Blending Talented Newcomers a Giant Task?

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006; 12:57 PM

The New York Giants didn't exactly match the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins move for move this offseason. But then again, they didn't exactly have to. They, not the Cowboys or Redskins, are the defending NFC East champions. And they, not the Cowboys or Redskins, have the promise of getting better simply because their young quarterback, Eli Manning, will be a year older and a year better.

The Giants actually arrived as a playoff contender earlier in the Manning era than most people around the league had expected, as Manning made a big jump in his second NFL season and an offense overflowing with playmakers around him -- tailback Tiki Barber, tight end Jeremy Shockey and wide receivers Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer -- thrived. But there still were times when Manning looked lost and confused and made throws that he shouldn't have made, and the Giants' mostly satisfying season ended with a clunker of a loss when they were shut out at home by the Carolina Panthers in the first round of the NFC playoffs. That pitiable performance left Barber saying that the Giants had been outcoached, a statement that he only partially retracted after the emotions of the defeat subsided.

The team's brain trust remained intact when General Manager Ernie Accorsi postponed retirement, probably until after this coming season. The Giants also were able, surprisingly, to retain defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, whom many in the league had pegged as a candidate likely to land one of the head-coaching vacancies in the NFL.

Accorsi had to remake a linebacking corps that was ravaged by injuries at the end of last season -- defensive end Michael Strahan said after the playoff loss to the Panthers that the Giants had been playing the backups to the backups -- but first he redid the club's secondary. The Giants signed cornerbacks Sam Madison, R.W. McQuarters and Jason Bell early in free agency while allowing cornerback Will Allen, a former first-round draft choice, to sign with the Miami Dolphins as a free agent. The Dolphins, who had released Madison, essentially made an Allen-for-Madison swap with the Giants.

Last week, the Giants released cornerback Will Peterson, who had been plagued by back injuries in recent seasons and sometimes clashed with Coach Tom Coughlin. The two Wills, Allen and Peterson, once were penciled in as the Giants' starters for a long time. Now both are gone. Madison and Corey Webster, a second-year pro, probably will be the starters this coming season at cornerback, with McQuarters slated for the nickel-cornerback role.

Accorsi was patient in addressing the Giants' need at outside linebacker. When LaVar Arrington bought his way out of his contract with the Redskins to become a free agent, the Giants immediately were seen as a top contender to sign him. Arrington wanted to stay close to his home in the D.C. area and wanted to remain in the NFC East. His friend and former Redskins teammate, Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, talked him up to members of the Giants' front office. But the Giants were wary of Arrington's surgically repaired knee and weren't about to meet his enormous asking price, and they waited patiently while Arrington and his agents, brothers Carl and Kevin Poston, negotiated with other teams. When they found out that no one else would come close to meeting Arrington's contract demands, either, Arrington underwent a physical for the Giants that alleviated the concerns about his knee, then agreed to a more modest deal with the club.

The retooled Giants defense now has four superior athletes -- Arrington, Pierce, Strahan and defensive end Osi Umenyiora -- in its front seven. The problem is, Umenyiora was allowed plenty of freedom last season, and anyone who has watched the Redskins knows that Arrington is at his best when he doesn't feel tied down by a rigid defensive scheme. Lewis must walk a fine line here as a defensive coordinator. He must give Arrington, Umenyiora and Strahan some leeway to be playmakers if he's going to get the most out of their considerable talents. But he doesn't want to give them so much leeway that there's no structure to the defense. In the end, the Giants probably will be best served by having a hard-charging, gambling defense that will surrender some big plays but make plenty of big plays itself, pressuring opposing quarterbacks into fumbles on sacks and bad throws that result in interceptions.

Accorsi traded down in the first round of the draft and ended up with Boston College defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka. It might seem like a waste to use a first-round pick on a defensive end on a team that has Umenyiora and Strahan. But an NFL team rarely can have too many good players at a position. Even if Kiwanuka doesn't play or contribute much over the next season or two, Strahan won't play forever and eventually will need to be replaced.

The offense should be fine. Manning has been a starter for a season and a half and undoubtedly will make sounder decisions and throw fewer interceptions. Barber has been a workhorse, but he wasn't a full-time player early in his career and his body probably still has a few productive seasons left in it.

The Giants tried but failed to sign wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson after he was released by the Cowboys and replaced by Terrell Owens. Johnson signed with the Panthers instead. No matter. Accorsi got Miami wideout Sinorice Moss in the second round of the draft, and he might be a better fit than Johnson would have been as the Giants' third receiver. He is even tinier than his older brother, Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss, but is every bit as quick, and he could be the sort of speedster to make big catches down the field that the Giants need. Tim Carter was supposed to fill that role, but he was just as likely to drop a well-thrown deep pass from Manning as to catch one last season.

The Giants, Redskins and Cowboys all could be among the best seven or eight teams in the league entering the season. The odds are that things probably won't work out for one of the three, and the other two will be left jockeying for supremacy in the division and perhaps in the entire NFC. The pace of Manning's continuing development and Lewis's ability to blend the talents of Arrington, Pierce, Umenyiora and Strahan could be the two biggest factors in determining whether the Giants repeat as NFC East champs.

Around the League

The Philadelphia Eagles reportedly have attempted to contact sprinter Justin Gatlin, the co-holder of the 100-meter world record, to see if he's interested in playing football.

Renaldo Nehemiah, the former track star who played football for the San Francisco 49ers and now represents Gatlin, told the Associated Press that the Eagles have tried to contact him in the last three weeks but he has no plans to get in touch with the team. The Eagles selected another Olympian, skier Jeremy Bloom, in the fifth round of the NFL draft . . .

The presidency of the Green Bay Packers passed from Bob Harlan to John Jones this week. The team's board of directors named Jones the club's president and chief operating officer under a succession plan formulated by Harlan.

Harlan is to remain the chairman of the board and chief executive officer until next May, when he is to become chairman emeritus and Jones is to have the title of CEO as well as president.

Harlan had been the team's president since 1989. Jones joined the organization in 1999 from the league office . . .

It's possible that the Houston Texans will hire Rick Smith, the assistant general manager of the Denver Broncos, as their new GM at the conclusion of his second interview for the job today. If the interview doesn't go as well as the Texans hope, they could conduct second interviews with their other candidates--Reggie McKenzie, the Packers' director of pro personnel, and Rick Mueller, the New Orleans Saints' director of player personnel.

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