McNally leads Giants O-line

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jim McNally lay in his Cedar Grove, N.J., bed and watched the digital clock, a little too quickly, tick off each minute.

The New York Giants' offensive line coach was trying to get some rest, but he was visited by troubling visions of Dallas Cowboys defensive ends Greg Ellis and Ebenezer Ekuban dancing all over Kerry Collins. Finally, less than two hours after he hit the pillows -- some five hours after the Giants lost a heart-stopping 35-32 overtime game on Monday Night Football -- McNally was back in the Giants offices doing what he does better than anyone: trying to fix a shaky offensive line.

McNally, 59, is not a name most fans or fantasy football players are familiar with; he happens to be one of the best offensive line coaches -- ever. This is his 24th NFL season, and the Giants are only his third team. He coached the Bengals from 1980-94, and the Bengals played in two Super Bowls. He helped an expansion team in Carolina reach the NFC championship game in its second year. Remember the Giants' 41-0 victory over the Vikings in the 2000 NFC championship game? McNally's fingerprints were all over it. His artful hand has allowed the Giants' celebrated skill-position players -- Collins, Tiki Barber, Amani Toomer and, yes, Jeremy Shockey -- to thrive.

And while Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Munoz was one of his guys, McNally is better known for making chicken salad out of -- "chicken s---?" McNally said Tuesday afternoon, laughing. "Hey, we started three rookies, which is unheard of, and eventually they settled down. We've got some work to do, but I like this bunch."

The Giants are the first NFL team to start three rookie offensive linemen in a game since the 1981 Redskins.

With left tackle Luke Petitgout out with back spasms, the Giants starters against Dallas were, from left to right, Jeff Roehl, Rich Seubert, Wayne Lucier, David Diehl and Chris Bober.

When Ian Allen struggled at right tackle in the opener, Bober, the center, was moved there for the first time in two years, forcing the Giants to use Lucier -- their second pick in the seventh round -- at center. Roehl, signed as a rookie free agent in May, filled in for Petitgout, and Diehl, a fifth-round choice, started his second game at right guard. Seubert, the left guard who was signed as a free agent in 2001, was the only lineman playing in the same spot as last year.

The results in the first half were predictably disastrous.

In the Giants' first series, Ekuban blew around Roehl and Ellis got past Bober. They collided with Collins almost simultaneously. In the Giants' second series, Ekuban again abused Roehl and crushed Collins with a harrowing blind-side hit. For the rest of the half, Collins looked as nervous -- "terrified" might not be too strong a word -- as he ever has in five seasons with the Giants. There were times when he seemed to be releasing the ball even before the Giants' receivers got off the line.

After two quarters, the Cowboys had a shocking 20-7 lead. The Giants' offense managed only five first downs and 105 yards and yielded two fumbles and two interceptions -- one returned 41 yards by Dallas linebacker Al Singleton for a touchdown. The Cowboys' offense and defense, and even the Giants' defense, all scored touchdowns -- but not the Giants' offense.

In the second half, the Giants offense produced 204 yards and three touchdowns. Moreover, there were zero turnovers and zero sacks. Despite losing in overtime, the Giants not only had a chance to win but, if not for a botched kickoff that went out of bounds, probably would have won.

So what happened with the offensive line?

"Oh, nothing, really," McNally said. "I didn't really change anything at halftime, I didn't say anything special. I think it was a matter of those guys settling down and not being so nervous. The players made a few individual adjustments -- like, 'I'm going to go further outside to challenge the ends' -- but mostly it was just making their minds up that they weren't going to get beaten.

"Obviously, you have a lot of important, big-name players, and the guys blocking for them are no-name, lunch-pail guys. The problem I can't solve is that they're rookies. We're going to have to go through these growing pains. But the guys we have are smart guys. With smart guys you always have a chance."

McNally is a noted teacher, and with gifted students in academic terms the job is far easier.

Diehl, a 6-foot-5, 315-pounder from Illinois, is "a kid who is too good to be true," according to McNally. Diehl won an award at Illinois for his commitment to academic excellence and actually took masters courses there after graduating in 2001.

Lucier (6-3, 300 pounds) started for two years at Northwestern before following coach Gary Barnett to Colorado. He was named to the Big Ten and Big 12 all-academic teams for his proficiency in mathematics.

Roehl (6-4, 300 pounds) transferred from Notre Dame to Northwestern after his freshman season and also won Big Ten all-academic honors. According to McNally, Roehl posted some of the highest scores ever in the series of tests the Giants administer to prospects.

There will be more turmoil Sunday in Washington when the Giants meet the Redskins. The Redskins' linebacking corps of LaVar Arrington, Jessie Armstead and Jeremiah Trotter, students of film, will be blitzing early and often.

If Petitgout is able to play, and it looks like he will, Roehl would return to the bench. McNally said Bober is likely to stay at right tackle, leaving Lucier at center.

"Sure, it's scary or whatever," McNally said. "But it's not life or death. It's just a game.

"If I was 35 or 40 and it was, 'Geez, I've got to coach another 20 years,' God, that would be a row to hoe. But I'm 59 and in good shape. The new NFL retirement plan for assistant coaches means you don't have to coach until you're 65 anymore.

"This is just another challenge."

And, based on the history, a challenge that McNally will meet.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.