Giants-Niners usher in new NFL season

Posted: Thursday, September 05, 2002

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.Y. -- This is no ordinary season opener for the NFL.

When the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants meet in the Meadowlands on Thursday night in an unprecedented weekday start to the season, it will be just part of a huge celebration honoring those who died Sept. 11.

Hours before the game, the festivities begin with a concert in Times Square.

''I think it's an honor that we're going to be opening like this and it's a celebration in New York,'' said Giants coach Jim Fassel, whose team practiced five miles away from the smoke-filled city in the weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

''New York is a great city. The celebration prior to the start of the season gives New Yorkers something to enjoy. We can certainly all remember what happened a year ago. I think New York and the country has rebounded very well from it.''

This will mark the first time the league has opened with a single weeknight game before the traditional Sunday start. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Wednesday that a Thursday night opener will probably become a fixture, with the games being played in major-market cities around the league.

This game features longtime rivals who in the 1980s and early '90s combined to win seven Super Bowls.

''We feel kind of privileged and honored to be in it, to be quite honest with you,'' San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci said.

''We were in New York, on Monday Night, against the Jets, after 9/11. It was a very emotional and patriotic evening for all of us and we anticipate it being a little bit like that in some ways.''

Both teams come into the season after five-game preseasons.

The Niners opened in Osaka, Japan and capped the preseason with three games in 10 days. New York sandwiched five games in 25 days.

San Francisco returns 20 of 22 starters from a team that posted a 12-4 record, but lost in the first round of the playoffs to Green Bay.

The Giants made a number of changes after missing the playoffs with a 7-9 record a year after they played in the Super Bowl.

The offensive line has been revamped, five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jessie Armstead was let go in a salary cap move and the kicking game was changed: Matt Allen replaces Rodney Williams as the punter and Matt Bryant takes over for Morten Andersen as the kicker.

But the biggest change may be the addition of first-round draft pick Jeremy Shockey. The tight end from Miami creates definite matchup problems for defenses.

The Niners' offense is a problem for new Giants defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn. Quarterback Jeff Garcia, halfback Garrison Hearst, receiver Terrell Owens, center Jeremy Newberry and guard Ron Stone are all coming off Pro Bowl seasons. Stone got there with the Giants, then moved on as a free agent.

''It's a complete team,'' Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said. ''They regained that dynasty feeling that they had in the past.''

Strahan, who set a single-season sack record last year with 22 1/2, will have one of the more interesting matchups in the game facing tackle Scott Gragg, another former Giants player.

Other key matchups will have Giants tackle Cornelius Griffin against Stone, and cornerback Jason Sehorn versus Owens in some passing situations.

While the Giants' offense has never been known for being high powered, the potential is there this year with Shockey opening things up for Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard. Tiki Barber is also a threat to run and catch the ball out of the backfield, but he has been limited by a hamstring injury the past 10 days.

''This is what everybody, God and country, has been waiting for,'' Owens said. ''We're fortunate that we get to kick the 2002 season off.''



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