On Nov. 22, three days after mistakes by the New York Giants' special teams had contributed mightily to an embarrassing 31-21 loss to the Detroit Lions, Giants coach Jim Fassel called a special Wednesday meeting for the players on his kicking and return units. Fassel had already cut one member of the special teams, Bashir Levingston, who in the game against Detroit had negated a 67-yard punt return with a holding penalty and fumbled away a kickoff. Now Fassel, a fourth-year coach who in the public's mind appears more Milquetoast than tiger, was going to remind the others of how ruthless he could be. As Fassel recalls the scene, he asked, "Do you understand why you're here?"
"You're all backups on offense and defense, and starters on special teams," he said. "I'm going to explain the facts of life to you. I'm ready to put guys like [veteran defensive starters] Jason Sehorn, Michael Barrow and Jessie Armstead on special teams. If we don't play well and one of these guys has to go in, somebody in this room is going to be gone. And I'm going to keep going down the list of players in this room until we start playing well on special teams again."
Fassel got his point across. Since that outburst—not to mention his ballyhooed public guarantee the same day that New York would make the playoffs despite horrific back-to-back losses—the Giants (11-4) have won four straight games, including a 17-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night that clinched the NFC East title. Now New York needs only a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars this Saturday to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. In another dramatic turnaround the 51-year-old Fassel, whose job was on the line a month ago, has emerged as a candidate for NFL coach of the year and seems likely to receive an extension on his contract, which expires at season's end.
"The first 11, 12 games are about setting yourself up," says New York general manager Ernie Accorsi. "Then you hit the homestretch, and Jim knew exactly when to push the button with this team."
Few observers expected the Giants to be sitting atop the division at season's end. That wasn't lost on Fassel, who last Thursday gave his players copies of preseason magazine predictions, most of which put New York no better than fourth in the NFC East. With good reason. The Giants in 1999 were a dysfunctional, backbiting bunch that finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the second straight season. Then New York failed to sign a single marquee free agent during the off-season.
Fassel's top priority was to improve team chemistry, so last summer he sent the Giants on golf and bowling outings, and chartered a boat for a cruise on the Hudson River with their families. "Every team needs to get close," says safety Shaun Williams, "but we needed it more than others. We've had a tendency to point fingers at each other when things went wrong."
On the field Fassel focused on improving the offense. New York's leading rusher in 1999, Joe Montgomery, ran for all of 348 yards. In fact, the reputation of the Giants' offense was so bad that it nearly cost New York its best free-agent pickup, former Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Barrow. When Barrow met with Accorsi last February, he brought a legal pad filled with questions, the first being, "Everybody in the league knows your offense stinks, so what are you going to do about it?"
The Giants already had a plan in place. They would sign three free-agent linemen—left tackle Lomas Brown, left guard Glenn Parker and center Dusty Ziegler—and use their first-round draft pick on Heisman Trophy-winning running back Ron Dayne. Though Dayne has been somewhat of a disappointment (not plowing over tacklers as expected and averaging only 3.5 yards per carry), he has teamed with Tiki Barber to form an inside-outside combo that has produced more than 1,500 rushing yards. Also, Kerry Collins, who had failed with Carolina and the New Orleans Saints, became the fourth starting quarterback in Fassel's four years and has exceeded expectations by throwing for 3,289 yards and 20 touchdowns (both career highs), with only 12 interceptions. New York might still win primarily because of a defense that ranks second in the league against the run, but the offense is at least pulling its weight.
As for Fassel, he hasn't been held in such high regard in the Big Apple since 1997, when he guided the Giants to the division title in his first year as coach. After the extended illness and death of his mother late last year and knowing his job was on the line at the start of this season, Fassel loosened up and has enjoyed coaching more than he did in the past two years. Formerly viewed as a soft-spoken offensive specialist known for his work with young quarterbacks, Fassel is now perceived as a master of motivation. "I do get tired of it," he says of the perception that he has no fire in his belly. "When I talk to the media, I try to carry myself in a certain way. The players have seen the other side of me."