When evaluating a football team, it’s sometimes difficult to discern if a problem exists because of the personnel or the coaching.
Which offensive coach needs to be the first to go after this season?
Often, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. So how then does one go about evaluating whether a coach is worth retaining after a poor season?
The answer is to consider his record in personnel development and, in the case of coordinators, personnel deployment.
In the first of two parts, we look at the jobs done by the New York Giants offensive coaches—Kevin Gilbride (offensive coordinator), Jerald Ingram (running backs), Kevin M. Gilbride (receivers), Mike Pope (tight ends), Sean Ryan (quarterbacks) and Pat Flaherty and Lunda Wells (offensive line).
Among the criteria used in arriving at a conclusion whether to retain or dismiss a coach is the coach's body of work, which includes how players under his charge have flourished in the NFL.
Sean Ryan: Quarterbacks
In his second season as the Giants quarterbacks coach, Sean Ryan, who was promoted to the spot after serving two years as the team’s wide receivers coach and three years before that, as an offensive quality control assistant, is literally in charge of grooming the "franchise."
In addition to being tasked with working with veteran Eli Manning, Ryan has also been charged with helping to develop rookie Ryan Nassib, the draft pick that general manager Jerry Reese so famously declared that the team hopes “will never play” a down as a Giant.
With the team part of practice closed to the media during the season, it’s difficult to assess Nassib's development. What we can evaluate is how Manning has performed during Ryan’s two years as quarterbacks coach.
* Through 12 games
ESPN New York makes a valid argument that Manning’s pass protection this season is probably affecting him. Along those lines, Bob Glauber of Newsday notes that Manning hasn't been making the smart decisions he’s made in the past, resulting in some of his errant throws and mistakes.
It’s also of concern that after posting three consecutive seasons throwing for more than 4,000 yards (2009 to 2011), including a career high of 4,933 yards in 2011, Manning has hardly looked like an elite quarterback, thanks, in part, to his completion rate dipping below 60 percent in each of the last two seasons.
Whatever the cause for Manning’s decline, it’s clear that even at age 32, he still needs an experienced coach to help him break down some of the issues that have been plaguing his game.
His recent numbers unfortunately don’t support nor warrant Ryan continuing as the quarterback coach, not if this team wants the old Manning back any time soon.
Jerald Ingram: Running Backs
Jerald Ingram, a 29-year coaching veteran, is one of Coughlin’s original assistant coaches.
He started his pro coaching career with Coughlin in Jacksonville (1994-2002) and, before that, worked with Coughlin in 1991-1993 while the two were at Boston College.
During his Giants tenure, Ingram has helped produce a 1,000-yard running back eight times (out of 10 seasons), including two 1,000-yard rushers, Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward, in 2008.
In 2013, Ingram faced perhaps one of the toughest years of his Giants career. Tasked with trying to make David Wilson, last year’s first-round draft pick, into a pass protector, Ingram seemed to be fighting an uphill battle against Wilson’s reluctance to be more than just a ball-carrier.
Besides the issues with Wilson in 2013, the Giants have dealt with injuries at the running back spot, resulting in an unusually high number of starting combinations at the running back and fullback spots.
While the 2013 running game’s numbers aren’t anywhere near the top of the league, the unit has, at times, carried the Giants since it evolved back to the power game.
Granted it took veterans like Jacobs and Peyton Hillis, along with the return of Andre Brown to make it work, but given the state of the offense, the running backs have been the least of this team’s issues this season.
Thus, Ingram deserves to be retained after this year to have another chance to work with helping Wilson become a more complete NFL-caliber back, assuming Wilsonfrom his season-ending neck injury.
Kevin M. Gilbride: Receivers
As part of the coaching shuffle that resulted in Ryan being promoted to quarterbacks, Kevin M. Gilbride, son of the Giants’ offensive coordinator, was promoted to his current spot after serving two seasons as an offensive assistant on Coughlin’s coaching staff.
The jewel in the receiving corps’ crown has been Victor Cruz, the four-year veteran who is well on his way this year to recording his third consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season.
With four 100-yard games under his belt so far, Cruz appears to be on track to finish 2013 with 1,241 yards.
Aside from Cruz, the receivers' production has been somewhat disappointing under Gilbride's watch. While one might give a pass to Hakeem Nicks for trying to play injured in 2012, his play this year has been disappointing.
Even more disappointing is the progress of Rueben Randle. Randle, remember, was the talk of the town in the spring and summer as he managed to take advantage of the absences of both Nicks and Cruz from the offseason program.
However, once the curtain rose on the regular season, Randle has had his struggles, starting with the fact that, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), there have been seven interceptions on passes thrown to him this season, the most recent being in last week’s win over Washington.
Considering that Randle was present for the offseason program and the OTAs, it’s somewhat baffling that he and Manning haven’t always been on the same page.
Given Randle’s struggles, one has to wonder where the breakdowns are coming. Is it in the receiver’s preparation or in what he’s taking away from the classroom? And what is being done to help Randle better understand his options on a route?
In fairness, Randle’s numbers over the last four games have been consistent. He’s caught 12 of 17 passes thrown his way for 171 yards and two touchdowns. However, the timing routes that the Giants have used with great success in the past have also been cut from the mix as those gave Randle some early-season headaches.
Other concerns among the receiver group include the slow development of Jerrel Jernigan, a third-round pick in 2011.
Per Pro Football Focus, Jernigan has only been targeted 17 times this season, catching 10 passes for 92 yards, a significant jump from 2012 when he caught three out of five passes for 22 yards after seeing action in just one regular-season game (due to an injury to Nicks).
Nicks and Cruz aside, since both were established when Gilbride took over as receivers coach, the job that’s been done developing the younger talent gives pause regarding whether it's a good idea to keep the younger Gilbride in this role next season.
Michael Pope: Tight Ends
Michael Pope began his coaching career in 1970 at Florida State University as a receivers coach/recruiting coordinator. He’s been a NFL coach for 31 seasons and is the only assistant coach to have been on staff for all four of the Giants' Super Bowl wins.
He was also the only holdover from former head coach Jim Fassel’s staff that Coughlin retained after he was hired as the team's head coach in 2004.
As a member of the Giants’ coaching staff, some of Pope’s most successful pupils include Mark Bavaro, Zeke Mowatt, Howard Cross, Jeremy Shockey, Kevin Boss, Jake Ballard and Martellus Bennett.
This year, Pope was given a group consisting of free-agent Brandon Myers, holdover Bear Pascoe, 2012 fourth-round draft pick Adrien Robinson and undrafted free-agent Larry Donnell.
The results have been mixed. Myers, whose talents seem to be a better fit for a West Coast offense, continues to struggle with blocking for the running game, though as a receiver, he’s started to show signs of finally becoming comfortable in the Giants system.
Robinson, the big second-year prospect, was supposed to see his reps increase this year, but a severe foot sprain suffered in the preseason finale cost him several valuable weeks of practice time.
Donnell has also progressed slowly, though to be fair, he did miss the majority of the spring workouts due to a broken foot.
The Giants remain high on both Robinson (6’4”, 264 pounds) and Donnell (6’6”, 269 pounds) as potential contributors to the offense.
Before he was injured, Robinson was starting to show signs of being a red-zone threat. Donnell, meanwhile, has been learning to take on the multifaceted role currently held by Bear Pascoe, who’s schedule to be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
However, Robinson has been unable to get on the field while Donnell has only played in 98 of the team’s 748 snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
As for Pope, the innovator of numerous creative drills designed to help his students perfect their blocking techniques and concentration, his track record is hard to ignore despite the results shown by his current class.
Pat Flaherty/Lunda Wells: Offensive Line/Offensive Line Assistant
Pat Flaherty, who like Ingram has been a member of Coughlin’s Giants staff since 2004, has more than 30 years of coaching experience.
Flaherty, who is assisted by newcomer Lunda Wells, has had a solid record of accomplishment with the Giants.
Under his leadership, the Giants offensive line has been ranked among the top eight in the league in four of the last five seasons, per his official team bio.
One of the best Giants starting offensive lines under Flaherty’s watch was a combination that saw David Diehl at left tackle, Rich Seubert at left guard, Shaun O’Hara at center, Chris Snee at right guard and Kareem McKenzie at right tackle.
That combination, which played from 2007 through 2010, yielded three Pro Bowlers (Snee, Diehl and O’Hara), and was a staple in the team's first Super Bowl win under Coughlin in 2007.
In 2011, the Giants offensive line underwent a transition as both O’Hara and Seubert were released with injury settlements at the start of training camp.
Those moves necessitated a re-shuffling of the line that saw Diehl move inside to left guard, Will Beatty assume the left tackle job, and newcomer David Baas, who signed as a free agent after the lockout, step in at center.
Behind that line, the Giants would go on to win their fourth Super Bowl championship in franchise history, and the second under Coughlin.
Like the situation at running back, 2013 hasn’t been kind to the Giants offensive line as far as injuries go. New York has had to field six different starting combinations this season, which has disrupted continuity.
Part of that constant disruption has resulted in some of the 31 sacks allowed thus far by the offensive line, the highest number of sacks quarterback Eli Manning has had to absorb in his career.
The good news, though, is that under Flaherty's guidance, Justin Pugh has flourished.
Pugh, the team’s first-round draft pick this year, has been a bright spot in an otherwise roller coaster year for the Giants blockers.
Per Pro Football Focus, Pugh has allowed just three sacks in 792 snaps and has a 2.1 overall grade for his play this season, in which he’s allowed just 10 quarterback pressures in his last seven games.
He is also the Giants’ only offensive lineman with a positive grade this season.
The bad news is that left tackle William Beatty, who in 2012 was Pro Football Focus’ 11th best offensive tackle, seems to have regressed.
Beatty has insisted that his struggles this season are more of a result of him trying to live up to the responsibilities that come with the new five-year, $38.75 million contract he signed in the offseason, but the simple fact is that he's been good some weeks and has struggled others with his technique.
The offensive line in general has struggled with its pass-blocking, helping to contribute in the removal of the deep pass from the offense’s game plan because of its inability to collectively hold a block longer than a couple of seconds.
Source: Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
The good news is that the running game, and in particular the short-yardage game, has been steady behind the revolving door of offensive linemen.
Per Pro Football Reference, the Giants have converted 23 short-yardage situations (one yard or less) this season, just seven attempts short of 2012’s total.
The Giants also have six rushing touchdowns scored from one-yard out this season, three shy of matching their 2012 total.
Considering the injury factor from this season, Flaherty has done a good enough job to warrant continuing in his post.
Kevin Gilbride: Offensive Coordinator
Not since the days of Tim Lewis, the first defensive coordinator that Coughlin hired in his tenure as Giants head coach, has an assistant coach like offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride been such a lightning rod for fan disdain.
But just how much of the frustration over the play-calling lies with Gilbride versus Manning, who has the authority to call an audible if he doesn’t like what he sees from the defense?
We might never know the answer to that, as neither Gilbride nor Manning has been willing to talk about that.
One thing that Gilbride can be blamed for is the personnel groups that he puts on the field on any given play, such as the maddening strategies he deployed in the Giants’ critical game two weeks ago versus the Dallas Cowboys.
Creativity is good, but sometimes it’s best to stick with what works and let the other team try to figure out how to stop it. Against the Cowboys, that was not always the case.
Returning to the question whether Gilbride deserves another season given the job he's done so far, those in favor of keeping him will rightfully point to the fact that his system has won two Super Bowls for the team.
To counter that argument, what happened years ago has no bearing on the current year because the personnel was much different in each of those seasons.
Instead, the question is has Gilbride made the necessary tweaks to his system to accommodate the experience and talent he's been given?
Let’s begin by looking at how the Giants offense has ranked under Gilbride dating back to the 2007 season, the Giants’ first championship with him as their offensive coordinator.
Note how the Giants offense has been in the top 10 league-wide four seasons in a row (2008 to 2011).
However, one thing that stands out is that, save for 2010 and 2012, there has been a noticeable discrepancy in terms of where the running game and where the passing games have ranked.
Now let’s look at some trends under Gilbride from the last three years. The team’s rank within the league is in parentheses.
|Season||Points Scored||Yards/Game||Yards/Play||3rd Down %|
|2011||397 (8th)||385.1 (8th)||6.0 (7th)||37% (14th)|
|2012||429 (6th)||355.4 (14th)||5.9 (4th)||41% (11th)|
|2013||237 (26th)||320.8 (27th)||5.1 (24th)||35% (25th)|
There are a few things worth noting regarding these numbers, particularly the drop-off from 2012 to 2013. The biggest one is injuries, particularly to the offensive line.
The Giants have had to shuffle their starting offensive line an unheard of six times this season. Despite what the players say about communication and being on the same page, this is not always true.
Every time a new player is inserted into the lineup at offensive line, the dynamics regarding communication is affected, as Danny Kelly of SB Nation’s “Field Gulls” points out:
Continuity along the offensive line is extremely important—you're working as a unit, making last minute changes in the heat of battle and adjusting to defensive changes on the fly up to 60 or 70 times a game. Continuity is important because it eases communication, establishes comfort between linemates (sic) to know where their cohort is going to be on any given situation…Continuity on the O-Line is arguably as important (or more important) than chemistry between quarterback and receiver.
That the Giants offensive line is caught in the middle of a transition where it’s phasing out the older veterans in favor of younger, less experienced players is a large reason why the offense has been so erratic.
To compensate, Gilbride has been forced to incorporate some elements of the West Coast offense, such as the shorter passing game that requires the pass protection to hold its blocks for a shorter period.
This style of offense really doesn't complement the skill-position players, especially Manning, who has had more success with the deep ball.
Per Pro Football Focus, Manning has attempted just 53 passes of 20 or more yards this year, much less than the 109 attempts in 2011 when he had a stable offensive line blocking for him and receivers who could handle the timing routes.
While the popular fan consensus would be a resounding “Yes!” regarding the Giants dismissing Gilbride at the end of the season, chances are that he’ll be retained given his history and that the drop-off in 2013 appears to be a result of personnel issues creating a chain of unfavorable events.
In the second and final part of this series, which will run next Friday, we'll look at the job done by the defensive and special teams coaches.
Patricia Traina is the senior editor for Inside Football. All quotes and information obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Patricia on Twitter, @Patricia_Traina.