Giants Coach Jim Fassel kept glancing down at the control box on his right hip tonight to make sure he was hitting the switch correctly. This was Fassel's first game since taking over as the Giants' play-caller, and he had to reacquaint himself with the technology.
Calling plays was the easy part, apparently. As Fassel selected from a laminated play list, the Giants' offense had its best performance of the season, beating the slumping Jacksonville Jaguars, 24-17. The Giants held a 24-0 lead at one point, and accumulated 394 yards, including 177 yards rushing, and did not punt until late in the third quarter. The Giants' first six drives resulted in three touchdowns, a field goal and two failed field-goal attempts.
Suddenly, all parts of the stagnant offense looked good. Tiki Barber had 101 yards and 2 touchdowns on 19 carries before coming off the field near the end of the game with a bruised left ankle; Barber had X-rays but walked through the locker room afterward, saying he was more scared than hurt. Ron Dayne had 52 yard on 13 carries, and Ron Dixon, starting at wide receiver in place of the injured Ike Hilliard for the first time, had 4 receptions for 46 yards and a touchdown.
The Giants are 4-4, two games behind Philadelphia in the National Football Conference East and still amid a thick pack of wild-card contenders; they play at Minnesota next week. Jacksonville is 3-5.
"I knew what I wanted to do," Fassel said. "I knew exactly what I wanted."
The Giants scored eight touchdowns in their first seven games, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time the team had done that since 1932; Ray Flaherty was the leading receiver that year, Shipwreck Kelly had 32 rushing attempts, Steve Owen was the head coach and there was no such thing as an offensive coordinator.
Sean Payton, the Giants' offensive coordinator, remained on the sideline tonight, standing distant from Fassel until the television timeouts, when Payton would move over, examining photographs of the Jacksonville defense with Fassel, the two men talking. But as quarterback Kerry Collins prepared to go onto the field, it was Fassel who briefed him, who sent Collins onto the field with a supportive slap on the back.
Fassel told Barber and Dayne during the week that he would try to establish continuity in their opportunities. Rather than alternate the two backs, Fassel's preference was to keep one or the other on the field throughout an entire series. It was a chance at rebirth for Dayne, who had had only 21 carries in the Giants' last four games.
Fassel also eliminated the pre-snap shifts and, as Barber noted later, center Chris Bober usually snapped on the first count.
After the Giants recovered a fumble — the first turnover gathered by the Giants in 196 minutes 49 seconds of game action — their first play was a pass to Amani Toomer right, the second play a Barber run to the left.
The first drive moved in this rhythm, left and right. The offensive players had felt bad for Payton, but most thought the change had to be made — if for no other reason than to change something. "Much better tempo, I thought," Collins said. "We found a good rhythm and a good tempo.
"The Giants pushed inside the Jacksonville 20-yard line, nothing new for this offense. But on second-and-5 at the Jacksonville 12, Collins set up in the shotgun and dumped the ball off to Barber for 6 yards and a first down. Barber ran for 4 and then for 2 yards, walking into the end zone. It was the Giants' first touchdown on their first drive of any game since Sept. 29 against Arizona.
The Jaguars failed to make a first down on their next drive and had to punt. The Giants assumed possession at their own 1-yard line with 8:21 remaining in the first quarter — and Jacksonville would not touch the ball again until the second.
Dayne initially was on the field for the second drive, but Fassel — true to his intent — decided to keep Barber in the game. Dayne jogged off, tapping Barber on the helmet, and before the second quarter started, Barber had been given the ball for 11 carries and 3 receptions.
But Giants kicker Matt Bryant, 11 for 11 in field-goal attempts in the first seven games, missed a 41-yarder on the first play of the second quarter. Bryant missed again, this from 37 yards, lifting the ball high but not hitting it hard, like a golfer popping a wedge.
Both of Bryant's misses were wide right, and after the second miss, fans at Giant Stadium booed loudly, undoubtedly filled with a sense of foreboding. The terrible loss in Arizona had played out just like this, a lot of yards early and a vulnerable one-touchdown lead that evaporated with an interception returned for a touchdown.
The Giants had one more shot late in the first half, but Collins threw two passes incomplete and was sacked at the Jacksonville 35 with 26 seconds remaining. Fassel sent the punt team onto the field but reconsidered, calling a timeout. The Giants had fourth-and-17; Collins whizzed a pass to Tim Carter, who leapt, his body tilted backward, and snared the ball, falling to the ground at the 8.
Sixteen seconds remained in the half. Collins flipped a pass right, into the front corner of the end zone, where Dixon caught the ball at the sideline, chopping his feet at the ground in an attempt to stay inbounds.
The official nearest the play hesitated, waiting, before waving his arms horizontally: no catch. But replays on the giant screens here showed that Dixon had gotten his feet down, and Dixon, Shockey and others began celebrating even before Referee Johnny Grier announced a decision on the play review. Once Grier confirmed the score, Shockey waved his arms, while Dixon jogged happily in front of the stands on the north side of the stadium.
The Giants' first-half offense was stunning: 21 first downs, 255 total yards, precisely 22 minutes of possession, and above all else, two touchdowns and a 14-0 lead.
"I thought we did so many things well tonight," Fassel said.
The Giants extended their lead in the third quarter, when Bryant kicked a field goal and Barber ran 44 yards for a touchdown. Early in the fourth quarter, Fassel called the same running play for Dayne on three consecutive plays. During this set, Collins leaned into the huddle and said, "O.K., we're going to run it until they stop it."
"I loved it," guard Rich Seubert said. Said tight end Dan Campbell: "There's a lot of satisfaction in that, when they know it's coming and they can't stop it."
The Jaguars scored a couple of touchdowns in the fourth quarter, muddying the final score, but not the result. The Giants' dormant offense had come to life.
Nov. 3, 2002