By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., Sept. 19 -- With a shrill bellow, the New York tabloids and sports-talk radio are busy declaring the season already irrevocably in ruins, and indeed there was a certain air of inevitability Wednesday at Giants Stadium when the New York Giants returned to work to prepare for Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.
They are 0-2 with a defense that can't stop anyone, and a loss this weekend would cement the feeling that the Giants' season soon could deteriorate into a long countdown to the firing of Coach Tom Coughlin. But if the players sensed that, they weren't ready to admit it publicly.
"It's two games," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "As bad as we've played, there are still 14 games to go and we can still turn this thing around."
The Giants have been a far better soap opera than football team recently. Their recently retired running back, Tiki Barber, has used his new career as author and television broadcaster to criticize Coughlin and Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Defensive end Michael Strahan didn't bother to show up for training camp. Manning emerged from a season-opening defeat at Dallas with an injured shoulder, prompting reports that he could be sidelined as long as a month. Instead, he didn't miss a game, but even his relatively steady play hasn't kept the Giants' season from being on the verge of unraveling completely after losses to the Cowboys and Green Bay Packers.
Coughlin said he found the players' mood to be "serious" when they gathered Wednesday for meetings and practice after Tuesday's usual day off.
"They were attentive this morning," Coughlin said. "They were anxious. Hopefully it will carry over."
Coughlin's testiness with reporters, on display so often in the past, showed up for the first time this season when he was pressed during his late-morning news conference on why his defense is having so much trouble covering opposing tight ends.
"Do you want to argue about coverage?" Coughlin said. "Is that what we want to do now?"
It is a make-or-break season for Coughlin after the Giants, on the heels of winning the NFC East title in the 2005 season, slipped to 8-8 last season and sneaked into the playoffs only because of the forgiving nature of the NFC's postseason chase. The Giants lost in the first round of the playoffs and, with General Manager Ernie Accorsi retiring, there was widespread speculation that co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch would fire Coughlin and start fresh with an entirely new management team. The two owners didn't start over, instead promoting front office staffer Jerry Reese to replace Accorsi and retaining Coughlin.
Their endorsement of Coughlin was tepid, however, as they gave him only a one-year contract extension through the 2008 season. The message was clear: Coughlin must win this season to stay.
The early returns have been far from promising and Manning isn't the culprit. He showed some fire during training camp when he answered Barber's televised jab -- that some of Manning's attempts to take over as a team leader last season were almost comical -- with a verbal swipe of his own, saying that Barber's midseason retirement announcement last season might not have been the greatest show of leadership. Manning showed grit last weekend by playing through discomfort against the Packers, and he said Wednesday that his shoulder is not a problem this week.
But his help has been lacking. Barber's replacement at tailback, Brandon Jacobs, already is on the shelf for a few more weeks with a knee injury. The Giants have committed silly penalties on offense, and their defense simply has been overmatched. Strahan still is working his way back into condition after his holdout, which ended just before the season when he decided against retirement. Mathias Kiwanuka, a first-round draft choice in 2006, has played poorly after being moved from defensive end to linebacker. Reese used this year's first-round pick on cornerback Aaron Ross, but the remaking of the secondary has a long way to go. The Giants rank last in the league in pass defense and 29th in total defense.
When Coughlin was asked Wednesday whether his defense should be especially motivated this week by the criticism it has received for its early-season play, he said: "I certainly hope so. How could it be any other way? Anybody else that feels any differently in the locker room -- whether you are defense, offense or special teams -- probably ought to look into another profession."
Coughlin said it's possible there will be lineup changes this week, but refused to announce any. Ross perhaps could be elevated to the starting lineup. But the Giants have to fret about the health of wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who is bothered by a sore ankle.
"We've got to get a win," Manning said. "That's what our mind-set is right now: Get a win. Get that positive feeling, and go from there. . . . Everybody is together. Everybody is on the same page. Everybody knows what needs to be done. Now it's about going out and doing it. . . . We understand we need to fix our problems and start playing some good football right now."
A loss Sunday to the Redskins would make the circumstances even more dire.
"I think everybody was focused when they walked in here today," cornerback Sam Madison said. "We had a good practice today. But you can't make a living on what you do in Wednesday's practice. It's what you do on Sunday."
Said safety Gibril Wilson: "Nobody in here wants to be 0-3. There's an urgency in here to get it done. We definitely are taking this serious as heck."