"When I got here, we were a no-fight, no-feeling group. We needed to create a personality. What has emerged is a group of guys who love to tee it up and play football. What I love the most about this team is when the offense has trouble, someone from the defense always tells me 'Don't worry, Coach. We'll get us back in it.' And when the defense struggles, someone from the offense always comes by on the sideline and says exactly the same thing."
A quarterback at Southern Cal and Long Beach State who was selected in the seventh round of the 1972 draft by the Chicago Bears but never played in an NFL regular-season game, Fassel made 11 coaching stops in 24 years before getting the Giants' top job. As the offensive coordinator at Stanford from '79 to '83, he got the credit for landing prize recruit John Elway. In his only other head coaching experience, he led Utah to a 25-33 record from '85 to '89. General manager George Young got a close look at his future coach when Fassell was an assistant in New York in '91 and '92. The following year, when Elway was considered by some to be on the downside of his career, it was Fassel, then the Denver Broncos' offensive coordinator, who guided Elway to his most productive season. This year Fassel has had success developing a quarterback with virtually no NFL experience.
A 1996 fourth-round draft pick out of Florida State, Danny Kanell came off the bench for the injured and uninspiring Dave Brown during an Oct. 5 game against the Dallas Cowboys. The scrappy Giants responded to Kanell, and New York beat Dallas 20-17. But when he began to struggle, Kanell received a step-it-up-or-else ultimatum from Fassel in the week leading up to a Dec. 7 showdown against the Eagles. Kanell responded by throwing three touchdown passes in a 31-21 win.
But Fassel hasn't been all tough love with Kanell, who makes the league minimum of $164,000 for a second-year player and has been known to sign 500 autographs in one sitting to supplement his income. Kanell hasn't exactly been brimming with confidence playing in the glare of the New York spotlight. Fans still have a problem putting the face with the name. Recently after explaining to a couple of neighbors which position he plays, he entered his townhouse to find a note on his kitchen counter. The message was from a woman who walks his Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy, Rookie. "I'm really sorry," it started out, "but another dog peed all over Rookie's head today."
"Two weeks ago I was fighting for my job, and now I'm handing out NFC East championship hats to my family," Kanell said on his way out of Giants Stadium on Saturday. "At first I was bothered by how Jim went public with his challenge. But privately, the week after he said that, he practically never left my side. He was like a shadow, taking care of me and helping me to prepare. He didn't just speak out and then abandon me. Now I'll prepare like I did for the Philadelphia game for every game I play."
More of Fassel's tinkering uncovered another hidden gem. When he took over the Giants last January, one of the first areas that Fassel addressed was getting his fullback more involved in the offense. Some strategic twists were implemented in the spring, and Charles Way went from being a solid blocking back who rushed for 85 yards and caught 39 passes in his first two seasons to being on the cusp of the Pro Bowl almost overnight.
Way leads all fullbacks in yards from scrimmage, with 683 rushing and 299 receiving. In a perfect world the player whom teammates have nicknamed Mr. Goody Two Shoes would be joining defensive end Michael Strahan and linebacker Jessie Armstead at the Pro Bowl. "Charles has been the mainstay for this team all year," says Fassel. "He has carried a heavy load, and I wouldn't trade him for any fullback in the league."
If New York, which is 3-5 outside its own weak division, is to have any chance at winning a postseason game for the first time in four years, Way will have to show the way. And the defense will have to continue to swarm opponents in the same manner that has produced an NFL-best plus-23 in the giveaway-takeaway category. "We're all pretty nice guys," Armstead says, "but once we're on the field, we will kill people if that's what we have to do to win."
The Redskins were more than happy to just play dead on Saturday, but in administering the obligatory Gatorade shower, Miller and Strahan hit Fassel so hard with the cooler that they almost knocked the coach over. After the game ball presentation, Miller apologized to the coach for the rough treatment. Then he went back to the middle of the locker room and hollered one last message to his teammates. "Hey, fellas," he said, "we're not done yet."