- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

The New York Giants should be midgets this season.
NFC champions in 2000, the Giants slumped to 7-9 last year. Seven starters (linebacker Jessie Armstead, safety Sam Garnes, guard Ron Stone, offensive tackles Lomas Brown and Glenn Parker, tight end Howard Cross and fullback Greg Comella), plus kicker Morten Andersen, were lost to free agency, retirement or salary cap cuts without proven replacements. Three regulars (defensive tackle Keith Hamilton, receiver Ike Hilliard and center Dusty Zeigler) have suffered season-ending knee injuries.
Top running back Tiki Barber ripped Michael Strahan during the offseason for being "selfish" when the NFL's single-season sack king rejected a seven-year, $58.1million offer because of the contract's structure before settling for a seven-year, $46million deal.
"Everyone was picking us last [in the NFC East], and then when Tiki and Michael got into it, everyone said the Giants are crumbling," said Jim Fassel, who is tied for the NFC lead in coaching seniority after six years in New York as he prepares for tomorrow's home game against the Washington Redskins. "We're the only team in the league that had to release that many guys and we didn't sign a free agent, so we were counting on young guys stepping up. The thing you rarely get [in that case] is consistency in play."
Fassel helped Barber and Strahan patch things up, but with the first two games against powerful San Francisco and St. Louis, it appeared that the season could be over before it started. Through seven games, the Giants were 3-4 and had scored just seven offensive touchdowns. That also was the number of turnovers forced by the defense.
To fix the former problem, Fassel re-assumed the play-calling duties he had given to offensive coordinator Sean Payton in December 1999 following three straight defeats. Payton had his players constantly shifting before the snap and had Barber and fellow halfback Ron Dayne shuttling in and out of the lineup. Fassel has gone back to basics. He reduced the playbook by about 30 percent and has Barber and Dayne alternating by series.
"People confuse simplifying and whittling a list with not being as sophisticated," Fassel said. "That's the biggest fallacy in football. We're not moving, shifting and using multiple sets, but we're doing a lot of different things. I just wanted better execution."
The offense certainly provided that the past two weeks, scoring seven touchdowns (plus a field goal and four missed kicks, which prompted another change in holder and snapper this week) in victories over Jacksonville and Minnesota.
"We executed better because we knew what we were going to do and when we were going to do it," said quarterback Kerry Collins, who led an attack that generated a season-high 460 yards against the Vikings after racking up 394 against the Jaguars.
With six of their final seven games against teams with equal or worse records, the Giants are now 5-4, trailing Atlanta by half a game for the final NFC playoff spot.
"We have a lot of young guys playing, but we're doing all right," said Strahan, who has six sacks compared to 15 at this point last year. "You're never really going to replace all of the guys that we've lost, but hopefully you'll make up for some of it."
The offensive line, with three undrafted players and a fifth-round pick replacing four veteran starters, has done that remarkably well. The Giants are in the middle of the pack in sacks allowed, and Collins is on pace for a team record for passing yards even though Amani Toomer is his only proven wideout other than the just-signed Herman Moore.
Barber is in line to become the first Giant to lead the team in rushing and receiving in 28 years. Although the defense has given up a staggering 645 rushing yards in the three games since Hamilton was hurt (after allowing only 509 the first six weeks), it's fifth against the pass and has surrendered the third-fewest points.
Fassel hasn't guaranteed a playoff berth as he did famously after two straight losses in November 2000, but he and his underdog team are optimistic.
"The confidence was shaken a little bit when we lost Ike and Keith," Fassel said. "But we feel pretty good about the way we've played the last couple of games. When a team starts playing sharp and crisp, starts putting three, four, five [victories] together, that's what you need to make a run at a championship."


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