Last night’s Giants-Cowboys game was not one of the finer displays of football you’re ever see– the score makes it seem like a close game, but the Giants turned the ball over five times and gave up a punt return for a touchdown, basically handing the Cowboys 28 points. Other than that, you know, they played really well.
This morning, the sports-radio people are all wondering why the Cowboys are so much worse than expected, and the Giants are looking better than expects. The answer to this is really simple: The offensive line. It’s probably the least glamorous position on the field, but the most important to the outcome of a game.
As they keep saying on ESPN, the Cowboys are loaded with talent at the glamour positions, but they’re also 1-5, and looked terrible last night. Why is that? Because while they were assembling all the flashy talent, they also blew up their offensive line, letting Flozell “Hands to the Face” Adams go, and bringing in a bunch of new guys– looking at their roster on ESPN’s web site, it looks like there are only two offensive linemen on the team who were there last year.
The result was pretty obvious last night. They didn’t open any holes for the running backs, they could barely keep the Giants pass rush off Tony Romo while he was on the field, and when a running back blew his assignment, Romo got broken by Michael Boley, who got a ten-yard running start where the only thing impeding his progress was air resistance. After that, Jon Kitna looked like a deer in a rifle scope until late in the game when the Giants lost focus and allowed a couple of late scores.
Giants fans have seen this story before, from the other side. They got to Super Bowl XXXV on the strength of a great running game, and with Kerry Collins playing really well at QB. The next year, they kept all their glamourous position players, but replaced most of their offensive line, and went 7-9, missing the playoffs. So, really, you should’ve been able to see the Cowboys’ struggles coming.
As for the Giants, they started the season with the same offensive line they’ve had for the last few years, which was largely the same unit they had when they won the Super Bowl three years ago. And they’ve been mostly healthy this year, unlike last year, which shows on the field. Eli Manning had a relatively easy time of it– he was only sacked once, and only hit a handful of times. He threw three INT’s, true, but those were just three bad passes– he had time to throw, but put two of them too high where his receivers tipped them to the DB’s, and the third was just a complete brain fart.
The offensive line is the essential factor. Wide receivers and running backs get all the press and most of the spectacular deals, but having great receivers won’t do you a bit of good if your quarterback ends every play on his back. If you want to know whether a team will be good or not before the season starts, look at their offensive line first. If they’ve got a good unit of experienced guys who have played together, that can make a mediocre quarterback look good (see Rypien, Mark and Collins, Kerry). If they’ve got a bunch of rookies and offseason acquisitions starting on the offensive line, expect to hear lots of people on ESPN talking about how the “skill position” players are underachieving.
As for this season, all the talking heads are going on about how the Giants may be the best team in the NFC. Let’s not get carried away, folks. It might be true, but that probably says more about the NFC than the Giants. They mostly dominated this game, but they also turned the ball over five times– three INT’s from Manning, and one fumble each for their running backs. They consistently make silly mistakes, and lose focus when they have a lead– they did the same thing last week, letting the Lions make the game interesting with some late scores. This is not a great team in any absolute sense– they’ve got the pieces of a really good team, and it’s a down year for the NFC, so maybe they can do something. But they’re one or two injuries away from disaster, and prone to making game-killing mental mistakes.
They could end up being really good this year, but they could also end up falling apart completely. They’re 2-0 in the JerryDome, though, and that’s pretty sweet.