I can't pretend to understand why New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress would carry an illegal firearm or why he would go to a club where he felt a need to have a weapon. Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg last Friday at the New York nightclub Latin Quarter, and he has been charged with two felony counts of criminal possession of a weapon. The court case resumes March 31, and he's been suspended for the rest of the season. At best, I can only assume that this incident is yet another data point in support of the notion that athletes have a very poor sense of risk-reward analysis.
I can estimate how much this latest controversy involving Burress—a player who has had several incidents this season resulting in nearly $170,000 in fines and suspensions for all of one game and part of another—will affect the Giants' march toward the Super Bowl.
The short answer is that the impact will be minimal at best (or worst, depending on your loyalties). It's not that the Giants have another 6'5" wide receiver lurking around their roster who can step in and simply run Burress' routes; that team just doesn't work like that. The Giants are emblematic of a new breed of NFL elite outfits that win on depth and strategy rather than on star power.
The New England Patriots are—or at least were—the poster boys for this style of team building, but the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tennessee Titans are also in that mold. Those four teams have a combined record of 38-10; I'd imagine that when the Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals and St. Louis Rams, three teams built on star power who have a combined record of 3-32-1 rebuild this off-season, they will adapt a roster building strategy based on depth.
Look at how the Giants, Titans, Patriots and Steelers have benefited from this approach. The Giants lost both of their defensive ends, future Hall of Famer Michael Strahan to retirement and all-pro Osi Umenyiora to injury before the start of this season. Both were rarities, defensive ends who were ferocious against the pass and stout against the run. But, the Giants defense hasn't missed a beat. Justin Tuck, Strahan's replacement, is likely to be Pro Bowl bound as he's fifth in the league in sacks with 11.5 and Mathias Kiwanuka, is in the top 20 at 6.5. The Giants' run defense has remained solid, too; it ranks fifth in the NFL at 85.4 yards allowed per game.
The Titans lost cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, first to suspension for all of the 2007 season then permanently to a trade deal with the Dallas Cowboys, yet their pass defense has improved. The Steelers have been losing key personnel for years, and they have suffered only three losing seasons since 1992. And the Patriots have lost their starting quarterback, defensive captain, best linebacker and several other key players, putting them in the thick of the playoff race.
This approach to roster building—that you win with your full roster rather than a handful of stars—may have begun with Bill Parcells. Rather than shoehorn his teams into a single philosophy, he adapted to his talent. The best example was the Giants 1990 Super Bowl championship team, which used one offensive strategy with Phil Simms at quarterback. Then when he was injured late in the season and replaced by the more mobile Jeff Hostetler, the Giants created a different set of plays to capitalize on the new quarterback's skills. I think other coaches are using that same approach: using one set of blocking schemes for a particular running back and a different set for another. This, for example, is what the Giants did in running roughshod over the stingy Baltimore Ravens' defense in New York's 30-10 win in Week 11 of the NFL season.
The reasons for the emergence of depth over star power is simple; there is a glut of NFL-level talent coming out of the college ranks every year (lest we forget Tom Brady was a sixth-round draft pick), but only a handful of players are destined to advertising pitchmen. Thus, it makes more sense—though it's harder—to build a full roster of talented players—45 B+ level players rather than a few A+ players and a bunch of scrubs. The rapid expansion of the salary cap in recent years makes following this disciplined approach harder, but the success of teams that have followed is also a powerful motivator.
But what will the Giants do now?
In all likelihood, they will direct more of the passing game toward Amani Toomer and Plaxico's replacement Domenik Hixon. Hixon had five catches for 71 yards on Sunday against the Redskins, but he and quarterback Eli Manning failed to connect on two deep balls. I can imagine more of the passing game getting directed toward slot receiver Steve Smith, too. In other words, the Giants' passing game will take a hit but not a big one, and it won't slow their march to the Super Bowl, unless the teams coming out of the NFC South raise their game substantially. The distance in quality between the Giants and the rest of the NFC is immense.
This may not seem self-evident because we're accustomed to looking at sports as a character-driven drama. The Giants and Titans in particular lack leading actors, so their 11-1 records may not seem so imposing. I was having beers this week with another egghead sportswriter, and he couldn't believe that the Giants are Super Bowl bound. "Eli Manning is no star," he said. I didn't disagree; Manning is not the best quarterback in his family, and he may not even be second (fans of a certain vintage will recall that Archie Manning, Eli and Peyton Manning's dad was a very good quarterback). But I pointed out that via the Football Outsiders stats—numbers that parse yardage by down and distance—the Giants are seventh in the league in passing and first in rushing.
My pal was unimpressed.
So I pointed out that the Giants are 11-1, and most football teams that win 11 out of 12 games are usually on to something special. He agreed. The loss of Plaxico Burress might nick their chances, but it won't be a serious dent. The Giants are built to absorb loss.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.