EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — With all the drama surrounding Osi Umenyiora's contract dispute and general manager Jerry Reese's failures in the free agency market, it's easy to overlook the big issue for the New York Giants.
This is a team that had chances to make the playoffs the past two seasons and fell apart down the stretch.
Two years ago, they dropped eight of the last 11 after opening 5-0. They had the NFC East title in their hands last year in December until they blew a 31-10 lead against Philadelphia. The bottom fell out a couple of weeks later when they were crushed by the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay with a playoff berth on the line.
So this is a make-or-break season for coach Tom Coughlin, Reese and the Giants, who seemingly were on the rise after winning the Super Bowl in February 2008. Miss the playoffs a third straight year and there are going to be changes, especially with the Jets currently being the in-team in town.
"It is a sense of urgency every year," defensive captain Justin Tuck said. "It was a sense of urgency after we won the Super Bowl. Our goal every year is to win the Super Bowl and there is no hiding that fact. You are right, we haven't made (the playoffs) in two years but it gives us the opportunity to do it this year. That's the way we are approaching it."
The Giants have the talent to get back to the show. Second-year defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has transformed his unit into an aggressive group that forces turnovers. Plus, Eli Manning and the offense can put up points, especially if receivers Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham stay healthy and the new line jells just enough to get a running game going.
However, if the Giants want to challenge the Eagles in the division, there are some problems to address.
Start with turnovers. New York coughed up the ball 42 times last season with Manning throwing a career-worst 25 interceptions. Granted about half were deflections off the hands of his receivers, but that has to improve.
The concern, of course, is that Manning is going to be without some of his favorite targets.
Steve Smith, who caught a team-record 107 passes in 2009, signed with the Eagles, who were more willing to take a chance on his knee after major surgery than were the Giants.
New York also lost tight end Kevin Boss to Oakland, and really doesn't have anyone who combines Boss' ability to block and catch the ball.
Manning has thrown at least 20 TDs and passed for at least 3,200 yards in each of the past six seasons. Nicks and Manningham combined for 20 TDs last season despite some injuries. Domenik Hixon is a proven third receiver and rookie Jerrel Jernigan has the speed to provide a deep threat.
Ahmad Bradshaw, who chose to stay with the Giants, and Brandon Jacobs, provide a lightning-thunder option in the backfield. But the offensive line is in question with the team's decision to release veterans Shaun O'Hara and Rich Seubert.
Former 49ers center David Baas was signed to replace O'Hara, and the Giants moved veteran David Diehl inside to guard to replace Seubert, giving the all-important left tackle spot to third-year pro Will Beatty, who has looked good in preseason.
"It's too early to make a prediction, but I like the guys we have," guard Chris Snee said. "If we had cut down the turnovers last year we would have made the playoffs. Our goal is always to control the ball, pound the ball and keep our defense off the field."
The defense is the bright light for the Giants, even with Umenyiora expected to miss the start of the season after arthroscopic knee surgery. The group had 46 sacks in Fewell's first season as coordinator and they are going to have quarterbacks scrambling again this year, especially with linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka providing pressure on passing downs.
Tuck and second-year pro Jason Pierre-Paul are outstanding ends and the inside of the line should not miss a beat despite losing tackle Barry Cofield to Washington. Chris Canty is back, and along with second-year pro Linval Joseph should be stout in the middle. But second-round pick Marvin Austin tore a chest muscle and will miss the season; he sat out all of 2010 at North Carolina, too.
Losing starting CB Terrell Thomas to a torn-up knee is a big blow. That is compounded by top draft pick Prince Amukamara being out for the start of the season with a broken foot. Remaining in the secondary are cornerbacks Corey Webster and Aaron Ross, and safeties Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Deon Grant.
The linebackers are adequate.
Special teams have been a problem the past two seasons. Matt Dodge, who failed to punt the ball out of bounds on DeSean Jackson's game-winning punt return on the final play of the Eagles game in the December meltdown, is battling veteran Steve Weatherford for the punting job. Lawrence Tynes has been solid as the kicker.
"This team has the talent to do everything that we want to do," Canty said. "It's just a matter of coming together as a team. We can't do it as individuals. That's not how we do this around here."
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