For 11 years, there have been many peaks and valleys under the Tom Coughlin-Eli Manning partnership. The high points have been two NFL and two NFC championships, three NFC East division titles, and five playoff appearances. The low points have been six non-playoff seasons and three losing seasons. For the last three years, the Giants have not made the playoffs, including the only two losing seasons under Coughlin and Manning since their inaugural season together in 2004.
Due to many unfortunate career-impacting injuries and poor personnel decisions in the draft and free agency, the overall talent level of the team has declined since 2011. The results have been far too many uncompetitive football games and a worsening win-loss record. The Giants have been dreadful against their two biggest division rivals. The Cowboys were a fingertip away from sweeping the last six games from the Giants while the Eagles are 11-3 against the Giants in their last 14 games. It’s almost impossible to win a division when you cannot beat the teams within your division.
Other than the two most visible institutions on the team (the head coach and quarterback), the Giants have clearly been a team undergoing a major transition during the last three years. Most of the 2011 team is gone. Both the offensive and defensive coordinators have been replaced as well as most of the position coaches. There has been dramatic turnover at almost every position on the roster save quarterback. The Giants have become a young team.
If the reports are true about Eli Manning receiving a new long-term extension soon, then barring injury, the Manning era will continue towards the end of the decade. What we don’t know is if the 2015 Giants will show enough improvement for ownership to retain Tom Coughlin and his coaching staff beyond the upcoming season. The Giants will not be favored to win the NFC East or make the playoffs. The Cowboys are expected to win the division and many believe the Eagles will finish second with the Giants and Redskins battling to stay out of the basement for the fourth year in a row.
So heading into Giants training camp, the team will be underdogs. It’s a role that has suited them well many times during the last 35 years. They have the ability to prove the pundits wrong and win the NFC East, but they will need some things to break their way. And Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have proven to be a very dangerous duo if they make the playoffs.
- What is going to happen with Jason Pierre-Paul?: Pierre-Paul is (or was) the only impact player on the defense. But it’s hard to see how he will make a positive impact on the team in 2015. At the very least, he lost a finger, severely fractured his thumb, and needed skin grafts on his severely-burned right arm. Pierre-Paul will not be able to train and lift weights and he will not be able to practice. Because he is still unsigned and is likely to remain so unless he and the Giants come to some sort of compromise deal on his nearly $15 million tender, Pierre-Paul will also miss all of the classwork in training camp he desperately needs to understand Steve Spagnuolo’s system. Tom Coughlin and his players will be asked over and over again about JPP. How big of a distraction this will be remains to be seen. And all of this assumes that Pierre-Paul can even play in 2015 and be anywhere near a competent NFL player, which we really don’t know. The situation is a mess. Best case scenario is he signs a compromise deal soon, attends the classroom work in camp, works on his cardio/leg strength, sometime returns to the playing field in September or October, quickly adjusts to the loss of his digit, and remains a quality two-way end. But there are a lot of “ifs” in that scenario and it’s hard to be optimistic.
- How quickly will the defensive players adjust to Steve Spagnuolo’s system?: Aside from one memorable playoff run, the Giants defense was mostly a statistical mess under Perry Fewell. In three of the the last four seasons, the defense gave up over 6,000 yards and was one of the worst in the NFL. The Giants pray and hope that Spagnuolo can rekindle the magic he brought to the team in 2007 and 2008. The players seem to love him. However, Spags no longer has Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck. Those are three all-time NYG greats. And it’s important to remember that the 2007 Giants really struggled early on in Spagnuolo’s complicated schemes, giving up 80 points in their first two games. The 2015 New York Giants will not have the luxury an extended learning period. Four of their first seven games are against NFC East teams, including two games against the Cowboys.
- Where will the pass rush come from?: The pass rush was going to be a question even before Pierre-Paul’s injury. Now it’s unknown when the team’s best pass rusher will return. And even if JPP does make it back, will he be effective? The Giants have to hope and pray that veteran journeymen like Robert Ayers and George Selvie can elevate their game and that youngsters such as Damontre Moore, Kerry Wynn, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa can develop very quickly into legitimate players. There are some outstanding tackles in the NFC East and they will show no mercy.
- Will the run defense actually improve?: The assumption is that a combination of Steve Spagnuolo, solid defensive tackle play, a revamped linebacking corps that includes a healthy Jon Beason, and bigger and more physical safeties will dramatically improve what was a dreadful run defense. Spagnuolo has some good tools to work with such as DT Johnathan Hankins, Beason, LB Devon Kennard, and S Landon Collins. Newcomers like Kenrick Ellis and George Selvie should help. Kerry Wynn and Owa Odighizuwa have the physical tools to become very good run defenders. DT Cullen Jenkins is healthy. But we’ll have to see how it all comes together. There are questions at end with Damontre Moore and Robert Ayers. We don’t know who the other starting tackle will be next to Hankins. Can Beason actually stay healthy? And linebackers J.T. Thomas and Jonathan Casillas have to prove the Giants made the correct assessments in free agency. We do know this: the Cowboys, Eagles, and Redskins are three teams who love to run the football with the Cowboys and Eagles being top-10 in rushing yards per game.
- How good will the safeties be?: The Giants have a lot of young talent at safety, but they are green as grass and unproven except for recently-signed journeyman Jeromy Miles. Steve Spagnulo puts a lot of mental pressure on his safeties and the inexperienced lads such as Landon Collins, Cooper Taylor, Nat Berhe, Bennett Jackson, Mykkele Thompson, and Justin Currie must grow up fast. Safeties are the last line of defense. Mistakes there lead to big touchdowns and lost games. The upside? This is a young, hungry, and physical group. They have the ability to be very good. But they won’t have a lot of time to get ready.
- Can Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie stay healthy?: With JPP blowing his finger off, Amukamara and Rodgers-Cromartie are now the two most irreplaceable guys on the defense. They can be as good a cornerback duo as there is in the NFL, but there is little apparent depth behind them. If either gets hurt for an extended period, it could spell disaster. Amukmara in particular has been an injury-prone player.
- Can the Giants overcome their issues at offensive tackle?: Provided everyone stays healthy, the Giants look set on the inside of the offensive line with Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, and Geoff Schwartz. The Giants also believe that Ereck Flowers will become an outstanding left tackle some day. But what no one knows is how long it will take Flowers to do so since he needs so much technique work. He could struggle as a rookie. The injury to Will Beatty screwed the Giants in the short-term. Now they will have to rely on Flowers and his growing pains at left tackle and twice-benched Marshall Newhouse, the disappointing-to-date Brandon Mosley, or someone else at right tackle. The Giants may be forced to scramble, moving Pugh or Schwartz to tackle.
- Can Victor Cruz be Victor Cruz?: We simply don’t know if Cruz will ever be the same player again. If he is, this offense could be special as teams will have tremendous problems trying to defend both Cruz and Odell Beckham (not to mention Rueben Randle). But if Cruz is a shadow of his former self, while Eli and Odell can still make this a very good offense, it won’t be the same as if Cruz was healthy.
- Is Eli Manning primed to be “elite” again?: In 2011, Eli Manning carried a New York Giants team with no defense and no running game to the playoffs. He was arguably the NFL’s MVP that season. He hasn’t regained that same magic since then. However, Eli was very good in 2014 and seems primed for even a bigger season in 2015. There is a quiet confidence about him. He’s healthy and teammates have noticed a very lively arm in offseason workouts. Eli knows Ben McAdoo’s QB-friendly system now. His favorite target Victor Cruz will be back. In Shane Vereen, he may have the best receiving back he has had since Tiki Barber. He has a top-10 receiving tight end in Larry Donnell. Rueben Randle may be finally coming on. But most importantly, Manning has arguably the most exciting offensive player in the NFL to throw to in Odell Beckham. The way this league is now set up is that an outstanding quarterback can carry a team to an NFL Championship. One more title run and Eli has guaranteed himself a spot in the Hall of Fame.
This team has a lot of issues, mostly on the defensive side of the ball. The best the Giants can probably hope for on defense is to be middle-of-the-pack. Yet after the last four years under Fewell, the Giants would take that. And being just average on defense may just be good enough. The offense, and specifically Eli Manning, can carry this team. The only major question marks on that side of the ball are the status of Cruz and ability of the two starting tackles. I honestly think Manning could be in store for an MVP-type season. He has a lot of weapons to throw to and he is in an offense that gets rid of the ball quickly. The Giants have a nice trio of running backs, an outstanding receiving corps, a very solid interior trio on the offensive line, and a good receiving tight end. Special teams should be much better with the addition of Dwayne Harris and a lot of hungry, young players. If two teams with questionable defenses like the Cowboys and Packers can make a run, so can the Giants.
What the team needs is a little bit of luck on the health front. After two years of leading the NFL in injuries, and freak offseason accidents with JPP and Beatty, the Giants could use a change in fortune.