At 1-3, Giants turn off dead-end road Challenged in meeting, young team responds with worst-to-first run

December 27, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The odyssey that carried the New York Giants from worst to first could not have been more clearly defined. It was as if they drew a line in the AstroTurf after that awful Week 4 loss in St. Louis.

That's when they slipped to 1-3 under new coach Jim Fassel, when all the preseason predictions of doom seemed to be coming true, when linebacker Corey Miller called one of those ubiquitous team meetings to clear the rancid air.

"That was the turning point," Miller said, thinking back to a 13-3 loss to the Rams on Sept. 21. "Everybody was challenged. We didn't want to prove the critics right. We didn't want to be 5-11, 6-10.

"We got a new coach. We said that [the old coach] was the problem. We got a new staff, and now it's on our shoulders. That was the point that was made. We've got to step up."

What a giant step it was, too. From a dismal 6-10 also-ran to an NFC wild-card berth against the Minnesota Vikings today at Giants Stadium. From last place in the NFC East to a 10-5-1

division champ. It was only the 15th time in NFL history a team had made the worst-to-first trek, and just the 11th since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.

After the St. Louis loss, the Giants won the next five games to take control of the NFC East. Along the way, they found a new quarterback in Danny Kanell, a new identity in their ravenous defense, and new trust in the man at the top. Fassel, an unlikely liberator, won the respect of the players when he steered the Giants out of that 1-3 malaise into first place.

"I didn't know this man from the man on the moon," said linebacker Jessie Armstead. "[But] I gained confidence in him and his staff when I saw how they did things."

Fassel, a nondescript, six-year NFL assistant before he replaced Dan Reeves last January, brought his recipe for success to the Giants. There would be growing pains, though, for the youngest team in the league.

"The bottom line is, as a staff we found out how to win games better with this team, what the formula was going to be," Fassel said of the turnaround.

"The second thing, at 1-3, the players did not sense the coaches were blaming players for this. We coached them hard. I was right on their back on this. But they knew we believed in them. The VTC secret there was, they didn't spit out the bit. They kept working hard and we got ourselves out of it."

The formula not only put the Giants in the playoffs, it earned Fassel Coach of the Year honors in the NFL. Known for his offensive contributions as an assistant with the Giants, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals, Fassel's best move perhaps was installing John Fox as defensive coordinator and turning the defense loose.

The results were instantaneous. In the season opener, rookie safety Sam Garnes returned an interception 95 yards to help upset the Philadelphia Eagles, 31-17.

The Giants finished with 27 interceptions and 44 take-aways, both NFL highs. They amassed 54 sacks -- an increase of 24 over 1996 -- and put two players in the Pro Bowl, Armstead and defensive end Michael Strahan.

"We didn't have an identity until [Fassel] got here," Miller said. "We have one now. We're a tough, physical, smart outfit, and you have to bring it for 60 minutes."

Fox, Miller said, "took the shackles off our feet" by allowing the defenders to follow their instincts and reads. In the past, they had to labor under the restrictions of the defense.

The offense picked up when Kanell took over for the injured Dave Brown in Week 7. Although Kanell finished only 27th in the passer ratings with 11 touchdown throws and nine interceptions, he met the specifications of the job.

"The offense has done enough for us to win," Miller said. "Run the ball, control the clock. The biggest thing, they don't do anything to get us beat."

If it sounds reminiscent of the Giants' glory days under former coach Bill Parcells, it should. But while this Giants team is good, it is by no means a great team. This team is still feeling its way.

"I don't know how far we'll go in the playoffs," Fassel said. "But just winning the NFC East is not enough for this team and myself. We want to get better and better."

Pub Date: 12/27/97

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