The rise of the Giants late in the season coincides with the coach's decision to commandeer the offensive play-calling.
By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2003
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The season was teetering on mediocrity when Jim Fassel offered himself to be either the Giants' sacrifice or savior.
"When something needs to be done, when it needs to get shaken up, I will make the change," New York's coach said days after a loss against the Eagles on a Monday night in late October. "Ultimately everything comes down to me."
The Giants were 3-4, hampered by injuries to key players and had seven offensive touchdowns total when Fassel grabbed hold of the team's offensive controls.
How brilliant does the decision look now?
New York is 7-2 since offensive coordinator Sean Payton was relieved of calling the plays. The overtime win against the Eagles on Dec. 28, a game the Giants needed to win to gain a wild-card spot in the NFC playoffs, where they play at San Francisco today, was their fourth straight.
"You just never know," receiver Amani Toomer said. "I told a reporter a couple of weeks ago that I felt that we had a playoff team and he just kind of snickered.
"But we showed them. We showed everybody. We knew coming out of training camp that we had a good team. It was just a matter of showing week in and week out. We've got a good run going right now."
The Giants, who lost 16-13 to the 49ers in Week1, are set on proving wrong the naysayers that deemed the season, and Fassel's future, to be lost. That us-against-the-world outlook, which they share with their New York football brethren, the Jets, ultimately could make the Giants a dangerous team this postseason.
"No matter what people say, no matter the circumstances, no matter what happens, we come back and we fight," said Fassel, who has led the Giants to the playoffs in three of his six years as coach. "It sounds so simple but it's harder to do than you think."
Though he downplays the importance of the individual calling the plays, saying such decisions are a byproduct of adjusting during the game to what the opposition is doing, there's no denying his approach has worked.
Paired with a defense that has 11 takeaways in the past four games and an anonymous offensive line that matured throughout the season, running back Tiki Barber has rushed for a career-high 1,387 yards and 13 touchdowns, Toomer has 82 catches for 1,343 yards and 8 TDs, rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey was named to the Associated Press NFL All-Pro Team Saturday and is heading to the Pro Bowl after catching a rookie record 74 passes and quarterback Kerry Collins has thrown for 4,073 yards with 19 touchdowns.
All that without Ike Hilliard, Ron Dixon and Tim Carter for all or parts of the season.
"With Coach Fassel, we all trust him," Shockey said. "We all believe in him and we know that if we listen to him that he's been putting us in great situations all year. We have blown a couple of games, but we really stuck together and listened to him and he guided us through it."
What exactly is that approach?
Fassel likes to keep his offensive play list simple, runs plays until a defense discovers a solution, is unafraid to try trick plays and keeps the most talented players on the field.
"Look at what happened to our team after he took over the (play-calling) duties," Collins said. "You have to give him credit. He made the changes that he needed to make. That is the bottom line.
"As an offense, I think we had a great second half to the year. We really turned it around. We had injuries and it was tough in that respect. But Jim deserves a lot of credit for doing what he did."
So rather than talking about what might have been or what was lost, the Giants have New Yorkers thinking of a Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons.
"I think we're definitely a dangerous team," Toomer said. "We've won a lot of games in a row, we're playing well. ... (In 2000), we had a bye week the first time. It's going to be a little tougher road this time around. But we're definitely hot."
OF NOTE: New York is the team nobody wants to face. It's playing perhaps as well as anyone in the playoffs. The offense has been clicking and RB Tiki Barber is coming off a tremendous game over the Eagles in the regular-season finale. The 49ers have been flat the past two weeks and have proven playing at home isn't that big of an advantage. If you're looking for an upset, this is it. The Giants have played with remarkable determination lately, which should be just enough to get them past the seemingly lifeless 49ers.
FRY'S PROMISE: Giants 24, 49ers 23.
-- DARRELL FRY