On Monday, the New York Giants will take the field in Albany as a top Super Bowl contender. Or will they?
The pieces are certainly in place for another run at the Lombardi Trophy. As there were at this time in 2008, expectations are high. However, 12 months ago the Giants had a deep threat receiver and were truly a complete team.
The Giants have quality depth at nearly every position. Both the offensive and defensive lines are arguably the best in the NFL. The running-back rotation is headed up by a seemingly fantastical hybrid of Jerome Bettis and (Gasp) Tiki Barber in Brandon Jacobs.
Jacobs gained 1,089 yards on the ground last season, despite sitting out long enough for former Giant Derrick Ward to rush for 1,025.
Behind him is the hungry Ahmad Bradshaw, who burst onto the scene late in 2007 and went on to lead all rushers in Super Bowl 42. Add in the raw potential of Danny Ware and Andre Brown, and the rushing attack looks as dangerous as ever on paper.
For this reason, fans and journalists alike have supported New York’s decision to abstain from recruiting the services of a proven, No. 1 receiver. After all, Burress only caught four touchdown passes last season and after a huge showing in the season opener, he didn’t seem to make much noise.
It was the two 1,000-yard rushers that carried this offense to a 12-4 record wasn’t it? Why wouldn’t New York be just fine with a pack of second option receivers? To be fair, Steve Smith led the team in receptions last season as a third option.
But why was he open so often? Why were there fewer guys in the box to stop the run? The answer is that New York had a deep threat, a guy that drew double coverage and could spread the defense thin. He didn’t need to record a reception all season.
As long as his 6'6" frame was sprinting down field, defenses knew that if guarded by mere one-on-one coverage, it was almost a given that he would make the reception. His presence had to be accounted for. And his lack of production was the result of being the defense’s focus. Thus the door was opened for Jacobs & Co. to succeed.
The Giants appeared to be unaffected by Burress’s absence at first. Less than two days after his accident, New York defeated Washington yet again 23-7.
However, a seven-game win streak and Domenik Hixon’s honeymoon with the organization came to a screeching halt the following week against the Eagles. The offense came out sputtering, as if Kent Graham or Dave Brown had been catapulted through time to lead the pitiful Giants offenses of the '90s once again.
After Hixon’s impressive preseason performance and solid Week Five replacement of Burress, many felt that the number 1 slot was his to lose. So he lost it; letting a perfectly thrown deep ball and the Giants dominance of the NFL slip right through his wide open hands.
The drop cost the Giants a sure touchdown and let defenses know that the deep threat resided in New York no longer.
The most startling aspect of the post-Burress skid was the lack of production from the rushing attack. Against the Eagles, the Giants rushed for a total of 88 yards (far below their per game average at the time). The following week against Dallas, the league’s top offense looked just as lost and scatter brained.
Without Jacobs in the lineup, Derrick Ward failed to impress. Facing linebackers who hadn’t just been trucked over by a Michael Strahan with speed, New York’s rushing attack limped to a mere 72 rushing yards.
In perhaps the most exciting and pivotal game of the regular season, New York’s ground game overcame the loss of a big play receiver and managed to squeak out an overtime win over the Panthers. Derrick Ward’s unbelievable “extra-inning” performance vaulted the Giants over Carolina, but the game could have easily gone either way.
In fact, Ward would never have had the chance to shine the way he did had the Panthers not missed a field goal as regulation ran out. After a loss in a meaningless loss to Minnesota the following week, New York was embarrassed by the Eagles yet again in a home playoff loss.
The rushing attack and the offense as a whole continued to struggle in the game. New York did not score a touchdown.
What does this all mean? Without Plaxico Burress, a player who drew double coverage due to his deep threat abilities, the Giants earned a record of 2-3 (they actually finished 2-4 but Minnesota is being excluded due to the fact that backups played half the game).
According to those numbers, if the Giants had played the entire season without a true No. 1 target, they would have finished with merely six or seven wins. The rushing attack cannot carry this team alone. The success of the unit in 2008 depended upon the defenses’ inability to game plan against it.
There is currently no receiver on New York’s roster that warrants double coverage. The box will be stacked and the yards per game will drop. If a true No. 1 doesn’t materialize amongst the Giants crowded receiving corps, or if one isn’t added via trade or free agency, New York will be the NFL’s biggest disappointment in 2009.