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Coughlin, Manning to feel heat if Giants’ struggles continue

The New York Giants will feel pressure the minute they report to training camp in July as they prepare for a season that will largely define the tenures of controversial coach Tom Coughlin and frustratingly inconsistent fourth-year quarterback Eli Manning. Despite Coughlin leading New York to back-to-back playoff berths for the first time since 1989-90, he enters his fourth season with his job very much in jeopardy. He received a one-year contract extension to keep him from becoming a lame-duck coach only after he met with the Maras and persuaded them to stick with his vision of the future at least a little bit longer.

Meanwhile, Manning, laboring under the burden of enormous expectations, not to mention the huge shadow cast by Super Bowl-winning big brother Peyton, needs to prove that he has more than just a famous surname while trying to firmly establish himself as a franchise quarterback. The challenge that lies ahead for Coughlin and Manning is all the more daunting because of the retirement of Tiki Barber. So how exactly does a team that endured a second-half collapse to finish 8-8 fill such a void?

“Obviously, the development of some of our younger players is going to be a very big factor in our improvement,” Coughlin told USA TODAY. Coughlin has been criticized for his stern, old-school approach to handling players. “I can tell you honestly, I do see some very good things taking place here in the offseason. Until we get on the field and until we line up in the fall, it is just going to be speculation, but I do feel pretty good about it.” The development of Manning and others is vital, because first-year general manager Jerry Reese accomplished very little during free agency. Reese stated, “We did what we could in free agency. We went after some guys in free agency and some things didn’t work out.”

In an attempt to ease the loss of Barber, whose 1,662 rushing yards placed second in the NFC, Reese acquired Reuben Droughns from the Cleveland Browns for disappointing wide receiver Tim Carter. Droughns finished with 758 yards to pace the lowly Browns. However, he averaged only 3.4 yards per carry and did not break any runs longer than 22 yards. So it appears that Droughns and former reserve Brandon Jacobs will embark on the Giants’ version of mission impossible.

As a result, that will put more heat than ever on Manning, who threw for 3,244 yards with 24 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, only five pickoffs behind league-leading Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers. With Barber now retired, Manning and others must step up as never before. There is good reason to think that can happen. The former Ole Miss standout possesses all of the physical tools necessary for success and may thrive under the tutelage of new quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer, who arrives with a very impressive resume.

Another plus was the newfound willingness of top target Plaxico Burress to participate at least part of the time in the Giants’ offseason program, allowing him to work more closely with Manning. “It can do nothing but make us better,” Coughlin says. Jeremy Shockey remains one of the league’s premier tight ends. Wide receiver Amani Toomer appears to be progressing well in his recovery from surgery for a torn knee ligament while Sinorice Moss is hoping to break out after a rookie season ruined by injuries. Second-round draft choice Steve Smith adds to a receiving corps that must carry much of the offensive load.

Despite the positives, the bottom line is this: If the Giants can not gel into a cohesive unit for the entire season, and most importantly, go deep into the playoffs, then you can expect Coughlin to be out of a job come January 2008. Reese, despite being fairly new to his position, appears to be on a shorter leash. So the team’s results in 2007 will directly affect him in the short and long-term. and for Manning’s sake, the running tandem of Droughns and Jacobs is going to have to bring their A-game on a weekly basis.

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