There is good news for New York football fans this season; you regular Joes, too poor to buy season tickets to the Meadowlands, who sleepwalk through the spring and summer only to awaken with the season in blissful communion with sofa and television, who spend the rest of the week praying the wife doesn’t generate some last minute weekend home improvement project; and for whom happiness is a bad weather game, a cold six pack, and a hot plate of nachos. In the past you have known the special hell of living in this two team TV market, being stuck watching consecutive, crappy, out-of-playoff-contention NYC teams’ late-season match-ups while the folks in the rest of the nation get to watch the big games that count.
Thankfully, this year the NFL has relaxed their blackout policy on network double-headers, allowing a second afternoon game to be broadcast, provided it does not go head-to-head with the hometown team’s game. This new policy, for example, means a choice of two late afternoon games in Week 13 when the Giants play at night in Arizona or Week 15 when the Jets play the night game in Oakland. In any case, if you have a little money saved and don’t live near a decent sports bar, you still may want to start shopping for a satellite dish now because the 2000 NFL season could be a long one for the New York franchises.
Forget the momentum the Jets generated by the end of last season. After an anomalous few years as tough competitors, this year’s squad is shaping up as a return to the true Jets football tradition: that of the always rebuilding, perennial losers. The man mainly responsible for Jets’ recent uptick, future Hall of Fame Coach Bill Parcells, won’t be yelling and cursing on the sidelines this season. After first handing over the Jets’ command to his long time right-hand man, defensive guru Bill Belichick (who rejected the job in order to run the hated Patriot franchise), the mantle of power was bestowed upon former linebackers’ coach Al Groh. While Parcells has opted to hang around the Jets’ back office for some unknown reason, the net effect on the team must still be a downgrade in leadership from one of the most winning head coaches ever to a guy who has never sat in the hot seat before. Groh’s first move as head coach was to trade the team’s best player, big-play receiver Keyshawn Johnson, a move akin to stepping into the battle and promptly falling upon one’s own sword. Despite all of the upheaval, most fans expected the Jets to at least act like they are serious about making a run for the playoffs by picking up another star receiver on the free-agent market. Carl Pickens of the Bengals and a few others reasonable substitutes were available but the team showed no interest. Instead, the Jets seem intent upon starting the season with 5 foot 10 inch, possession receiver Wayne Chrebet in the number one slot. As such they are the only team in the NFL moving toward smaller receivers and an increased reliance on the running game, a strategy that failed the teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for years and which wastes the Jets’ strength and depth at quarterback.
Fortunately for those New Yorkers who can’t get to the sports bar every Sunday, the Jets still have an elite running back in Curtis Martin. Running behind a decent offensive line, Martin will grind out four-yard carries all day and is always a threat to bust one open for the highlight reels. A parcels favorite, Martin alone should have enough game to keep you from your household chores this winter, providing he stays healthy under the increased workload. Still, he may miss Keyshawn, the league’s best downfield blocking receiver, most of all. The upside of the Keyshawn trade was the Jets had four picks in the first round of the draft. The downside is that Keyshawn would easily catch all the passes Dedric Ward does, but never drop as many touchdowns.
The bigger mystery with the Jets is on defense. There could be a great improvement as three of those four first round draft picks were spent with the obvious intention of creating an old-fashioned pass rush. Last year’s linemen just never got to the backfield, forcing the departed defensive coordinator, Belichick, to rely too heavily upon the zone blitzing schemes. Zone blitzes (where defensive backs and/or linebackers rush the backfield from unexpected angles and linebackers and/or linemen unexpectedly drop into pass coverage), are most effective when they supplement rather than replace standard blitz schemes. With the Jets’ weak front, opposing teams were able to game plan for the Belichick’s zone schemes last season, well-prepared opposing quarterbacks made the correct reads, and the Jets’ secondary was often burned by the passing game (remember all those interference penalties) despite solid talent at the corners. The Jets’ first pick defensive end, Sean Ellis, looks like a sage bet to be the league’s next perennial Pro-Bowler at the position; an unstoppable force in the mold of a Bruce Smith or Lawrence Taylor. By mid-season, another first round pick, speedy linebacker John Abraham, should erase all memories of departed LB Chad Cascadden in an upgraded third down package.
While the Jet defense, on paper, appears stronger than last year, the defection of Coach Belichick may mean an overall backslide for the squad. An undisputed tactical genius, Belichick’s game plans, along with Coach Parcells’ talent for psychological motivation, helped the Jets’ defense play above their actual skill level last season. The fact that the offense was high scoring also relieved much of the pressure on the squad. The defense goes into this season with a new defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, who stunk it up in his last job with the Redskins, along with the rookie head coach and the added responsibility that comes with a conservative, ball control game plan. A good test for the squad will come when they face Belichick and the Patriots up in Boston in the second week of the regular season. The best-case scenario for the Jets would be a key injury to Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, or Marvin Harrison, derailing the Colts, the experts’ consensus choice to win the division. Realistically, do not expect the Jets to do better than 8 and 8 this season.
Back in 1997 rookie Head Coach Jim Fassel took the New York Giants all the way to the playoffs with the combination of a crushing defense and a super conservative offense. Giants fans were ecstatic and rushed to pronounce the return of New York’s dominance of the NFC East last seen in the ’80s. What followed instead was a new era of mediocrity: sputtering offense, lackluster defense, and more on field in-fighting than fight shown to opposing teams. By the end of last season, the step-sister Jets had stolen most of the media limelight, with the Giants only showing up when a major player went down with an injury or when columnists called for Fassel’s head. Meanwhile, in press conferences last season Fassel more and more took on the distinctive appearance of a drowning man.
This season will be Fassel’s last in New York if they do not make it to the play-offs, in which case almost no one will be sorry to see him go. That being said, the Giants appear to have a good chance of making post-season. If they get there it will be because Fassel has wisely given up play calling for the offense. It became undeniably apparent that Fassel’s play calling and not player ability was the offense’s biggest problem when Tyrone Wheatley, a scrub running back when with the Giants, rushed for 936 yards with Oakland last season as the second halfback on the depth chart. Fassel’s acknowledgement of his own shortcoming as a coordinator comes at a good time for the Giants. First round halfback Ron Dayne should have confidence building success in new Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton’s more wide-open system, behind a completely revamped offensive line. Unfortunately, the change came too late for shooting-star full back Charles Way, worn out and forced to retire at age 27. Substitute, pass-catching fullback Greg Comella and change-of-pace back Tiki Barber give the Giants a complete set of ball carriers. The passing game is also in solid shape with a mature Kerry Collins and an enviable corps of receivers. Collins threw more interceptions than touchdowns last season mainly because opposing defenses were able to ignore the Giants’ lackluster ground game and play pass coverage on every down. All together, the offense appears ready to open up this season and put way more points on the board than in recent years.
Longtime New York Giants fans tend to associate the team with crushing defense but last season the D didn’t get the job done. While the defensive line, anchored by Pro Bowl left end Michael Strahan, and the linebacker corps, led by weak side linebacker Jesse Armstead, both remained formidable; the secondary, decimated by injuries, played like crap. Last season the defense gave up 358 points, 112 in fourth quarters alone, ranking 23rd in points allowed and 28th in average yards per pass. As improved as the offense is, it is still stingy D that wins football games in the NFL. Whether or not the Giants make the playoffs this season depends mainly upon the continued health of the starting corners and safeties because the drop-off in talent behind them on the bench is steep.
One thing Big Blue may have going for them this season is that some of the elite teams they face will probably be looking past them on their schedules. The best-case scenario for this season is that the Giants will handle all of the weaker teams they face, steal a few big games and sneak into the playoffs with a wildcard spot. Unfortunately, if that happens then the way-too-nice-to-own-a-football-team Mora family will probably renew Fassel’s contract and New York football fans will have to endure more seasons of Fassel’s passive-aggressive coaching strategy, boring the other team into submission. If Big Blue doesn’t win their first three regular season games you can probably kiss that best case scenario goodbye, be happy you bought that satellite dish, or embrace your role as your wife’s home-improvement slave because they will not catch-up with the talent stocked Washington Redskins. With any luck, the Giants should go 10 and 6 this season, leaving at least one local team in playoff contention come the winter.
Division Winners NFC: Washington, Tampa Bay, St. Louis
Wild Cards NFC: Indianapolis, Tennessee, Oakland
Division Winners AFC: Indianapolis, Tennessee, Oakland
Wild Cards AFC: Jacksonville, Baltimore, Denver
Superbowl: Tennessee over Washington
Staff Super Bowl Predictions
T. Hamm – Tampa Bay over Tennessee
M. Bubb – Tampa Bay over Indianapolis
J. Maggio – Buffalo over Washington
Reeds – Giants over Buffalo (again.)
Jonas Salganik is a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail