Jets Aim For Super Season: Giants Try For Playoffs
By Michael Avallone
The Giants and Jets had vastly different seasons in 2004. Gang Green finished 10-6 and if not for two untimely missed field goals, could very well have been playing the eventual champion-New England Patriots in the AFC title game.
Big Blue surprised everyone – including themselves – with a 5-2 start to the season. Unfortunately, an eight-game losing streak for the second consecutive year sabotaged an impressive first half of football, resulting in a 6-10 finish. One thing the losing streak did do, was begin the Eli Manning-era a little earlier than expected.
Will 2005 hold as many twists and turns as ’04 did? Will one, both or neither team be playing in late January? As the song goes, “Are you ready for some football?!”
New York Giants
Let’s put the cards on the table right now. Chances are this will be another developmental year for Manning, who isn’t likely to make the jump to superstardom the way his big brother did in Indianapolis during his second season. A large key to Manning’s effectiveness will be the offensive line, which allowed far too many sacks and QB pressures last season. That being said, the O-line should be much improved with the addition of ex-Jet Kareem McKenzie as well as the continued maturation Chris Snee and David Diehl.
Wide receiver Amani Toomer suffered through the worst season of his career since becoming a first-option in 1999 and the Giants will need him to bounce back. Some of his load should be eased by the addition of Plaxico Burress. The 6-5 receiver will be an inviting target for Manning but he’s coming off two sub-1,000-yard seasons after going over that mark in 2001 and 2002. If he plays well, he’ll be a key player in Manning’s development. If he falters, he might be a distraction in the clubhouse and a severe nuisance to coach Tom Coughlin.
A big key to the offense will be tight end Jeremy Shockey, who had a good season in 2004 but continues to struggle with injuries. So far in training camp, Shockey has looked as good as he has since arriving in 2002. Without a doubt, if Shockey puts up the Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates-type numbers that have been predicted of him, he and Burress will drive defensive coordinators batty with their size and athleticism.
New York’s run defense suffered immeasurably last year after losing both Michael Strahan and Keith Washington to season-ending injuries. The addition of Antonio Pierce was one of the best moves made by Ernie Accorsi and should help solidify the linebacking corp. 2003 first-round pick William Joseph has been a huge disappointment thus far, and the defensive line needs to get better play out of him if Big Blue is to return to its run-stuffing history.
Defensive ends Strahan and Osi Umenyiora could be a nice tandem if both can stay on the field. Still feared as a pass-rusher and run-stopper, Strahan is 33 and is bound to start slowing down after 12 years in the trenches. On the flip side is the 24-year-old Umenyiora, who stepped into a starting role and finished with seven sacks and three forced fumbles. Depth, however, could be a problem with rookies Eric Moore and Justin Tuck backing up.
Rookie cornerback Corey Webster has been added to the secondary and will give Coughlin a possible solution to the inconsistent Will Allen, who hasn’t lived up to his billing as the 22 nd overall pick in the 2001 draft. Gibril Wilson enjoyed a fine freshman campaign, picking off three passes in only eight games.
Kicker Jay Feely looks like a solid acquisition, but it will be interesting to see how he handles the swirling winds at Giants Stadium in the winter months. Even weather-hardened veterans can struggle with the atmosphere and Feely has spent half his career kicking indoors with the Falcons at the Georgia Dome. Jeff Feagles is a steady, if not spectacular, punter.
Willie Ponder was one of the best kickoff return specialists last season, but receiver Mark Jones has been below average as a punt returner.
The Giants have made strides towards improving but there are still too many holes, not to mention tough teams, to make a run at the division title. A wild card berth is a possibility if everything breaks right, but this team should focus on the future.
New York Jets
After being basically run out of town for failing to open up the offense, New York replaced offensive coordinator Paul Hackett with Tennessee Titans’ coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. The move was a good one for Terry Bradway and Herm Edwards, but it will mean nothing if Chad Pennington isn’t healthy.
No one is sure how healthy Pennington’s shoulder is going to be when the season kicks off, and that’s a major worry. He looked good in his first action since last season, completing 8-of-10 passes for 86 yards last Friday against the Vikings. Pennington threw for 2,673 yards and 16 TDs in only 13 games last year, but even with a solid backup in ex-Dolphin Jay Fiedler, the offense would be inconsistent at best without no. 10.
As for the rest of the unit, the additions of Heimerdinger, tight end Doug Jolley and wide receiver Laveranues Coles make the offense much better – even after losing backup running back LaMont Jordan, offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie and wide receiver Santana Moss. Coles is a much better receiver than Moss and fits in well with Heimerdinger’s offensive sets. Free-agent pickup Derrick Blaylock is a quality backup who should be able to adequately spell Curtis Martin and pick up 10-15 touches per game.
Martin is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, scoring 12 TDs and rushing for nearly 1,700 yards. He is 32 but he’s shown no signs of slowing down.
Last season’s plan to improve the speed and run-stopping ability was a huge success. If the defense continues to jell, it has the chance to be one of the top units in the league.
Linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Eric Barton were key reasons the run defense improved, and Dewayne Robertson appears to be on the verge of becoming one of the league’s top defensive tackles. Robertson’s improvement as a run-stopper should help ease the blow of losing defensive tackle Jason Ferguson.
While Shaun Ellis and John Abraham have been one of the NFL’s top defensive end tandems, they would vault into the league’s elite if Abraham could stay healthy for a full season. The majority of improvement is going to have to come from the secondary, where the strong safety spot is a question mark, even with the addition of veteran Ty Law.
Gang Green probably overpaid for the former Patriot, considering he has not played a game since October 24, 2004, but the move could pay off when (or if) he returns to form. If healthy, Law is a player who could make this defense Super Bowl-caliber come late January.
This unit added major components through the draft in kicker Mike Nugent, cornerback/returner Justin Miller and safety/coverage Andre Maddox. Doug Brien’s postseason flop against Pittsburgh sealed his fate in New York and the Jets drafted Nugent in the second round to solidify the spot for years to come. His strong leg will give the Jets a prime scoring opportunity every time they cross the opponents’ 40-yard line.
Gang Green won 10 games last year, despite missing Pennington for three of them. All indications point to an even stronger team for 2005, but a lot of that depends on the health of Pennington and the continued improvement of the defense.
Another 10-win season seems likely; though a 12-13 win campaign is not out of the question.