Can the Giants Offense Remember How to Play Football?

Last Sunday’s 20-8 victory by the Dallas Cowboys over the New York Giants was great news for Giants fans – if they have tickets to this Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers. What looked a couple of weeks ago like a stress-free exhibition where the Giants could get some game experience for second-teamers turns out to be, perhaps, the most critical game of the season – and against the toughest team the Giants have faced all year.

First, let’s sort through the wreckage of the last two weeks. Any good team, when they’re far ahead of the pack, can lose a couple of games, particularly against angry division rivals like the Giants faced in the Eagles and Cowboys. But that doesn’t begin to explain New York’s wretched back-to-back performances. Two weeks ago against Philadelphia, the Giants drove to a late touchdown to make the game look close, 20-14 (they had scored a touchdown earlier after returning a blocked kick). Except for that TD – and let’s ponder the significance of this – the Giants would have been shut out from an offensive touchdown two weeks in a row.

The loss to the Eagles might have been excusable, coming as it did after the most dominating win of the season against the Washington Redskins. But what can explain their dreadful performance against Dallas?

Well, there wasn’t much of a running game, largely because Brandon Jacobs was out of the lineup, but Derrick Ward wasn’t bad at all, getting 64 yards in 14 tries for a 4.6 average, just 0.2 below his average for the season. The loss of Jacobs hurt, but that isn’t why the Giants got stuffed; Jacobs is good, but he’s not that good. Neither is Eli Manning, or at least he hasn’t been over the last two weeks.

It can’t be denied that with Plaxico Burress gone, New York lacks a deep threat and the ability to stretch out opposing defenses. Plax’s replacement, Domenik Hixon, caught six balls, but for just 60 yards, about what you’d expect from a tight end. But the truth is that in two games without Burress, Manning has simply reverted to his earlier season form. After completing just 18 of 35 passes for 191 yards (with two interceptions and no TDs) against the Cowboys, Eli is now ranked 16th among the NFL’s passers, exactly where he was eight games into the season.

The worst thing, though — and something that Tom Coughlin and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride are no doubt trying to dope out in the game films this week — is that Eli was sacked eight times. Before last Sunday, Manning had attempted 398 passes and been sacked only 15 times. In other words, one-third of all the sacks against Manning this season came in the one game against Dallas.

What happened?

The Giants offensive line, which had been rated at or near the top in both run blocking and pass protection, didn’t suddenly turn bad. But Manning and Gilbride seem to have lost it. Twice, when conferring on the sidelines after Gilbride came down from the booth, quarterback and coach studying the charts looked like lost backpackers trying to read a handwritten map in a high wind. On four of the sacks, Cowboy rushers went into the Giants backfield completely untouched, which means that no one off the field was making adjustments.

No one on the field, either. At times, the Cowboys were putting 7 and even 8 men up at the line of scrimmage (whether they sent them all or not), and Manning stared at them like Mr. Magoo trying to identify someone in a police lineup. It may be unfair to blame a quarterback for his own sacks, but not once during the entire game did Manning ever seem to fathom where the blitz was coming from and who his open man might be; he seemed to have forgotten what the word “audible” means.

God created tight ends as an antidote for wreckless blitzing, and New York has a superb tight end in Kevin Boss, but for all the good he was last Sunday, they could have left him at the pool at the Dallas Hilton. He went into the Dallas game with 27 receptions and 5 touchdowns, but only had only one pass thrown to him all day, for a 23-yard gain. He spent the rest of the afternoon either looking for somebody to block or waving his arms frantically to signal “Eli, I’m open!” If the Giants are looking for a quick fix to get the offense back on track against the Panthers this coming Sunday night, they could do a lot worse than trying Boss deep and over the middle on the first series of downs.

This kind of offensive performance would have been bad enough in the early weeks of the season, but in a game where the Giants were trying to wrap up home-field advantage for the playoffs, it was particularly distressing. In Carolina, the Giants are up against a team whose momentum is moving in the opposite direction: The Panthers have won their last three games by a total of 39 points, and on defense they’ve had half their season’s total of 32 sacks in those three games. You can bet they’re replaying the New York-Dallas game looking for clues.

Judged by their regular-season stats, the 2008 Giants are a much better team than last year’s model, but in their 16th game, the 2007 Giants beat Buffalo 38-21 and then played about their best game of the year in losing to the New England Patriots 38-35. Though it was a defeat, the Patriots game bolstered their confidence. They went on to close out the season with a win over Tampa Bay, and you know the rest.

This season’s 16th game was a confidence-killer, and the Giants have just one week to pull themselves out of this funk or at best they’re going to face the possibility of playing the NFC championship game on the road. Can the Giants Offense Remember How to Play Football?