it has been more of a sketch comedy than a season thus far for Big Blue. Eli Manning's first pass was picked off by a defensive lineman, No. 1 receiver Hakeem Nicks complained like Gisele Bundchen, Brandon Jacobs tweeted the front office for his old job and the Giants quickly became a winless, defunct and dormant team.
The Giants and the rookie Cox have something in common: New York is a few short weeks from being utterly irrelevant in the 2013 NFL season, and Cox was just one pick from being "Mr. Irrelevant" in the 2013 draft, selected 253rd overall in the seventh round.
Cox is a 6'0", 220-pound, 24-year-old Boston, Mass. native who was a youth hockey standout in the professional pipeline of the Northeast. He attended Avon Old Farms, a boarding school in Connecticut, for the hockey program. He didn't take his first snap until high school but quickly found success wearing cleats instead of blades and became a solid recruit.
He decided to play football for the Michigan Wolverines, where he redshirted in 2008, failed to win the starting role the following three seasons and graduated. With another year of eligibility, he traveled back home to the UMass Minutemen for the 2012 season.
Playing in all 12 games, he compiled 710 yards on 198 carries for a 3.7-yard average and five touchdowns in his final collegiate year. His one 100-plus rushing performance was against Miami of Ohio, in which he picked up 188 yards on 30 attempts for two scores. In the Giants preseason, Cox had 18 carries for 32 yards and three receptions for 49 yards.
But his dimensions, his unorthodox past and his slightly hollow stat lines hardly matter at this point.
Cox is the fifth and only remaining option: Andre Brown broke his left leg for the second straight year in preseason; David Wilson is currently sidelined with a neck injury; Da'Rel Scott was waived after Week 4, re-signed after Wilson's injury and strained his hamstring against the Chicago Bears; Brandon Jacobs, who finally brought a glimmer of hope to the Giants backfield with 106 yards and two trips to the end zone on Thursday, picked up a hamstring injury as well.
Cox told the New York Times, "It was a little strange being the only one out there for practice. But I feel like I'm ready to go. They said I'm going to be playing."
There is no question of the rookie's talent, but there are of course reservations about his readiness. Since he is making his first appearance in Week 7, the Giants will be concerned about his ability to make correct reads of defensive packages and learn the intricacies of his own team's offensive schemes.
The most glaring and obvious apprehension is about Cox's pass protection, though, and his most important test will be in keeping Manning healthy, not in moving the chains. Cox told Pennington after practice, "There’s a lot to understand. You have to read the defensive fronts, linebackers and secondary almost like a quarterback."
One way to help himself, as painful as it may sound, is to study as much tape of the Giants' first six weeks as possible. He said to the Associated Press (via CBSNewYork), "I feel like I’m ready to go, but obviously I’m just working on everything, pass protection, just watching more film and the whole offense, everything."
If Giants fans are looking for a hint of optimism heading into Monday night, the official team website offers a favorable scouting description of Cox, referring to him as a "punishing blocker" who has "excellent leg drive to get the tough yardage running between the tackles."
According to the same report, he first demonstrated himself as an athletic specimen at the Super Regional Combine in Dallas, where "he opened the eyes of NFL decision makers, running a 4.58-second 40-yard dash with 24 reps in the 225-pound bench press, followed by a 41-inch vertical jump and a 10'-11" broad jump."
The Giants do have the wrecking ball, 5'11", 245-pound fullback John Conner, though all signs point to Cox as the primary back against Minnesota.
The 31-year-old Jacobs, on the other hand, wanted to remind reporters that he not only will be suiting up to help contribute for Monday's game, but also that it was the trainers' decision—not his own—to miss Monday's practice: "I’m not missing any game," Thursday's offensive leader told the AP. "Straight up, that’s all there is in a nutshell. I am not counting on being down."
There is not much to joke about for the Giants as the postseason door continues to close on a dreadful year.
There may be even less rhyme or reason for Tom Coughlin's frivolity. When asked about the lack of halfbacks on the practice field, however, the two-time Super Bowl-winning coach retorted, "What do you mean? We had one. We're all set."