When I began my sports writing career, I always remember something I was told regarding the play-calling done on the field.
Every play is designed to work.
With all due respect to those who believe that statement, that’s like me saying that everything I write is designed to win a Pulitzer Prize.
I tell this story because as I look back at the New York Giants’ season-deflating loss to the Dallas Cowboys, there were some interesting play calls by offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride that don’t appear to have helped the Giants.
Before I go into the specifics, I need to state upfront that I do not believe Gilbride is fully to blame for the ineffectiveness of the offense.
Player execution certainly does play a part in the breakdowns we have seen. Also, the injuries that have ravaged the offensive line and running backs have resulted in personnel combinations that may or may not be the best fit for what Gilbride wants to do.
With that said, injuries and such should not be used as an excuse in evaluating the job done by Gilbride in this game.
How to Be a Successful Coach
"Coaches who can outline plays on a blackboard are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their player and motivate."
Part of that motivation comes with putting players in the best possible position to succeed, which is something that, based on some of his play calls on Sunday, I don’t believe Gilbride did.
Gilbride’s biggest faults, from the outside looking in, are three-fold. One, he tends to be stubborn regarding plays that might have worked well with different personnel throughout the years but which might not necessarily be a fit for the current players he has.
Two, sometimes he tries to outsmart the other team, only to end up outsmarting himself.
And three, there is a reluctance to use personnel in new ways unless forced to do so because of injury.
That brings us to this most recent game against the Cowboys, a game that despite the final score, the Giants were never out of it.
In this game, there were clearly some decisions that were perplexing, but because the coordinators aren’t available after a game to speak to the media, there was no way to ask the questions that probably everyone who watched the game had.
Before we look at the offensive play-calling—and I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fine breakdown of the various personnel groups used vs. Dallas done by Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger—let’s first look at some specific personnel deployment.
Fitting Round Pegs Into Square Holes
As noted above, an underrated, yet important quality in a coach is to be flexible enough to adapt to the hand that he’s been given.
From what I have observed in my years covering the team, the Giants coaching staff consists of excellent teachers who truly care about developing the young men whose careers it has been entrusted with.
However, there have been times when, due to a lack of depth, injuries, etc. when the coaches have had no choice but to try to make a player into something he’s just not meant to be.
One example that comes to mind is tight end Brandon Myers. When the Giants lost Martellus Bennett to the Chicago Bears last offseason, they scooped up Myers, who, believe it or not, is a very good tight end—in a West Coast offense.
In the Giants’ system, Myers has, at times, been like a fish out of water.
In Oakland, Myers was rarely asked to block; his role was to go out and catch passes. Here, he needs to contribute something with blocking, which is something he has yet to come close to mastering, though there has been some improvement from the summer and early part of the season.
Given Myers’ specific skill set, why is he repeatedly asked to perform solo blocks on the edge, a block that has given him trouble virtually most of the season?
Worse yet, why, when it’s clear that Myers has struggled in this regard, call for a running play behind said solo block on the edge if there’s a 50-50 chance the block is going to be cleanly executed?
Above is an example from the game against Dallas.
Note how Myers is being pushed back by his man in the frame on the left; in the frame on the right, the defender who has beaten Myers (marked with the blue arrow) slides over (red path) to stop Brown for a three-yard gain that might have gone for more had Myers made the block.
Another example is the offensive line’s interior.
When center David Baas and right guard Chris Snee were lost for the year with injuries, many thought the Giants might go to a combination consisting of James Brewer at left guard, Kevin Boothe at center and David Diehl at right guard, a combination that, in the preseason, showed potential.
The problem with making that switch is that the coaches were apparently a little too concerned about making multiple changes at once to the offensive line, especially since it already had a rookie right tackle in the lineup.
So instead of potentially changing two positions, they decided just to address the center spot.
Thus enter Jim Cordle, a scrappy and affable player who gives a solid effort on every snap and who has an understanding of the offense. Despite showing improvement each week, Cordle doesn’t quite fit the definition of a mauler that a smash-mouth offense likes to have in the middle.
While it could be coincidental, the numbers before and after the offensive line was reconfigured tell a very interesting story:
|Per Play Averages (Run and Pass) Based on O-Line Configurations|
|O-line Interior Configuration||Rush Avg./Play||Pass Avg//Play|
|LG Boothe - C Cordle - RG Diehl||4.36||4.81|
|LG Brewer - C Boothe - RG Diehl||8.10||6.04 (+2 TDs)|
|Compiled from the NFL Game Book Data|
In addition to the above averages, the running game posted seven big-play runs of 10 or more yards behind the Brewer-Boothe-Diehl interior vs. the two it had earlier in the game.
With Cordle having been placed on injured reserve on Tuesday, according to Orr, the Brewer-Boothe-Diehl interior will likely carry the Giants the rest of the season, barring injury.
Head coach Tom Coughlin always talks about the importance of balance, so when asked after the game if he was tempted to run the ball more given the success that phase of the offense was having, he replied, “No. We’re a balanced team. We play for balance.”
While theoretically he’s correct in wanting to achieve balance, like most everything else in life, there are exceptions to the rule. The way the game was unfolding against Dallas, that might have been as good a time as any to make an exception.
There are several reasons why the Giants were shortsighted in not sticking with the hot hand, the run. The biggest reason is that the run could have been used to set up the pass.
Gilbride, who has a reputation for being “pass happy” from his days of running the “run and shoot” with the Houston Oilers, no doubt saw that the Cowboys secondary has had its share of struggles this season, giving up an average of 313 passing yards per game coming into their matchup against the Giants.
So why not take a few shots with the passing game and see what happens, right?
The problem, though, is that without Hakeem Nicks in the lineup, Victor Cruz was the unlucky recipient of bracket coverage all game long, an example of which you can see in this frame, the play being the one where Cruz was stripped of the ball by Orlando Scandrick.
Because Cruz was often bracketed, the Giants were left to hope that Rueben Randle, Jerrel Jernigan and/or Louis Murphy might break free against single coverage.
Here’s where the mistake to deviate from the “balanced-offense” principle hurt the Giants. Before Cruz’s interception on a 1st-and-10, the Giants had run the ball six times for 40 yards.
Meanwhile, of their six passing attempts, the first four were incomplete, the fifth one ended in a sack and the last one resulted in the turnover.
If the run was working, then why not stick with it? Doing so not only would have controlled the clock better (and kept Tony Romo and company off the field), it might just have forced the Cowboys to devote that man assigned to help bracket Cruz down in the box to help shut down the run.
Seeing "Red" Over the Play Selection
One of the most frustrating things to watch in Sunday’s game was the Giants’ red-zone play selection.
As he usually does after a disappointing game, quarterback Eli Manning put the blame on the lack of execution, saying, “Early in the game we had some opportunities to get some touchdowns and get the lead or keep the game close, and we obviously didn’t execute well enough down there.
“We had a couple plays where we went backwards, which is always tough, and it makes it more difficult to score. We had third and goal from the 10, so we’ve got to do better down there to get touchdowns and not settle for field goals.”
While there were some execution problems, the play-calling didn’t exactly help matters. Let’s take a look at the first one, which occurred in the second quarter with the Giants having 1st-and-goal from the Cowboys’ 9-yard line.
The first play was a one-yard pass to tight end Brandon Myers. On the play, Eli Manning took a five-step drop that quickly became more as the offensive line struggled to hold their blocks.
There are two things wrong with this play. First, when you’re down by the goal line, you want to run a play that does not take a lot of time to develop, especially against a smaller, quicker defense like Dallas’.
Second, you have an offensive line that all season long has shown that it can rarely hold its blocks on those five- and seven-step drops. So why even consider risking a sack when you’re that close to pay dirt?
On the next play, a 2nd-and-9, the Giants lined up in an I-formation, a clear sign they were going to run it. On this play, a pass to the end zone against the Cowboys’ shaky secondary probably would have made more sense.
Although Andre Brown got the blocking he needed, it looks like the direction of the play might have been telegraphed by Cordle, who after snapping the ball, can be seen glancing to his left (blue circle) at the man he has to block, the left side being the direction the play is headed..
This allows defensive end Kyle Webber (No. 51) and linebacker Ernie Sims (No. 59) to come right up into the holes as opposed to dropping back into coverage.
Meanwhile Bruce Carter sheds his double-team block by Cordle and Diehl to make the tackle, holding Brown to a two-yard gain.
On the ensuing 3rd-and-7, the Giants lined up to pass, which, because of the failures on first and second down, made it obvious as to what was coming.
To make matters worse, Manning took a five-step drop that quickly became more thanks to pressure allowed by left tackle Will Beatty against defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
As a result, Manning never saw a wide-open Cruz (blue circle). Instead, Manning dumps the ball out to Brown (yellow line), who is the safety valve.
Brown only picks up four of the seven yards needed on the play, and the Giants are forced to settle for a 21-yard field goal instead of the much-needed touchdown.
The “Draw” That Broke the Giants’ Back
If you’re one of those people who have punched a wall every time the Giants have run a draw play when needing long yardage, raise your hand.
Go ahead. I won’t judge.
That’s exactly what happened on the second failed red-zone opportunity.
With 1st-and-goal at the 4-yard line, Brown’s rush was blown up for a loss of six yards by an unblocked defender who took advantage of three Giants blocking a teammate.
This brought up a 2nd-and-goal at the 10-yard line. Again, logic dictates that the closer the offense is to the goal line, the quicker it needs to get a play off so that the defense doesn’t have time to adjust.
On second down, the Giants work out of the shotgun and now have to wait for Myers (black square) to work his way free in the end zone.
For some reason, Manning doesn’t see Jernigan (red circle) or Cruz (blue circle), both of whom are open. Instead, Manning, who on the tape has his sights set on Myers all the way, ends up throwing the ball out of the back of the end zone.
Faced with 3rd-and-10, the Giants should have tried a quick pass, either a fade or a quick slant.
Instead, as you can see in the frame on the right, they lined up in a formation that screamed “draw play.”
Notice how close Brown is lined up next to Manning. Sure enough, it was a draw, and Brown only managed to gain five of the 10 yards needed, the Giants again having to settle for a field goal.
So why run the draw on third down?
“That was another one of those alert kind of deals where you have something called and you also have a run built in,” Coughlin explained.
“We ended up going to the run. If that’s the way that goes, that’s ours. That’s our fault. The thinking is to get the ball into the end zone. That’s what the thinking is.”
As a side note, when the Giants tied the score on a two-point conversion run by Brown in the fourth quarter, they ran the same draw play.
However, the distance to the goal line was a lot closer than it was on this third-down play, making the draw called for the two-point conversion a more logical play.
On Monday after having a chance to review the tape, Coughlin was clearly frustrated by the lack of production in what he calls the “green zone.”
“It’s the second week in a row, I think, we’re one for three in the green zone, and as you are on the sideline, you’re holding your breath hoping that doesn’t come back to haunt you, but obviously it did.
“When you get down there, you’ve got to put the ball in the end zone. You’ve got to score. Even when you get into that close area like that, you’ve got to put the ball in the end zone.”
When asked if execution was a factor in the red-zone failures, Coughlin nodded. “That’s for sure,” he said.
He also briefly entertained the thought that maybe the Cowboys showed them looks that perhaps they didn’t prepare for.
“Most of the calls have been options, various options involved. Like when we drive it down there and we’re running the ball well and then don’t make the yardage we would like to make on the run.
“We went to the pass and obviously didn’t have a good look at the pass either. We’re frustrated as well.”
So are a lot of Giants fans.
Patricia Traina is the senior editor for Inside Football. All Giants quotes and information obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Vince Lombardi quotes obtained from Quote Book. Follow Patricia on Twitter, @Patricia_Traina.