Anytime you talk to anyone associated with the Giants this year, from players to front-office types to beat reporters to die-hard fans, there is an unprecedented antipathy toward the New York Jets. It’s difficult to remember a season, since perhaps Bill Parcells’s first year with the Jets, that Gang Green has so clearly bested Big Blue in the headline department. (And even then, the Giants could take solace in knowing that they had Parcells first.) But it’s not envy; it’s that the Jets are conducting their business this off-season — with the Hard Knocks (the ultimate insult) and Rex Ryan quips and big free-agent signings and Super Bowl This Year Or Bust — in the exact opposite way that the Giants run their organization. The Giants, to put it mildly, are disgusted with the Jets.
And why wouldn’t they be? Every member of the Jets loves the spotlight and the headlines, from the owner down to the punter, while the Giants have prided themselves for years on being the “gentlemen” of the NFL, taking the cue from Wellington Mara and emphasizing “class.” This might sound strange, any kind of “class” coming from an ultraviolent sport that chews up and discards players once they reach the ripe age of 28, dooming them to a life of poverty, restlessness, and infirmity, but hey, everyone on the Giants wears suits and looks sharp, and besides, it’s probably true that there are teams “classier” than the Cowboys and Raiders. The Giants think of themselves as grown-ups, and the Jets as children. Why is everyone talking about the Jets? they wonder. Did everybody forget we JUST won the Super Bowl? (In this theoretical construct, the Giants talk collectively, in one voice, synced.)
They’re right, one supposes, though of course this is a far different team than the one that won the Super Bowl. But the constants are still there: a solid run game, an insistent pass rush led by Justin Tuck, and of course Eli Manning, who rather quietly had another excellent season last year. Manning is the key again, and he’s coming off career highs in completion percentage (62.3 percent), passing yards (4,021), and touchdowns (27). For all the criticism that Eli has received over the years, he’s become the steadiest player on the offense and the centerpiece of everything the team does. At 29 years old — how can Eli possibly be 29 already? — he is primed for even more improvement this year, and, with more receiving options than he’s ever had, possibly a breakthrough season. Put it this way: Place him on the Jets, and everyone’s picking that team to go to the Super Bowl.
A lot of the credit for Manning’s development should be attributed to the steady hand and dramaless approach of coach Tom Coughlin, who couldn’t be more different from Rex Ryan while remaining a member of the same species. Speaking of coaching: a hard-ass who has cooled in recent years, Coughlin learned at the end of last season that the lifetime pass you receive for winning the Super Bowl lasts about two years. Amid the madness surrounding the Jets, and the new stadium, and everything else, it would be nice if Coughlin were a rock of normalcy amid the chaos. But he has a reputation for wearing on his team as he stays with it too long: This is his seventh season with the Giants, and he was gone from Jacksonville after eight.
Something that might help: The NFC East does seem to be down this year, or at least not at its peak. Philadelphia will never be a walkover, but this is a transition year for the Eagles. The Redskins think Donovan McNabb is just what they needed, but it’s difficult to take the Redskins all that seriously, even with Mike Shanahan supposedly cleaning up everybody’s mess. The Cowboys are probably the division favorite, but the same coaching issues, along with defensive lapses and the propensity to burst into flames when adversity arrives, make them a team you can hardly count on. The Giants aren’t flashy, or loud, or brash, but they are still well-coached, solid at the skill positions, and improving on defense. This is a better team than people realize; it’s very possible they’ll end up with a better record than the Jets. Few fans seem to have realized that yet, but the Giants are happier that way anyway.