In early march the offensive linemen gathered in a cramped, cluttered meeting room at Giants Stadium and vowed to get better. They talked about bonding and continuity, and kept to a minimum the details of how badly they had played the previous season. Critics had called them soft, injury-prone and largely responsible for the offensive collapse that led to the team's 4-12 record in 2003--and the linemen decided that they could not begin off-season workouts without making a commitment as a group to change that perception. They didn't want to be anybody's whipping boys again. So over the spring and summer, whether they were meeting at the home of guard Rich Seubert for a barbecue or poring over game tapes after conditioning sessions at the stadium, they remained focused on establishing a chemistry within the unit that might serve as an example for their teammates.
Contrary to the media hype, the quarterback competition between rookie Eli Manning and 33-year-old Kurt Warner wasn't the most vital concern of the Giants as they prepared for their first season under new coach Tom Coughlin. It won't matter who's under center if the line isn't a cohesive and efficient part of the offense.
Last year the Giants allowed 44 sacks (tied for second most in the NFL) and averaged 97.4 rushing yards a game (28th in the league). Injuries so ravaged the line that only second-year guard David Diehl started in every game at the same position. This season his linemates figure to include a left tackle who was plagued by a herniated disk in 2003 (Luke Petitgout), an underachieving right tackle (Ian Allen), two free agents (center Shaun O'Hara and guard-tackle Barry Stokes, both former Browns) and the team's second-round pick in this year's draft (guard Chris Snee). "Depth was a big issue last year," says running back Tiki Barber, "and it killed us when guys started getting hurt. Now we've brought in guys with experience and the right attitude. Obviously, they haven't all been together for two or three years, so there are going to be some growing pains, but I'm encouraged by what I've seen so far."
Barber is particularly pleased with Stokes and O'Hara. The 6'4", 310-pound Stokes is described by fellow linemen as a high-energy loudmouth who can inspire teammates. The 6'3", 306-pound O'Hara is soft-spoken and cerebral, and has the demeanor of a natural leader. General manager Ernie Accorsi acknowledges that these two aren't Pro Bowl--caliber additions--O'Hara and Stokes were part of a mediocre line in Cleveland--but he says, "Sometimes you just have to bring in stopgap players, veterans who know how to play."
Joining Stokes and O'Hara in the starting lineup will be Petitgout, who says his back hasn't bothered him since Feb. 1, but there's uncertainty about the other two spots. Seubert's recovery from a broken right leg sustained last October has been slow. Diehl has replaced Allen at right tackle because Snee has shown promise at guard. Diehl, a fifth-round pick in 2003, doesn't have a problem with that scenario, because he played every position except center at Illinois.
The bad news for the Giants is that even if their offensive line does jell, it doesn't necessarily mean the team will be a playoff contender. New York has good skill players--including Barber, wide receiver Amani Toomer and tight end Jeremy Shockey--but the Giants have too many other question marks. For one, neither Manning nor Warner made a particularly convincing case for the starting job in camp. Manning has outstanding potential but still has a lot to learn, while Warner hasn't shown much of the accuracy or confidence that made him a league MVP. The defense will have six new starters, including three new linebackers. On both sides of the ball, the Giants need to have more discipline, which is a big reason management hired a tough, detail-oriented coach like Coughlin. They finished last season with a --16 turnover margin (tied for last in the league last year) and a team-record 127 penalties, and it's those numbers that make Accorsi believe the offensive line received too much blame for last season's implosion. "They weren't the disaster everybody made them out to be," he says.
Even so, the linemen figure they'll be the first unit that critics look at if this season also goes south. "We've taken all the criticism from last year to heart," Diehl says. "And now we want to be known as the strength of the team." --J.C.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
> Fifth-year outside linebacker BARRETT GREEN makes up for his lack of size with athleticism. He's quick and tough enough to be a consistent open-field tackler, and he has the explosiveness to be a disruptive blitzer. He impressed the Giants so much when he was with the Lions that they gave him a five-year, $13.3 million free-agent deal (including a $2.8 million bonus).
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
I think they want Eli Manning to sit and learn as long as possible, but I wonder how comfortable Kurt Warner is going to be in the pocket, in a new offense, with that line in front of him.... Their receivers don't scare you, but they're solid. Amani Toomer looks as if he's lost weight and has regained some deep speed. Ike Hilliard is as tough over the middle as they come, but he's always beat up.... On defense, they've got two really good corners. Will Allen doesn't have ideal size, but he can make a lot of plays because of his great speed.... They've had a lot of changes in their front seven--all three linebackers are gone. Barrett Green can really run. Carlos Emmons has veteran savvy and leadership skills. There's no dominating player there, but they can all move well.... Michael Strahan will always be a threat, even without a lot of talent around him. They have too many young defensive ends who haven't proved they can play. The Giants are talking about moving Strahan around a lot, but he's still going to see plenty of double and triple teams.... Tom Coughlin will have them prepared to play--whether they like him or not.
"Will Allen doesn't have ideal size, but he can make a lot of plays because of his great speed."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 4-12
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Tom Coughlin; first season with New York (68-60 in NFL)
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 172)
12 at Philadelphia
3 at Green Bay
10 at Dallas
17 Open date
31 at Minnesota
14 at Arizona
5 at Washington
12 at Baltimore
18 PITTSBURGH (S)
26 at Cincinnati
Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .480
Games against playoff teams: 5