For a playoff team, the Giants are having a hard time convincing anyone they are on the way up. Tom Coughlin is a coach that's hanging on and his team is taking on the same look.
Training camp will be a time of experiments, including position changes and coaching changes that generate more anxiety than anticipation. Losing Tiki Barber — their best player — to premature retirement would be hard for any team to overcome. The Giants didn't seem to go overboard in the offseason to create excitement about other possibilities.
They traded underachieving receiver Tim Carter for journeyman running back Reuben Droughns in hopes that the combination of Droughns and Brandon Jacobs can make up in part for the loss of Barber. But their main qualifications are that both are bigger than Barber.
Exacerbating Barber's exit is a shoulder injury to blocking back Jim Finn that has knocked him out for the season and could force the Giants to use tight ends and H-backs as blockers. After losing backup tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, rookie Kevin Boss might turn out to be the best blocker behind Jeremy Shockey.
Kevin Gilbride was named offensive coordinator and Chris Palmer was brought in as quarterbacks coach to see if they can accelerate quarterback Eli Manning's learning curve.
Left tackle Luke Petitgout went to Tampa Bay without much resistance, forcing guard David Diehl to play out of position and protect Manning's backside unless second-year prospect Guy Whimper has a great camp. The Giants also want to see if recent pickup Zach Piller, former Tennessee guard, has anything left.
Top receiver Amani Toomer is coming off a knee injury and will turn 33 at the beginning of the season. The Giants have made receivers Sinorice Moss and Steve Smith their second-round draft choices the last two years and are hoping at least one of them can contribute regularly alongside Toomer and Plaxico Burress.
Last year's No. 1 draft choice, Mathias Kiwanuka, will be making the switch from defensive end to linebacker to replace departed Carlos Emmons and LaVar Arrington. Kiwanuka started nine games as a rookie when old reliable Michael Strahan got hurt along with Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. It turned out the Giants didn't have a surplus of defensive ends after all, and now one of them must switch to linebacker.
The Giants also picked up Kansas City's middle linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who will compete with second-year player Gerris Wilkinson on the weakside, assuming Kiwanuka makes it.
New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo replaces Tim Fox and has promised to stick with more conventional 4-3 alignments. He would be happy if top draft pick Aaron Ross could beat out either R. W. McQuarters or Sam Madison as soon as possible at cornerback unless Corey Webster already does it.
The experimentation includes special teams, where kicker Jay Feely left for Miami and the Giants traded for Kansas City's Lawrence Tynes to compete with inexperienced Josh Huston.
Manning's development has been slower than hoped. He has not yet demonstrated he can carry a team. And without Barber, the burden becomes even greater for the quarterback. Manning has proven in two and a half years as a starter that he is a good player. The trouble is the Giants need him to be great — and the sooner the better for Coughlin. Last year's 57.7 completion percentage was second-lowest (to Donovan McNabb's 57) among the top 18 quarterbacks in terms of passer efficiency rating. Manning threw one more interception last year than he did the year before. His record as a starter is now 20-19. While in no danger of losing his job anytime soon, Manning needs to prove to Giants' fans that he can take a team deep into the playoffs. Unfortunately for him, the Giants of 2007 without Barber don't appear to have the ability of previous teams.
With a healthy Strahan, the Giants' strength is their defensive line. But last year they dropped to 25th on defense, 26th in sacking quarterbacks. On the bright side, veteran Fred Robbins and rookie Barry Cofield each started 16 games at tackle and gave the line the kind of inside presence that can benefit Strahan, Umenyiora and Tuck when they are healthy. Adding third-round defensive tackle Jay Alford to the mix creates more possibilities. If the Giants are to have a chance, their defense led by the defensive line is going to have to lead the way.
Three of their first four games are at Dallas, at Washington and Philadelphia at home. By October, the Giants could either be energized or playing out Coughlin's last season. Their best hope looks to be to somehow get Barber to change his mind and unretire.
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