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A Team to Believe In
Our Journey to the Super Bowl Championship
By Brian Curtis
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from old ones.
—John Maynard Keynes
It is January 7, 2007. we have a 1st and 10 on Philadelphia's 44- yard line with just over six minutes to play in the first half of the NFC Wild Card Play-off Game. Eli takes the snap, turns to his right, and hands the ball off to Tiki Barber, who explodes around the left end and scampers down to the Eagles' 3, where he is forced out of bounds by Lito Sheppard, giving us a 1st and Goal from the 3. I immediately call time out to give our big linemen a chance to run to the new line of scrimmage, but also to give our coaches a chance to figure out exactly what we want to call. It may seem like seven points is a given, but all one has to do is look at the first twenty minutes of the game to realize nothing is a given with this New York Giants team.
After starting off the game with a penalty on the first snap from scrimmage, Eli drove our offense from our own 33 to the Philadelphia 17, when he connected with Plaxico Burress on a well-executed touchdown pass and catch to give us the early lead. During the regular season, we scored first in thirteen of our games, so playing with a lead is nothing new for us. But neither are frustrations. On our next four possessions, we manage zero points, and that is with startingfield positions that included our own 48 and the Eagles' 49 and 46 yard lines. How bad was our offense After the opening touchdown, we moved the ball 12 yards on four possessions. Putting points on the board when we had the ball in plus territory has been an issue all year. And just because this is a play-off game does not mean our tendencies—both the good and the bad—fade away.
So though we are confident we can score with a 1st and Goal from the 3, nothing is guaranteed. On first down, Eli's short pass to Tiki falls incomplete. On second down, Tiki gains just 1 yard on a carry, stuffed by Mike Patterson and Darren Howard. On third down, Eli's attempt to loft the ball to our big tight end Jeremy Shockey is not a good one. With fourth and 2, trailing by three, I elect to kick a field goal, which Jay Feely converts to tie the game. We give up a late touchdown pass, and at halftime we trail 17–10.
During the regular season, we split road wins with the Eagles, and the loss to Philadelphia at home in December was especially devastating, another low moment in a difficult season. Just getting to the play-offs was a relief to some in our organization, and probably to Giants fans as well. But there is no relief for me. Just getting there isn't part of my philosophy, and after a year of injuries and team turmoil, I want to finally prove what we're capable of. Trailing by just seven on the road in the play-offs, considering how poorly our offense played for most of the first half, is certainly not a death sentence. We can do this. The 2006 season has gone south for a lot of reasons, but I'm hopeful that today is our chance to erase the bad memories.
On the opening series of the second half, we force the Eagles to go 3 and out, despite a face mask penalty on the first snap, but again we cannot find our rhythm on offense and actually move backward. The teams trade punts, and the only scoring in the third quarter comes when our defense holds Philly to a field goal with under three minutes to play in the quarter.
Eli Manning has showed brilliance at times in his career, but whether he is having a great game or a not-so-great game he always maintains his poise. Starting from our own 29, after Tiki runs on first and second downs, Eli scrambles for 2 yards and picks up a first down. We take a shot downfield. Eli's pass, intended for Plaxico, is short, but Eagle corner Sheldon Brown is called for interference and the ball is moved from our 39 to Philadelphia's 14. A pass to Jim Finn picks up 8 yards; a run by Tiki gains nothing. As the game moves into the fourth quarter, we face a 3rd and 2 from the 6. After Eli's pass to Sinorice Moss is incomplete, we settle for another field goal to cut the lead to 20–13.
There's 12:13 remaining in the game, and our season rests on the outcome of our drive. The foolish penalties, the inopportune turnovers, the failures in the green zone—these mean nothing as Eli and the offense jog onto the field. Starting from our own 20, we quickly run the ball into Eagles territory, aided by a holding call on Mike Patterson. After we pick up 6 yards on a reception, I call our first time-out with 7:48 to play in the game. The very next play, Tiki is ruled to have gained no yardage on 3rd and 1 at the Eagles' 25, but our coaches who are watching replays in the box insist he picked up the first down, so I challenge the ruling on the field. The call is overruled, and we do indeed get a fresh set of downs. First down from the 23: false start. The next snap: false start. The next snap: offensive holding. That quick, we go from 1st and 10 from the 23 to 1st and 30 from the 43. Penalties have hampered us all season long, which is especially frustrating since I make it a point every week to remind our players that penalties lose games.
Eli's pass attempt on 1st and 30 is incomplete, but then he and Plaxico hook up again, this time for 18 yards, and I quickly use our second time-out. It is 3rd and 12 from the 25 and the pair connect again, this time for 14 yards. On the very next snap, they do it yet again, and now it counts for six. Jay Feely converts the extra point, and our comeback has tied the game at 20–20.
All we need to do is get a stop and send this game into overtime. All we need is to keep the Eagles in their territory. Eagles back Brian Westbrook has already done damage to us, gaining 108 yards rushing up to this point, including an electrifying 49-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. On that run, he burst through the line, bounced outside, regained his balance after being tripped, cut back at the 20, and reversed directions at the 15 before running into the end zone. Now, we figure Eagles coach Andy Reid will rely on his back on this final drive.
We are right.
Westbrook gets the call on three of the first five plays, helping take the Eagles from their own 34 to our 32 with two minutes remaining. He runs right at the spot left vacant by All-Pro Michael Strahan, who went down in early November with a season-ending injury. After the two-minute warning, Westbrook picks up 13 more yards and Philadelphia is in field goal position. We use our last time-out with 1:48 to play. Over the next three snaps, the Eagles simply chew clock and use their time-outs wisely to set up a 38- yard field goal attempt by David Akers.
Last night, Dallas had a chance to convert a seemingly easy go-ahead field goal late in the fourth quarter in their play-off game against Seattle, but quarterback Tony Romo, the holder on the kick, mishandled the snap, costing the Cowboys a play-off win. Nothing is automatic.
Jon Dorenbos is the snapper, Koy Detmer is the holder. The snap is good, the hold is clean, the kick is up. It is good.
Our season has come to an end.
In the postgame locker room I am positive, pointing out that despite our struggles and injuries in the second half of the season, we stayed together as a team.
“I am proud of you,” I tell them, whether they are listening or not. I talk as if we will be together again.
The media want to talk about my future. I don't. The strained relationship I maintain with reporters is put to the test once again in the bowels of Lincoln Financial Field. I speak briefly with Giants owner John Mara, general manager Ernie Accorsi, and director of player personnel Jerry Reese, and we agree to sit down later in the week.
It's a talk that can't come fast enough for many inside and outside the Giant organization.
though the disappointing end to the 2006 season ushers in a difficult time in my life, professionally and personally, I honestly do not believe that I won't be the head coach of the New York Giants in 2007. I am not panicked. As frustrated and disappointed as I am on Sunday night after the loss, I drive into the office in Giants Stadium early on Monday morning. I think about the Philadelphia loss and how things went wrong in 2006. And I think about my years in New York.
When I arrived in 2004, we knew what the Giants needed—discipline, mainly. We started off 5–2 before the bottom dropped out. We lost back-to-back games behind veteran quarterback Kurt Warner, and I made the decision to replace Kurt with the top draft pick, Eli Manning. It's safe to say that decision created the first big media frenzy of my head coaching tenure in New York. The media crushed me for supposedly giving up on a potentially play-off-bound team simply to give the rookie experience. Obviously, that's not the way I saw it, nor the way Wellington Mara did, who smiled and told me, “We think the same way.”
Why did I go with Eli A young quarterback cannot learn the game of football by merely watching from the sidelines and holding a clipboard. He needs to be on the field, in the huddle, facing the ferociousness and speed of a blitz, to understand the challenge. We knew Eli would be under fire, defensive coordinators around the league salivating at the thought of blitzing the rookie, and they did just that. Washington and Baltimore blitzed play after play that we, not just Eli, couldn't handle. The rookie came into my office the morning after the Baltimore loss and told me, “I know I can do better, Coach.” He knew he could be an effective starting quarterback of the New York Giants, and he was willing to do whatever it took to get there.
Critics continued to bash me as Eli struggled in 2004, but I kept reminding myself that playing quarterback in the NFL is difficult. The multitude of decisions that must be made in a matter of seconds on any given play is mind-boggling, and despite the losses, Eli was learning. The on-the-job training would benefit us in seasons to come. Still, with Eli in as the starter, we lost six of seven games to finish 6 and 10. I've never regretted the decision to play him.
The criticism from the media wasn't merely about the losses or my decision to play Eli. No, they also played up that I instructed our players on how to put on their socks properly. Most fans didn't know at the time that our players had been experiencing a rash of blisters and I wanted to stem the tide of sore feet. Then, too, one of the men I most respect, legendary basketball coach John Wooden, used a whole practice every year teaching his players to put on their socks properly, so I felt I was in good company. That, of course, saved me no grief from the press.
In 2005, things couldn't have been more different. We cut down on silly mistakes, Eli improved in every game, and we won the NFC East title, going 11–5. In our play-off game against the Carolina Panthers, we were without players but we practiced and prepared the whole week, coming off a season-ending win over Oakland, just as we had done the week before and the week before that. With our three starting linebackers out and the offense unable to move the ball, we were shut out 23–0. The loss to Carolina was tough to take, and I deserved blame. We did not play with the same intensity as Carolina— it was clear they were more physical—and it is my job to make sure the team is ready to play its best.
After the game, Tiki Barber was critical of me and the coaches in his postgame interviews. I had never been on a team where grievances were aired for all to hear, and it was something I wouldn't stand for. I spoke to Tiki privately about being a part of the solution, reminding him that a football team is a family.
Despite the play-off loss, the stage was set for a tremendous run in 2006 led by our now veteran QB.
We knew going into the 2006 draft and into the free agency period that we needed difference makers, especially on defense. In the draft, we selected Boston College defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka with the last pick of the first round, and we took Miami wide receiver Sinorice Moss in the second. We were busy in free agency, hoping to sign the handful of players who could take us a step further in 2006. We brought in veterans LaVar Arrington, Sam Madison, Will Demps, R. W. McQuarters, and Brandon Short. As for returning players, Eli would be playing in his third season, with Tiki running behind him. The defense looked solid, anchored by All-Pro Michael Strahan and rising star Osi Umenyiora.
We started off on the right note, winning all four of our preseason games. I know those games are meaningless to some, but to me, a win is a win is a win. Winning makes it easier to improve, because the players get so much positive reinforcement. The 4-and-0 preseason also gave us confidence heading into the opener and gave the media something positive to say and write.
Excerpted from A Team to Believe In by Brian Curtis
Copyright © 2008 by Brian Curtis. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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