First, Fassel summoned Strahan to a private meeting at 7 a.m., listened to his complaints, and then told him there would be only one boss for this team: Fassel. "There's a learning curve to being a head coach that surprised me," Fassel says, standing in the hallway outside the Giants' locker room. "I knew all the X's and O's. But I underestimated the importance of bonding on a team. It's the most difficult thing to achieve."
That same week, Fassel made an important practical change. He had risen in the coaching ranks on his skills as an offensive guru. Fassel is fundamentally a sunny and decent man, and those traits are reflected in his team's lack of paranoia, unusual in pro football. But calling the Giants' plays as offensive coordinator while also playing public-relations spokesman as head coach left Fassel exhausted and cranky. So before last season's game against the Jets, he handed the offensive-coordinator title and headset to Sean Payton.
Fassel's devotion to the quarterbacks and receivers had also worsened the Giants' longstanding locker-room feud between the stellar defense and disappointing offense. The team seemed to be going in reverse, from 8-8 in 1998 to 7-9 in 1999, and Jessie Armstead, the Giants' best linebacker, exuberant 30-year-old spiritual leader, and a man even more vocal than Strahan, was deeply angry. After seven years in the NFL, he saw his prospects for playing in a Super Bowl fading. Armstead felt Fassel was trying to muzzle him, and he was nearing a decision to demand a trade. "I was very upset," Armstead says. "I was just trying to get to my house and stay in the house for a goodly while. I wasn't coming back down here for the off-season. There's no way I was coming back." Eventually, Armstead reluctantly agreed to a meeting. Coach and player now describe the four-hour session as an amiable clearing of the air, but the outcome was far from certain. "He made a point that in the locker room, I could say what I wanted down there," Armstead says. "We established that between each other, so everything worked out fine."
During the summer, Fassel coaxed all the players to return to New Jersey to work out. At night, he took players and their wives and girlfriends to Broadway shows and on a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan. At summer training camp in Albany, Fassel led 150 Giants players and staff members to a multiplex for a screening of -- naturally -- Gladiator.
"At the time, you thought, This is corny," says Tiki Barber, the Giants' leading rusher. "But we ended up caring about each other as people, and it makes it easier to play together. The past few years, guys would come to work, do their job, and leave. Now they stay afterward for two hours playing dominoes or video games; they're hanging out with each other."
"We ended up caring about each other as people," says Barber. "That makes it easier to play together."
But the grumbling would resurface if the offense didn't put up some points. "We had to do something about the offensive line," Accorsi says. "It wasn't horrible or poor, but it just wasn't good enough. That position is the one on the field you can't scheme your way through. Offensive line is the pure, honest position, and the least glamorous. You either block 'em or you don't. And if you don't block them, you can't pass or run."
Accorsi's free-agent signings -- of grizzled sixteen-year-veteran Lomas Brown, whose speaking voice sounds uncannily like Jackie Wilson's singing voice, and of the deceptively flabby, 312-pound four-time Super Bowl loser Glenn Parker -- drew shrugs around the league. "We didn't think either one would last the whole season," Accorsi says. "But the two old guys ended up being the stimulant we needed. The first thing Brown did, he went to guard Ron Stone and said, 'Why aren't you in the Pro Bowl?' Stone said, 'I don't know.' 'Lomas said, 'Well, I know -- you're twenty pounds overweight! Meet me at 7 o'clock tomorrow morning at the treadmill.' Once we got Lomas Brown and Parker, I knew one thing: The defense wasn't going to push our offense around anymore. It wasn't a matter of 'I'm stronger than you.' It's stature. Respect. That started to meld the team."
Two wins to start the season, over Arizona and Philadelphia, spread the happy vibe. But by mid-November, Fassel was hearing rumblings that he'd be fired if the playoffs eluded the Giants again. He went public with his galvanizing guarantee, and the Giants won their division on the road, squeaking past Washington when kicker Eddie Murray, one of the few low-paid Redskins, missed a 49-yard field goal.
Fassel had made the playoffs, largely on the strength of the Giants' suffocating defense, orchestrated by nimble-minded assistant John Fox. On offense, Fassel had a multipurpose threat in Barber and speedy, reliable wideouts in Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer. But he knew the Giants weren't going far without a few big plays from their quarterback.
The stretch limo pulls to the curb of a Radisson hotel somewhere in the faceless Jersey sprawl. Kerry Collins ducks his head and eases out the door, slowly unfolding his six-foot-five-inch frame. "Last April, I went to a Tim McGraw concert in Charlotte," says Brooke Eisenhower, Collins's girlfriend. "And when the music starts, this huge guy stands up in front of me -- Oh, great, I think. But he turns around, apologizes, and introduces himself. I only gave him my first name and where I worked, but the next day he tracked me down."
Inside a conference room, Collins changes into his Giants uniform, the regal-blue jersey glistening under the photographer's lights. He's handed a glass of chalky fluid: The "milk" mustache is actually a gooey cocktail of sour cream, Philadelphia cream cheese, and Häagen-Dazs vanilla. "I'd worn number 12 or 13 before," Collins says. "When I got to the Giants, I picked number 5 for a fresh start."
He needed far more than new digits to make a lasting change in his life. The Carolina Panthers used their first-ever draft pick to choose Collins, a Heisman Trophy finalist out of Penn State in 1995. The expansion team reached the NFC championship game in the franchise's second year of existence, and Collins seemed like a golden-boy leader with a long, bright future. But he was trying to live as large off the field as on. By 1996, teammates were accusing him of having a drinking problem. "Every time I did something wrong, I was drunk," Collins says. "I didn't drink every night. But it was no stopping once I started. How many times have I been in situations when I really could have hurt somebody or hurt myself and gotten in trouble? A lot." Like the time he dangled from the second story of his townhouse in North Carolina, then let go, falling down, down, down -- into the pool, though he could just as easily have hit the concrete deck.
Many Panthers were angry at Collins, but the mood shifted to disgust during training camp in 1997. Loaded during a party, Collins, awkwardly trying to be down, addressed receiver Muhsin Muhammad as "nigga." Three days later, Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski shattered Collins's jaw with a vicious hit during a preseason game. No one from the team came to the hospital to drive Collins home.