When the New York Giants come to my neck of the woods in Albany, N.Y. for July Training Camp, I've come to learn as expectations go, never get too high off a good year or too low off a bad one. Their first year here in 1996 they were flat out dreadful, yet in 1997 they won the NFC East. After their last Super Bowl appearance, many were thinking they'd build and regroup from that only to sink back into a mediocre state. Certainly one could make that case for any team in the NFL not named the Colts or Patriots.
But while the Patriots couldn't reach perfection, the Giants finally reached and exceeded their potential.
From the outset on paper sure the Giants still had stars like Antoino Pierce, Osi Umenyiora, Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress, but they had quite the tumultuous off-season. Tiki Barber was out the door, Michael Strahan was close to follow. Swiftly kicked out the door were oft-injured underachievers Luke Petitgout, LaVar Arrington and Carlos Emmons. And Kawika Mitchell was the "only signing of significance."
They still had a much maligned coach and quarterback in Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning. A new GM in Jerry Reese and a rookie defensive coordinator in Steve Spagnuolo. And to this team pegged as a Super Bowl contender before the 2006 season was now being reduced to a team that would go 6-10 just as much as it could 10-6.
However, as they did at the end of the 2006 season, they learned how to listen, they played like they wanted to be Giants and they just plain became focused.
Luckily the Giants talent evaluators hit the jackpot in finding not only a bevy of homegrown players but diamonds in the rough to boot. Ernie Accorsi, the man who as Baltimore Colts GM was forced into trading John Elway to the Denver Broncos, finally got the reverse dividends this time around. And more importantly Jerry Reese absolutely hit it out of the park with his first draft as GM.
Aaron Ross, Steve Smith, Jay Alford, Zak DeOssie, Kevin Boss, Adam Koets, Michael Johnson and Ahmad Bradshaw all played a role in the Giants taking home Super Bowl XLII. In addition to Mitchell, Reese made other shrewd signings such as Domenik Hixon, Madison Hedgecock, an early contributor in Reuben Droughns and though we wouldn't know it until very late Lawrence Tynes.
The offense looked very game from the start as the same pair who would hook up for the Giants last score of the season, started out with a boom on the first drive of their first game. However it took the defense a little while to adapt, though after the 2nd half in Washington we learned it was more about making adjustments to a new scheme than a lack of talent.
From there the Giants rolled, in fact steam-rolled the Eagles as the Giants went on to win six in a row. Pierce was becoming a true team leader, Osi back in super-star form and Justin Tuck emerged with a breakout year of stardom as well.
They then proceeded to take us on a roller-coaster ride once again, getting flattened by the Vikes, tripped up by the Cowboys, while steadying themselves somewhat against the Bears. After that they hit their stride in Buffalo with the ground game and the defense, digging out of a 14-0 deficit to win decisively and clinch a playoff berth and their 10th win.
Then it was New England and the Giants only seemed to gain confidence, they embraced the under-dog role with their backs up against the wall and just simply ran with it. They didn't win but it turned out that the "dog" did learn some new tricks.
Finally the Giants started out on the road to revenge tour, the same road that they'd take to a record 11 road wins, the only NFC Wild Card team to ever do it.
Upon only gaining -3 yards in the early going, New York absolutely thrashed the Bucs and Jeff Garcia. They made the adjustments they had to make, had faith in Manning to make plays in the air and he did just that in picking the Bucs apart. The Giants defense also made plays when it had to, be it a sack from Strahan or a timely fumble recovery or interception by once lost, highly touted draft pick Corey Webster.
Then it was onto Dallas and the Giants simply did not break on defense, despite one Cowboys scoring drive lasting over ten minutes. That's when if not for later drives in the Super Bowl, Eli Manning defined himself when he marched the Giants down the field with about a minute to go in the 1st half, hitting two rookies in Smith and Boss and finally another veteran whom most thought was close to being put out to pasture, Amani Toomer caught what was his 2nd TD catch of the day to send both teams to the locker room knotted at 14. Brandon Jacobs and Bradshaw combined to pound the Dallas defense, while the Giants defense wore down Tony Romo and Marion Barber. Finally R.W. McQuarters as he had against Tampa, had a game ending INT sending the Giants to the NFC Championship game in Green Bay.
Mind you the Giants were doing this also without the services of Mathias Kiwanuka, Derrick Ward and Shockey along with having guys like Mitchell, Sam Madison and Shaun O'Hara unable to go in the opening round of the playoffs.
So the Giants went on after everyone had picked against. The Giants defense shut down the run, while the Giants offense was once again very pass happy. Boss and Hixon made two enormous fumble recoveries and amazingly with the ball in Brett Favre's hands in overtime the Giants would prevail. Prevail in the strangest of ways with Webester picking off Favre, followed by Tynes kicking a 47-yarder to send the Giants to Super Bowl XLII.
In the Super Bowl against the Patriots, the Giants didn't come out shocked and surprised. Instead they followed the playbook of their 1990 brethren and like Jeff Hostetler, Eli Manning was converting on 3rd downs during the opening drive like it was going out of style. Then Jacobs and Bradshaw were starting to mirror O.J. Anderson and Dave Meggett and the Giants were out to a 3-0 lead, holding the Pats scoreless through one quarter of play.
The Giants certainly could've won this game by more if not for an inadvertent pick along with a mistake of a batted ball that went forward rather than out of bounds, just as the Giants were in field goal range. However the Pats got too cocky and the Giants defense seized on it, sacking Tom Brady five times and smacking him about 18 times more for good measure. Then on 4th and 13 rather than attempt a 49 yard field goal try, setup by a Strahan sack, the Pats passed on the points and aired it out for a big fat nothing.
The Patriots played as if they were going to blow the Giants out of the water, but near the end of the half Umenyiora and Tuck combined to make Brady fumble and lose possession. Thus it was 7-3 New England at the half as Laurence Maroney was essentially spent for the day after his kickoff return and lone TD run setup by a pass interference penalty.
The Giants continued to keep with the theme of added pressure in the 2nd half and knocked Brady silly. Only Wes Welker and his 11 catches were of any saving grace along with Kevin Faulk.
In the 4th quarter Manning then embarked the Giants on a drive that will make for a great trivia question someday. No it wasn't Shockey, Toomer and Burress on this drive, it was Boss' 47 yard rumble, followed by a clutch grab by Smith and cemented by a TD catch by David Tyree. Yes that's Pro Bowl special teamer, former Syracuse Orangemen wide-out David Tyree. Though his heroics were hardly done for the night, nor were Manning's.
After the Pats finally aligned themselves with the team that had seemingly drilled every opponent early this season with guess what a TD from Brady to Moss, giving them a 14-10 lead, it looked as though the coronation was on.
Except that it wasn't. Except that Eli Manning was the star of this picture when he amazingly eluded the grasp of two Pats defenders in order to fling up a prayer on 3rd and 5 again to Tyree who caught the ball on the back of his helmet right in front of aptly enough Rodney Harrison. That was followed by another heads-up, clutch play by Smith who recorded a 1st down while getting out of bounds. The next play was history as Burress for all intensive purposes playing on one leg, faked out Ellis Hobbs and caught the winning TD to make it 17-14 Giants.
The Pats had one last gasp and then Alford took Brady's breath away with a ferocious hit. With two seconds left the little weasel Belichick was force back onto the sideline to take it like a man, as Eli took the final snap in what was one of the more unimaginable runs in New York sports history.
If you're still wondering come July and August whether they actually won Super Bowl XLII, don't worry the Giants relish in lowered expectations. But if you must know, the answer is true, TRUE BLUE.