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"Then Bavaro Said to Simms ..."
The Best New York Giants Stories Eve Told
By Steve Zipay
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2009 Steve Zipay
All rights reserved.
A Giant Upset: The Miraculous 2007 Season
An Inauspicious Beginning
A summer storm rumbled over the New York Giants' training camp in Albany, New York, in the early-morning hours of July 28, 2007, dampening the practice plans of head coach Tom Coughlin.
The Giants had finished a disappointing 8–8 the previous season, and clouds already had been forming over this one as well: multitalented running back Tiki Barber had retired, and on the way to his television career, sharply criticized Coughlin's strict protocol and all-business demeanor. Star defensive lineman Michael Strahan was holding out for a contract and was undecided on whether to play another year. Veteran wide receiver Amani Toomer was recovering from knee surgery; there were new assistant coaches and coordinators; the kicking game was unsettled; and quarterback Eli Manning, on the threshold of his full third season, was in the midst of growing pains.
"It was a ridiculous downpour at 8:00 am," Coughlin recalled, "and I am looking out the window saying, 'What are you doing?' When I got to the locker room, they were like, 'Let's go, Coach, we aren't going to stop the first practice with a little rain.'"
The unsettling signs had begun in February, when Barber publicly complained about Coughlin, who countered that the coaching staff had made Barber a far better player by curing his propensity for fumbles. In Coughlin's first season, following a poor 2003 for Barber, the coaches addressed the problem. "He was very eager to learn this new technique and was an outstanding student," said Coughlin. "Everything he did throughout the off-season program was with the ball in the position that we call high and tight. To his credit, he mastered that particular technique to the point where in 2005 he had 411 touches and only one fumble. He's gone on to make the Pro Bowl three years in a row. ... He had 200 and some yards rushing against Oakland in '05. He had 234 against Washington last year. I think he averaged 177 yards rushing in the last game of the year in '04, '05, and '06. And we did win the games. So while my regimen may be a grind, this is the first I've ever seen that or heard it from Tiki. We have a statement in our locker room that kind of sums that up: coaching is making players do what they don't want to do, so that they can become what they want to become."
Coughlin, the former head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, desperately wanted the Giants to become winners. His desire was so intense that he himself changed. Although he encouraged players to discuss things with him, Coughlin's single-mindedness and autocratic style had discouraged that type of communication.
Some players, like Manning, the younger brother of Peyton Manning, who had just won the Super Bowl with the Colts, immersed themselves in watching tape, and his accuracy improved while working with new quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer.
"I see improvement in terms of his ability to move his feet and to work well within the pocket, slide, to step up when he has to, to keep both hands on the ball, and then make an accurate throw," Coughlin said after one preseason game. "I think the indication is, if you remember a year ago, basically the same pattern, the crossing pattern that was not accurately thrown to Plaxico [Burress], basically the same thing last night to David Tyree, right on the money for what should have been a big play. He has worked hard on it, and certainly it has been reflected here in these games."
By mid-August, and with Strahan still not in camp and injuries piling up — Tyree fractured his wrist, and Burress, becoming one of Manning's favorite targets, was sidelined with back problems — reinforcements, and not necessarily household names, were brought in.
Asked by reporters about a lineman wearing No. 62, Coughlin said, "Sixty-two. ... Do you have a program with you?"
After a reporter produced a program, one of them asked the coach, "How do you pronounce his name?"
"Tui, you mean?" Coughlin said. "Tui, yeah, don't ask me about the last name [Alailefaleula]. That supposedly is in writing somewhere, but I wouldn't even attempt to pronounce it, I'm sorry. I mean no disrespect, but I just can't get all those letters together. He is a large man."
Strahan was keeping in touch with the front office and several players, but the concern was mounting about his readiness to play — if he returned before the regular-season opener.
"You are talking about a guy who, provided he is in good health, provided he is mentally ready to go ...the most impressive thing about Michael for me has always been that he comes out like a kid," said Coughlin. "He plays and practices like a young kid. And if he comes back in that frame of mind, and with that love of the game, then that's when he is going to be a big part of our team."
The players could appreciate Strahan's indecisiveness. Training camp, said center Shaun O'Hara, "is a strange thing. After every exit on 87 [the New York State Thruway], that is one last opportunity to turn around. Training camp does different things for different guys. It takes a lot of passion. You've got to really want to be here. Everybody contemplates it on the eve of training camp. We play it [training camp] for Sundays. That's why we do this."
Manning, meanwhile, a little scarred from not reaching the lofty expectations in the 2006 season, was maturing, And that prompted a prophetic comment from Coughlin. "I think that this year, although a difficult one, I think it's going to be a good one for him to learn from," the head coach said. "I think moving forward we feel that he still is the quarterback of the future of the New York Giants. We think he can win the Super Bowl."
Another young cog in the machinery was learning as well: the 6'4", fullback-like running back, Brandon Jacobs, the heir apparent to Barber. There was never any question about his ability to rumble downhill through opponents, to push the pile with his 240 pounds. But Jacobs was beginning to add another element to his game, one that would help Manning.
"He has also done a good job with his pass protection," Coughlin said after another preseason game. "Last night, they brought a Mike Sam X, they brought both linebackers in gaps, and he actually blocked both of them. He did a really good job of stacking them up."
But the mood of the team jumped significantly when a bearded leader finally showed up for practice.
"They all said I looked like Harrison Ford from The Fugitive," chirped Strahan. "The guys jumped on me from the beginning, they haven't let up, and that is what it is all about. It's about family, and these guys understood what I was going through and hopefully they play long enough where they can get to the point where they have that decision to make. ... But it just boiled down to the fact that I looked and said, 'Hey, I want to play,' and I decided that I wanted to play. I wanted to get in here before I changed my mind."
When reporters asked if not having a Super Bowl ring was a factor, Strahan agreed. "I have Marshall Faulk and Warren Sapp and all those guys hitting me up all the time," he said. "I actually saw Marshall quite a bit this off-season. Those guys have the rings, so when I say to them, 'Hey Marshall, how is it to retire?' 'Great.' Yeah, you have a ring; it is a lot easier to leave that way. It is definitely something I want, hopefully something we can get here, and that is why I am here."
By September the pieces were in place.
But perhaps the most telling change was in taskmaster Coughlin himself. His "my way or the highway" grip loosened. For the first time in his diverse coaching career, he asked players to vote in secret ballots for permanent captains. The election results: Strahan and Antonio Pierce on defense; Manning and O'Hara on offense; and punter Jeff Feagles for special teams.
"I have certainly addressed issues that were brought to my attention," said Coughlin. "I have been at this for a long time and I believe that there is a certain way that these things are done. I think I can approach many things from a little bit different standpoint. To be honest with you, I thought over the course of the last eight games [last year] that in order to keep our team going ... a lot of my approach changed. Those are things you would not know anything about. I have changed, but I also have things that I believe in, that I will hold true."
Despite the cozier feelings, critics raised questions about the team's identity and their ability to win. "A lot of people don't know what to expect from this team," a writer said to Coughlin. "That's probably good," he answered. "Because what we would really like to do — and I've talked to our team about it — is let our playing do our talking for us and not spend so much time trying to explain who we are, where we are. Let's just play the game — talk is cheap — let's play the game."
The Giants opened the regular season in Dallas against the longtime rival Cowboys, and immediately, injuries cast a shadow on the club.
In a 45–35 loss, both Osi Umenyiora, a talented defensive end who was being mentored by Strahan, and Jacobs sustained knee injuries. Manning was 28-for-41 and threw four touchdowns, three to Burress, but sprained his shoulder. Backup Jared Lorenzen had to come in late in the game. A missed call angered Coughlin and brought out the "what-ifs."
"Late in the game, as poorly as we played on defense, we had an opportunity to win. ... It is 38–35, third-and-7, they have an illegal procedure penalty, which is very obvious but not called, and they have a 51-yard touchdown. It would have been third-and-12, what happens there? You are going to have to punt the ball if you don't convert and then what happens? That having been said, we did not play very well on defense. We weren't as physical as we have been. We weren't as penetrating with our pressures. The quarterback only had a couple of times when he was hurried at all, we are disappointed in that. ... We made a lot of big plays; we gave up a lot of big plays. We got outstanding performances out of a few people. Eli was very accurate. He had the ball on the money an awful lot of the time. He was under control in the game; made some outstanding throws even when he was pressured. There were a lot of young guys who got their first experience in the National Football League, and I think they will be better for it the next time we line up and play. I am disappointed. I am not discouraged."
Actually, discouragement reared its head in Week 2.
In the home opener against Brett Favre and the Packers, the Giants fell again, 35–13, and began 0–2 for the first time since 1996. "You can't let two games shake your confidence in a 16-game season," said new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. "Like anything that we all do, when you are in certain adverse situations, you rely on prior experiences. In 2000, and I think it was '03 or '02, we [in Philly] began 0–2. And we ended up in the NFC Championship Game. So it's not shaken me yet."
Manning admitted that he was not himself. He had missed Amani Toomer in the end zone and tight end Jeremy Shockey for another possible six. "That was kind of a roll right as I was trying throw back across my body," he said. "I just couldn't get enough on that one. It was a hard throw, and in that situation I floated a little too much and didn't get enough speed on it. ... On Monday when I went in, the trainers said that usually this kind of injury takes a few weeks to get better. I knew from throwing after the injury, I had the kind of mindset that I could come back." But coming back wasn't enough. And the defense wasn't sharp. It was downright rusty.
On to Washington. In a game that, in retrospect, helped turn around the season, the Giants scored 14 points in the fourth quarter and made a gutsy goal-line stand in the final seconds, stuffing Ladell Betts to preserve a 24–17 lead for their first win. An 0–3 start would have been disastrous.
"We played well and won the fourth quarter, which is something I spoke about earlier in the week," said Coughlin. "As simple as it might be, that is what we wanted to try to do today — win the fourth quarter."
At 1–2, but with a dose of confidence, the Giants D was monstrous in Week 4.
The Eagles had scored 56 points the prior week, and everyone from fans to NFL pundits expected the defense would be tested. Instead, they blanked the Eagles for three quarters and wrecked their offensive line with a franchise-record-tying 12 sacks of Donovan McNabb, six by Umenyiora, mostly against Winston Justice, and one by Strahan that broke Lawrence Taylor's team record.
"Unbelievable game by the defense," guard David Diehl recalled. "Those guys definitely came to play. They got after the quarterback. The crowd got into it. It was a huge boost for our team. It was a huge boost for everything. Everybody kind of fed off of it. Congratulations to Michael Strahan. It is an unbelievable accomplishment to beat Lawrence Taylor for the all-time sacks. It doesn't get any better than that. Osi, if he isn't the defensive MVP of the week, I don't know what you need to get it. I talked about it all camp — being able to play up against him got me completely prepared for the season. Things didn't always go my way, but I knew the work I did against him would definitely pay off. It just shows the type of player that I knew he was."
In the fourth quarter, the defense was sitting on the bench, shaking their heads and laughing. "Everybody was just saying, 'It looked like a video game out there for you,'" Umenyiora recalled. "But Justice is a very good football player. Tonight was just one of those nights."
Even the oft-reserved Coughlin was animated on the sideline watching Umenyiora. "I am cheering," the red-cheeked coach said. "I am cheering like crazy: 'Get another one, get another one.'"
The Jets, who shared Giants Stadium with Big Blue, were up next. Rookie Aaron Ross, who won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back while at the University of Texas in 2006, was benched to start the game for missing a meeting. Thanks to three interceptions and another big second half, the Giants gave Coughlin his 100th win and moved to 3–2.
"Three picks against [Chad] Pennington was big," said Strahan. "He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. They weren't just picks because our guys had to really jump on the ball. Our DBs played extremely well and made plays that got us through. We weren't looking too good in the first half team-wise, but I'm glad to see that we came out in the second half and shut them out." The Giants scored 28 points in those last 30 minutes en route to the 35–24 victory.
Ross said the temporary benching was a learning experience because he didn't feel shunned. "Coach didn't treat me like I was out of the game," the freshman from Texas said. "Every time the defense came to the sideline, I was in there with them getting the plays. I wouldn't say that I was out of the game, I just wasn't in the game out on the field."
Pennington said the Giants defense, especially the secondary, was outstanding. "They showed different looks on every snap," he said. "They did a good job of holding our running game down. A lot of times, people get on defensive backs saying the reason they aren't receivers is because they can't catch. These guys that we played today have really good hands. Anytime you have a defensive back that can catch the football and not just knock it down, that is a game-changing player and a game-changing play. ... It's frustrating, and believe me, it makes you sick to your stomach. But that is the game of football."
At the Georgia Dome, the Giants routed the Falcons 31–10 for the 600th win in franchise history. Burress caught his eighth touchdown, Toomer became the Giants' all-time reception leader, Ross had his third pick in two weeks, and the defense dominated in the second half.
Even with the win, Umenyiora preached caution: "We have been 4–2 a couple of times over the last couple of years and we have seen how that ended, so I think everybody just has to maintain our focus. It seems like maybe the focus waned a little bit over the last couple of years, but this year we have seen what happens if we don't maintain our focus, and we can't allow that to happen."
The following week in East Rutherford, the Giants led from the opening drive and never really looked back en route to a 33–15 pummeling of the 49ers. In the second half, the defense recorded six sacks (2.5 for Strahan, 1.5 for former Notre Dame captain Justin Tuck, one for Ross, and one for Umenyiora) and four turnovers, as the Giants raced to a 5–2 record for the fourth straight season.
Ups and Downs
A trip across the pond to England almost disrupted the Giants' momentum. But they eked out a 13–10 win at Wembley Stadium, serving the Dolphins their eighth loss and lifting themselves to 6–2.
Excerpted from "Then Bavaro Said to Simms ..." by Steve Zipay. Copyright © 2009 Steve Zipay. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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