Fifteen months ago, all the questions had been answered.
The New York Giants had beaten the greatest team ever assembled, the New England Patriots, in Super Bowl XLII to cap what had turned into a Cinderella story and magical season for Big Blue.
Eli Manning-to-Plaxico Burress had become one of the most lethal passing combinations in all the NFL. The defense, led by Steve Spagnuolo, had gone from giving up 80 points in the two first games to shutting down the most explosive offense in the NFL, holding them to just 14 points.
Now, entering the 2009 season, the Giants have a lot more questions to answer than they did last February.
After an 11-1 start to the 2008 campaign—and making it look less and less like their championship the previous year was a fluke—the Giants finished the season 1-3 and were knocked out of the playoffs by the Philadelphia Eagles in second round.
Many of the Giants problems in the last six weeks of the season can be attributed to the absence of Burress, who was suspended indefinitely (and eventually released) after being arrested on illegal gun charges. And as for Spagnuolo, the architect behind the now catastrophic Giants defense, he has packed his playbook and headed to St. Louis to become the head coach of the Rams.
So with the start of training camp only weeks away, here's a look at the five biggest questions the G-Men will be asking themselves this season:
5. How healthy is Osi Umenyiora?
Despite losing both of their starting defensive ends before a single regular season snap in '08, the Giants defense did not miss a beat and continued to be one of the most consistent and reliable units in the NFL. And while one of those DE's is not coming back, the other is.
Giants fans and players alike will have their fingers crossed as Umenyiora gears up for the 2009 season.
After Umenyiora tore the lateral meniscus in his left leg in a preseason game against the Jets last season, Mathias Kiwanuka and Super Bowl hero Justin Tuck instantly became the new 1-2 punch at the ends. If Osi can come back healthy, the Giants will have a whole new bounty if options on defense that they did not previously have.
Kiwanuka has been the subject of many trade rumors this summer for the Giants, and despite his excellent play during parts of 2008, he has become an expendable part of the defense. Of course, they could simply continue to play him at outside linebacker like he did in his first year with the Giants, but Kiwanuka's natural position is on the end of the D-Line.
Regardless, everything mentioned all relies on Umenyiora and the strength of his leg.
4. Can Brandon Jacobs stay healthy enough to lead the league in rushing?
Skill wise, Jacobs has the ability. Just ask LaRon Landry. However, durability is the issue with this big bruising back. Jacobs averaged almost 5.0 yards per carry in 2008, but it came on only 219 carries. He missed two games in '08 with recurring knee problems, yet still racked up 15 touchdowns on the ground.
This year, Jacobs will be asked to shoulder more of the load than ever before. With the departure of another 1,000-yard rusher, Derrick Ward, Jacobs may be in line for upwards of 300 carries this season.
There is no questioning Jacobs' physical and mental toughness. Still, in an offense with plenty of question marks at the skill positions, Brandon will easily find himself as Option No. 1 on the Giants offensive side of the ball.
He made a promise to lead the league in rushing before the '08 season. And while his ypc suggest he could still accomplish this feat, his knees and shoulders will be the deciding factor.
3. Will the signings of Michael Boley, Rocky Bernard, and Chris Canty pay off?
Boley is two seasons removed from a breakout year with Atlanta, which saw him rack up 125 total tackles playing the "Sam" linebacker position for the Falcons. He'll join Antonio Pierce and, presumably, Danny Clark as the starting LBs for the G-Men.
Bernard is 30 years old and will probably not be a three-down player, but he is 300-plus pounds and still has enough in the tank to be an imposing 4-3 defensive tackle on a very good line. A defensive tackle rotation of Bernard, Fred Robbins, and Jay Alford can be one of the most productive—and freshest—in the NFC.
The most intriguing of the three signings, however, is Canty. Since his days at Virginia, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has been all over this guy. At 6'7", 310 pounds, Canty is a blend of height and bulk which you do not see on many defensive lines in the NFL.
Giants GM Jerry Reese has said that the $42 million Canty will "play all over the front." If they decide to play him as a 3-4 DT, then the Giants can use more packages to utilize their depth at LB (Zach DeOsi, Chase Blackburn, and rookie Clint Sintim will all be looking for playing time this season). In 4-3 formations, Canty could line up at end to give Tuck or Umenyiora a breather in the right situations.
Whatever Canty's role ends up being, there is no doubt he will be seeing the field quite a bit in 2009 and beyond.
2. How big of a loss was the loss of Steve Spagnuolo?
Last offseason, Spags spurned the Washington Redskins after being offered their head coaching position. This year, however, the Giants could not keep the most sought after defensive coordinator in the league in East Rutherford. Spagnuolo got the head coaching position he most certainly deserved, but the Giants lost a lynch pin to their recent run of success.
While players play the game and are obviously the most important ingredient to any recipe for success, the loss of a coordinator should not be overlooked. In 2007, the Giants finished seventh in defensive yards per game. In 2008, that ranking increased to fifth. They totaled 95 sacks over those two years, including a league-high 53 in 2007.
Spagnuolo never had the biggest D-Line to work with, but it seemed like that was his choice, utilizing the agility and finesse of the line to get to the opposing quarterback.
His mentor, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, has been the architect behind blitz packages for years which have driven opposing teams crazy. Most of the blitz's relied heavily on linebackers and defensive backs disguising their coverage and rushing the line at the last minute.
The Giants line bulked up big time this offseason (Bernard, Canty), and there is a good possibility Big Blue will show more 3-4 formations than they ever did under Spagnuolo.
It will be interesting to see what kind of schemes new defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan uses on defense. Whatever he brings to the table, it will take a lot of production for Giants fans to forget about Spags.
1. Did the Giants make the right decision with their potential wide receiver merry-go-round?
After the departure of Plaxico in Week 14, the Giants were searching for a No. 1 wideout. When the Giants lost four of the five games they played without Burress, the search became a full blown manhunt. As they begin 2009, the Giants are still holding open auditions for the lead role.
The availabilities of Arizona WR Anquan Boldin and Cleveland WR Braylon Edwards were two of the worst kept secrets in the NFL this offseason. Numerous reports suggested Boldin could have been acquired for a first- and third-round pick in the 2009 Draft, while Braylon was rumored to have a price tag of a second and fifth.
The Giants went out and used their first-round pick on North Carolina wideout Hakeem Nicks. While Nicks has shown flashes of brilliance, the fact is that for one additional pick, they could have had Boldin. If your a Giants fan, odds are you would take Boldin over Hicks and a third-round pick for numerous reasons.
For one thing, Hicks is only 6'0". As history has shown, Manning likes throwing the ball to big targets. If his No. 1 wideout is only six feet tall, his numbers will suffer.
If anything, fans should be excited about fourth-round pick Ramses Barden, a 6'6" freak out of Cal Poly. His physical presence will remind many viewers of guys like Burress and Terrell Owens, assuming his hands can keep up with the rest of his body.
With Amani Toomer gone, the Giants will have a rotation of so-so wideouts—Nicks, Barden, Sinorice Moss, Steve Smith, Domenick Hixon, Mario Manningham, Derek Hagan—who will all be looking to prove themselves as Eli's new favorite target.
The numbers without Plaxico don't lie. Jerry Reese will take a lot of heat in the media if Hicks does not immediately step up, or if the Giants' passing games stumbles like it did at the end of 2008.
Yes, the Giants are a run-first team behind that trecherous offensive line, but no team can win at a high level with such a one-dimensional offense. Not to mention, the wear and tear on a team which is forced to run the ball 30-40 times a game will eventually catch up with you.
If the offense falters, New York will be wishing they had landed one of the two high profile WR's previously mentioned.
W-L (division): 11-5 (4-2)
Seed?: No. 2 (NFC East champions, Minnesota with the No. 1 seed in the NFC)
Super Bowl Champions?: Sorry, but I don't think this offense can win it all.
Brandon Jacobs: 285 carries, 1,450 yds, 15 TDs
Eli Manning: 3,300 yds, 24 TDs, 18 INTs
Hakeem Nicks: 45 catches, 750 yds, 4 TDs
Defensive MVP: Corey Webster
Offensive MVP: Jacobs
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