Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A (New York) Giant Change

Maybe it started with Eli Manning. The much-maligned former No. 1 overall pick and youngest member of Football’s Royal Family blossomed in epic fashion last season. After tossing an NFC-high 20 interceptions during his fourth regular season as a pro, Manning entered the playoffs and matured into an estimable field general, leading his troops to four consecutive road victories. He threw six touchdowns and just one pick along the way. Now, gone are the gripes about his wisdom, leadership, passion and poise.

Or maybe it began with Tom Coughlin. The cantankerous veteran head coach had long been pilloried by fans and the New York media. His teams had made a habit of late-season collapses, which instigated his perennial lame duck status. But that was before Coughlin’s Giants defeated the Cowboys, Packers and Patriots in the playoffs, avenging four of their six regular season losses.

Or maybe it had actually been initiated by the changes in leadership. Jerry Reese replaced Ernie Accorsi as the team’s GM after the ’06 season. For the first time, the ownership posterity––John Mara and Steve Tisch, sons of the late Wellington Mara and Tim Tisch––entered a season with a full year under their belt. With the front office stabilized, now absent are the criticisms about who is at left tackle, which defensive lineman is playing where or how the secondary is being meshed together.

Or maybe it wasn’t a person at all. Maybe it started that December night in New Jersey, when the country saw the Giants fight blow-for-blow with the history-chasing Patriots in a game that was supposed to mean nothing to New York. Football America tipped its cap to the gallant Giants that night; never before had a playoff-bound team drawn so much praise after losing a home game.

We’ll never know what started it. All we know is that the New York Giants changed this past January. Not just the quarterback and coach––everyone. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress went from quitter to role model. Once unwilling to play hard, Burress valorously played hurt. Running back Brandon Jacobs morphed from a bruising goal-line specialist to a formidable all-around force. He was still bruising––he was just bruising outside the tackles and in the open field for a change. Michael Strahan transformed from extroverted superstar to sagacious veteran. That helped Justin Tuck evolve from little-used backup to a multi-faceted difference-maker. Cornerback Corey Webster was once a downright disappointment on the verge of losing his roster spot. Then, he mutated into a suffocating defender bordering on shutdown status.

The myriad of change in New York was like nothing football has ever seen. There was no single galvanizing incident or eureka moment behind it––at least not one visible to mere mortals. All of it just sort of happened. Serendipitously, at the same time. Trying to explain the force behind it is like trying to explain the configuration of love or the will of God. Anyone can try; in fact, it’s important that people do. But arrogant is the one who thinks they can find an answer that doesn’t inherently generate more questions.

So complex is New York’s change that, when broken back down into individual parts, some of the key elements don’t seem to actually exist. Does Manning not still have the same aw-shucks demeanor as before? Does Coughlin no longer yell when he’s upset?

Perhaps there was no change at all.

And yet, we see the Super Bowl rings.

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