The 2002 Giants were built to win. Kerry Collins had thrown for over 4,000 years, Tiki Barber was at the top of his game, and the defense wasn’t awful. Sure, Big Blue finished second in the NFC East with a 10-6 record, but a four game winning streak to end the season had momentum on New York’s side. With three out of the Giant’s last four wins against division rivals (including a week seventeen overtime win against the hated Eagles), it was hard to argue that Jim Fassel’s squad was going to make a legitimate run at the Super Bowl.
The rest of the NFC field made a Giant run even more feasible. If the Giants won their wild-card game, they would have had to travel to Tampa and play an eminently beatable Buccaneers team with a sketchy offense at best. The road to San Diego would have then taken New York to Philadelphia, setting the stage for a third game against a team that was without star quarterback Donovan McNabb. In a nutshell, there was no reason to think the Giants wouldn’t be playing in their second Super Bowl in three years.
The Giants proved all their boosters right in San Francisco on Wild Card Sunday. As late as the third quarter, the Kerry Collins-led Giants had a 38-14 lead, all but sealing a trip to West Florida.
Any Giant fan knows what happened next. The defense collapsed, allowing San Francisco to stage a miraculous comeback, one that at the time was the second-biggest in NFL playoff history. and take a 39-38 lead. All hope wasn’t lost, however. As time
expired, the serviceable Matt Bryant set up for a 41-yard field goal to send the Niners home for the winter. A botched snap by veteran Trey Junkin (who had just been signed as an emergency replacement) prevented a clean kick, and a collective gasp leaped up from the tri-state area.
Amazingly, the Giants hopes were still alive. The kick was on third down, and had the holder/punter Matt Allen simply spiked the ball the giants would have had time for another shot. Instead, Allen sealed the Giants fate by stupidly attempting a pass. Of course, the ball hit the grass instead of a receiver’s hands, and a Giants era came to a close.
I don’t remember much about those last few confusing seconds. I’m certain there was a lot of cursing in my living room; a remote may or may not have been thrown by me or my father. In the hours and days afterward, the story was the same: more cursing, questioning, puzzling, attempting to make sense of those last fateful seconds. What if Junkin hadn’t botched the snap, staining both the Giants season and his illustrious career? What if Allen knew how to play football? Heck, what if the Giants defense had acted like it game a damn?
Instead, Giant fans spent the next month in a stupor, watching as Tampa marched to its only Super Bowl victory against the hapless Raiders. The loss against San Francisco was easily the worst moment in my young New York sports fandom. Sadly, things would only get worse for Fassel and the G-Men, who mailed it in the next season. The rest is history. Fassel would be fired, and Tom Coughlin would revive the Giants and lead them to a Super Bowl victory over New England.
Coughlin’s leadership of the Giants in 2007 affirmed their superiority as New York City (and State)’s first-class football team. For as long as I’ve lived (and sometimes longer), there have been basically two classes of New York professional sports: the Winners and the Failures. The Winners are obvious: The Giants. The Yankees. The Devils. The Failures are just as clear: The Jets. The Islanders. The Mets.
At any given time, the rest of New York sports falls into one of those two categories. For the last ten years, you could throw the Knicks into the mix as a paragon of how not to run a franchise. You could just as easily shoe-horn the Rangers into the Winners category, given that they haven’t collapsed on a regular basis, and at least won the Stanley Cup in my lifetime. What really divides the franchises, though, is expectations.
For the Failures, expectations are of collapse, incompetence, cyclical failure.
Met fans have come to expect their team to collapse or become an utter laughingstock, complete with rage-filled, shirt-ripping executives and insinuations of journalistic conspiracies. Throw in facilitation of a major Ponzi scheme, violent rogue closers, and the annual September collapse, and it’s no wonder the Yankees run New York Baseball.
The Jets are Failures in a different way. Rex Ryan has done an admirable job putting his team in back-to-back AFC Championship games, but it remains to be seen whether Ryan’s New York successes mark a new era in Jets superiority, or the fizzling promise embodied by previous coaches Eric Mangini and Herman Edwards. For those who don’t remember, the Jets haven’t won a Super Bowl since the 60’s, and are still waiting. The expectations are high for new Jet coaches, but we forget how easily we expect the Jets to come down to Earth at any moment.
Expectations for the Winners are completely different. For the likes of the Yankees and Giants, fans expect success. We expect class, and a humble approach to winning. Even when the Winners dont, well, win, we know they will soon enough. Collapses are isolated; losing is even more rare. When Trey Junkin sent the Giants Super Bowl dreams sailing into the dirt on a balmy Sunday in San Francisco, it didn’t represent another letdown for Giants fans. Giant fans knew the franchise would pick up the pieces and move on, which is exactly what it did. The Super Bowl win in 2007 reminded New York that the Giants were winners, and that Coughlin would deliver on the high expectations we all placed on his team. As the Mets and Knicks lurked near the pinnacle of failure and exasperation, nobody would have suggested that Big Blue would cross the Rubicon into irrelevance and low expectations.
The time to speak the unspeakable has come. It is with great remorse that I write these words, remembering the agony of 2002 and all the long days I spent criticizing the Mets. But,
The Giants are the new face of New York sports Failure.
There, I said it. And it feels just as terrible writing it as it feels thinking about it. Now, let me qualify that statement in a few ways:
1. The Giants aren’t permanently relegated to failure. It will take many decades of losing, plus a few financial bungles or executive outbursts, to reach the level of other squads.
2. Don’t put the blame on Giants ownership. We do not have Wilpons or Dolans to aid the collapse.
3. The Giants can prove me wrong tomorrow.
If the Giants somehow manage to make the playoffs this year, I will eat my words. Nevertheless, consider some evidence since the 2007 season:
In 2008, the Giants started out 11-1 and were cruising toward a first-round playoff bye. Eli Manning quietly turned in another quality season; the three-headed rushing attack of Jacobs/Ward/Bradshaw racked up over 2400 yards rushing; the defense was solid.
Then the collapse began. The Giants went 1-3 down the stretch, still won their division, and still got a first-round bye. Despite a solid season, the Giants had written their fate. Philadelphia marched into the Meadowlands and destroyed any hope of back-to-back Super Bowls.
2009 could have offered redemption. Instead? Failure. The Giants started out 5-0, but would ultimately finish the season 8-8 and miss the playoffs entirely (despite a 4,000 yard season for Manning).
Last year, the Giants started out 6-2, again inflating hopes for a Super Bowl run. Instead, the Giants were mediocre down the stretch, missing the playoffs once again. It should be noted that had the Giants beaten Philadelphia in week 15, they would have sealed up a trip to the playoffs. Instead, they delivered the signature game of the new Failure era, letting Philadelphia overcome a 28 point deficit. As we watched DeSean Jackson carry a punt return into the endzone for a game-winning touchdown, Giant fans could only think back to the Trey Junkin game. What if the defense hadn’t played so poorly in the second half? What if Matt Dodge had kicked the ball out of bounds? What if Jackson somehow didn’t make the entire special-teams unit look like fools?
Entering this season, I (and many Giant fans) were willing to tone down our expectations. Despite the emergence of Hakeem Nicks as a legitimate deep threat, the continuing quiet miracle that is Eli Manning, a talent-packed secondary, and three monster pass rushers (Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul), too many question marks stood out. What if Osi didn’t play or received his wish for a trade? What if Eli regressed? What if the loss of Kevin Boss to Oakland proved to be too much for the passing game? Who else would pick up the slack at Wide Receiver? A rebuilt offensive line, injuries across the board, and bad attitudes from key players like Osi and Jacobs all pointed toward an average season.
Instead, we Giant fans were given a surprise. The team started out 6-2, and a trip to San Francisco to play the 7-1 Niners could have catapulted the Giants into contender-status. At 7-2, the Giants would have begun making noise with a deadly passing attack and renewed confidence in the makeshift squad.
As usual, the Giants collapsed. At 7-7, the Giants playoff hopes somehow still rest in their hands. Despite last week’s atrocious turnout against Washington, the Giants have the same mission as last year: Win and in. All that New York has to do is win against the Jets tomorrow and beat Dallas in week 17, and the playoff dream stays alive. Even if the Giants lose tomorrow, a Dallas loss would still put the Giants in a win-and-in situation.
What’s different about this year, though, is it seems like us Giant fans now expect collapse. We expect the team to lose the games it should win, and vice-versa. It’s no way for a Winning organization to perform, year in and year out. The Giants could lose 28-3 tomorrow in East Rutherford, and most Giant fans wouldn’t blink an eye. As Rex Ryan’s Jets struggle to make the playoffs themselves, a New York clash has all the makings for one team to go home and the other to march toward January football.
In any other year, we would expect the Jets to lose this game, to somehow remind New York that they have a penchant for underwhelming everyone at the most inopportune time. Instead, Giant fans are the ones expecting Failure, as the brash Ryan continues to make the Jets the New York team everyone pays attention to.
Like I said, the Giants could win tomorrow and prove me wrong. And win next week against Dallas, and prove me wrong. And win in the playoffs, and prove me wrong. It sure doesn’t feel that way, though. No fan should enter every season expecting to feel like I did that January day in 2003, watching their team give away a season once filled with promise and hope. For the Giants, and Tom Coughlin, tomorrow represents a turning point. Unless they want to cement their standing as the new face of New York Failure (and Coughlin’s fate as a soon-to-be unemployed coach), the Giants need to prove me wrong. The sad thing is, I no longer expect them to.