By Jason Keidel
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Ever get something really right, long before the rest saw your wisdom? Ever make a prediction that the masses mocked and then get called a clown? And then it wound up happening exactly as you predicted?
It’s rare, but delightful and delicious.
Such a rarity happened to yours truly, on September 22, when I wrote an obscure, rarely-read piece on the Giants. At the time they were toiling with two losses and zero wins, and were flanked by an army of cynics.
Then I wrote that the Giants were not dead, impaired or imperiled. They had the best QB, HC and WRs in the division. (Even if you take Tony Romo over Eli Manning, the Cowboys’ quarterback was on the shelf after two games.)
The Eagles were branded a dream team with the dreamy, genius coach — John Nash with a whistle. Then came the murmurs of discontent. First he cut players who left with a trail of racial undertones, too many to brand as mere malcontents. Then he signed the NFL rushing champ, DeMarco Murray — a boulder of a back who rolled downfield, pummeling his opponents. But then Kelly asked Murray to dart sideways, which amounted to about 20 yards rushing after three games.
Kelly traded the sturdy and economical Nick Foles — who rarely threw picks and rarely gets hurt — for the always-injured Sam Bradford, who snaps a tendon just from studying the read-option plays that Kelly so famously perfected at Oregon. For all his alleged genius, Kelly’s Eagles staggered to 1-3 at the quarter pole. (They’re now 2-3.)
Then we had the Cowboys. Always ordained as America’s Team despite no Super Bowl appearances since Bill Clinton’s first term in the Oval Office, they had a robust revival last year. They won a playoff game and were robbed of another after refs botched Dez Bryant’s obvious catch. And that’s as close as they’ve come to the halcyon years of the Triplets and Jimmy Johnson, a fallen empire from which they still haven’t recovered 20 years later.
Tony Romo was off to another sizzling start, and then he cracked his collarbone. His running mate, Bryant, broke his blessed foot, and that was that. They started Brandon Weeden, who’s now lost 11 straight games. Only now have they found religion and pegged Matt Cassell to start this week. It’s not too late for Dallas to make a move up the rungs of the NFC East. But if they lose their rematch with the Giants in two weeks, they could be looking up at Big Blue for the remainder.
Then we have Washington. Their preseason was pure soap operatic. The RG3 saga alone is enough to tank a team for the season. Toss in a neophyte head coach — who isn’t even the best coach in his own family — and a dearth of decent talent on offense (outside of running back), and you’ve got a team poised for 2-14. But kudos to the gritty Redskins, who have somehow kept their nostrils near the .500 waters. There’s a wide chasm, however, between mediocrity and contention. And Kirk Cousins is not the long-term answer to a short-term vacancy at QB.
Which leaves us with Big Blue. Everyone wrote the Giants off as football carrion, to be chewed on by the soaring Eagles, the hyperbolic Cowboys and the Kardashian Redskins.
They were living on the twin reputations of their QB and HC. All their deeds were relegated to the archives, not their futures. After hanging on and breathing the fairy dust of his two Super Bowls, Tom Coughlin is finally showing his age, collecting more Social Security checks than playoff wins over the last few years. He’s a trooper, a geriatric anomaly, but he’s still an old man whose red face finally has seen its last winter.
Likewise, Eli Manning was a Big Blue, big-game aberration. He can scratch out nine wins, get hot for four games and win two rings. But that circus has seen its final act. If only there were a way to combine Peyton’s regular-season brilliance with Eli’s playoff prowess.
The Giants never have drama, other than Plexico’s “shot” heard ’round the world and Jason Pierre-Paul’s perilous July 4. Coughlin speaks in all the coaching cliches. GM Jerry Reese is about as exciting behind the mike as Bill Belichick. Manning, who has a weekly spot with WFAN host Mike Francesa, has his country charm and charming drawl, but he’s incapable of providing a sound soundbite. He just gets it done, sans the theatrics.
A few things needed to go right for the Giants to flip their season back on its feet. Manning had to slash his penchant for tossing picks. They needed to keep turnovers down. And they needed Odell Beckham Jr to prove that his surreal maiden season wasn’t an anomaly.
And, perhaps the team’s MVP hasn’t played a snap all season.
No one doubted Manning’s bona fides, Beckham’s Spider-Man hands or Coughlin’s commitment to excellence.
But, to a man, everyone was deathly afraid of Big Blue’s rubber-band defense, which has hemorrhaged points in recent years. They’ve lost stalwarts Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, and now JPP. Those are three epic pass rushers whose numbers and presence haven’t been replaced.
Yet Spagnuolo, who led the G-Men’s epic upset over the 18-0 Patriots, has performed the wizardry we expected from Kelly’s offense.
Somehow, the returning D-coordinator has tweaked their front seven into a robust unit. They’ve allowed just 403 yards rushing in five games. That’s just 3.5 yards per carry, and 80.6 yards per game. And they’ve surrendered just three rushing TDs. By contrast, the Atlanta Falcons, ranked ahead of the Giants — and the only squad to allow fewer rushing yards per game (78.4) — have yielded eight rushing touchdowns.
It’s not sexy. The Giants don’t have glittering numbers (only four sacks and two interceptions). They lead the NFL in solo tackles, which mostly means they’re on the field a lot. But they’re glowing in the one stat that Don Shula says trumps the rest.
Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonKeidel.