There’s a feeling that’s sat next to me all season as I’ve watch my beloved Giants from strong start to an almost complete meltdown to a rebranding of themselves as tough-as-nails fourth quarter warriors. It’s an odd feeling but I wouldn’t say a negative one. What is this team? I don’t mean these past few weeks or even this season. Going back a few years – what is this team?
This is a team without a personality or flavor… usually elite as a pass rushing unit combined with what is probably among the worst secondaries in the league, six or so years running. The Giants are team that occasionally gets superb years out of cast-offs like Ahmad Bradshaw but still can’t convince Brandon Jacobs to run like he weighs 260 lbs. This is a team that literally can’t find enough space for all their phenomenal defensive line talent (notably lining up Jason Pierre-Paul at tackle to make room) but hasn’t drafted an all-pro linebacker since Jessie Armstead in 1993. This is a team that, in 2003, drafted what turned out to be the best quarterback in the draft but packaged him with other picks (one of which became Shawne Merriman) in order to get a lesser quarterback with more name recognition.
And, yet, it’s all almost genius in its own way, isn’t it?
We’ve now won two Super Bowls in four years, which is a very, very impressive feat given that this team really isn’t very good. Or are they? Seriously, what is this team?
This is the era of Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning. My thoughts one the latter are more complicated so we’ll start with the coach.
A mere three years after taking his team to the Super Bowl, Coach Jim Fassel was unceremoniously fired following the abortion that was the Giants 39-38 playoff loss to the 49ers in 2002 and the injury-wracked 2003 season. The line on Fassel was always that he was too friendly to his players, led a sloppy show and most importantly of all, that his players lacked discipline. I like that word discipline a lot – it covers all manner of sins when discussing the failings of a football team without really meaning anything. It’s as if these players – these unbelievably fast, strong machines with bodies carved out of wood immediately devolve into freshmen at a fraternity kegger without a stern, business-like coach to keep them honest.
Enter Tom Coughlin, a man who’s primary claim to fame up until that moment had been his leading the Jacksonville Jaguars to an entirely improbable AFC Championship performance for the perception around the league that he didn’t take any guff from his players. Almost immediately Coughlin alienated veterans Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber with his dogmatic approach of instilling discipline through mandatory fines for being late to meetings and two-a-day practices designed to, I don’t even know, kill the players, I guess. For this, of course, the old grumpy white guy sports media could not praise him enough. Discipline was the watchword of the new Coughlin administration in Giants land.
There’s a funny thing about discipline in football. Unlike most of the other bullshit intangibles sports guys like to mouth off about, discipline is more or less a measurable quantity. A disciplined team should not get hit with penalties. While it’s not fair to look at one year and say whichever team got the least number of penalty yards was the most disciplined, over a period of years it gives a fair assessment of the culture of a team. Over the last seven years the Giants have ranked 13th, 16th, 19th, 27th, 11th, 26th, 27th and penalty yards where higher is better, out of 32 teams. I want you to read those numbers again. Not once did the Giants even luck into accidentally being a disciplined team.
Besides demonstrably failing at the one thing which was supposed to be his strength, Coughlin is among the least creative play-callers and formation designers in football. Coughlin calls a solid, unspectacular game that rarely embraces the particular strengths of the team and has not substantively changed at all during Coughlin’s eight-year tenure. Now, I’m not saying I want Coughlin to jump on every idiotic bandwagon that rolls through the NFL (I’m looking at you, Wildcat formation) but Coughlin is just an old-school guy locked fast in an outmoded way of thinking, especially offensively.
I was, for example, shocked – fucking shocked – to learn that Brandon Jacobs holds the team record for rushing touchdowns with 52. Of these 52 touchdowns, 27 of them , or a little over 50%, have come from rushes within 2 yards. This is despite the fact that Jacobs fails in short yardage situations 20% more often than the average running back. Any average NFL running back would have more luck scoring in short yardage situations and yet Coughlin has been beating his head against that same brick wall – not for one year, not two… seven years. In seven years Coughlin has not learned this blatantly obvious lesson. For what its worth, of Ahmad Bradshaw’s 18 touchdowns, only 17% have come from within 2 yards.
Coughlin will, from now on, receive favorable comparisons to a lot of great coaches… Parcells, Belichick, etc. But I found a piece in particular that had a comparison I really like: Coughlin is Tim Tebow. While that author meant it as a compliment: “When the critics put his back against the wall and put his job in jeopardy all he does in win,” I don’t. I mean it in the least complimentary way possible. In the same way that Tebow is lauded with credit that belongs to others (namely, his defense) and in the same way that Tebow manages to fall ass-backwards into dramatic, memorable wins, then yes, Coughlin is the Tebow of coaches. The problem with this Super Bowl is what it means for the Giants long-term. Somehow, Tom Coughlin is a multi-Super Bowl winning coach, which means it’s going to be some time before we’re able to get rid of him. Which means, the Giants yearly ritual of starting strong before running the gamut from mediocrity to more than one complete collapse in the second half of the year will continue indefinitely. Indeed, the Giants have never – not once – done as well or better in the second half of the season as they did during the first under Tom Coughlin. They are 47-17 through the first 8 games under Coughlin and 28-36 in the second 8.
Kevin Gilbride and Tom Coughlin are not the worst offensive minds in football, but they might be the worst to have ever received their particularly egregious brand of extended tenure.
Eli Manning constantly makes us question the nature of what it is to be great. Eli is not a great quarterback. In 2010, I had him ranked 12th best in the league, this year I would say he cracked the top 10, but not the top five. He vacillates between mediocre and far more often simply “good.” He will occasionally ratchet that up to “very good” and that above all else is what’s so maddening about him and why I’m not sure what to make of him as a player, or how I feel about him as my team’s quarterback, both historically and moving forward.
I never understood what it was that people liked so much about a player being “clutch.” First of all, as a person who tried not to blindly ignore observable facts, I’m a scion of the idea that while clutch performances exist, clutch players do not. Though, more to the point, listening to sports talk radio guys laud players for having that “extra gear” they can shift into “when it counts,” I’m left wondering why anyone would want that. If a guy has an “extra gear” shouldn’t we be pissed he isn’t using it all the time? Doesn’t that imply “clutch” players aren’t always trying their hardest?
Eli isn’t exactly considered “clutch” but much has been made of how much better he played this year in the 4th quarter. While others congratulate him for that, it drives me nuts. Eli clearly has all of the tools, both physical and in his surrounding personnel to be an elite quarterback but he’s held back by bad decision-making. He throws way too many stupid passes and a lot of them are picked off. Watching him these last few weeks, though, really drives home – he fucking could be the best quarterback in the league, but he just isn’t. Why? I honestly have no clue. Maybe he’s just not driven by that phantom desire for greatness. Maybe he realizes he’s going to luck into a shot at the Super Bowl every four years and the years when the team really is great – like in 2008 – they don’t actually make it past the first round.
Now, however, we have to endure the interminable questions of whether Eli is better than his brother Peyton. Peyton Manning, for my money was, up until probably three years ago the unquestioned greatest quarterback of all time. With the good statistical years Brady had in the championship days giving way to some absolutely stupid performances since 2007, I think the gap has closed such that either one has a fair argument for the crown.
The Eli vs. Peyton debate is different, though, and more insidious. It says something about us and what we believe “greatness” is. Peyton Manning is not only a great athlete, but a brilliant football tactician who basically served as his team’s de facto offensive coordinator. Without him, a 10-6 Indianapolis team only two years removed from a Super Bowl win with roughly the same roster descended to the unquestioned worst team in the NFL in 2010. Peyton’s credentials should be absolutely beyond reproach and yet the question will be asked over and over again – is Eli better than his brother because he has more championships.
The answer should be, of course, FUCKING NO, MORON, HE’S NOT BETTER! But it’s not, and this becomes the insidious referendum on greatness I referred to earlier. Somehow, all the work – all the fantastic, unprecedented work Peyton Manning has done gets erased by a lucky two months for the Giants. This is the same impulse that lets us look at a Donald Trump on the one hand and a hardworking family man laid off and on unemployment on the other and declare one a success and one a failure without in any contextualizing the reality that lead to their respective places in the world.
We don’t care about the journey, we count up the Super Bowl rings or we tabulate a guy’s bank account and we declare a winner. And it’s fucked up.
Why do we bother keeping track of these athletes statistics to the third decimal place if we intend to ignore them? Joe Montana is better than Dan Marino. Why? Well, Joe Montana has four rings. Well, Joe Montana also had Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice. Joe Montana had a better tactician for a coach. You know, they guy who invented the offense they were using. Forget a nuanced examination the facts, let’s get something quick and dirty, like Super Bowl wins and move on.
Eli Manning is the living embodiment, for and against, of all of our worst and most reactionary impulses. I’ve never thought he was good enough to be a Championship quarterback, even after 2007 – a Super Bowl victory I thought belonged to the Giants line and Steve Spagnuolo and, in my head, only incidentally involved Eli. But tonight, having watched my team hoist their second trophy in four years? I don’t have the slightest clue what to think anymore. He must be a championship caliber quarterback but, if he is, than that designation has been devalued.
Eli Manning could be one of the greats, but now that his legacy in that regard is sort of locked in, I have a hard time believing he’s going to be pushing himself much harder to achieve that Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady level of elite since his place in their company has been, right or wrong, guaranteed by the number of rings he’s now won even if that ring belongs a lot more to Jason Pierre-Paul, Hakeem Nicks and Chris Snee than it does to him.
The Super Bowl is meant to be the culmination of a long process of planning and execution. You amass the pieces over a period of years and when the moment is right, with a little bit of luck you charge at the prize against your elite peers. The Giants, however, are more like this constant rebuilding projects with these short, staccato burst of greatness that just happened to be timed correctly. I don’t believe in the idea of sports momentum but having watching the Giants these past few weeks it’s definitely hard to say I’m as steadfast an un-believer as I once was. Similarly, I don’t ever believe a team “owns” another team but damned if it doesn’t seem like the Giants own the Patriots in a big spot.
Last night’s Bowl victory is probably not the start of a long dynasty. If anything, it’s as likely to make the Giants complacent and lazy but it feels wonderful for now just the same.
The magic of sports is that since it’s not pre-determined, the best team doesn’t always, or even usually win. Last night, the best team did not win. I just wonder about the way we experience sports, rationalize it, drench it in hindsight bias and devalue the achievements of people just because they didn’t achieve the one moment the one time. The fact that less than great men are capable of great moments should be a sign of hope to all of us who are not, strictly speaking great. But if we are all defined by a few moments when we were at our best or worst than we risk losing the flavor of what real life actually is. Sports it’s supposed to be this amplified competition that reflects real life so I for one, even as a Giants fan, refuse to be taken in by the hype. I know I’m going to have to have the same argument over and over again with other Giants fans explaining how I could possibly not see the obvious greatness of Eli Manning. Those late game picks may be long forgotten memories to them but I remember the failures – the late season swoons and one game doesn’t erase all that. Eli is not any one narrative — they are all right and they are all wrong in equal measure. One game doesn’t change who he is as a person or a professional.
I thank you, Eli Manning and the Giants, for the championships, the fun and the moments of joy but you still suck.