Sacramento Bee

After their 6-6 start, Giants playing big
January 05, 2003
By Jim Jenkins -- Bee Staff Writer

They laughed at Jim Fassel when the New York Giants coach continued to talk about the playoffs after his team dropped to 6-6 after an embarrassing loss to the expansion Houston Texans and then an overtime defeat against Tennessee.

But no one is poking fun at him anymore because the Giants, as they prepare to take on the 49ers today, are arguably the hottest NFC team entering the postseason. They have won their last four games, the final two over two other playoff participants, Indianapolis and the NFC East champion Philadelphia Eagles.

Two years ago, you may recall, Fassel scoffed at doubters during a slump by guaranteeing the Giants would reach the playoffs, and they ended up in the Super Bowl.

This time, he wasn't as bold but did insist he wasn't about to give up on a team he knew was better than it had shown in plodding past midseason at .500.

For anyone surprised at the Giants' 10-6 finish and third playoff berth in six seasons under Fassel's leadership, take a peek at his December record. It's 19-5. Few of his peers have a better final-month percentage than Fassel, the quarterbacks coach for the Raiders in 1995 and Arizona in 1996 before landing the head-coaching job in New York.

"It is the most important month," he said. "The fourth or fifth week of the season, it happens everywhere in the league. Somebody falls asleep and gets beaten. When you get to this point in the season, you should understand that whoever you are playing should be at the top of their game."

Some outsiders looking at this afternoon's 49ers-Giants game would suggest that, despite San Francisco's 16-13 road win when the teams met in the season opener, New York has shown more progress.

The 49ers also finished 10-6 and sewed up the NFC West early but really haven't had a solid game since a Nov. 3 overtime win at Oakland.

Conversely, the Giants, in a more desperate situation, were able to crank up their intensity.

With New York at 6-6 and minus receiving threat Ike Hilliard to a season-ending injury, quarterback Kerry Collins said the Giants "were in a tough spot."

One major adjustment causing the Giants' turnaround was Fassel taking away the play-calling from offensive coordinator-quarterbacks coach Sean Payton.

New York's defense was already sound, but with Fassel calling the plays, the Giants averaged 25.7 points over their final nine games after averaging only 12.7 in their 3-4 start.

In essence, Fassel simplified things. One key move was getting away from rotating running backs, pushing underperforming Ron Dayne in the background and turning to a longtime playmaker, Tiki Barber, to help right the ship again.

Barber was only one of many players who responded to the changes, finishing with 11 touchdowns and 1,387 rushing yards, or a yard behind NFC rushing champion Deuce McAllister of New Orleans. Barber, with a conference-best 1,984 scrimmage yards, saved his best game for last, too, the needed 10-7 overtime win over the Eagles. Barber overcame three fumbles with 203 yards rushing, the second-best single-game total in franchise history.

"We weren't out of it mathematically," said a reflective Collins, who set team records with 335 completions and 4,073 passing yards. "But, by all intents and purposes, either Atlanta or New Orleans was going to have to have a pretty big collapse and we would have to win the rest of our games. As it turned out, that is what happened.

"I think you always keep after it, and a lot of times it ends up not being how you started out, but how you finish. We finished the season well and got the help we needed."

Holmgren steps back

More intriguing than Dallas' hiring of Bill Parcells as coach -- hardly dramatic given the speculation that has been building for weeks -- was the diplomatic demotion of Mike Holmgren in Seattle.

Obviously under pressure from team president Bob Whitsitt and owner Paul Allen after three straight years of missing the playoffs, Holmgren surrendered the titles of general manager and executive vice president to remain as coach. He insisted the change didn't bother him, but those close to him believe it did -- because only a few weeks earlier he said he would oppose wearing only one hat.

"I wanted the added responsibility of being very involved, and in this case, (having) the final word in personnel after my time as head coach in Green Bay, to determine your own destiny, so to speak," Holmgren said. "But when I thought long and hard about what's important, this football team and this organization, the titles really take a back seat."

Accompanying the revisions affecting Holmgren was the firing of five assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Steve Sidwell, whom Holmgren called longtime friends.

"That wasn't fun at all," he said, leaving unclear if it was his idea or a joint decision.

Holmgren also scoffed at talk he thought about leaving Seattle and making himself available to someone else, perhaps the 49ers.

"No. Please write this down. We love it here," said Holmgren, a 54-year-old native of San Francisco and a 49ers assistant coach from 1986 to 1991, referring to his family. "I don't want to go anywhere. I think I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I pray that this is my last coaching job."

The missing link

Ever wonder what happened to the first-round choice the Falcons received for trading Brett Favre to Green Bay in 1992? His name is Tony Smith, a running back and former Favre teammate from Southern Mississippi. He now lives in Charlotte, N.C., managing rental properties and running a landscaping business.

Smith played three seasons with the Falcons before he was cut. He went to the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995, fractured a leg, drifted off to the Canadian League, was picked up by Philadelphia in 1999 and was released for good.

Smith said he used to think about what might have been but never really felt pressured after Favre made good with the Packers.

"It's like so many things are going on now," said Smith, "I don't think about it much."

Replay system challenged

Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves wants something done about instant replay.

Since the current format was implemented in 1999, Reeves is 4 of 26 on challenges.

"If anything," he said, "the league has to discuss what instant replay is really about. If it is only going to be a tool that corrects plays that everybody -- even a drunk in the bar -- knows is going to be changed, then why do you have replay? In my opinion, what we're doing right now is justifying what they call on the field. And if they're close, they're going to take whatever is close."

L.A. drought, continued

In what some people saw as an encouraging step toward the return of pro football to Los Angeles, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue spent the first half of this week in Pasadena to attend his first Rose Bowl game.

City and stadium officials are promoting the Rose Bowl as a potential home for an NFL team, but Tagliabue was noncommittal, saying, "The main thing we accomplished was getting a good understanding of the status of their process, and what are the kind of issues they're looking at. Whether there's a place for the NFL in all of that, that will be the subject of future meetings, I'm sure."

Left unsaid is the sticky matter of the Raiders receiving a new trial in their fight with the league over territorial rights to Los Angeles.

Et cetera

Of the last 11 Super Bowl winners, only Green Bay and San Francisco reached the playoffs this season, meaning for the fourth consecutive season, a new team from the season before will win it all. And, for the sixth season in a row, at least five new clubs from the season before have reached the playoffs. This season's newcomers are Atlanta, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Tennessee and the Giants. "This is the way it's going to be from now on," concluded Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. "Fight for your life every year and hope you keep your playmakers together."

* The Jets' Chad Pennington didn't start until the fifth game. That's later than any quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to start and still throw for at least 3,000 yards.

* How things can change. On Oct. 12, Denver, Miami, San Diego and New Orleans were a combined 16-4. All missed the playoffs. On the same date, the Jets, Titans, Pittsburgh and Atlanta were being written off with a combined 4-14 record, yet regrouped and are in the playoffs.

* Last in the league in time of possession, the Detroit Lions controlled the clock in just two games and won both.

* This is the first time since 1993 that no playoff team has more than 12 victories.

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