Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Maybe Tiki Barber was the problem

Considering the way the New York Giants played over the last half of the 2007 season, I don't know that it's any great shock that they've wound up in the Super Bowl. But if back in September you had declared that this team, with Eli Manning playing quarterback, and with Tom Coughlin serving as head coach, and with running back Tiki Barber having retired, and with tight end Jeremy Shockey on injured reserve, would make the Super Bowl, someone would have called you crazy.

And that someone would probably have been Tiki Barber.

You remember Tiki, right? Played 10 years for the Giants? Fumbled the ball all the time? Finally stopped fumbling the ball all the time, but it didn't improve the team any? Him? Yeah, him.

As you may have known, Barber retired at the end of the 2006 season and took a job with NBC, where he offers the occasional opinion on Football Night in America in between discussing the Mommy Wars or the hot looks for fall or whatever it is he does with Matt and Meredith on the Today show. Eager to distinguish himself out of the gate this season, Barber seized on the Giants' 0-2 start to declare that Manning was a lousy leader and Coughlin was a lousy coach. From there, Barber continued to make headlines by ... um ...

You know, when you think about it, Barber didn't make any other headlines. Hired by NBC to bring viewers his wisdom and insight and big bald head and blah-blah-blah, Barber delivered two weeks of Giants locker room kiss-and-tell and 15 weeks of little else. He stabbed his former QB in the back, and he stabbed his former coach in the back. And then that QB and that coach and the rest of Barber's former teammates did something they'd never really done with him on the team: played spirited football in the postseason.

(Yes, the Giants went to the Super Bowl in 2000 while Barber was with the team. Perhaps even in spite of him. They won the NFC that year solely because someone had to. In the Super Bowl the Ravens exposed them for the frauds they were.)

So Tiki Barber -- a Hall of Fame player, according to Peter King, who lives in the New York area and works with Barber, so he's totally the best person to judge -- retires, and the Giants go on a better run than at any time since 1990. When is someone besides me going to theorize that maybe Tiki was the problem all along?

Think about it. The Giants players have gushed about how Manning has stepped up as a leader in the locker room this season. Perhaps that's because there is no longer a certain bald-headed self-appointed team leader poisoning that same locker room, running to whisper in the media's ear (Psst! Peter! C'mere!) that this kid can't get his shit together. The Giants have also noted that the notoriously rigid Coughlin has loosened up considerably this season. Perhaps that's because he felt he could loosen up, that he didn't have to hold the reins so tightly if there was no one there looking to grab them away.

It's just a theory, mind you.

The Giants are full of big personalities. Plaxico Burress can run his mouth. So can Antonio Pierce. And fucking Cooper Manning will win the Super Bowl before Michael Strahan will ever be content to let his play do all the talking. But those guys want to be happy more than they want to be right. (And in the NFL, being a champion = happy.) Tiki Barber? Somehow, he's just always seemed like a guy who had a greater desire to be right. Perhaps that's why he quit the game when he did, with the Giants seemingly ascendant. He wanted to go to TV, where he can always be "right." I mean, it's not like he's going to lose a battle of wits to Jerome Bettis. He would lose one to Cris Collinsworth, but Collinsworth is way out of his league in the insight department, and they both know it, so they don't get into it.

Back when he was still with the team, however, he was a leader. So when he pissed and moaned (or pissed and whispered) about the coach, the quarterback, the game plan, the hot looks for fall, whatever, other guys in the locker room took that cue. The Giants had a rep as a team out of control, where everybody was pulling in a different direction. Barber disappears, and what happens? Suddenly everyone's pulling in the same direction, and they win 12 out of 16, and they damn near punch out the 15-0 Patriots, and they bury both the Cowboys and the Packers on the road, and if I were a betting man I'd take the 12 points Vegas is offering and put a few hundred on the Giants in the Super Bowl.

Then there's Shockey. Barber may have lost credibility as a result of the Giants' run; Shockey might well lose money because of it. In a league full of look-at-me players, he's among the look-at-me-iest. And yet Manning is just fine with Kevin Boss in the lineup. Because it's the NFL and the contracts aren't guaranteed, it's inevitable that the Giants front office will ask whether they really need to be making Shockey the highest-paid tight end in the league when the team plays this well without him, especially when he comes with all the strutting and preening and tattoos and other bullshit.

But that's just riffing. Shockey has been out only two games. Insufficient data, as the scientists say. Barber has been gone all season. That's a statistically significant sample.

No comments: