ALBANY, N.Y. –- If you're going to see the New York Giants you must see them immediately before or after sitting in with the New York Jets. The contrasts are astounding. The Jets are over the top with their bravado, with players falling in line behind an outspoken coach Rex Ryan, while the Giants are poised, confident and remarkably quiet.
In fact, in the two days I was at their training camp I heard almost nobody acknowledge watching the Jets on HBO's Hard Knocks series.
"I don't know that show," coach Tom Coughlin said with a straight face.
Maybe he was kidding. I doubt it. But that's what I like about this team. It isn't focused on Nielsen ratings; its aim is to improve, and it should be. A year ago the Giants stunk down the stretch, losing eight of their last 11, and I don't see that happening again.
I like these Giants, but I liked last year's Giants at this time, too. Let's see why 2010 could be different.
• Their poise. These guys don't need to talk to convince themselves they can get to the top. They were Super Bowl champions three years ago, and believe they can be Super Bowl champions again. Only they don't need to air out the message, practicing uncommon restraint for a team challenged in its own area by the uncensored Jets.
• Their pass rushers. There are a zillion of them, and getting to the quarterback always was one of the hallmarks of this club –- until last year, that is. Now, they're so loaded that defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has Osi Umenyiora playing on the second team, with Mathias Kiwanuka taking his place with the starters. The Giants dropped to 32 sacks last season, with Umenyiora's seven leading the parade, and that cannot ... will not ... happen again. Not with rookie Jason Pierre-Paul joining this group, and not with Justin Tuck playing with two healthy shoulders.
• Eli Manning. So he doesn't throw as many touchdown passes as his brother. He has as many Super Bowl wins and last year set personal benchmarks for touchdown passes (27) and yards passing (4,021). Manning's completion percentage has risen steadily from his rookie season, and so have his yards –- with last year's total 259 better than his 2005 career best.
• Their wide receivers. A year ago they were a problem that needed to be solved. Now, they're an asset, with Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham, Ramses Barden and Derek Hagan locks to make the team. The race is on for the sixth spot, and it should come down to Sinorice Moss and unheralded rookie Victor Cruz. Most people give Moss the edge, but Cruz has been better in camp. The next three weeks determine this spot.
• The addition of Fewell as defensive coordinator. Look, I don't know Bill Sheridan and have nothing against the guy. But look at the totals from last year's defense, and it doesn't take an Einstein to figure out he wasn't doing the job. So the Giants make the switch and bring in a standout assistant who had Buffalo ranked second in interceptions despite losing five defensive backs -- including three starters –- to season-ending injuries. The Giants need something ... no, someone ... to perk up, and Fewell may be the solution.
• The return of safety Kenny Phillips. No injury last season was more devastating to this club, and while the Giants are working him in carefully, he appears to have recovered from a serious leg injury. The Giants can only hope. "He's very important to us," said Coughlin, "because of the way he played last season. The thing that happened early in camp last year was that we witnessed the ability and the range that he had, and that range in centerfield demonstrated itself in those early games. Then we lost him." At one practice, Phillips was turned in one direction, then reversed himself and went the other way to make a play on the opposite sideline. "That is something we haven't seen in awhile," Coughlin said. "He's a football player. He's confident. He's not arrogant. He's a team guy. He's a hitter. He loves to play. He's a quality, quality football player that we need back there." Amen.
• The return of running back Andre Brown. He bowed out with an Achilles injury last season, but is back ... and so far, so good. If Brown is OK –- and I can't remember the last running back to return from a torn Achilles –- the Giants are deep at the position, with Ahmad Bradshaw splitting carries with Brandon Jacobs, and Brown sitting in the third seat awaiting his chance. The Giants' rushing attack tailed off last season, with the club ranked 17th overall, and restoring balance to an offense that was forced to tilt toward Manning is critical.
• The last four games of the season. If the Giants are to return to the playoffs, they're going to have to do it the hard way –- winning down the stretch. Their final four games are against Minnesota, Philadelphia, Green Bay and Washington. Three of those opponents are playoff teams, and two of the games are away -- a December date in Green Bay (bring your mittens, Tom Coughlin) and the finale in Washington.
• Their linebackers. Too many questions here. Yeah, I think they should be better with Keith Bulluck in the middle, but overall I worry about them. For one, Bulluck is coming off a serious knee injury. Second, Clint Sintim hasn't demonstrated he's anything more than ordinary. If Bulluck shakes out it could be a huge pickup. He's a playmaker who brings experience and leadership into a huddle, and both are invaluable. One potential hitch: He played most of his career on the outside. "The last few years I played in passing formations and the nickel," he said. "I'm a football player. I played middle linebacker in college. I played the middle in nickel and dime situations in Tennessee. Here, it's first and second down where I can see the whole field. In Tennessee I always played on the right side, where I sometimes felt isolated because (opponents would) run away from getting cutoff blocks, with a play sometimes made before I get there. In the middle I'm always a part of the action, and I get to show how complete a linebacker and football player I have been over the last 10 years." Now that's the attitude I love.
• Trying to replace Jeff Feagles. Introducing seventh-round pick Matt Dodge, the only punter in camp. Dodge follows one of the most consistent and dependable punters and kick holders, and the Giants will have to fight through the growing pains. One minute he booms a 60-yarder with plenty of air; the next it's a 40-yarder with no hang time. "He's very talented, very strong legged," said Coughlin. "His goal will be consistency." Dodge's goal will be to convince the Giants to stick with him while he finds that consistency, and that's not easy. But it's tougher when you follow someone like Feagles.