Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
28 Nov 2006
by Ned Macey
The New York Giants saved their season in Week 2 with a furious comeback win over the Eagles. That win was the first of six in seven games that had the Giants atop their division and cruising toward a return trip to the playoffs. Those wins came with a cost, and the Giants lost one key contributor after another. Now, after a stunning loss to Tennessee, the Giants are fighting for their playoff lives.
Meanwhile, optimism abounds in Nashville, where a rebuilding team finally has a quality win to add to its resume. The Titans just missed in upset bids against Indianapolis and Baltimore, falling by one point in both games. This win gives them four wins in their past six games. Add in the close losses to the Colts and Ravens, and the Titans have been a quality football team six times in the past seven weeks. This is the best football the team has played in three years, and while they are still a ways away, the future is bright.
The only future date the Giants are concerned with is this Sunday's game against Dallas. A loss to the suddenly-hot Cowboys would leave the Giants 6-6 and no shot at the division crown. They have one week to sort out an inaccurate quarterback and a leaky secondary.
The Giants are severely hampered by injuries. The sheer quantity of injuries has upset a team uniquely built to survive an average onset of injuries. The Giants' starting roster is constructed brilliantly with balance throughout and few weak spots. The team, when healthy, has no real holes. They ranked in the top 10 in pass and rush offense and pass and rush defense before Sunday's game.
Unfortunately, their bench left much to be desired. Thanks to the injuries, they now have a suspect secondary, a limited pass rush, and a dearth of quality receiving options. All that is left in full force is the running game, and even there, Tiki Barber has slowed in recent weeks. Reserve tackle Bob Whitfield has been pressed into starting action, where he is overmatched. Reggie Torbor finds himself starting at linebacker. Tim Carter was a reach as the third receiver and now is starting. The Giants started Frank Walker and R.W. McQuarters at cornerback, something no playoff contender should ever have to do.
Even the one place the Giants have depth, defensive end, has become a problem due to three injuries. Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora have both missed a number of games. Reserve Justin Tuck has been lost for the year due to injury. That left rookie Mathias Kiwanuka and erstwhile tackle William Joseph as the starters on Sunday.
The Giants pass rush, among the most feared a season ago, has suffered this year. The defensive line has a total of 18 sacks through 11 games. A season ago, it averaged over two sacks per game. The Giants have compensated by blitzing more often, but blitzing is a questionable proposition with Walker and McQuarters manning the secondary.
Offensively, the loss of Amani Toomer, merely an average receiver at this point in his career, has turned Eli Manning into a bit of a disaster at quarterback. Toomer had been the Giants' most productive receiver on a per play basis this year, even though he was not often targeted. Without Toomer, Manning has no other wide receiver option besides Burress. A defense now must only defend Burress, Barber, and Jeremy Shockey. Those three caught 14 of Manning's 18 completions. When throwing to other receivers, Manning went 4-of-10 for 30 yards and an interception.
Sunday's disastrous fourth quarter highlighted the struggles of the pass offense and pass defense. The Giants built an early 21-point lead, scoring after two Tennessee fumbles and stopping them on a fourth-and-goal play. They completely controlled the third quarter with runs and short passes, but both of their drives petered out just beyond field goal range.
The Giants forced a punt on the Titans' first drive of the fourth quarter, but after that, all hell broke loose. Two plays into the ensuing possession, Manning went for the kill on a long pass to Burress in a one-on-one match up with Pac-Man Jones. The ball was overthrown, and Jones made a great catch for the interception. The Titans converted the turnover into a touchdown. After forcing a quick three-and-out by New York, including another near-interception by Jones, the Titans cashed in their second touchdown.
The Titans' game-tying drive involved the game's oddest play. On fourth-and-10, Kiwanuka had Young in his grasp. Young made a pump-fake, and Kiwanuka, fearful of a roughing-the-passer penalty, released Young, who proceeded to scramble for a first-down.
This odd looking play has led to some condemnation for Kiwanuka, but this gaffe was certainly understandable. The NFL has seen a number of questionable roughing penalties, although not an overall increase. Had Young thrown the ball and Kiwanuka tackled him, the rookie would have been everyone's goat for picking up a personal foul. A Tennessee drive had already been extended on a personal foul when Young was stopped short of a first down.
When he released Young, the quarterback still had over 15 yards to run for a first down, but Young evaded all tacklers. Will Demps had a perfect opportunity to make a game-winning tackle but missed. Demps' failure is more cause for reproach than Kiwanuka's.
Young's feint raises a difficult problem for referees and the Competition Committee. Already, it seems that some quarterbacks are testing the rules by delaying their slides to the last minute or tiptoeing down the sideline, almost trying to induce the penalty. Protecting the quarterback is an important objective, but when players stop making legitimate plays for fear of a flag, the situation needs to be reexamined.
Young finished that drive with a beautiful touchdown pass to Brandon Jones. Overtime seemed imminent, but Manning got delusions of grandeur. Flushed from the pocket, he made a terrible throw that was intercepted by Jones. Two short completions and a long field-goal form Rob Bironas later, and the Titans were celebrating their biggest win in three years. For the quarter, Young completed 13 of his 17 passes and scrambled for two first downs. The four scoring drives included only two handoffs.
Outside of the misplaced blame on Kiwanuka, most of the criticism has been leveled at Manning. His first interception was a bad throw but excusable. The second one was an unpardonable mistake. At the same time, it seems odd that people are only now realizing what has been true for the past season and a half. Manning is an inaccurate quarterback prone to making mistakes. He is playing at almost the exact same level as a season ago.
That lack of improvement seems to be the problem. Many people forgave his shortcomings a season ago because of his youth but now expect him to be a seasoned veteran. Quarterbacks do not automatically make some incredible leap in their third season. Of those quarterbacks drafted in the past 15 years who played significantly as a rookie, only David Carr has made a substantial step forward in his third season. Even he followed that up with major regression in his fourth. Several quarterbacks, including Jake Plummer and Drew Bledsoe, declined considerably their third year.
Manning remains a work in progress. Other than his last name, there is little reason to think he will become one of the game's best quarterbacks. He ranks just outside the top 10 in DPAR this year, a slight improvement from a season ago. He appears to be settling in for a Jake Delhomme or Marc Bulger-type career. Most people do not realize that is not an insult. Among recent first overall picks, he is likely to have a better career than Tim Couch, Michael Vick, David Carr, and Alex Smith. He is likely to be worse than only his brother and Carson Palmer, two of the three best quarterbacks in football. Hopefully people will begin to understand that Eli can be a good but not great quarterback without being a major disappointment.
Tennessee fans are currently convinced that Vince Young, the first quarterback taken this year, will be a great quarterback. He was superb on Sunday. He was accurate on the underneath throws and has the arm to get the ball down the field.
All the same, expectations must be tempered a great deal. Sunday's 249-yard performance was just his second over 170 yards on the season. He is completing less than 50 percent of his passes. His touchdown to interception ratio is 1:1. Even his running, on display at times on Sunday, has been only adequate. The lack of passing success leaves defenses free to employ a spy, and he is not matching Vick or a young Steve McNair's production on the ground.
Still, Young has done admirably in his rookie season. Surrounded by arguably the worst collection of skill players in the league, Young has held his own. The Titans have established their first solid ground attack in years to protect him. Center Kevin Mawae was one of the best under-the-radar signings of the off-season. Also worth noting is the solid play of second-year tackle Michael Roos. If the Titans start making annual trips to the playoffs, it will be no surprise to see Roos making annual trips to the Pro Bowl.
Young's entrance into the lineup has helped springboard the Titans into an improbable run. What is amazing is that the turnaround has been across the board. After four weeks, the Titans had lost all four games including embarrassing losses to San Diego and Dallas. Their DVOA through four games was a pathetic -59.4%. Since that time, the Titans' DVOA is 13.6% and above average on offense, defense, and special teams. For perspective, the first figure would be far and away the worst in the league. The second would be on the fringes of the top 10 in the league.
After four weeks, it appeared that Jeff Fisher's days in Tennessee were numbered. Rumors started floating of Norm Chow's return to the college ranks. Now, including defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the Tennessee staff is turning in one of the best coaching performances of the season.
Young's insertion in Week 4 is obviously the easiest change to highlight, but the improvements in special teams and defense were just as pronounced. All discussion of the Titans defense and special teams has to start with Pac-Man. At some point, the rest of the country will realize that aside from being immature and holding an odd nickname, he is one of the absolute best young defenders in football. Jones is currently the best player from the first round of the 2005 draft (non-steroid division).
Against New York, he had two interceptions, an impressive punt return, and even a first-down run on offense. Even more impressively, the Giants completed no passes with Jones as the primary cover man. Jones' importance to the team is highlighted by the fact that the defense's only bad performance in their past seven games was a game he missed due to suspension.
Jones is developing into a great player, but he is hardly the only reason for the turnaround. Two other crucial upgrades have come somewhat by accident. Following Albert Haynesworth's suspension for stomping an opponent, the Titans inserted Robaire Smith at defensive tackle. That first start for Smith coincided with the Titans' current run. Haynesworth returned to the starting line-up on Sunday, and the middle of the line was disruptive.
The other change is more recent with rookie Stephen Tulloch slotting in at middle linebacker due to an injury limiting David Thornton. Peter Sirmon has shifted from the middle to Thornton's position. Tulloch will likely keep his position when Thornton reclaims his starting status, and the Titans will have three speedy linebackers capable of controlling the run.
The Titans are suddenly a pretty good football team. They host Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and New England down the stretch, and they will give those playoff contenders a difficult time. After suffering through salary cap problems, the Titans have ample space for another active free agent period. They have their quarterback for the future, a developing young defense, and a solid coaching staff. The rebuilding plan is taking three years, not the one or two they hoped, but it appears near completion. For 2008, the playoffs are again a legitimate goal.
The Giants, as defending NFC East champions, harbored legitimate Super Bowl hopes for this season. The injuries have hampered the Giants to the point where now the playoffs are the primary goal. If Eli were as good as his brother, the Giants would still be a Super Bowl contender. Instead, he is just a good quarterback, and the Giants will be lucky to squeeze in as a Wild Card. The one way to save their season is a win over Dallas this Sunday. It is hard to see this current version of the Giants winning that game. The press will question the team's character, the quarterback's development, and the coach's control of the team. All may be legitimate concerns, but the simpler explanation may be that with all the injuries, they simply have less talent.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
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