Follow the Leader
When the Giants got off to an 0-6 start, I was adamant that they were the most talented 0-6 team I had ever seen. When they finished the season 7-3, I was unable to recall such a sloppy team win 7 of 10 games.
Following their Week 17 win, defensive captain Justin Tuck told reporters he believed that “what you saw over the last ten games is what this team is about.” But what is this team really about? Are they the resilient team that fought back from 0-6, or are they the talented yet mediocre squad that can barely get the ball past the fifty yard line on most drives? What strikes me about this team is not their talent. It is not their effort. It is not their resiliency. What defines the Giants and what has defined them for the past four seasons is inconsistent play by their leaders, and this season has only epitomized what has been an issue for this team since the Eli Manning/Tom Coughlin era began.
Eli Manning and Justin Tuck, two of the team’s five captains, are the ones that the Giants need to most closely evaluate this offseason. It seems nonsensical to call out the team’s leaders: both players were central pieces in the Giants most recent two Superbowl victories. But their inconsistent performances on the field this season kept the Gmen home in January because the rest of this team feeds off their leaders more than most teams in the NFL.
Eli had his worst year as a Giant, leading the league in interceptions (by a wide margin) and taking a career-high 39 sacks. Behind a brutal offensive line and a below-average run game, I came to the defense of Manning a lot this season. However, his play was inexcusable for a franchise quarterback who is supposed to make the players around him better, a la brother Peyton. He does not deserve to be cut, but the Giants need to find a way to get Manning to play more consistent because when he is inconsistent, the team is inconsistent. His game logs tell the story. The Giants lost every game this season when Eli threw at least two interceptions, and won all but one game in which he threw just one. If the Giants can get Manning to play at a higher level, his talented receiving corps will play better too.
The same inconsistent label can be applied to Justin Tuck. The defensive end had a resurgent season after two down years, but like Eli, his play was largely inconsistent, and the defense will improve only once Tuck improves. Through the first six weeks, Tuck had just half a sack, but racked up ten and half over the final ten games, and the defensive play improved dramatically. Like Manning, Tuck proved to be the catalyst for a defense that struggled until he fulfilled his potential. Unlike Manning though, Tuck is a free agent, and if the cap-strapped Giants may need to make a tough decision. If they let him go, they need to be ready to hand the torch to someone who could make the surrounding talent better.
Owner John Mara cited poor offensive line depth and offensive personnel as the reasons for Big Blue’s disappointing 7-9 record. While those observations are both valid, a change of talent will not be the key to turning the 2014 season into a winning one for the Giants. The leaders, Eli Manning and Justin Tuck, need to improve their team by example. The better they play, the better this team will be. Otherwise they will not shed the inconsistent label that has kept this team out of the playoffs three of the last four seasons.
Eric Mollo covers the New York Giants for WFUV.