It's hard to believe, and it doesn't quite connect in the brain, but do you realize that the New York Giants have missed the playoffs three out of the past four years?
On the surface, it might seem like the postseason and Big Blue go together like Mountain and Dew, yet when this club hasn't won it all, it really hasn't been much of a factor. Winning the Super Bowl, at least for the Giants, has been less about organizational dominance and more about streaking when it counts, like the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers or 1995 Houston Rockets. Teams that get "hot" at the right time are generally mediocre beforehand, and that is precisely where the football Giants have lived the past few years.
2) Washington won't be going anywhere. The reigning NFC East champion Washington Redskins, despite having some salary-cap woes, are better. Robert Griffin III will be ready by opening day, and he'll have his tight end back in Fred Davis. Speaking of coming back, no one has been talking about the return of Brian Orakpo, the best pass rusher in that division this side of No. 94 in Dallas.
3) The Dallas Cowboys will be improved, too. Forget the changes in play-calling or the Kiffin-dance to a 4-3. The reality is that Dallas was still in the divisional fight in Week 17 last season despite losing major front-line players to injury, including DeMarco Murray, Miles Austin, Jay Ratliff, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, to name a few. Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News calculated a whopping 71 lost starts for the 8-8 Cowboys last year. That's a huge number. The Giants can't count on seeing such depleted division rivals in Washington or Dallas this season.
4) Questions on the ground. Of the Giants' recent Super Bowl-winning teams, the 2007 unit was the better club. A big reason for that was that team's ability to run the football, something a lot of people are wondering if the Giants will be able to do well this season. Second-year player David Wilson is unbelievably explosive -- and just as unproven. Andre Brown is a guy who had a great game against the Carolina Panthers last year, got hurt, and hasn't done much else.
5) More holes on D. Did we mention the defense? We did. But only the front line. The linebacking corps is one of the weakest units in the league. The good news: The Giants have depth there. The bad news: The starters aren't much more reliable than the backups who provide that depth, an assertion you would contest only if you're such a faithful fan of the G-Men that you've acquired a Dan Connor Fathead recently. Connor, Keith Rivers, and Jacquian Williams are the pencil-ins' right now, and that constitutes pencil-thin production when you consider 2012 figures. Actually, please don't.
Brooks: Most Improved for 2013
Who are the stars of tomorrow? In an eight-part series, Bucky Brooks reveals breakout candidates at each position. More ...
Connor recorded no interceptions, no sacks, no forced fumbles and no fumble recoveries last season, despite starting half the year in Dallas (filling in for the aforementioned injured Cowboys linebackers). Rivers has run through injured reserve a time or two. The former Cincinnati Bengal has missed 34 out of 80 possible games in his career, and -- like Connor -- failed to record an interception, forced fumble or sack in 2012 despite starting several contests. Williams is a former sixth-round pick who has potential, but at this point, that's all he is -- not an impact player.
Although a bit stronger than the linebacking corps, the secondary is equally bereft of game-changers. Aaron Ross returns after spending a season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but who knows how much he'll contribute? Corey Webster, meanwhile, promises to be back with a vengeance. Get excited. Overall, the defensive backs as a group figured quite prominently in the Giants' struggles with third-down defense in 2012 -- they finished 30th in third-down conversions allowed. Considering that the unit failed to add a premium player, and that it lost one who is effective (when healthy) in Kenny Phillips, we can conclude that all's well only if it ends well ... which is not likely.
That is, unless this team manages to get hot again, overcoming its ineffective parts. That happened in 2011, for example, when Osi Umenyiora came back from injury to bolster the pass rush. It also helped when Eli Manning started tearing it up, especially with the prettiest throw-and-catch you'll ever see to Mario Manningham on the play that won Super Bowl XLVI. Of course, Umenyiora plays in Atlanta now, Manningham in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Manningham might have been just the Giants' third-best receiver before he left for the Niners last offseason, but he could produce timely plays, a skill that is/was vital, considering that Hakeem Nicks has yet to play a full slate of games in his career. Nicks' absence hurt in 2012, with the newly re-upped Victor Cruz left to pick up the slack. Hey, there's no doubt that Cruz, a former undrafted free agent who played himself into a six-year, $45.9 million deal, is a heckuva football player. That said, is it OK to wonder if the player who was once guaranteed nothing will be as motivated now that he's guaranteed $15.6 million? Just askin'.
Coughlin usually does a bang-up job of keeping his players ready to play, whether they are big-dollar guys like Manning and Cruz or ancillary parts. There is certainly no shame in pulling for these Giants, either, as they've shown a lot of heart while exchanging low expectations for Lombardi hardware in the past. Yet, considering all of these issues, and considering the NFC East as a whole -- lest we forget the great unknown, the Philadelphia Eagles -- the true question becomes this: Do the Giantshave the parts necessary to contend?
It's looking like four for five.