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Gilbride embraces teaching role, leads Giants offense to new heights

by | CBSSports.com
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New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has a level of staying power that's usually reserved for the most adaptive species. At 60 years old, Gilbride has been coaching for nearly two-thirds of his life.

That's 15 years longer than former Houston Oilers defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan predicted Gilbride would last when famously suggesting in 1994 that the Connecticut native would wind up "selling insurance in two years."

Gilbride will be remembered for the Giants' Super Bowl XLII title or the Oilers' variation of the run-and-shoot offense in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Perhaps more infamously, Gilbride will be known for being punched by Ryan on the sidelines during a game or for being fired as San Diego's head coach during the 1998 season.

The shame of it is, Gilbride might never be remembered for his best work, which happens to be the masterpiece he's penning right now.

Yes, Gilbride piloted an Oilers offense in 1990 that led the league in yards and finished second in points. But Houston didn't have the same personnel obstacles as the Giants have had over the past few years.

When New York lost star wide receiver Plaxico Burress to a gun charge in 2008, Steve Smith countered with a Pro Bowl performance in 2009. And when Smith signed with Philadelphia before the start of this season, unknown receiver Victor Cruz stepped in to set the franchise's single-season record for receiving yards (1,536).

Even the departure of tight end Kevin Boss, one of quarterback Eli Manning's favorite targets, couldn't derail the Giants offense. Jake Ballard, who like Cruz signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2010, stepped up to catch 38 passes for 604 yards in 2011.

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It's not that Cruz and Ballard aren't good players. They are, and there's really no denying their production.

But what's truly impressive is how Gilbride has continued to adapt to each player he has encountered since taking over as offensive coordinator before the 2007 season.

"I'm very proud of the guys that I work with," Gilbride said Thursday. "We started with five new guys and then we've had all the injuries and the youth and the guys that haven't played and some of the things we asked them to do, because, you don't, in our offense, just go out and run a 10-yard curl, or a 10-yard in-cut. We ask them to read a lot of things. We put a lot of pressure on wide receivers to see things as a quarterback would."

In Cruz's case, Gilbride also had to find a way to unleash his after-the-catch ability.

Cruz caught three passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns in place of starter Mario Manningham as the Giants pulled out a Week 3 victory against the Eagles in Philadelphia.

When Manningham later returned from his concussion, Gilbride had to find a way to keep Cruz on the field.

"He kind of chooses plays on third downs that I can excel in and I can take advantage of," Cruz said without giving away too many details. "He understands what routes I like and what routes that I don't favor very much."

Cruz, who has since become a starter, terrorized the Dallas Cowboys in the Giants' division-clinching Week 17 victory, finishing with three catches for 123 yards and a touchdown on third down alone.

Finding receivers' specialties has been a trait Gilbride has displayed all season.

Hakeem Nicks' "special hands," as Coughlin calls them, have done a lot of the heavy lifting (13 catches, 280 yards and four touchdowns in the postseason), but Gilbride has found uses for unheralded targets like fullback Henry Hynoski, who had eight catches over the final four weeks of the regular season, and tight end Travis Beckum, who made five receptions during the past three games.

As unlikely as it once seemed, Manning's new symphony of targets has turned this offense into one of the best in franchise history.

The Giants led the league in points and yards in 1929, 1930 and 1963, but all of those teams had the benefit of a top-level defense, which subsequently gave the offense more opportunities to score. This year, New York's defense ranked 25th and 27th in points and yards allowed, respectively, which was a major reason the Giants ranked 19th in time of possession.

In fact, of the seven teams that registered more yards than New York did in 2011, only the New England Patriots and Detroit Lions possessed the ball less than the Giants.

But Gilbride's offense did the most with the time it had, particularly during the past month. The Giants rank third in the postseason with 431 yards per game and Manning has the second-highest postseason passer rating (121.8).

"We think the same way on a lot of things and certain looks," said Manning. "A lot of times he doesn't even need to finish his sentence, because I'm already on the same page. I feel very comfortable with him and telling him my thoughts and listening to him. It's a great relationship and we work well together."

That symmetry is illustrated by the fact that the Giants have committed only three turnovers during their current four-game winning streak, which is a major improvement from 2010, when they led the league in turnovers.

Such a change also illustrates Gilbride's ability as a teacher.

"We studied ourselves," Nicks said. "From a receiver's standpoint, it was a lot of tipped balls, you know, not looking the ball all the way in."

"He's been an awesome instructor in my career so far," Cruz said of Gilbride, who has embraced the professorial role.

"What are you as a coach? You're a teacher," Gilbride said. "So when you're a teacher and you can see your pupils getting better and feel like you contributed, you feel very proud of their growth and developments. You feel, 'Maybe I helped them a little bit.'"

Gilbride hasn't just adjusted to players. He has been particularly dangerous when given the chance to adapt to an opponent, like last Sunday, when the Giants faced the Green Bay Packers for the second time.

"He knew what we could take advantage of," Nicks said.

Specifically, Gilbride recognized how deep the Packers secondary was playing when the Giants were driving for a late first-half score. So instead of throwing deep on third down from New York's own 40-yard line, Gilbride had Manning hand off to running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who scampered 23 yards downfield to set up a Hail Mary touchdown pass to Nicks as time expired in the second quarter.

The play call might have left some scratching their heads initially, but it was another example of Gilbride's ability to read and react.

That talent will be called upon again when the Giants face the San Francisco 49ers, whom they lost to in Week 10, for the NFC championship on Sunday. And while the league didn't exactly marvel at New York's ninth-ranked scoring offense during the regular season, critics are now witnessing just how dangerous this unit has become under Gilbride's leadership.

"He is a brilliant play caller," right guard Chris Snee said. "He's got a knack for calling the right plays at the right time."

So much for selling insurance.

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