BY GEOFF HOBSON
TAMPA, Fla. _ Lomas Brown, the Giants' ageless left tackle, wondered if you had seen the timeless message on the T-Shirts his offensive line mates wear.
"Overworked and Underappreciated," Brown said. "And that's how we feel as a team."
If a rag-tag offensive line is the personification of these unloved Giants, then why shouldn't the symbol of this offensive line be its retread position coach?
Jim McNally came full circle in his 21st NFL season, five more than his left tackle. After staking his reputation in Cincinnati for 15 years on young players left on the draft scrap heap, he solidified his career this season with veterans taken off the free-agent scrap heap.
At age 57, McNally and his boys face one of the best defenses in history in the Baltimore Ravens.
"You won't be able to put three tight ends in the game and run the ball up the middle, that's for sure," said McNally, who even got exasperated trying to find enough Baltimore goal-line situations to chart.
"We were trying to do that the other night, to see what they do on the goal line," McNally said. "You'd fast forward, fast forward, and the ball would be on the 20, or the 30, and then, boop, a change of possession. Teams just never got down there. You can't turn it over. Nothing wrong with a punt."
If football is all about change of possession, it's also all about change, period. Just look at McNally and his cast of current characters.
Brown arrived this year from Cleveland with 15 years experience. Left guard Glenn Parker came from Kansas City with 10 years under his belt. Center Dusty Zeigler checked in from Buffalo with four seasons.
Second-year right tackle Luke Petitgout is McNally's obligatory first-round pick, but he changed positions. Only Pro Bowl right guard Ron Stone, an eight-year veteran in his fifth season with the Giants, was where he was last year.
"McNally has a unique approach in that he lets players be players," Parker said. "He didn't try to change us. He didn't try to tell us you had to step this way or step that way. He just said, 'You two on the left side, I know you'll do what you want to do. Here's our protections, here's what you have. Just work it out.'"
It was a remarkable adjustment for a coach who made his mark by finding and grooming
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young players with exhaustive, meticulous repetition of technique.
"It's different now because of free agency," McNally said. "But it's not like I was showing them something they hadn't done before. It's not like I'd show them how to step and they wouldn't do it."
Zeigler got the McNally-teaching treatment right away, but it didn't last all semester.
"I think he went into it thinking you can't teach an old dog new tricks," Zeigler said. "He taught us all the things in the spring and then he kind of stepped back and let us do what we could do."
The last time McNally was at the Super Bowl with the '88 Bengals, he arrived with the best left tackle of all time and four guys he plucked out of various stages of the NFL Draft and whipped them into a cohesive unit considered to be the best line in the game. It all fueled a power running game.
Now McNally is here with an offensive scheme that lives by spreading the field with endless, shifting formations. Some power. But mostly finesse. None of his guys are more than 320 pounds.
"Times change. The game changes," McNally said. "It's different. That was 15 years ago. I'm still the same coach. Believe me, it's the players, not the coaches."
McNally and Giants tight ends coach Mike Pope are living the axiom that, "players make coaches." They were on that 1993 Bengals offensive staff that produced the fewest points in team history (187), a mark that stood until this season when the total of 185 repeated history and got offensive coordinator Ken Anderson demoted.
Pope, then the Bengals offensive coordinator, got fired. Now he's saluted as a big part of the Giants brain trust ("He's the key to our success," McNally said) because of the shifting philosophy he brought from Washington.
"You don't have a philosophy on offense," Pope said. "You look at your players, then you build your philosophy. You don't do it the other way because the other way around is stubborn. You do what your players can do."
Pope coached the Giants of 10 years ago, the team that stole the Super Bowl when the vaunted Bills couldn't find the football for 40 minutes. That's because the Giants hid it in their power running game.
"Watching that team," McNally said, "was like watching paint dry."
Pope said, "We're not the same team. We don't have as much muscle in some spots, but we kept the ball for the last 13 minutes of (the NFC title game) by pretty much running the ball. It's just different."
On a day the Bengals were supposed to hire an offe nsive coordinator, it sounded like Super advice.