Happy returns? At least one of these two head coaches might not be back with his current team in 2014.
Will you follow this weekend's Giants-Washington regular-season finale?
Yeah, try telling that to fans of the New York Giants, who have sat through one of the worst seasons under head coach Tom Coughlin since 2004.
At least it will be over this weekend when New York hosts the even more dismal Washington Redskins.
If you are looking for a matchup that has all the intrigue as watching paint dry, then this is the game you’ve been waiting for.
But don’t tell Coughlin that this game lacks intrigue, not unless you want to be met with an icy stare that could flash-freeze your holiday ham in less time than it took for you to tear through the wrapping on your holiday gifts.
Almost as soon as MetLife Stadium begins transforming itself from the home of the Giants into the home of Super Bowl XLVIII, Coughlin will begin the rather unpleasant task of meeting with general manager Jerry Reese and with ownership to evaluate the entire football operation.
Coughlin, who is expected to be retained, will start with his assistant coaches. Whether any planned changes will involve offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell remain to be seen (my guess is no).
Then there is the roster itself—the underachieving, banged-up, aging roster which has been at a crossroads almost since day one.
For the first time in several seasons, probably more players are on the bubble regarding their place on the team moving forward.
That’s why Coughlin, who has not backed down from his insistence that the team still has a lot to play for is going to be looking for players who share that philosophy.
"You’re being heavily scrutinized by the powers that be within your own organization. The coaches want to know what you’re made out of,” he told reporters on a conference call earlier this week.
Coughlin also emphasized that how an individual performs in tough times, such as what the Giants are experiencing, will say a lot about the individual’s character:
I talked to Antonio Pierce and Jesse Armstead, and the experiences they had and the way in which you can tell when a teammate is really zoomed in and maintains that intensity about his current season and his current standings versus drifting off and losing focus.
For me, it’s a matter of pride…it’s a matter of who you represent…it’s a matter of your teammates depending on you…it’s a matter of your character and who you are.
Who you are and what you represent and what your character is and how you stand as a man in the most difficult of times (and) in the best of times.
We’ve had it both ways around here. We’ve had people in that Super Bowl locker room, and we’ve had people in our locker room after we’ve had disappointing losses.
How do we handle it, and what kind of men are we if we don’t rise to the occasion and meet the bell when things aren’t going well. I take that stuff very seriously.
Talk might be cheap at this point, as the players lack of consistency in taking pride in their performance should have happened a long time before this weekend.
However, the rebuilding period has to start at some point, so this week, whether anyone on the team wants to admit it or not, might as well be that start.
This weekend will be the 162nd regular-season meeting between the Giants and Washington and their second meeting this month. The Giants lead the series 93-6-4. They last edged Washington 24-17 at FedEx Field on Dec. 1.
With a win, the Giants will sweep the annual regular-season series with Washington for the first time since 2010.
|Coaching / Intangibles||x|
Thanks to inconsistent pass blocking and receivers, Eli Manning is a broken quarterback who is the runaway league leader in interceptions (26), who is not making sharp decisions and who has been throwing passes to receivers as if he’s wearing a blindfold.
Robert Griffin III will be safely tucked away on the bench this weekend, leaving his backup, Kirk Cousins, to mop up what’s left of the season. According to the Washington Post, RG3 and Cousins have run the same plays, but Cousins has shown an ability to make quicker reads and decisions with the ball.
The bad news, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), is that Cousins has thrown three of his four interceptions this season since becoming the starter two games ago, which could mean that he's not letting things fully develop in his haste to throw the ball.
Washington has a healthy Alfred Morris and Roy Helu.
The Giants meanwhile might have to rely on rookie Michael Cox and fullback John Conner to move the ball on the ground unless one or both of Peyton Hillis and Andre Brown, both of whom passed the league’s concussion protocol and returned to practice this week, are well enough to go.
Jordan Reed is on injured reserve, leaving Fred Davis, who was starting to be phased out for Reed, and Logan Paulsen to man this position for Washington.
For the Giants, Brandon Myers has actually started to show signs of life in the passing game, with three touchdown receptions in his last five games, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
His blocking has been a colossal disappointment, but the good news is that Bear Pascoe has tried to pick up the slack in this area.
Hakeem Nicks, who has played like he’s been “out” all season long, has yet to score. That’s left teams to tee off on Rueben Randle, who, in his last four games, has nine catches for 87 yards and no touchdowns.
Third-year man Jerrel Jernigan, who has put together two nice games in a row, will look to close out the season on a positive note.
Washington doesn’t exactly have much in terms of receivers, but they do have Pierre Garcon, their team leader with 107 catches for 1,290 yards and five touchdowns.
The Giants’ patchwork offensive line—their seventh different starting combination this season—allowed two sacks, five tackles for a loss and five quarterback hits last week.
The run blocking was even worse as the running backs couldn’t get anything going, thanks to the Detroit Lions flooding the point of attack to overwhelm the Giants' blockers.
Washington’s offensive line has allowed 40 sacks this season, but ever since Cousins was inserted into the lineup, it has not allowed a sack in seven quarters of play.
Also worth noting is that Washington's run blocking has been a large reason why they have the league’s fifth-best rushing attack.
Nose tackle and former Giant Barry Cofield is a load to handle inside and should feast this week against a Giants' offensive interior that could see two relatively inexperienced players at guard, depending on what happens with veteran David Diehl’s status.
The Giants' defensive front played one of its best games last week. In particular, as defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka was a playmaking machine.
Justin Tuck, who had four sacks in the last meeting, will be looking to continue exploiting whatever weakness he saw last time.
Defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Cullen Jenkins have been consistent all season, with Jenkins drawing the double-team blocks and Joseph surfing the line of scrimmage to create congestion and take away the cutback lanes.
The last time these two teams met, outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo created all kinds of trouble for the Giants on the pass rush, while the inside tandem of Perry Riley Jr. and the retiring London Fletcher were stout inside forces.
For New York, Jon Beason is the only every-down linebacker the Giants have, but he can be vulnerable on coverage.
Jacquian Williams has been inconsistent and has been losing snaps to Spencer Paysinger, who has played well.
Washington has allowed an average of 264.7 passing yards per game this season, ranking them 12th in the NFL. They’re also tied for seventh (with Minnesota and San Diego) for the most big-play passes (20 or more yards) allowed.
The Giants secondary has played well this season. The 49ers have allowed 241.2 passing yards per game, 21st in the NFL. They've also allowed just 40 big-play passes of 20 or more yards, which ties them for seventh with Tampa Bay for fewest allowed in the league
If you think the Giants special teams has been bad, then you probably haven’t seen Washington’s lately.
Mike Shanahan’s group is ranked at or near the bottom of the league in kickoff-return average (20.1, 30th) and punt-return average (6.7, 27th).
Both teams are tied for allowing the most punt returns for touchdowns (three), but Washington edges out the Giants in special teams touchdowns surrendered because they also have given up a kickoff return for a touchdown this season.
Coughlin might be going through one of the worst seasons of his tenure as Giants head coach. However, the circumstances have only served to stoke the competitive fires inside the 67-year-old, who strongly hinted to the Washington media during a conference call that he still has something left to prove.
His counterpart, Mike Shanahan, seems resigned that his days as Washington’s head coach have a good chance of ending after this weekend's game, which raises he question as to whether his players will play hard for him or look to escape as unscathed as possible.
After spending a number of weeks hoping that the deficiencies along the offensive line would melt away, the coaches finally came to their senses and concluded that they had to abandon the deep ball in favor of a shorter passing game.
That approach has worked well, as was illustrated in last week’s overtime win against Detroit. The more the game plan can do to take the onus off the offensive line’s need to sustain a pass block for more than a couple of seconds, the better.
Thus, don’t be surprised to see that strategy might carry over to this week, especially given how quick slot receiver Jerrel Jernigan has looked these last two weeks.
A big question mark is the play of left tackle Will Beatty, who in the first meeting was beaten for two sacks by Washington linebacker Brian Orakpo.
Beatty, who has acknowledged his struggles this season, said earlier this month that his struggles are a result of him trying to show people that he’s worthy of the new contract he received last offseason.
“I know I came into this year trying to do way too much and trying to change who I was to fulfill the media hype,’’ Beatty told The New York Post, per Paul Schwartz.
“It’s like you got the contract, now eyes are on you, people are expecting more from you and you’re trying to live up to it.’’
It might be too late for Beatty this season to live up to his new deal, so look for him to get a lot of help on his side in neutralizing Orakpo, who looks like he’s going to play this weekend despite a strained groin injury that has so far limited him in practice.
The other concern for the Giants is their running game, which is back on life support after showing signs earlier in the year that it might be awakening from its season-long slumber.
Part of the problem has been injuries—the Giants have been without Peyton Hillis for two weeks while Andre Brown’s production and ball security have declined.
Another part of the problem has been opposing defenses have flooded the line of scrimmage to overwhelm the blocking.
By stopping the run, they have forced Manning to beat them in the air. A few quick slants in between the coverage could help alleviate some of this flooding.
Here’s a look at some other strategic keys for the Giants:
Stop Alfred Morris
The last time these two teams met, the Giants were able to put all of their energy toward stopping running back Alfred Morris.
The plan worked, as Morris was held to 26 yards on 11 carries, a season low per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
After seeing no snaps on defense last week, linebacker Keith Rivers, who saw 25 snaps against the run in the first meeting and who was a key player in shutting Morris down, will likely have a nice-sized workload this weekend.
Beware of the Play Fake
In the last meeting, the Giants linebackers were fooled one time too many by play action, jumping at the first sign of the run only to see the ball be sent over their heads for a completion.
This time around, they’ll need to play more of an honest game and not try to cheat toward the line or bleed over to one side.
Try to Fool Kirk Cousins
Cousins was rather forthcoming helping the Giants media understand the different wrinkles on offense when he's under center as opposed to when Griffin is the quarterback:
Well you don’t see the zone read as much. Robert’s obviously very talented running the football, so you’re going to have some quarterback design runs, which can give the defense some issues.
We’re not going to do that when I’m in there as much, but we’re going to play to my strengths and probably do a little more drop back and a little more play-pass, a little more traditional things for the quarterback to do to be able to read the defense and get through a progression.
Whoever is quarterbacking, the coordinator is going to play to that guy’s strengths and you can see the differences in Robert’s and my game.
So what can the Giants do to rattle Cousins in the pocket?
They can try going heavy with stunts and delayed blitzes to create confusion up front and catch the quarterback making a mistake.
What They're Saying
"You better have to, the way he played us the first time. He did a great job and played extremely well. He’s always been a guy that has a lot of ability and can make plays at any time. He sure did a good job against us last time."
—Washington head coach Mike Shanahan on if they would consider scheming specifically to stop defensive end Justin Tuck from repeating his four-sack performance from the first meeting this season
“Absolutely. I mean, probably even more because there are a lot of those that are telling you that you didn’t do very well and you’re not a very good coach and you’re not this and you’re not that. So perhaps you have something to prove.”
—Giants head coach Tom Coughlin on if he still had a passion for coaching after a season like 2013
"I think there is a possibility that I stay here. I’ve signed a four-year contract, and I still have two more years to go after this season. It all depends on what a team thinks of me after watching me in the sample size I’ve been able to put out there, and we’ll let that happen as the offseason goes on."
—Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins on his future
“To win the game, like it is always.”
—Giants defensive end Justin Tuck on the team's motivation going into this last game
|WR Victor Cruz||knee (DNP)||LB Brian Orakpo||groin (limited)|
|CB Trumaine McBride||groin (DNP||LB Ryan Kerrigan||wrist (full)|
|G Brandon Mosley||hand (DNP)||FB Darrel Young||hamstring (full)|
|DE Jason Pierre-Paul||shoulder (DNP)|
|TE Adrien Robinson||knee (DNP)|
|CB Terrell Thomas||knee (DNP)|
|RB Andre Brown||concussion (limited)|
|RB Peyton Hillis||concussion (limited)|
|OL David Diehl||knee (limited)|
|DT Cullen Jenkins||shin/quad (limited)|
*Washington did not practice on Wednesday.
Giants Injury Analysis
The Giants received a bit of good news during their Christmas-day jog-through when concussed running backs Andre Brown and Peyton Hillis and offensive lineman David Diehl (knee) were able to participate in a limited amount of snaps.
Judging by the roster moves made on Wednesday, per the team's official website—New York placed safety Cooper Taylor (hamstring) on injured reserve and promoted guard Eric Herman from the practice squad—it appears that there is hope of having at least one of their two injured running backs for Sunday's game.
Prediction: Giants 27, Washington 23
With Coughlin all but certain to be back in 2014, these players who have jobs should want to do everything they can to hold on to their respective positions and give their suffering fans a proper ending to what's been a disappointing season.
Washington is probably worse off considering that no matter what they do, they're probably not going to save their head coach's job.
Look for the Giants to band together and finish the season on a strong note in what should be their fourth consecutive winning regular-season finale.