GIANTS REPORT: Some thoughts on how we got here and where we’re going … Things have finally started to pick up again in the NFL with training camps now nicely underway and the first full weekend of pre-season games set to kick-off literally within hours. And I’m probably I am not doing much more than preaching to the choir when I suggest that 2021 is going to be a huge year for the Giants as they try to get back to football respectability. With that in mind, I was able to take advantage of the recent quiet period to do some thinking about how the Giants got to where they are, and more importantly perhaps, what are the ingredients needed to right the ship.
And just to get your attention, a little trivia. The question is if you aggregate former Giants’ QB Eli Manning’s stats from the Super Bowl glory years from 2007 through 2011 would they be better, worse, or just about the same when compared with those of the 5 years of his career. Of course, most, if not all discerning Giants’ fans would say ‘no brainer, not even close’ his Super Bowl years would be infinitely better. And most, if not all, would be wrong. Fact is, somewhat shockingly, Eli’s overall numbers in 2014-2018 were actually ever so slightly better than compared with those in 2007-2011. Don’t believe me! Well here are his average numbers in the two periods:
Huh! To be fair, part of the difference likely reflects the fact that the character of the offense changed over the years. At the same time, though, it is harder to dispute the fact that over the course of his career Eli had 5 seasons in which his QB rating was over 90, and three of those came in the final 5 years of his career. In fact, what got me started thinking about the whole concept was thinking back to the 2008 season. The Giants, of course, had won the previous Super Bowl with that epic upset of the Patriots. And through the first three months of the season, they had looked all the part of the best team in the NFL. They were 11-1 and rolling when Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg, effectively ending his Giants’ career. And without him, the Giants went on to lose three of their final four regular season games and then suffered a dismal loss to the Eagles in the first-round of the playoffs. The question I’ve been asking myself for years is could in fact one player, who wasn’t a QB, make that much of a difference.
I have to admit that when I started the exercise I was somewhat skeptical, even though the loss of Plax was the only thing that really changed at that time. But I have always been a believer in the notion that a great QB made the team, and that was pretty much it. However, as I started looking at how the Giants’ roster changed over the last decade and how those changes impacted their record what kind of jumped out was just how impactful some of those individual changes were. In fact, it wasn’t hard to come to the observation that, at least from a purely statistical perspective, the primary predictor of Eli Manning’s efficiency and the team’s overall offensive productivity during the ‘lost years’ of the past decade actually appears to have been whether or not he had a big-time playmaker to work with.
After the loss of Plax, for example, the Giants caught lightning in a bottle when they stole Hakeem Nicks with the 29th pick at the 2009 draft and then a year later they caught lightning in a bottle again when they found Victor Cruz in free agency. Another year later and Nicks and Cruz combined with Eli to propel the Giants to their 4th Super Bowl title. In fact, 2011 was QB Eli Manning’s most productive season of his career – by far – as he threw for almost 5,000 yards and 29 TDs. Two games into the 2012 season, though, Nicks hurt a knee and was never was the same guy. (And for record, neither was Victor as his productivity fell way off without Nicks attracting so much attention from opposing defenses.) As a result. Eli and the offenses’ overall productivity fell off dramatically in both 2012 and 2013. Indeed, in many ways, 2013 was Eli’s worst year as a veteran pro as he completed less that 58% of his pass attempts for under 4,000 yards. He also threw just 18 TD passes against a career-high 27 picks.
The following spring, though, the Giants selected Odell Beckham with their opening round pick. And voila, the Giants had a top ten offense again! Indeed, right in the middle of the team’s ‘lean and hungry era’ in which Eli’s career was supposedly ‘wasted’ primarily as a result of an awful, just-plain-bad, historically inept offensive line, Manning actually had the best three-year run of his career from 2014 through 2016 during which Odell was healthy. In those three years, for example, Eli averaged over 4,300 yards and 30 TDs per year with an average QB rating of over 90.
Early in 2017 season, though, Odell suffered a season-ending injury (anybody starting to see a pattern here?) and once again the bottom fell out of Eli’s stats and the offense’s overall productivity. However, with Odell back the following year (although he too clearly wasn’t – and hasn’t – been the same guy pre-injury) and the addition of Saquon Barclay, Eli actually had a decent year by his standards in his final year as the Giants starter finishing with a career-high 66% completion rate, 4,300 passing yards and a 92.4 QB rating, the 3rd best of his career.
For the sake of comparison, we didn’t include the last two year’s in the analysis because the Giants had changed QBs going from the veteran Manning to Daniel Jones early in the 2019 campaign, but its not to make the case the trend did appear to continue. Of course, Odell had been traded away during the off-season, but Jones still did have Saquon in the backfield that year, albeit not necessarily at 100% most of the year, and ended up putting up some respectable numbers in his rookie campaign. Once again, though, the bottom fell out with the loss of Saquon in the 2nd game of the season.
Of course, we’ve only been looking at the team’s offensive output, not the overall record, which of course hasn’t been very good. And the tendency among the Giants fans we talk to has primarily been to blame the offense in general and the offensive line in particular for the team’s recent troubles. The fact is, though, that while the offense hasn’t been great over the past decade, it also wasn’t awful. Over Eli’s final 7 years (2012-2018), for example, the average ranking for the Giants’ offense was 17th and actually ranked in the top half of the league in terms of offensive productivity more times than not: 4 years to three.
Turns out, though, that football is actually a team game that includes two units, the offense and defense. And, again at least from a statistical perspective, you want to point fingers, maybe you point them at the defense, which in the final 7 years of Eli’s career was ranked 29th or lower 4 times. In fact, 2016, when the Giants went out and ‘bought’ the ‘best D money could be buy’ was the only year in that period in which the defense cracked the top half of the NFL rankings during that period. Of course, that was also the only year the Giants made the playoffs in those years which may be something of a clue!
However, the point of the exercise is not to re-litigate what went wrong over the past decade, but to see if there are some clues as to how to proceed going forward. Certainly, what I am starting to think is that the real key to the upcoming season isn’t so much about Jones or Saquon and/or the offensive line, but whether the revamped receiver group can can come together as a legitimate top 10 type unit that gives Jones some legitimate big-play threats. My guess, given what we have seen from Jones to date, is that if fact give his some weapons and he’ll be fine. That still doesn’t answer the question whether he’ll be Kirk Cousins type fine or whether he’ll be able to take the next step and develop into a legitimate rival to the games emerging elite QBs like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert. Jones certainly appears to have the tools to make that next step. However, the question remains does he have the instincts to be truly elite. And that’s why they’ll play games this fall!
The one thing we can say with some certainty regarding Jones at this time is that it really doesn’t make much sense at all to try to red much of anything at all into his baseline stats in 2020 when he ended up playing behind what for all intents and purposes was a rookie offensive line while throwing to what may very well have been the NFL’s least scary skill position grouping. As noted, Saquon was lost for the year in the second week of the schedule and of Giants’ receivers who caught at least ten passes last fall, Darius Slayton, who was dinged himself much of the year, was the only to average more than 11 yards per catch. As an aside, I have to admit, though, that I chuckle a bit when people yell at me that the Giants should have taken Allen with the 2nd pick overall in 2018 after he blossomed into one of the league’s better passers this past season without mentioning that he only blossomed into one of the league’s best passers after the Bills traded for Stefon Diggs, one of the league’s best receivers. Maybe I should just rest my case!
At the same time, I don’t want to minimize the importance of the offensive line. Obviously, if you put out chopped liver street free agent types upfront, especially at the tackles, your offense is going to struggle to score points. However, I personally don’t think that either of Andrew Thomas or Matt Peart are chopped liver types. Neither is C Nick Gates. Clearly, the OG situation is a little dicier, but the fact of the matter is that OGs don’t win or lose games in the NFL. And truth be told I’m still not sure I’ve ever seen any actual hard statistical evidence that the Giants’ recent woes were rooted primarily in the offensive line – and no everyone repeating it ad nauseum for year doesn’t make it real evidence. Eli did get sacked somewhat more often in the final 7 years of his career than in the Super Bowl era, but the difference – 30 per year in the period 2012-2018 versus 26 a season in the Super Bowl years actually doesn’t explain much of the variance in the difference in the W-L records in the two periods.
Ironically, what there is, is some correlation between the effectiveness of the offensive line and the quality of players at the skill positions. Indeed, in the three years Eli and the offense had a healthy OBJ they actually averaged slightly FEWER sacks per year (25) than in the Super Bowl era when the figure was just over 26 per year. In contrast, in Eli’s four other post-Super Bowl years in which he didn’t have a healthy Odell, he was sacked an average of over 35 times per year. And it makes sense. The more and better deep threats you have the more the defense has to drop people off to account for that deep threat. And the more people they drop off the fewer they have to involve in the pass rush. And the more they drop off, the more room your receivers are going to have to get open in the underneath zones to provide your QB with easy dump-offs and outlet passes. Indeed, rewatching the game films from last fall, I was struck by the fact that arguably the biggest issue facing the Giants’ offense was that opposing defenses, who had no fear whatever of being beaten over the top, routinely brought 9-10 and even 11 men into the box and just gave them no room to operate.
All that said, I would certainly expect the Giants to seriously consider using at least a couple of their haul of premium picks in the first four rounds of the 2022 draft on the OL even if the unit plays well this fall. You just don’t get to keep people around for ten years in era of free agency and what you’d like to do is start to build a pipeline of offensive linemen because if you current young guys are in fact any good they’ll be leaving in free agency in 2-3 years.
Speaking of the draft, what makes the upcoming season even more exciting to be a Giants’ fan is the fact that with 7 picks in the first four rounds of the upcoming draft they have a lot of ammunition to do a lot of different things depending on how the current season plays out. If, for example, there are serious lingering questions about Daniel Jones potential ceiling at the end of the year, they have the draft capital to go up and get one of this year’s top QB prospects. Same story if they need to once again address any deficiencies on the offensive line. Everything being equal, though, and by equal I mean they don’t have to address any particular area, it wouldn’t be a shock if they pretty much repeated what they did at the last draft by taking a receiver and a pass rusher with one of the first or second round picks.
In fact, it almost would be a shock, again everything else being equal, if the Giants don’t use one of their two opening round picks on a defensive lineman of some ilk in a draft year that looks like it could be loaded with quality pass rushers like Kayvon Thibodeaux of Oregon. USC’s Drake Jackson, George Karlaftis of Purdue, Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith of Ohio State, Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Myjai Sanders of Cincinnati. And even though they chose receiver Kadarius Toney of Florida with their first round pick this past spring, no one should be surprised if they go back there again early in 2022. Fact is that Toney is really more of a gadget guy and they’re still looking for that 1-2 guy to line up opposite Kenny Golladay on the outside. And like the DL, it looks to be a strong position in 2022 with the likes of Chis Olave and Garrett Wilson of Ohio State, Arkansas’ Treylon Burks, George Pickens of Arkansas, Justyn Ross of Clemson and USC’s Drake London leading the way.
Should be a fun year all around!!