Every time the Giants entered the locker room Sunday, the words, scribbled in marker, were waiting on a bulletin board: "A wise man once said: 'We're in first place, don't mess it up.' "
Nobody could miss it, including quarterback Kent Graham. This line of thinking is beaten into him every day, and truthfully, there's good reason for Graham to take the words to heart.
Above everything, he isn't cut out of a championship cloth. Not now, not ever. People can point to penalties, turnovers, and the coach's playbook for the Giants' 27-19 loss to the Colts at Giants Stadium, but it doesn't dodge the inescapable truth: Graham remains a first-rate gentleman, but a second-string quarterback.
Somehow, the myth of Graham as a repressed passer trapped in a suffocating system lives on. You hear them, right? Roll the dice, let Graham loose. Outside his locker, linebacker Jessie Armstead pushed for coach Jim Fassel to use the fourth-period mirage, where Graham padded his 27-of-50 for 253 yards passing, as evidence the offense just be turned wide open.
Armstead is understandably desperate for a reason to believe, but in the end, the Giants are at the mercy of Graham's mediocrity. The less he's asked to do, the less he hurts them.
"We got behind and [then our offense] played football," Armstead said. "Just go ahead, do it earlier in the game. . . . The way [the offense] played in the third and fourth quarter, if you can maintain something like that, you'd probably have one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
"The way [we] opened it up in the second half, we should be doing that in the first half. Let's just play football. Let's not worry about what's going to happen."
Let's not worry? Easy for Armstead to say, when unlike Fassel, his job doesn't depend on finding the Giants a way, any way, into the playoffs. Sure, Graham has an un disciplined offensive line, a lousy running game, and yet, it camouflages the ultimate reality. Sometimes, a team just needs its quarterback to rise above the circumstances, just make a game his own. Graham doesn't do it. He'll never do it.
He's good enough to keep the Giants in these tough games, but he will be unable to ever get them over the top. His talent never overcomes obstacles. Tony Rice beat him out at Notre Dame, and the Giants and Cardinals let him go without a fuss. He's 31, and suddenly this is supposed to change? He's a gutsy guy, an earnest pupil, but he makes his own misfortune.
The problem is, Fassel isn't just playing for the playoffs, he's coaching for a contract extension. If management told him they wanted him back as coach, it would make it easy to turn to Kerry Collins. Fassel could afford to take some short-term losses for long-term gains. If the Giants make the playoffs in this pitiful NFC East, it'll do nothing to further their cause as true championship contenders.
The quarterback the Giants think has the talent to someday take them to the Super Bowl, the one they've invested $16.8 million, still stands on the sideline. All they do with Graham is tread water, all they do is prolong the inevitable.
Sure, Graham marched the Giants to within a touchdown and two-point conversion of overtime in the fourth quarter. Still, the Colts had them down 24-6, and it was natural for their defense to let out a sigh and soften. Inside the final five minutes, LeShon Johnson fumbled inside the Indianapolis 40, and Pete Mitchell was stripped inside the Colts' 20-yard line.
On the final two drives, with the clock ticking toward defeat, the Giants were reckless, exposing the ball. They aren't constructed to thrive in a scramble mode. When it comes, they're asking for trouble. This time, they found it. None of it would've been necessary had Graham done his part to eliminate these desperate times late in the game. When the Giants could have used scoring drives to stay with the Colts at the end of the second and third quarters, Graham fired interceptions.
"I don't know how much those hurt us," Graham said. Huh?
He had to be kidding. His defense was just waiting for the offense to offer a reward for constantly stopping the Colts, but it never came. Finally, the Giants cracked. Soon, it was 24-6 in the fourth, and finally, Graham figured it was time to go to work.
"It said a lot our offense was out there, with the guts to keep fighting," Graham said. ". . . I'm leaving here with my head high."
Whatever. Nobody doubts his guts, just his ability to oversee a legitimate contender. "We were rolling and we thought were going to get it back," Graham said. "But turnovers killed us, and the penalties, too. . . . It was tough to overcome them. We can't do that."
He's right. They can't. Not with him on the job, anyway. Still, Collins stays on the sidelines, and the Giants are no closer to a Super Bowl. Somehow, they're still tied for first in the NFC East at 5-4, and they'll go to Washington on Sunday with everyone else understanding the standings are an absolute mirage.
The words written on the bulletin board, "We're in first place, don't mess it up," are hardly the clarion call of a champion. They're just the reality of these Giants, and the inevitable loser's lament with Kent Graham as quarterback. Let him loose? Please. Let him sit.