The NFL has always been a copycat league. Franchises routinely examine the blueprints of Super Bowl champions to see if there are elements that can be replicated for desired results. This is especially true when a team wins multiple titles in a short span of time.
After watching the New York Giants secure their second title in five seasons, opposing franchises will take away these five lessons:
1. Identify and build around a franchise quarterback
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. So it's no coincidence the Giants have won a pair of Super Bowl championships since bringing Eli Manning on board in the 2004 NFL Draft.
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While some scoffed at the exorbitant cost of acquiring Manning via draft-day trade -- New York sent the San Diego Chargers Philip Rivers, a third-round pick in 2004, and first- and fifth-round picks in '05 -- the Giants are 69-50 in regular-season play over the past eight seasons, with three division titles to accompany their two Super Bowl rings. In the postseason, Manning has compiled an 8-3 record and posted a 17/8 touchdown-to-interception ratio, including a 9/1 split during the 2011 playoffs.
Manning didn't start his career as the primary catalyst in Giants victories, but he has blossomed into one of the game's elite quarterbacks. He has shown all of the requisite mental and physical attributes that are coveted in a quarterback, and his durability (Manning has started 119 consecutive regular season games) has provided the Giants with spectacular stability at the game's most vital position.
To their credit, the Giants have nurtured Manning throughout the process by maintaining continuity on their offensive staff. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has been with Manning since Day 1, and the opportunity to grow within one system has allowed Eli to develop the mastery and confidence to succeed when the game is on the line. His poise and self-assuredness spawn great performances in the game's late stages, resulting in 24 game-winning drives over his career, as well as eight fourth-quarter comebacks this season.
With a quarterback capable of putting the offense on his shoulders, the Giants enter every week with a legitimate chance to win. That's what every franchise wants on a weekly basis.
2. Invest heavily in the defensive line
New York has placed a premium on acquiring big, talented pass rushers in the draft and free agency. In the defensive line's two-deep rotation, the Giants have two former first-round picks (Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka), a pair of second-round selections (Osi Umenyiora and Linval Joseph) and a third-round steal in Justin Tuck. The unit also includes a pair of pricey free-agent defensive tackles (Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard).
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The Giants aim to overwhelm opponents with an endless collection of pass rushers, while providing the coaching staff with enough options to withstand injuries and create imaginative personnel groupings. In looking at the Giants' improbable run to this season's title, it was the depth and talent of their defensive line that led the way (just like in 2007). New York overcame lengthy absences from Tuck and Umenyiora during the middle of the season to still rank third in the NFL in sacks. The defensive line accounted for 41 of the team's 48 sacks, and the emergence of Pierre-Paul as a Pro Bowler singlehandedly kept the Giants' pass rush afloat.
The depth also provided defensive coordinator Perry Fewell with enough weapons to attack quarterbacks with a dizzying array of exotic defensive fronts. This led to various three- and four-man defensive lines, including their "NASCAR" package, featuring Pierre-Paul, Tuck, Umenyiora and Kiwanuka.
With opponents unable to block the Giants' front line, Fewell could drop seven or eight defenders into coverage to diffuse some of the NFL's most explosive aerial attacks down the stretch.
3. Value production over potential at the skill positions
The Giants have assembled one of the most talented receiving corps by drafting proven commodities at the position. Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham were prolific pass catchers as collegians, and they functioned as No. 1 receivers on their respective squads. That doesn't appear to be a big deal on the surface, but the experience that comes with catching a ton of balls in college eases the transition into the pro game. This also allows coaches to plug draftees into familiar roles as pros.
Nicks, the Giants' second-leading receiver with 76 receptions for 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns, finished his college career as North Carolina's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns (in only three seasons). His ability to function successfully as a No. 1 receiver throughout his time in college and allowed him to smoothly fill the role as the Giants' top dog in the passing game. He has responded by becoming one of the finest receivers in the NFL, with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons and 24 touchdowns in his brief, three-year career.
Manningham, the Giants' third-leading receiver in 2011 with 39 receptions for 523 yards, was a prolific pass catcher at Michigan. He finished his three-season stay with the fourth-most receiving touchdowns in school history, ranking fifth in receiving yards. Those numbers are substantial when you consider his predecessors (Anthony Carter, Desmond Howard and Braylon Edwards, to name a few). Although Manningham's production dipped a little this season, he has been a legitimate big-play threat throughout his time with the Giants, as evidenced by his 18 career touchdowns and 38 grabs of 20-plus yards (in 160 career receptions). Not to mention, he made a pretty big play on Super Bowl Sunday ...
And although breakout star Victor Cruz obviously didn't play his college ball for a top-tier power, he did put up some gaudy numbers during his time at UMass.
This talented trio makes New York's offense one of the league's most explosive units.
4. Bigger is better in the secondary
As the NFL shifts into a passing league dominated by big, physical receivers, the need for tall, rangy defensive backs increases by the second. The Giants are ahead of the curve, stockpiling their secondary with big boys at cornerback and safety. Starting corners Aaron Ross and Corey Webster are listed at the six-foot mark, and the Giants' safeties (Antrel Rolle, Deon Grant and Kenny Phillips) all measure above prototypical dimensions for defensive backs.
On NFL Network
"NFL Replay" will re-air the Giants' 21-17 win over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. ET.
As a result, the Giants don't face significant size disadvantages against the likes of Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. Their corners possess the size and strength to challenge big receivers at the line, while their height allows them to compete in jump-ball situations down the field. Of course, these physical dimensions don't guarantee success in those matchups, but it drastically reduces the number of mismatches opponents can create with tight ends and receivers on the perimeter.
This was evident in the Giants' postseason battles with the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots. Ross and Webster knocked around the receivers on the outside, while New York's safety trio challenged the big tight ends down the middle. The value of size in the secondary will certainly be a hot topic in war rooms around the league.
5. Develop young players
One of the hidden aspects of building a perennial Super Bowl contender is implementing a plan to develop young players for prominent roles down the road. This requires the front office to properly identify and address potential holes years in advance to provide coaches with enough time to groom draftees for future contributions.
In looking at several of the Giants' key contributors, the apprenticeship factor certainly played a role in their development. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, for instance, were slotted in backup roles behind established veterans for a few years before getting their opportunity to shine as starters.
Cruz is another example of the Giants developing a player on the practice field before inserting him into the lineup. The second-year pro grinded on the practice squad, mastering the nuances of route running for nearly a year before getting an opportunity to become a part of the rotation. Although GM Jerry Reese told me during Media Day at Super Bowl XLVI that no one expected Cruz to emerge as a prolific playmaker, his hard work under the tutelage of Sean Ryan paid off and was one of the major reasons the Giants walked away with the Lombardi Trophy.