Giants, others proving youth rules

In the NFL, age is a strange thing. Older isn't necessarily better.

After back-to-back trips to the wild-card playoffs under Tom Coughlin in 2005 and 2006, Father Time rang some alarms inside the New York Giants' biological clock. The team finished the '06 season with a 9-7 record and the 23rd-oldest roster in the league (average age of 27.08). After that campaign, halfback Tiki Barber and backup tackle Bob Whitfield retired. Left tackle Luke Petitgout was banged up and destined for the waiver wire.

"We had some veterans on the team and you always want to get younger," general manager Jerry Reese said. "But you don't want to get too young. If you get too young, you don't have enough veterans and you don't have enough leadership.''

The Giants come to the Super Bowl with the best of all worlds. They got younger, and they got better. The team's leadership is exceptional. Veteran cornerbacks Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters helped young corners Corey Webster, Aaron Ross and Kevin Dockery. Michael Strahan is the old sage of the defense. Young guard Chris Snee has emerged as the true leader of a veteran offensive line.

The Giants entered the season as the league's eighth-youngest team, and they joined interesting company. Five of the eight youngest teams in the NFL made the playoffs; the Giants are the only franchise in this group that didn't win a division title.

The Packers, Colts and Cowboys were three of the four youngest teams in the league, and each won 13 games. The Chargers went 11-5 with the seventh-youngest roster. Half of the 2006 playoff teams were among the 12 youngest teams that year. Four of the nine youngest teams in 2005 made the playoffs.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick loves a veteran roster, but even his teams are getting younger and better.

The Patriots were the fourth-oldest team in 2005 and they went 10-6. New England went from an average age of 27.53 in 2005 to 26.7 in 2006, ranking 18th. The moves to bring in Randy Moss and Adalius Thomas, and to bring back Junior Seau made the Patriots slightly older this season (26.96), but they've gone 18-0.

The Giants made one of the most dramatic youth movements in 2007, going from 27.08 to 26.26.

"We tried to get younger, but you also try to get more talented,'' Reese said. "You try to get a good mix.''

A change in the front office gave Reese the chance to make those moves. Long-time general manager Ernie Accorsi prepared for his retirement and ordered a car to take him away from Giants Stadium the day after the 2006 season ended.

Enter Reese, a former player who learned scouting and developed rapidly within the Giants' solid organization. His job wasn't easy, and things got a little bloody in February.

Around the same time Barber and Whitfield retired, the Giants cut Petitgout, linebackers LaVar Arrington and Carlos Emmons, defensive tackle Junior Ioane and running back Chad Morton. Veteran wide receiver Tim Carter was traded to Cleveland in early March.

Barber's running and pass-catching skills were paramount to New York's offensive success. Petitgout was the left tackle, one of the toughest positions to replace. Arrington and Emmons were two-thirds of the team's linebacking corps.

"I thought we had several needs,'' Reese said. "You want to make the team better at every position along with creating some competition. The main thing is getting better at every position.''

Accorsi left Coughlin and Reese some attractive options. Dave Diehl moved from left guard to left tackle, and he played at close to a Pro Bowl level this season. Brandon Jacobs, despite some injuries, took over as the lead running back. Outside linebacker Kawika Mitchell filled one linebacker spot after signing a one-year contract. Converted defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka got the Giants through the first half of the season at linebacker before going on injured reserve.

Young players such as Barry Cofield (defensive tackle), James Butler (safety) and Justin Tuck (defensive end) stepped up into key roles on defense.

But the key to the youth movement was an exceptional draft. Reese drafted eight players at eight different positions, and they all made major contributions in 2007. First-round choice Ross became a starting cornerback. Third-round choice Jay Alford helped out at defensive tackle. Tight end Kevin Boss replaced the injured Jeremy Shockey late in the season and performed well. Halfback Ahmad Bradshaw, a seventh-round pick, offered big-play potential from the backfield.

"Almost all of the draft choices have contributed in a major way,'' linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "This was a great rookie class. Those guys came in with the mentality, 'How can I contribute?' Most rookies want to sit back and enjoy the moment. These guys want to contribute and they contributed in a major way for us.''

Reese felt pretty good about the team's depth from the previous season, but this season's rookie class enhanced competition for playing time and helped compensate for injuries.

"If you go back to last year, we had a game against the Eagles where we went down to the wire even though we had a lot of players down with injuries,'' Reese said. "We didn't win the game because we didn't make a stop in the end, but I thought we should have a good football team the next season if we got all the parts back. In my opinion, I thought we could really do something.''

The Giants got lucky during the season when the Rams cut fullback Madison Hedgecock. They claimed him on waivers and were so pleased with his performance that much they signed him to a five-year extension. Hedgecock is 26.

A lot of times, teams become victims of the aging process by holding on to players too long. The Chiefs did just that after a making the playoffs in 2006. By staying with too many old players, the Chiefs looked old and brittle during a horrible 4-12 season.

Don't be surprised if more teams try to get younger to improve their chances. It's harder and harder to get help in free agency. The $116 million salary cap gives teams the ability to re-sign their top players, leaving less and less options to replace inferior starters.

The draft provides youth and potential. The Giants hit the jackpot in a draft run by a rookie general manager. Youth was definitely served in New York.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.