By 10:30 this morning, the Giants locker room was almost empty. The players had taken their physicals, met with coach Jim Fassel and packed away the remains of a disappointing season into large gray plastic bags. Then the 2001 Giants dispersed toward what promises to be an off-season of change.
Sunday's 34-25 loss to Green Bay left the Giants with a 7-9 record and a third-place finish in the NFC East, a painful tumble for a team that played in the Super Bowl a year ago this month. Today was both for reflecting on the season just completed and looking ahead to 2002.
From the moment the Giants won the NFC Championship last year, they knew they faced a daunting challenge this season. Their schedule was more difficult and the conference title they wore so proudly provided extra motivation for anyone who played them. Denver, Minnesota and Oakland were among the teams that played one of their finest games of the year against the Giants.
Another area of agreement among the players and coaches is that the Giants never sufficiently recovered from the grueling, back-to-back, one-point losses to St. Louis and Philadelphia in October. Those defeats seemed to sap the Giants of some of their spirit. They played poorly the following week in Washington and were trying to catch up the rest of the season.
"We were a target. And I don't think we knew what being a target meant," said defensive end Michael Strahan, who provided one of the season's highlights by setting an NFL record with 22.5 sacks. "When you go to the Super Bowl, you're the target of everybody. I don't think we knew how much of a target we were. You could watch a team come in and play their butts off against us and then the next week go out and get beat by a team that was not as good as them. That's something we weren't ready for.
"Our season didn't start out on the best note. But after the St. Louis game and the Philly game - that hurt. Those were the two toughest losses we had all season, and it took a little bit out of you. It took a little of your sting out of you. And it's hard to re-group. Then later on when, we re-grouped. The Philly game down there (a 24-21 loss on Dec. 30) totally put us out of it. Every year is different. Every year you have to roll with the punches."
The Giants believe they are a better team than their record indicates. But in the NFL you are what you are. Last year's Super Bowl appearance didn't help the Giants this season. And the frustrating campaign they just endured should have no carryover for them when they kick off the 2002 season.
"The way this league is played today, and we're no exception along with a number of other teams, there is no correlation between one year and the next," Fassel said.
"There's not a natural progression. There's not a natural failure. Look at us through the past couple of years. What we did a year ago obviously didn't correlate to this year. What's going to happen to us next year is not a result of what happened to us this year. We have to go to work. There is nothing we can do about the past. I'm going to start working on it this week, an overall structure including coaching, players and how we play the game that I can improve. That's what I told them (the players)."
For the players, it was a lesson that was hammered home throughout the season.
"One thing we learned is that regardless of what happened the year before, it doesn't have any bearing on the next season," said quarterback Kerry Collins, who set team records with 568 passes and 327 completions. "So much of the talk before the season was, `You went to the Super Bowl last year, (you need) one more win.' But I, and I think a lot of other guys, knew that wasn't the case. We fought that early on and kind of fought it all year.
"But we have nobody to blame but ourselves. We'll look at this year and there will be a number of things we could have done differently. It wasn't anything the other team did. It was our performance and our performance alone. The important thing is we have to be honest with ourselves and believe in what we're doing."
The Giants have covered some of this same ground in the past. In 1997, Fassel's first year at the helm, they captured a surprise NFC East title. The next year, playing a much more difficult schedule, they started 3-7 before re-grouping to finish 8-8. Fassel was asked the difference between then and now. The Giants have 6 UFAs going into this
season, some of whom may not be back. "I think we are a lot closer," Fassel said. "The only parallels I look at is the year before we did something that was very unusual, that nobody thought we could do, by winning our division and going from last to first. We got the first place schedule and we played a first place schedule and we got hammered a number of times. We weren't as competitive and it hurt me because if we were going to get into that, we had to build a better team to do that. This team went further the year before and we still did something nobody expected us to do. We came back with a first place schedule, and I thought we were a lot more competitive."
But close doesn't count in the NFL, so the Giants are going to have to improve. The roster will change, though how radically hasn't been determined. Neither Fassel nor general manager Ernie Accorsi are prepared to extensively discuss their off-season plans, as they cannot go forward without first extensively evaluating the 2001 season.
The Giants will have six unrestricted free agents: fullback Greg Comella, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, Pro Bowl guard Ron Stone, kicker Morten Andersen, safety Shaun Williams and cornerback Emmanuel McDaniel. Their restricted free agents are tight end Dan Campbell and offensive linemen Jason Whittle and Mike Rosenthal.
"We know there are going to be some changes here," Collins said. "There are every year. I think we're a tight team. I think we have guys here that everybody respects and likes and you hate to see them go. But it's part of the game, and we all know that. We're trying to get better as a football team because we don't want to have another season like we had this year. We'll do everything we can to get better."
After the 1999 season, also a 7-9 disappointment, the Giants extensively revamped the roster, including bringing in three new starting offensive linemen. Accorsi and Fassel made relatively minor alterations to the Super Bowl team. And now?
"The bottom line with me is whatever changes we make will be driven primarily by the fact that I only want guys in here who competitive and love to play football," Fassel said. "I want guys here that love to play the game of football. I don't care what else happens. I don't care what his (salary) cap number is, what our need is or how good he is. If he's not a guy that wants to compete, I don't want him here, period. There are going to be cap situations. There will be injury situations. There will be lots of considerations into the restructuring of our team."
The reconstruction should begin in earnest next month.