|Howard Smith / US Presswire|
|Ahmad Bradshaw's six lost fumbles last season are particularly alarming for the Giants.|
The New York Giants were one of six teams in the NFL, and four in the NFC, to finish with a 10-6 record last season.
After losing a tiebreaker with the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC East title, they also joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in having the dubious distinction of being the only clubs with that mark to miss the playoffs.
For one thing, they will have a hard time living down the fact they were extremely careless with the ball. For another, they left plenty of questions in their wake, including a long list of potential free agents and the leadership of coach Tom Coughlin.
As close as they came to winning their division, the Giants seemingly have a lot of work to do to get back in the postseason hunt in 2011.
Here's a look at some of the key issues they face:
1. What to do with key free agents?
Of the 21 Giants players who are due to become free agents, nearly half are starters and one is their most dynamic special-teams player. That's a staggeringly large number of contracts for general manager Jerry Reese to address in the coming days and weeks.
It would be a concern if this was a normal offseason, but in light of looming labor difficulties, it has the potential to be disastrous. An additional challenge is that multiple free-agents-to-be on the team are recovering from injuries.
Among the free agents who could have a particularly tough time getting new deals are running back Ahmad Bradshaw, wide receiver Steve Smith, defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka and kick-returner Domenik Hixon.
Bradshaw ran for 1,235 yards last season, and at 24 years old, he is young and offers a great deal of explosiveness. However, the Giants might very well be uncomfortable with his problems holding onto the ball, as evidenced by the six fumbles he lost, as well as with the injuries he suffered to his wrist, ankles and feet. Smith, who became the Giants' lone Pro Bowl receiver in 42 years, required microfracture surgery to fix torn articular cartilage in his left knee.
With Kiwanuka still dealing with a herniated disk in his neck, he might only be able to land a one-year contract, at best. The Giants' return game suffered badly after Hixon suffered a torn ACL last June, but their best chance for improvement might very well be investing in him with the hope that he returns to full strength.
Also, don't expect the Giants to try and re-sign receiver Plaxico Burress, who has been serving a two-year prison sentence for reckless-endangerment charges after shooting himself in the leg at a New York City nightclub in 2008 and is eligible to be released in June. Coughlin wasn't fond of Burress' off-field behavior before the nightclub incident.
2. Can Coughlin still be effective?
His style has been publicly questioned by safety Antrel Rolle, who said he thinks the coach is too uptight. Although several other Giants players have said they don't agree with that opinion, it does raise the question of whether Coughlin's command is as strong as it needs to be.
Coughlin was expected to receive a contract extension, but there has been no word yet on whether that has been completed. Management was undoubtedly disappointed that, despite winning 10 games, the team failed to make the playoffs.
The Giants also were wildly inconsistent, and there was no mistaking that Coughlin got them to play better against weaker teams but usually couldn't get them to perform as well against stronger opponents.
3. Can Manning reduce interceptions?
If your assessment of Eli Manning's season focused only on his passing yards (4,002), touchdown passes (31) and sacks (16), you would likely conclude that he had a strong season. But then there were those NFL-high 25 interceptions, which contributed to the Giants' league-leading 42 turnovers.
A significant portion of the pickoffs resulted from Manning's poor decision-making. In other cases, he wasn't on the same page with his receivers and also was the victim of passes that bounced off receivers' hands.
Regardless of the causes, Manning needs to devote a good deal of time during offseason workouts to make the necessary repairs to his game. That won't be easy if there's a lockout.
4. Will running game be dominant again?
And that was particularly evident in the latter portion of the season. Bradshaw's repeated injuries and fumbles didn't help, but it just seemed the Giants weren't consistently getting the push up front that they needed.
5. Will Giants tighten up secondary?
After the Giants' propensity for turnovers, the other major factor in their inability to reach the postseason was allowing too many big pass plays, especially late in the season.
The Giants gave up an average of 300-plus yards per game through the air in their final three outings, which included losses to Philadelphia and Green Bay. Two of the bigger back-breakers were touchdown receptions of 65 yards by the Eagles' Brent Celek and 80 yards by the Packers' Jordy Nelson. Washington's Anthony Armstrong was even able to burn the Giants for a 64-yard score in the season finale.
Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.