Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Washington Redskins, December 1, 2013: The New York Giants are not officially dead, but they are on life support. Their only chance to win the NFC East now is to run the table and hope the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles each lose three of their remaining five games.
I give the Giants’ coaching staff and players credit for not quitting despite the 0-6 start. They fought hard to get to 4-6 against some questionable competition to set up the most meaningful game of the season for them last Sunday against the Cowboys. But with everything on the line, the Giants came up short. There were swept by the Cowboys. We can only take away one thing from that fact: the Giants simply are not good enough.
Before we look at the problems, we need to compartmentalize the past. If the only highlights of the Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning era are the two Super Bowls, that era will be still considered a magnificent time in the team’s history. Two of the team’s eight NFL titles occurred on their watch. Years from now, fans will fondly remember the two unlikely and inspired playoff runs in 2007 and 2011. Nothing that happened before or since will ever erase that glory. Those teams did not win by accident or luck. They went 8-0 in the playoffs, defeated the NFC’s #1 and #2 seeds (twice) and the AFC’s #1 seed twice. Who will ever forget both NFC and NFL Championship Games?
But, the last thing team ownership and team management should do is delude themselves about the declining state of this team. And it is declining. The Giants have missed the playoffs four times in the last five seasons. The one exception was the 2011 team that just squeaked into the playoffs at 9-7. Since 2009, the Giants are 40-35 in the regular season despite playing in a terrible division in a watered-down NFL.
Who is to blame? Everyone. It’s not black-and-white issue. Jerry Reese and the front office have botched a number of drafts in a row and made a number of bad free agent and salary cap moves. The Giants are mediocre or subpar at just about every position, and particularly on the offensive line, at tight end, and linebacker. The running backs are ordinary at best. A lot has been invested on the defensive line and in the secondary, but due to age and injuries, production has not matched expectation. And most of the Giants’ impact players – Eli Manning, Jason Pierre-Paul, Hakeem Nicks – no longer play like impact players. The Giants have good defensive tackles, safeties, and Victor Cruz (and the latter helped to throw the away the Cowboy game). Eli Manning – who is taking up almost $21 million in cap space – is playing like a mediocre quarterback. He is not carrying the team like he did in 2011. Eli should be in his prime, but he has clearly gotten worse.
So you have an average talent base with an aging and injury-prone core, supposedly elite players who really are not, and only a trickle of new talent coming in. So why are we shocked?
I don’t think this is going to be a quick fix for the Giants and I think ownership and the front office will be terribly mistaken if they think it is. The Giants will only have six draft picks in the upcoming draft. You can only do so much in free agency. The team has to rebuild the offensive line, find a starting caliber tight end, probably replace Hakeem Nicks, figure out who their starting running back is, find another starting cornerback, address talent issues at linebacker, and figure out what they are going to do at defensive end. And on top of all of that, unless the figure out why Eli Manning has regressed since 2011, none of that may matter.
It’s easy and popular to blame the coaching staff – and they do deserve some of the blame – but fans need to realize that the lack of talent is the primary reason the team is struggling. You can’t really scheme around poor quarterback and offensive line play. There are not many coaches actively coaching in this game that have the skins on the wall that Tom Coughlin has. Sometimes we lose sight of that fact. As you look around at the other 32 teams and the coaching staffs on those teams, there really is not a lot to choose from. And roughly a third of them each year seem to be getting fired or on the verge of getting fired.
That said, there are legitimate questions surrounding the coaching staff. As BBI poster “blueblood” pointed out this week, have the message and messengers gotten stale? Tom Coughlin and Kevin Gilbride have choreographed some of the most explosive and productive offenses in New York Giants’ history, but red flags continue pop up: inability of quarterback and receivers to get on the same page, red zone issues, predictability, stubbornness, and unwavering loyalty to veteran players who might be better replaced. To be frank, almost all coaches in the NFL face similar allegations from media and fans. But there is curiosity about how Eli Manning would perform in a more quarterback- and receiver-friendly system, and one that uses slightly more imagination. As Joey in VA points out, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) has dramatically cut back on practice time. Perhaps the Giants’ offense is too complicated in this new NFL environment. There is also concern that the Giants’ competition – particularly within the division – has figured out how to defend the Coughlin/Gilbride offense. Coughlin is 67; Gilbride is 62. With age comes wisdom. But a fresh approach can stimulate and excite. Keep in mind, however, there is no guarantee that change will automatically lead to improvement. We sometimes have to be careful what we wish for.
On the defensive side of the ball, Perry Fewell’s defense has actually improved this year after two extremely poor regular seasons in a row. But there were suggestions again from players that the improvement came when Fewell simplified the defense. If that’s true, why does he continue to complicate it each offseason, especially when the CBA has dramatically cut back on practice time? There is a feeling that the Giants’ defense never out-smarts or out-schemes opponents for the easy sack. In tight games, Fewell seems to play scared and get too conservative. That all said, there is no denying the fact that Fewell’s star has risen with fans once he was given better players (i.e., at defensive tackle, middle linebacker, and safety)…once again suggesting that good players make coaches look good.
On special teams, Tom Quinn’s unit has been a chaotic mess all season and arguably the league’s worst.
I think the Giants are at a crossroads. Eli Manning probably has another good 5-6 years left in this league. Is he capable of reverting back to 2011 form, or was that his career year? That’s key question #1. If the cap-killing quarterback can revert back to form, the Giants need to quickly rebuild around him through the draft and free agency. Is this the right coaching to do so? This is key question #2. Will Coughlin still want to coach in three years? And relatedly, if the Giants make coordinator changes, do you want the 67-year old Coughlin, who has an inconsistent track record of picking good coordinators, making those decisions?
The Giants are a conservative organization. My guess is they retain Manning and Coughlin. And Coughlin retains his coordinators unless the organization forces Tom’s hand like it did after the 2006 season when they “encouraged” him to let go of John Hufnagel and Tim Lewis. If Coughlin and the coaching staff are retained, then the onus is even great on Jerry Reese and his staff to hit a home run in the draft and free agency. If they don’t, then we’re going to continue to see 7-9, 8-8, and 9-7 football or worse as the talent base continues to erode.
The Coughlin-Manning Super Bowls were not that long ago. But it’s time to stop living off of those laurels. It’s a bad division in watered-down NFL. The competition is not as tough as some would lead you to believe. A truly well-run organization with a good quarterback should be a perennial contender in this environment.