The play list that Sean Payton carries through practices is handwritten across several pages, separated into sections for different game situations — a group of plays for third down and short yardage, for instance, or for third-and-long. The papers are folded lengthwise, into halves, in Payton's hands, and he glances at them repeatedly.
The list Payton, the Giants' offensive coordinator, bore today was shorter than in past weeks. The list typically contains about 190 plays, but today there were about 140, in keeping with the directive of Coach Jim Fassel to streamline the offense.
"When we're not doing what he wants on offense, he's going to tinker with things," said Amani Toomer, who, like the Giants' other receivers, has not scored a touchdown.
Running back Tiki Barber has two touchdowns and tight end Jeremy Shockey has one, the sum of the offense's touchdown production in four games. "That's what he's doing, tinkering with little things," Toomer continued. "In the past, in the history of this team with Fassel as the coach, that's what we've done, and we've had some success."
The Giants' practice today was lengthy but limited because of the barrage of injuries in Sunday's 21-7 loss to Arizona. Those players who worked out wore shells under their jerseys, rather than shoulder pads, and there was minimal contact.
Defensive end Kenny Holmes wore a brace on his right elbow as he went through drills. Defensive tackle Keith Hamilton limped around the field with a groin strain but did not practice. Defensive tackle Matt Mitrione, who will probably miss the next two games because of a dislocated shoulder, did some individual drills. Linebacker Dhani Jones and cornerback Will Peterson are among a handful of other players with physical problems.
The Giants will play at Dallas on Sunday with these nagging injuries and the condensed play list, in a game that could move them beyond the ugliness of the loss to the Cardinals or roll them farther down the slope of mediocrity.
Believing the Giants have the best group of offensive players they have had in his tenure with the team, Fassel wants to spend more practice time on fewer plays and develop consistent point production.
Fassel met with Payton to review last Sunday's game and discuss the revamped system, and they talked about the game-tying interception thrown by Kerry Collins just before halftime Sunday. The Giants made numerous mistakes: penalties and turnovers, other poor throws by Collins, errors obscured by that interception. "The bottom line is," Fassel said, "when I talked to Sean, I said: `I don't have a problem with the play. We had the guys in the right spots; it just didn't work out for us.' "
But Fassel viewed the interception as a symptom of a larger problem for an offense that has been fertile in yards and sterile in point production, and he dictated the changes to the offense. The aim was "to cut out the fat" on the play list, said Payton, who stood in the middle of the locker room and answered dozens of questions about the offense today.
"Our main focus now is to find a way to get it in the end zone," Payton said. "We've got to find those opportunities and make those things happen. And certainly, as a play-caller, I can do a better job of getting those guys some opportunities in that area to make those plays."
The Giants figure to devote more time in practice and in meetings this week to trying to create a more consistent running attack. Most of what has gone badly is rooted in the team's inability to generate a yard or a few yards in critical situations. Opposing teams are defending the Giants brazenly, anticipating the pass first and assuming they can stop the run, if necessary.
"You have to have some balance," Payton said. "Certainly you have a personality, where you do one better than the other. But you have to do both of them fairly adequately, or it will be a long day."
Toomer said he did not know how the decision to go for another score developed before halftime last Sunday, and did not know what happened.
"As players, it's something we don't concern ourselves with," Toomer said. "I just rely on the fact that Coach Payton is a professional. He's been through this a lot of times; he's been through the ups and downs, the roller-coaster ride, and if you expect to be going up on the roller coaster the whole season, you're fooling yourself. I don't think it's affecting his confidence at all. He's been through much worse. It's just one of those things that happened, and the best remedy to last week is to win this week."
Payton said: "I've got plenty of confidence we'll get this thing righted. We've got a lot of good players around who want to do well. We've got an outstanding offensive staff who wants to do well. We'll get this thing figured out."
The answers to the puzzle, he feels, are on the list folded in his hands.