Jim Fassel may have been putting his job on the line. His players saved it.
"I had to come out strong to make a statement," said Fassel of his playoff guarantee following a second consecutive loss on Nov. 19. Then, the New York Giants looked like they were dead in the water. Now, after four straight wins, the Giants are the headed for the playoffs.
This Saturday afternoon in Giants Stadium, the 11-4 NFC East champions will host the 8-7 Jaguars in the regular-season finale. At stake for the Giants is homefield advantage throughout the playoffs; for the Jaguars, pride and a non-losing season are the issues.
"It turned out to be a great spark," safety Sam Garnes said of Fassel's guarantee. "He took a what do I have to lose? attitude and that's what we took. It was definitely a turning point."
"I felt there was no question about the character of the team, that they would stand up and defend that. I didn't mind sticking my neck in the noose," Fassel said.
The player who has done the most in backing up Fassel's words is quarterback Kerry Collins, who has resurrected his career with what was a career-best passer rating of 83.9, and 19 touchdown passes against only 11 interceptions, following the Giants' impressive week 15 win over the Steelers.
Collins is over 3,000 yards for the first time in his career, which crashed in Carolina when Collins was unable to overcome alcohol-abuse problems. "I feel like I'm back. I feel like I'm playing real well again," says Collins, the Panthers' first-ever draft choice in 1995.
"I hope they believe in me. I enjoy being around these guys. I feel closer to this team than any other team at any other point. Their belief means a lot to me," Collins said.
Prior to Collins' hot performance in recent weeks, the Giants had placed their belief in a strong defense and a two-headed running game that featured the "thunder" of rookie Ron Dayne and the "lightning" of the speedy Tiki Barber. Collins has added the passing-game dimension that now makes it more difficult to defense the Giants than at any time since their glory days with Phil Simms at quarterback.
"You know, I came here under tough circumstances. These guys gave me an opportunity and I've said from day one that I want to repay these guys. Hopefully, at this point they feel as strongly about me as I feel about them," Collins said.
Fassel has praised his quarterback and placed total confidence in him. Giants players have followed suit.
"All the change that went on with him went on from within," wide receiver Amani Toomer said. "When you change your own person; everyone respects him for that. Everybody respects him for that, that he could pull himself up by the bootstraps and be the kind of person he is today."
This has become a season of belief for the Giants. A year ago, team leaders such as defensive end Michael Strahan attacked Fassel's ways. Now, they're backing him at every turn, which is thought to be the result of the confidence he placed in his team with his playoff guarantee.
"That's when the power came on," spirited linebacker Jesse Armstead said. "That's when we got the power. He told us, 'You win all of your games and you're in the playoffs, no ifs about it.' We had no choice but to take him seriously. He's the coach."
Fassel knew the flip-side consequences of his remarks. "If I did that and they didn't respond, I put my own head on the chopping block. That didn't faze me," he said.
"The worst guy to get into a gunfight with is a guy who is not afraid of dying. That's kind of been my attitude," Fassel said.
With a big-time quarterback, a top 10 rushing attack and a defense that was sixth in the league, the Giants would seem to be peaking for the playoffs. Their only weakness would seem to be their secondary, which is ranked 16th in the league. They don't match-up well against explosive passing teams, such as the Rams, but in the cold and swirling winds of Giants Stadium, the Giants may have the right formula for January.