After shockingly going 0-6 to start the season, the giants won 7 of their remaining 10 games to finish 7-9, but did that paper over the cracks, or were the Giants just plain unlucky? Well one thing's for sure, the Giants have had a busy offseason in 2014 so far, with some major changes in the coaching staff, a busy free agency, and a pretty good draft. So let's take a look at the elements that influenced this strange season and see how that is shaping this team in 2014.
It really is amazing what a bit of context and hindsight can do. I for one, certainly remember laughing quite hard at the Giants after week six. Sure the Redskins were not doing much better at the time, but I was living under some vague notion that the Redskins could and would turn it around in coming weeks. I felt safe in my reckless mocking. When I looked at the Giants in those first six weeks, I felt the organisation was on the floor and tapping out. An old coach with a stale system, average players and a flawed QB. Obviously as the season panned out, that snigger and finger pointing turned to crying and heavy drinking as the Redskins were the ones to stink it out and bitter infighting showed which team was truly in better shape. Today, if you look back with the benefit of hindsight, it's maybe a bit more obvious as to what was really going on in New York...
Take a look at the Giants first six games of the 2013 season:
Wk 1: at Dallas Cowboys
Wk 2: Denver Broncos
Wk 3: at Carolina Panthers
Wk 4: at Kansas City Chiefs
Wk 5: Philadelphia Eagles
Wk 6: at Chicago Bears
The keen observers out there may have already noticed that the Giants faced 4 teams in their first six games that would go on to make the playoffs. The worst team on that list are arguably the Cowboys who finished - surprisingly - 8-8 (same as the Bears). That's a pretty tough schedule. They did get blown out a couple of times (most notably the Panthers beat them 38-0 in week 3), and they also put up some embarrassing performances, however as soon as they started facing easier opponents in form of the Vikings, Raiders, Redskins and (a Rodgers-less) Packers, they started winning. The other losses came later in the season, against the Cowboys (again), Chargers and Seahawks - so two more playoff caliber teams. To summarise, in 2012 the Giants lost to good teams and beat bad teams. Problem solved, it was the schedule's fault.
Or was it? That schedule, while tough, is not impossible by any stretch, and any good team should come out of it with a few wins at least. Again, along the way in 2013 the Giants really did not play well, particularly when they had the ball. They ranked 28th in offense in 2013. After having an average year in 2012, and four seasons before that with a top 10 offense (2008-11), it was an alarming trend downwards for a team that boasted a QB with two Super Bowl rings and a particularly famous last name. Some of the defeats were especially bad (as in Chiefs v Redskins bad), so what was the problem and how have they tackled it in advance of the new season?
Well first up the Giants made a (forced) change on the coaching staff. The ever present Coughlin remains as Head Coach, and despite the season record and age catching up with him, there was little clamour for his head in particular to roll. Instead, long serving offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride caught most of the flack, and by a stroke of good timing he retired at the end of the season. Giants fans will be the first to tell you that their offense has been stale for a while now, so I am sure they were quite pleased about this development. Along with Gilbride the Giants also released a couple of position coaches on the offensive side.
In comes Ben McAdoo (36) as the new offensive coordinator who has spent the last eight seasons as an assistant under Mike McCarthy in Green Bay. He recently served as the QB coach for Aaron Rodgers, but also spent considerable time coaching their tight end unit. McAdoo brings with him the remit of invigorating this offense and judging by his comments and coaching preferences he intends to do this by:
Injecting elements of the West Coast offense
Having reliable pass blocking RB's who DON'T FUMBLE! (Are you listening David Wilson?)
Varied use of tight ends (Think Jermichael Finley at Green Bay)
(Reports out of Giants OTAs are that they are showing a lot of three receiver sets, practising a lot of screens, three step drops and horizontal patterns - similar to the Packers system)
Looking deeper though, this is a similar scenario to the one we saw with the Redskins new coaching staff giving interviews about our offense. McAdoo knows full well that one of the main issues with the Giants last year was pass protection and ball security. The former is one of the main reasons why Manning had such a bad season (57.7%, 18 TD and 27 INT - yes 27 INT's). Pro Football Focus ranked the Giants 28th in the league when it came to offensive line performance (31st in pass blocking alone), and went on to say the following:
In good news for the G-Men, rookie Justin Pugh (+7.1) got better and better as the season went on. Derided by many as something of a reach and with questions as to whether he can hold up at tackle, he was the biggest success story in a bad year for the Giants.
He's been kicked around every position but center in his time as a Giant, but David Diehl (-26.5) really didn't take to life at right guard. He earned this grade despite missing five games and at this point just can't handle better athletes lining up opposite him.
Analysis: Injuries didn't help, with the loss of David Bass seeing Kevin Boothe move to center where he would struggle. That created all sorts of shuffling and was further compounded by Chris Snee having his season ended after 188 snaps. Throw in Will Beatty responding to getting paid with a huge drop off from his 2012 season and you have the perfect storm. A once proud unit is now a major question mark.
The Giants have attempted to improve this group, bringing in guard Geoff Schwartz and center J.D. Walton, who will help add depth and talent to this line. They also drafted a center (Weston Richburg) in the second round, which has raised a few eyebrows considering the money they are paying Walton. Apparently Richburg may start at guard in the short term while he learns the intricacies of this offense and playing at the NFL level, but the long term plan is that he will be their starting center at some point. This group needs to come back healthy from a bruising 2013 campaign, and then stay healthy for any improvement to be seen in 2014.
The running game for the Giants has been an issue for a while, partly due to the O-line, but also down to having a dependable running back. Despite many being high on David Wilson coming into the 2013 season he only showed glimpses of his talent, and things did not bode well when he had an immediate case of fumblitis (2 fumbles in first 7 carries is a bad dose). Wilson then suffered a season ending neck injury in week 5, and reports say that he may only be cleared for contact in time for training camp. Wilson's 2013 back ups, Da'Rell Scott and Andre Brown, could only help them average 83.2 yards per game in rushing for the season, good for only 29th in the league. In the meantime, in line with McAdoo's comments above, the Giants have brought in Rashad Jennings who fits the bill in terms of protecting the ball and pass blocking, however he is a classic pounder. They backed up this move by drafting Andre Williams in the fourth round of the draft. Williams is another workhorse power rusher, who could contribute from week 1. The Giants don't have any change of pace players here so teams know what to expect on the ground when facing the Giants.
Another contributing factor to the Giants poor performance on offense in 2013 was their sub par WR corps. As you all know, Hakeem Nicks was a free agent this offseason, and did not seem interested in playing for his new contract in 2013. Perhaps he knew the writing was on the wall when the Giants gave fellow WR Victor Cruz a big contract last offseason. For him 2013 will be a season to forget, and needless to say he has since moved on to the Colts. Cruz on the other hand played reasonably well, reaching just under 1,000 yards for the season despite missing the last two games and being targeted more frequently by defensive schemes due to the lack of a genuine threat elsewhere on the roster. Randle and Jernigan flashed at times, but Louis Murphy was completely ineffective. The Giants have brought fan favourite Mario Manningham back into this group during the recent free agency activity, and then brought in Odell Beckham Jr through the draft. Reports suggest that Beckham Jr is turning heads in training camps, so he may be one to watch. He is a good route runner with good speed. He can also help out on special teams as a returner. One to watch, but is it too much to think that he will immediately solve all the problems on this unit in 2014?
When it comes to tight end, the Giants really underperformed in 2013. Subsequently they released Brandon Myers, and brought in Kellen Davis, who is a classic blocking tight end. This is a position where many thought the Giants would improve in the draft and free agency but they left pundits and fans concerned with a stark silence. Apparently the plans for this position are to use tight ends in the backfield a lot more and move them around. This still is an area of concern for the Giants.
But what about Eli Manning himself? He obviously has the calibre to win a Super Bowl - or two for that matter. Should he shoulder some of the blame? Well many will excuse him for his poor performance based on all of the above, but others think his career may be dwindling.
The expectation, or hope, is that with the additions to the blocking schemes, not only on the offensive line but also tight ends and running backs, Manning will be able to flourish once again. Others believe he will be energised by the new offensive scheme, having been part of the same offense for 11 years prior to this. Since McAdoo was only an assistant coach prior to taking this job, it is hard to tell exactly how this team will play and what he is planning to unleash on his opponents. On a personal level Manning had surgery during the early off season on the ankle he injured against the Redskins in the final game of last season, and has two years left on his contract. If he wants that final contract to be a defining one, and more importantly beat off any talk of finding his replacement, then he will need to bounce back strongly this year. I see many similarities with Tony Romo here as the organisation naturally starts to plan for life after their franchise QB. The Giants picked up Josh Freeman in free agency, but he was released shortly after. Is Nassib a long term solution? Many think Nassib might flourish under this new offensive scheme, but would they risk the controversy? Time will tell.
Onto the defensive side of things where it is much simpler.
After nearly losing their long serving coordinator Perry Fewell to the Redskins during our recent head coaching search, the Giants will come back to training camp this offseason with their coaching staff pretty much as it was last year. The Giants traditionally run a 4-3 scheme, however last year they were trying to mix in some more variation and hybrid schemes, as is the league-wide trend at the moment. The main difference in the Giants defense in 2014 will be the absence of long serving DE Justin Tuck and the much coveted DT Linval Joseph. Added to this they have some further issues on the defensive line. Before the draft Pro Football Focus wrote:
Pierre-Paul opted not to have shoulder surgery on the injury that cost him the final five games of the season, his hope being that rest and rehab will enable him to return to his 2011 form when he posted a career-high 16.5 sacks.
What about the defensive line's depth?
At defensive end, there is Damontre Moore, the second-year player who, per The Star-Ledger, is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
At defensive tackle, there is third-year man Markus Kuhn, who played in just five games and recorded one tackle last season after opening the year on the PUP list while he continued his recovery from ACL surgery the year prior.
Having two guys (Kuhn and Moore) who are coming off injuries and who have limited experience isn't a very settling picture. It's also a big (no pun intended) difference from last year when Reese made it a priority to give defensive coordinator Perry Fewell as many "big butts"as possible to beef up the run defense.
So how do the Giants address the holes on the defensive line?
They'll probably be looking to draft a defensive lineman, perhaps as soon as the first day.
(It is worth adding that Kiwanuka was ranked the worst defensive end in 2013 by PFF.) To answer this glaring need outlined by PFF, the Giants added Jay Bromley, a DT, in the third round of the draft. He is an athletic tackle who was also a team captain at college level. The Giants run defense is legitimate, and teams will find it difficult running on this team again in 2014. They now need to start getting results from this unit in terms of QB pressure and sacks.
When it comes to their secondary, the Giants spent some money during free agency bulking up at the corner back position, adding Walter Thurmond and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a group that already has the pretty solid Amukamara, so this puts them in good stead here. They then went back to this position in the draft, picking up Bennett Jackson (a special teams ace) in the sixth round. At safety they have long serving captain Antrel Rolle, and a few others who add depth (notably Stevie Brown). Again further depth was added in the draft by picking up another team captain Nate Berhe in the fifth round. This is looking like a pretty strong group of players for the Giants. If they get the pressure up front from the defensive line this secondary could put up some good numbers in 2014.
On the linebacker front, the Giants had a hole at SAM going into FA and subsequently picked up Jameel McClain from the Ravens. He fills that role adequately but doesn't bring anything to write home about. The Giants paid veteran Jon Beason to come back and anchor this unit, and Jacquian Williams adds youth and coverage skills. The draft brought in Devon Kennard who is a versatile LB with good tackling and coverage skills. This group is taking shape, but needs one of the players mentioned to stand up and dominate for them to complete this defense.
Other free agency signings this off season added a number of depth and quality special teams players to the roster, meaning this all added up to a busy time for the Giants front office. Remember, this is an organisation the likes to be sensible when team building, but in 2014 they have turned over nearly 20% of their playing staff, so they must have felt like a change was needed. You may also have noticed a theme in some of this year's draft choices, something the Giants are renowned for - good character players that have experience leading other players as captains on their college teams. The Giants like maturity, and they hope this shows on the field with players who feel responsible for their jobs and the team as a whole.
Overall, defensively the Giants look like a good defense this year. The line is probably their one weak spot, but only in terms of pass rush.
On the offensive side of the ball we have an unknown quantity with a new scheme in place for the first time in many years. Wide receiver could still be a concern, as is the running game and the offensive line, however all aspects of this group will need to up their game considerably in order to improve on 2013's often dire efforts, but as usual, all the attention will be on QB Eli Manning.
With all that in mind I see the Giants being their tough, disciplined selves when the Redskins come to town. It looks like it will be a close game. At the end of the season it wouldn't surprise me if the two teams were in a similar position battling it out for second, and potentially pushing the Eagles for top spot, but if I am a Giants fan the trenches and tight end group worry me.
Keys to the game:
- Can the Redskins get pressure on this patchy o-line?
- How far down the road with this new offense will the Giants be? Is Manning firing on all cylinders?
- Can Morris establish anything against this stout run defense?
- Can our receivers get some traction against a solid secondary unit?
This was the 2nd team in our look at our fellow NFC East opponents, with the Dallas Cowboys the last team remaining. What do think will become of the Giants and Eli Manning in 2014? Will Manning take a Giant leap or will they struggle to get out of the blocks once again?