EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - Maybe those were imposters in the Giants' uniforms for most of the season. That seems as good an explanation as any for what happened to the Giants in 2009.
In his season-ending news conference today, Coach Tom Coughlin said the team he saw on the field this year differed from that which he fielded in the past and what he expected to see again in the season that just concluded. The shortcomings he described came to a head in the final two games, which the Giants lost at home to Carolina, 41-9, and yesterday at Minnesota, 44-7.
"I think the real issue right now for our football team is a lack of identity," said Coughlin, whose team finished 8-8 and in third place in the NFC East. "We have lost our identity in terms of who we are. We are a football team that has always prided itself on the physical aspect of the game, which is running the ball and stopping the run. I think with that comes the realization in the last couple of weeks, for sure, we are having difficulty running it, we are having difficulty stopping the run."
General manager Jerry Reese, who followed Coughlin to the podium at the Timex Performance Center, echoed those sentiments, though he phrased it differently.
"I thought half the time we were a physical team, the other half we were not physical," Reese said. "That is one of my three things. The first thing you have to do when you play in the National Football League, you have to go out there and be physical. That is the number one thing that you have to do. You have to go out there and match the physicality of the other team. If you do that, you give yourself a chance to win the game. The other thing is bad fouls. You can't have a lot of unnecessary penalties and those things. You have to play as a team. If you do those three things, you will be in a lot of games, you will win a lot of games. It all starts with the physical play. That is what is most important in my eyes. We were physical half the time, I thought."
Reese was asked if he could explain why the team played to an acceptable physical standard only half the time.
"I am not sure," he said. "We will have to evaluate that as well. I am not sure why the team comes out and plays more physical one week, then the next week not as physical. I am not sure why that is. It could be a combination of things. Maybe there is some confusion or some confidence issue going on. Maybe they are thinking too much and not really turning loose, playing hard and running to the ball."
The statistics support what Coughlin and Reese said. Last year, the Giants led the NFL with 2,518 rushing yards and a 5.0 yards-per-carry average. This season, those figures fell to 1,837 yards and a 4.1-yard average. That was the Giants' lowest rushing total since they ran for 1,559 yards in 2003, the year before Coughlin arrived.
"I think that the running game on paper, as you see it, did not accomplish what we would have liked to have accomplished," Coughlin said. "I think going forward we can do some things hopefully to fix that and to re-gain the identity that has been ours and re-establish ourselves."
In the season's last seven games, the Giants averaged only 83.9 rushing yards a game. On Sunday in Minnesota, they ran for just 35 yards, their lowest total in more than three years.
"What's our identity?" Reese said. "We call ourselves a power running football team and we were not that. The latter part of the season we didn't run the ball like we did last year. What is the cause of that? Is it the offensive line, is it the running backs, what is it? Whatever it is, we need to correct it because you have to run the ball and you have to play defense. "
The Giants similarly did not stop the run as well. Last year, they were ninth in the league, allowing 1,533 yards on the ground. This year they were 14th, giving up 1,773 rushing yards.
"We didn't stop the run, that is the first thing you are asking," Coughlin said in response to a reporter's question. "The second thing is we didn't run the ball as effectively as we have in other years. There are a lot of reasons for that. I think that the last couple of weeks the reason is relatively obvious (a knee injury that slowed and eventually sidelined Brandon Jacobs, as well as injuries to offensive linemen Kareem McKenzie and Rich Seubert). We went into the (Minnesota) game thinking we could be balanced and, of course, the other night it would have been great to stay balanced because we would have kept the ball out of their hands. But we just didn't get that done."
Other issues surfaced as well. The Giants' sack total decreased from 42 to 32, the team's lowest figure since 2006 – the last time the Giants finished 8-8.
"We didn't rush the passer well," Coughlin said. "We didn't have the numbers that we have normally had there. The lack of pressure on the quarterback leads to overexposure in the secondary, too much time for the quarterback to stand back there and make his decisions. So it all works together, it all comes together.
"It certainly gave reference to some of the inabilities that we had in the secondary. We didn't necessarily match up well with some of the great skilled receivers that we were against (and) gave up some big plays."
Because of these deficiencies, the Giants gave up 427 points, the second-highest total in franchise history. The performance of the defense today cost first-year coordinator Bill Sheridan his job.
Coughlin and Reese discussed many other issues in their back-to-back news conferences. We'll first hear from the coach:
*On the season as a whole:
"Our 8-8 record is certainly not what we envisioned or expected this year. We are greatly disappointed by this in all areas. … As I told our team today, as I went over the season with them, there is no one looking to point the blame at any one area. This is a team, we talk about ourselves as a team, we talk about ourselves as one. There is a lot of frustration as far as trying to put your finger on the answers, and we are going to try and solve some of that. We are going to evaluate everything, we have begun to do that at this point in time. We certainly will look at the injury factors that we'll evaluate, we'll look at personnel, we'll look at our coaching. We'll look at everything to attempt to take all of those things apart and to task."
*Coughlin reiterated what he said after the game yesterday, that he was not unhappy with the effort put forth by the players.
"Not yesterday, no," Coughlin said. "The week before I was, I just didn't think we played with great purpose, but yesterday, I can't say that was the issue. The issue was a lack of performance, a lack of execution, a lack of the ability to perform the way we wanted to perform and it's unacceptable."
Reese, by the way, also disputed the perception that the players gave up against the Panthers and Vikings.
"I don't think that," Reese said. "Obviously, when you don't play well, it looks bad out there. But you watch the tape and I look for that. I look for guys who are not playing hard. I think our players played hard and tried hard. But the last couple of weeks we were not a good football team. Things didn't work out. No matter what we tried to do in the game, it didn't work out for us. The perception is that they laid down and didn't compete. I didn't see that. I saw a team trying, but we weren't playing well."
*Eli Manning set career bests in completions (317), completion percentage (62.3 percent), yards (4,021 yards), touchdowns (27) and passer rating (93.1). But he also had 22 turnovers (14 interceptions, eight fumbles).
"It's unfortunate that we were not able to take advantage of the type of year Eli was having," Coughlin said. "We do have the turnovers to deal with, however. It was a strong performance on his part."
*On how the team can regain its confidence and swagger:
"Execution, production, play well - it's within us," Coughlin said. "That part of it has to re-emerge. … We need a little help here and there, there's no question, but every team does. But that's the execution part and we have to regain it. We will get that back, but that is not easy. We are not just standing here talking about it, you have to go do it."
*On his confidence that he will rediscover what was missing from the 2009 Giants:
"I believe we will," Coughlin said. "For me, it comes from experience. We have to revitalize, we have good people. They do want to be as good as they can be. We may have lost sight here or there of the direct course as to how to get there, but we will be sure to bring that to their attention."
And now for some thoughts from Reese:
*His thoughts on the season:
"We're disappointed about the inconsistencies of the season and the up and down play that we had," Reese said. "In the beginning of the season we thought we had a great looking roster, thought it had some depth, but as you all know, injuries are a factor. You don't like to use that as an excuse and we are not using that as an excuse, but injuries did play a part in what happened. There are a lot of things that happened that caused us to end up 8-8, which is very disappointing for everybody involved, for myself, for our coaches, for our players, for our owners. It is very disappointing that we are in this situation right now. But we are here, and all we can do now is move on. We have some things that we need to address and correct. Every season, there are changes in the offseason personnel-wise. There are definitely changes on Super Bowl teams, there were changes on the team that was 12-4 last year, there will be changes this time in that respect. We will take the positive things we can take out of this season and move forward. We will try to correct all the negative things that happened during this season."
*On the performance of the defense, particularly after adding four free agents last season:
"It was disappointing that the defense didn't play as well," Reese said. "We thought that was going to be one of our strong suits. It seems like the offense carried the defense for a little while. We expected the defense to be able to carry the offense because we had some young receivers. There were a lot of questions about the young receivers and everybody was concerned about that. The receivers held their own and the defense struggled. The National Football League, you never know what you are going to get."
*On the long-term prospects of middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who missed the last seven games with a bulging disk in his neck.
"It is a wait-and-see deal," Reese said. "I am not sure how that is going. It is one of those slow-healing injuries and it is a wait-and-see process. So that is what we will do. We will wait and see where that goes."
Is Pierce in the Giants' plans if he fully recovers?
"That is part of the evaluation," Reese said. "Everybody is in the evaluation process right now. We will see moving forward."
*On defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who said last week he wants to return to being a full-time player:
"He is still a big part of what we are trying to do here," Reese said. "When you are in the middle of the season and things are not going well, you have to do whatever you have to do. The coach tried to do some things to shake up the defense and shake up the team. Osi was a pro and went right in there and played his role. But Osi is a major part of what we are trying to do moving forward. We expect him to be a strong contributor as the years come."
*On what assurances he would give to Giants fans that the team will return to the NFL's group of elite teams:
"We have pride here," Reese said. "Again, I am getting plenty of calls and plenty of mail saying there is no pride, and I disagree with that. We have pride in this building and we are always going to have pride. I think the players are embarrassed about what happened the last couple of weeks. I am embarrassed about what happened. Our owners are embarrassed about what happened, our coaches. Everybody is embarrassed that is involved with this situation. This is not our standard. We are 8-8, that is not who we are. We don't want that. We reject that. We are going to make every effort to correct that. That is all I can say. We will make every effort to correct that. I think our players are on board, our coaches are on board, and our ownership is on board. Again, we are all a team right here. Everybody is part of the team. Everybody pulls in the same direction. We will try to right the ship."