It's okay, New York Giants; it's just one game. Apply the 24-hour rule. You're only as good as your next starting pitcher.
...I think that's it for comforting cliches.
Going into Week 3, the 0-2 New York Giants faced a must-win game against the 0-2 Carolina Panthers. Though both teams were winless, the Panthers wholly outclassed the Giants. After 60 minutes of football, the Panthers had whooped the Giants 38-0, all but ending Big Blue's run at a home-field Super Bowl.
As ESPN's Adam Schefter recently tweeted, it's been 15 years since a team that started 0-3 made the playoffs. Absent a Jim Fassel-like "all in" move by head coach Tom Coughlin, it's hard to see this Giants team clawing its way out of the NFC East cellar, let alone into a postseason berth.
Coughlin was stunned early Monday morning by the tragic, accidental death of his younger brother. In Week 2, the Giants were decimated by the Super Bowl-contending Denver Broncos. In Week 1, the Giants' furious comeback against the division-rival Dallas Cowboys fell just short.
At what point, though, do we stop chalking these losses up to one-off occurrences? When do we admit the Giants just don't have it this season? Is it now?
Have the Giants hit rock bottom?
A Promising Offseason
At the beginning of August, I gave Giants general manager Jerry Reese my imaginary "Billy Beane Moneyball Award," for doing the most of any NFL GM with the fewest resources.
With just pennies in the salary-cap coffers, Reese had to let key contributors like running back Ahmad Bradshaw, tight end Martellus Bennett, defensive tackle Chris Canty and defensive end Osi Umenyiora go via free agency.
Reese was very clever in replacing them, though, signing underrated receiving tight end Brandon Myers, pass-rushing defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, run-stuffing tackle Shaun Rogers and cornerback Aaron Ross.
Reese also did well in the draft, nabbing Syracuse offensive lineman Justin Pugh in the first round and further reloading the defensive line with tackle Johnathan Hankins in the second. Most importantly, Reese signed restricted free agent Victor Cruz to a five-year, $45 million contract extension, keeping franchise quarterback Eli Manning's favorite target on the roster.
Going into the season, it looked like the Giants had beaten long odds to get younger and cheaper, if not significantly better.
Instead, after three games, it's all fallen apart.
A Quick Descent
The warning signs were there in the first game. Manning threw three interceptions, and the Giants lost three fumbles. They dropped the critical season opener at Dallas.
Would-be workhorse running back David Wilson didn't even lead the Giants in rushing yards; he gained just 19 on seven carries. Instead, Da'Rel Scott led the ground attack with 23 yards on five carries.
Still, the Giants rallied late. The defense never let the Cowboys get too far ahead, and Manning fired four touchdown passes, keeping the margin within one score for much of the fourth quarter. Myers, the free-agent bargain, contributed 66 yards and a score on seven catches.
After the second game, things looked grim.
The much-hyped Manning Bowl, the showdown between Eli and his brother Peyton, was just a one-point game well into the third quarter. The elder Manning showed his mettle, though, leading two touchdown drives. Eli looked every bit the little brother, throwing four interceptions.
It wasn't all his fault, though.
Three Giants running backs split 19 carries and gained a paltry 23 yards. The punt coverage team surrendered an 81-yard return for a touchdown to Trindon Holliday. The Giants defense didn't sack or intercept Peyton once.
Despite the Broncos shooting themselves in the foot with 13 penalties for a whopping 132 yards, the Giants still lost 41-23.
Then, the Giants hit rock bottom.
The Final Insult
Against Carolina, Manning completed just 12 of his 23 passes for 119 yards (5.2 yards per attempt), no touchdowns and an interception. He was saved from ultimate embarrassment when Tom Coughlin pulled him for backup Curtis Painter...or was he?
Painter didn't do any better, throwing for 16 yards and an interception in four attempts.
In one of the few bright spots on the day, the Giants running backs played better. Fifteen carries for 46 yards is still terrible, but it is "better."
Besides being unable to give their running backs an inch of daylight, the Giants offensive line surrendered seven sacks to the Panthers defense.
On defense, it was even worse.
Cam Newton had a big day, throwing for 223 yards and three touchdowns, including a gorgeous fade to Brandon LaFell and a 47-yard strike to Ted Ginn Jr. Newton also ran for 45 yards and a score.
DeAngelo Williams piled up 120 yards on 23 carries, and fullback Mike Tolbert added another 18 yards and a score to the Panthers' ground tally.
The Panthers drove the ball down the field inexorably, racking up 27 first downs. Punter Brad Nortman plied his trade just twice.
Mathias Kiwanuka managed to sack Newton once, bringing the Giants' tally up to just three on the season. For a defense that's always been built around the pass rush, that's embarrassing.
Unbelievably, surrendering 38 points improves the Giants' per-game average of 38.5, the worst points-allowed mark in the NFL.
It's time for the Giants' front office, coaches, players and fans to take a good hard look at where they are.
The offensive line isn't giving Manning anywhere near enough time. Pugh, the rookie right tackle, was the only Giants offensive lineman with a positive overall Pro Football Focus grade (subscription required) going into the Panthers game—and his plus-0.3 wasn't much to shout about.
Those marks should all be significantly worse after this display.
The pass rush is led by by a pair of 30-year-olds in Kiwanuka and Justin Tuck. The Giants need either Tuck to recommit himself or Jason Pierre-Paul to step up his game and consistency. The linebacking corps, per Pro Football Reference, is getting out-tackled by the secondary.
David Wilson was given a huge opportunity after the Giants elected not to replace Bradshaw (or the injured Andre Brown), and he's done nothing with it. Recently re-signed Brandon Jacobs is not the answer.
Manning himself shouldn't be exempt from criticism. He's on pace to lead the NFL in interceptions for the third time in the last seven seasons, and he didn't have much to offer besides his famous awkward faces against the Carolina defense.
It Can Only Get Better from Here...Right?
What happens after rock bottom?
Things get better.
The Giants have two games against the Eagles before their Week 9 bye, and taking on the soft Eagles secondary should do wonders for Manning's confidence and the Giants' division record. Along with hosting the struggling Minnesota Vikings, the Giants have three very winnable games in their next five.
All of this is just window dressing, though. If the Giants don't make big improvements on both sides of the ball, they won't win any of those winnable games. They can't get better players right now, so the players they have will have to play better.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has to find a way to get the very talented Wilson some room to run, even if that means abandoning the between-the-tackles game. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has to get more heat on the quarterback without over-blitzing his underwhelming linebackers or sabotaging the coverage in doing so.
Manning isn't going anywhere; at the end of the season, he'll have three years left on a seven-year, $106 million deal, per Spotrac.com. He earned that contract by producing when it counts, over and over, so the Giants will have to assume he can do it again.
Then, there's the big question: How much of this is head coach Tom Coughlin's fault?
Coughlin has to get more effort and production out of his players. Over the 10 years he's coached the Giants, that's been his calling card—but the 67-year-old may have finally lost his grip on this team.
If Coughlin can still coach this team up, he'd better do it now—before the bottom drops out.