Off to an ugly 0-2 start last season, the New York Giants’ coach was on the hot seat and the team’s quarterback was facing questions about his ability that had dogged him throughout his career.
All of that made the club’s stunning run to the Super Bowl title all the more remarkable.
Six months after their unlikely surge to a championship, the Giants are again facing adversity as they host the Washington Redskins in the NFL season opener Thursday night.
No one considered the Giants Super Bowl contenders after they lost their first two games last season by a combined 80-48 - except maybe the Giants themselves. New York coach Tom Coughlin repeatedly asserted that his team was better than it had played in lopsided losses to Dallas and Green Bay, and the Giants went on to prove him right.
The Giants went 10-4 the rest of the way, then won four straight road games in the playoffs to capture their third Super Bowl championship. New York, which won 11 consecutive games away from Giants Stadium, ended New England’s bid for a perfect season with a 17-14 victory that is arguably the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.
The task for New York now is to put last season behind it and focus on the upcoming one.
“We just have to work hard on that and just be consistent week in and week out,” said Eli Manning, the Super Bowl MVP who erased doubts about his ability to become a franchise quarterback by leading New York through the playoffs. “I think that has been our motivation and we know we have to do that.”
Coughlin, who had been on the verge of being fired before being rewarded with a four-year contract extension worth $21 million, has been working to keep his team looking forward during the preseason. Fortunately for the coach, his players may have found the motivation they need to do so.
New York has been repeatedly dismissed by prognosticators as a team that got hot at the right time last season, and one that shouldn’t be considered a contender in 2008.
“You have to move forward, and you can’t dwell on it,” said middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who led the Giants with 102 tackles last season. “With the predictions and the opinions, we could really care less. Those are the same people that last year told us we wouldn’t do nothing.”
One of the biggest reasons New York is being overlooked this season is two huge losses on the defensive line, the unit that generated the ferocious pass rush that powered the club’s title run.
The Giants led the league with 53 sacks last season and battered Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, sacking him five times. However, the line lost seven-time Pro Bowler Michael Strahan to retirement in June, and two-time Pro Bowler Osi Umenyiora went down with a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game Aug. 23. The two starting ends combined for 22 sacks last year.
Justin Tuck, who had 10 sacks last season and two in the Super Bowl, has taken over for Strahan on the left side. Mathias Kiwanuka, drafted as a pass rushing end in the first round in 2006, was moved back to that position after playing linebacker during an injury-shortened 2007 and will take Umenyiora’s spot on the right.
While the defense will press on without two leaders, the offense returns all 11 starters from the Super Bowl.
Manning struggled at times last season, throwing 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions during the regular season, but emerged as an efficient and steady quarterback in the playoffs, throwing six touchdowns to just one pick in the four contests.
The sixth-year quarterback will be aided by a versatile ground attack. Bruising Brandon Jacobs ran for 1,009 yards last season, and he’ll be complemented by speedy second-year back Ahmad Bradshaw and veteran Derrick Ward (602 yards).
Jacobs rushed for 130 yards on 25 carries in a 22-10 home loss to the Redskins on Dec. 16.
Manning won’t have tight end Jeremy Shockey to throw to this year, as the team dealt the veteran to New Orleans for draft picks in July. Shockey missed the team’s playoff run due to injuries and became disgruntled with his role in the offense.
Second-year player Kevin Boss, who made several key catches during the postseason, will step into Shockey’s spot.
New York turned its season around in Washington on Sept. 23, overcoming a 17-3 halftime deficit and making a last-minute goal-line stand to preserve a 24-17 victory and avert an 0-3 start.
“I think from a mental standpoint guys are even more focused than they were last year and ready to get off to a fast start,” Pierce said.
The Redskins will be looking to do the same thing under new coach Jim Zorn, who replaces Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs.
Washington went 9-7 last season, winning its final four games following a four-game slide to make the playoffs for the second time in three years. The Redskins, though, lost 35-14 to Seattle in the wild-card round.
Zorn, a former quarterback, has brought a new look by installing a West Coast-style offense - a departure from Gibbs’ traditional approach.
Jason Campbell, who threw for 2,700 yards, 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season, hasn’t been called on to be the focal point of the offense in his three NFL seasons. He’ll now be expected to expertly run the versatile new offensive scheme by getting the ball to playmakers Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle El and Chris Cooley.
“I have been very pleased with his progression and I am hoping that as we get into the season now, when he has these full games, he will continue to grow within the offense and our football team,” Zorn said of Campbell.
Zorn hopes that will also be the case with star running back Clinton Portis, who rushed for 1,262 yards in 2007 - sixth-most in the league. Portis ran for 186 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries in the two games against New York last season.
Washington will have defensive end Jason Taylor available for the opener after he sprained his right knee in a preseason game Aug. 23.
Taylor, who hasn’t missed a game since 1999, was acquired from Miami in the offseason to strengthen a defense that allowed the seventh-fewest yards in the league at 317.6 per game. The six-time Pro Bowler and 2006 Defensive Player of the Year was listed to make his 131st consecutive regular season start.
New York’s December loss to Washington snapped a three-game winning streak in the series. The Giants have taken 10 of the last 15 meetings.