When Dan Reeves left the Giants after the 1996 season, they were an offensive basket case, ranking last in total and passing yards per game. Seven seasons later, he will return to Giants Stadium with the hapless Falcons Sunday and encounter a force he scarcely could have dreamed of when he was in charge.
The Giants rank second in the NFL in total and passing yards, averaging 118 more yards through the air than their 1996 counterparts. Nowhere is their evolution more glaring - and more intimidating for the Falcons - than when they line up with an empty backfield, which they have done with increasing regularity.
Reeves has faced the Giants three times before as Falcons coach, but this will be mostly new to him: an alignment with Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard, Tim Carter, Jeremy Shockey and Tiki Barber across the field and Kerry Collins in shotgun formation with no one to keep him company behind the linemen.
The Giants' quintet is a matchup nightmare for most teams and surely will be for the Falcons, who last week benched their entire secondary. Atlanta ranks last in both total and passing defense.
Collins was not comfortable with the empty backfield last season, when he usually took the snap under center and did not have enough time to survey the field. This season he has lined up in the shotgun, and it has allowed him to throw quickly, a necessity in a set with no tight end or back to help pass block.
"I think we've done it enough now where I've gotten a better feel for it than I did early in the season," Collins said. "It's to the point I actually kind of like it . . . We have guys who can work underneath, work the middle, get downfield."
Another benefit is it can help with protection since the defense, vulnerable if it sends extra rushers, may be loath to do so.
"If you spread everyone out, it defines it real quick," coach Jim Fassel said. "If they want to bring five, you can block five. If they bring six, everybody is singled up and you can throw it really quick."
Fassel said the Giants have completed about 70 percent of their passes out of empty backfield sets and have been sacked once.
Most linemen would just as soon line up in a conventional set and run block, but like Collins they have grown more accustomed to the spread. "When I first thought about empty set I was like, 'They're going to be coming harder and harder,' " left tackle Luke Petitgout said. "But the guys get open faster and there's more room to work, so we get rid of the ball faster."
There have been problems with the empty set. Against the Eagles, guard David Diehl missed a block on Mark Simoneau, who hit Collins and forced a fumble on third-and-goal at the 5. The next week, though, the Giants caught the Vikings man-to-man against Shockey and hit him for a 46-yard gain.
The Jets used mostly zone coverages against the empty backfield and the Giants were able to make a few important plays with it, including a pair of receptions for first downs by Shockey.
"I think we all like it, and I think Kerry's comfortable with it," Hilliard said. "It's hard on defenses to spread them out like that . . . And if they choose to blitz you can hit them in a soft spot."
The three wide receivers, Shockey and Barber line up in various spots. The Giants also have used empty sets with two receivers, two tight ends and one back, or even one receiver, three tight ends and a back.
That leads to the variety of approaches by defenses. "Some teams go zone to our empty package, some match us man and play one man free to close the middle, some play straight man and rush the quarterback, and some teams drop everyone," Toomer said.
Confusing? That's part of the point.
"It has its benefits, especially when a defense has a mismatch with a linebacker against Shockey or Ike," Barber said. "We know we can win in those situations."
On their first possession of overtime in Sunday's game against the Jets, the Giants faced a third-and-7 at their own 37-yard line. In this set, QB Kerry Collins (5) operates out of the shotgun without anyone else in the backfield. On this play, Collins completed a 22-yard pass to WR Amani Toomer (81). The formation differs from a more standard pro set in that TE Jeremy Shockey (80) is split out, not in tight next to the tackle, and RB Tiki Barber (21) is lined up wide right, not in the backfield behind the quarterback.