Biggest Takeaways from New York Giants' 2014 Season
Just like that, the New York Giants have completed their 2014 schedule—all 17 games, which featured a variety of highs (Odell Beckham Jr., anyone?) and a whole bunch of lows, which won’t be mentioned here lest they ruin what’s left of the holidays.
It’s been another frustrating campaign for the Giants, who for the second year in a row are finishing under .500 and who will miss the playoffs for a third year in a row and for the fifth time in the last six seasons.
In the coming days, team ownership will sit down and begin to pick apart every facet of the 2014 season, a process that will be leading to several forthcoming changes, including but not limited to some potentially taking place on the coaching staff.
In advance of some of those changes that are coming, let’s rewind the tape on the entire season and look at some of the biggest takeaways from another disappointing campaign.
Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Is a Star
Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. sure has come a long way from the days when the only buzz he was creating was whether he and his balky hamstring would ever amount to a hill of beans.
The rookie—who took the league by storm this season thanks to his quiet confidence that sometimes rubbed opponents the wrong way, his spectacular one-handed receptions as well as his big-play explosiveness—has been the best thing to hit the Giants since Super Bowl fever in 2011.
So powerful of a weapon is Beckham that the Giants have used him in multiple ways.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Beckham has been their go-to guy on deep passes of 20 or more yards.
Of his 20 targets on deep routes, he has nine catches for 344 yards and just one drop. He also has three touchdowns.
He has been used in the slot. Entering the final week of the season, PFF shows that Beckham has lined up 21 times in the slot.
There, he has caught 18 balls for 277 yards and three touchdowns, the touchdowns being the most among the Giants slot receivers in 2014.
He has also become their punt returner, averaging 8.1 yards per return through Week 16, just a whisper under the 8.2 yards per return that fellow receiver Rueben Randle averaged in 2013.
However, it’s unlikely the coaching staff will want to continue fielding such a valued member of the offense in such a dangerous role lest disaster strike as it did years ago, when a rising star at cornerback by the name of Jason Sehorn wrecked his knee returning a kickoff.
Want more good news regarding Beckham? The kid rarely drops passes. Entering Week 17, PFF had Beckham down as having dropped two balls out of 108 targets, a team-low drop rate of 2.47 percent.
Speaking of Cruz, it will be interesting to see what happens when he joins Beckham in the lineup next year, specifically how the pass targets are distributed.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Cruz told reporters last week.
“I don’t like to get into next year and start promising things, but when I reach my peak health and I’m 100 percent again, and everything is clicking the way it should be and the receiving corps and Eli [Manning] and everybody is on the same page, it should be a fun offense to watch.”
Tom Coughlin Hasn’t Lost This Team’s Attention
Many teams might very well have crawled into a shell and mailed it in after being eliminated from postseason consideration as early as the Giants were this year.
That wasn’t the case for New York, however, and one of the major reasons for that is the man leading the team—head coach Tom Coughlin.
Yes, he might be somewhat “old school” in his methods and beliefs, such as his reluctance to put younger players on the field before they prove themselves able contributors on special teams.
Yes, New York suffered a load of injuries to key players that hurt this team’s abilities.
The real beauty in the job Coughlin did is that his message about playing for pride and for jobs next season was received by the young kids, many of them just out of college.
For example, when you consider how he reached receiver Odell Beckham Jr. about being a pro the right way or how he seemed to finally get through to Rueben Randle—whom he had to discipline two weeks in a row—that says a lot about Coughlin’s ability to connect with his players.
It’s also a big reason why ownership is likely to retain Coughlin as the team’s head coach through 2015.
The Draft Classes Are Improving
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try, try and try again.
Yup, that’s five “tries” in that last sentence, and no, that wasn’t done to meet a mandatory word count.
The Giants’ last five draft classes, as noted in this study done earlier this season, are a big reason why the Giants haven’t been to the playoffs since 2011.
One can point to the injuries, but if a team has depth ready to step in, oftentimes it can overcome the injuries. The Giants unfortunately haven’t had solid depth at most positions when injury has struck, and that has forced the coaching staff to all but wipe out months of planning and study done in the offseason against each opponent.
Instead, the coaches have had to hope that the next man up didn’t deliver a drop-off in production, and that’s a tremendous gamble for any team to take.
The good news is the tide seems to have turned, even if just slightly. In 2013, the Giants came up with two key starters in offensive lineman Justin Pugh (first round) and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins (second round).
They are also hoping that by next year defensive end Damontre Moore (third round) and safety Cooper Taylor (fifth round) can become regular contributors.
Count ‘em, three starters—Odell Beckham Jr., offensive lineman Weston Richburg and linebacker Devon Kennard—will all be a part of the team’s fabric next season.
Running back Andre Williams, who has contributed earlier than any Giants rookie running back in the Reese era (yes, even ahead of Ahmad Bradshaw, who was part of that 2007 class), will also be a primary piece of the puzzle moving forward, as will safety Nat Berhe.
To be blunt, one solid draft class doesn’t absolve Reese and Marc Ross, the team’s vice president of player evaluation of past failures because, quite honestly, it’s going to take more than one class to fix the mess that their constant failed gambles have created.
However, the shift on philosophy to draft more team captains and fewer gambles—such as players who had injury histories or who are a little further away of being ready to contribute in the NFL in their first season—is a step in the right direction for which both Reese and Ross deserve credit.
The Defense Is Broken
Like former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is a pleasant and engaging man who has always done a fine job in helping the media as much as possible without giving away sensitive information.
Also like Gilbride, Fewell has unfortunately been presiding over a unit that by all indications appears to be broken.
The players might have come and gone over the years, but the numbers don’t lie.
During Fewell’s tenure with the Giants, his defense has been a top-10 unit just twice, in 2010, his first season on the job, and most recently in 2013.
As noted in an earlier season analysis, Fewell’s system is reputed to be complex. This could be why it isn’t uncommon to see a breakdown on the defense that is followed by players engaging in discussions—sometimes heated—to discuss what just happened.
The complexity of the system could very well be a reason why some players have felt the need to freelance, leading to breakdowns. And that raises yet another question regarding defensive quality control in knowing that the players fully understand what is being asked of them.
Prior to their regular-season finale, the Giants had allowed 15 big-play runs of 20 or more yards, tying them for third with the Miami Dolphins. They were also tied for fifth (with the Jacksonville Jaguars), allowing big-play passes of 20 or more yards, having allowed 57 such plays.
While it’s certainly true that the defensive side of the ball has been hit hard by injuries—of the nine players the team lists as being on injured reserve, four were starters while four others were in line to have key roles in sub-packages—the problems on defense have extended beyond the injuries.
There are still breakdowns happening at an alarming rate, even late in the season, when those communication issues should have long been a thing of the past.
There have been some questionable game plans called. For example, anyone remember how the Giants mostly ran their nickel package in their first meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles, who took advantage and ran up 448 yards on offense, the second-highest total by an opponent in 2014?
Also, can anyone remember the last time the Giants had any consistent success in defending teams that run the read-option?
Any way you slice it, things don’t look promising for Fewell’s return in 2015.
The Giants Finally Struck Gold in the Draft at Linebacker
After numerous failed attempts to draft a quality linebacker to fit their system, the Giants finally got it right when they drafted Devon Kennard in the fifth round this year.
Statistically speaking, Kennard, the son of former NFL offensive lineman and Super Bowl XXX champion Derek Kennard, was eighth on the team in total tackles with 43 entering Week 17.
Perhaps even more impressive is that ever since Kennard was inserted into the starting lineup, the rookie’s play against the run has gone a long way toward limiting the bleeding that was occurring on the edges.
Prior to Kennard getting the nod as the starting strong-side linebacker, the Giants had allowed an average of 144.7 yards on the ground; that number dipped to 111.0 yards through Week 16.
Lest anyone thing Kennard is simply a run-stopper, he has shown an ability to get home with his blitzes. The rookie currently has 4.5 sacks, third most on the team behind defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul (10.5) and Damontre Moore (5.5).
What’s more, Kennard, who played defensive end in USC’s 3-4 scheme, can even line up with his hand in the dirt, though that wasn’t something the Giants really explored much of in his rookie season.
Moving forward, Kennard will be an integral part of that Giants linebacker unit that should have Jon Beason back in the middle and Jameel McClain on the other side.
Eli Manning Is Indeed a Fit for the West Coast Offense
Raise your hand if you thought you would never see “Eli Manning” and “West Coast offense” used positively in the same sentence.
If you raised your hand, then you’re not alone.
Coming into this season, there was legitimate concern that Manning, who spent the first 10 years of his career in an offensive system that combined elements of the run-and-shoot and Erhardt-Perkins systems, seemed to be the last quarterback who would be able to function in a West Coast offense.
But guess what? Manning has made a smooth transition to that system, which has been tweaked to fit his strengths and weaknesses—one such weakness being his lack of mobility.
How good has Manning been in his first season running the West Coast offense? His 64.1 pass completion percentage as of the end of Week 16 is a new career high, falling just slightly short of the 70 percent mark that quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf told reporters during training camp was the goal.
Moreover, in having to make shorter throws (and hence quicker decisions with where to go with the ball), Manning’s quarterback rating through 15 games when having 2.5 seconds or less to throw the ball is an impressive 93.9, per Pro Football Focus.
Want more proof supporting how Manning has taken to the West Coast offense like a hand in glove?
He has actually had a better completion percentage (221-of-327, 67.6 percent) when asked to throw the ball in under 2.5 seconds than he has when he has gotten 2.6 seconds or more (130-of-220, 59.1 percent) to throw.
That first set of stats (throwing the ball in under 2.5 seconds) is an improvement, when he finished 164-of-274 (59.9 percent).
He has cut down on his interceptions, throwing 13. And, thanks to the emergence of Odell Beckham Jr. as a deep threat, Manning’s accuracy percentage on throwing the deep pass is up from 34.3 percent in 2013 to 36.2 percent this year.
Offensive Coordinator Ben McAdoo Is a Keeper
It’s enough of a gamble when an NFL team rolls the dice on an assistant coach who has never been a coordinator at any level in his career, such as was the case with the Giants picked former Green Bay Packers assistant coach Ben McAdoo to succeed Kevin Gilbride.
Toss in the pressure of having to fix what the team co-owner publicly declared as a “broken offense” after the 2013 season, and it takes a certain kind of guy to stand up to that kind of pressure to turn things around.
The 37-year-old McAdoo has been unshakable in his rookie season as a play-caller, sticking with his core philosophies, even when things haven’t always gone as well as they could have.
So far, though, so good. McAdoo’s offense is assured to finish in the top half of the league overall—New York entered Week 17 ranked 12th in total offense, averaging 357.9 yards per game, ninth in passing (256.2 yards per game) and 13th in scoring (23.6 yards per game).
Those rankings are a big step up from the 2013 season, when the Giants had the league’s 28th-best offense (307.8 yards per game), the 18th-best passing offense (224.6 yards per game) and the 28th-best scoring offense (18.4 points per game).
Despite having the arrow pointing in the right direction for the future, McAdoo isn’t about to rest on his laurels.
“We are always chasing consistency. The more time you spend together, the more time you can grow and see consistent improvement,” he said during a recent media briefing with reporters.
“It is about consistency. Each play, each quarter, each half and each game, we are looking to put it all together.”
Always one to deflect any credit from himself, McAdoo paused when asked at that same press briefing how he has evolved in his first season as a play-caller.
“That is a good question. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about that,” he said. “You learn what you learn along the way. You apply. You go back to conversations that you may have had along the way and in tough times, you think about players, not plays.
“Maybe that is something that you can apply going forward, especially in a long season. Other than that, that is the first thing that comes to mind.”
The Giants Are Still Struggling with Injuries
When he was hired as the head coach in 2004, Tom Coughlin not so famously compared injuries to cancer.
Like legitimate cancer researchers in search of a cure, the Giants continue to research different methods and philosophies but have still been unable to make progress in fighting their “cancer.”
Per Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News, the Giants, under Coughlin, lost 18 players to injured reserve in his first season and placed 47 players on IR in his first four seasons.
This season, a whopping 22 players have landed on season-ending injured reserve. Per the lists reported by CBS Sports, that is the highest in the NFL, an accomplishment coming one year after the Giants, per Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, had 91 games lost by starters due to injuries, the most of any team in the NFL.
While certain injuries, such as broken bones and concussions, come with the territory, this season, one of the most popular injuries to strike down the Giants was related to the foot, as players such as Jon Beason, Geoff Schwartz, Devon Kennard, Jerrel Jernigan and Cooper Taylor all missed games because of a bad wheel.
Is that an equipment issue? A turf issue? A strength and conditioning issue? A matter of the players just getting too big while not paying enough love and attention to their joints and ligaments that have to support those big balloons they seek in order to strike fear into opponents?
It’s hard to say exactly, and it’s unlikely that, despite the Giants’ continued investment in technology to monitor their athletes’ vitals during practices, an answer will be found.
Something, though, is going to have to change.
Perhaps the Giants might want to take a page out of Eagles head coach Chip Kelly’s book and hire what USA Today reported to be a sports science coordinator (h/t ProFootballTalk)—a former Navy SEAL trainer who helped take the Eagles’ conditioning and weight-training programs up a few notches.
Whatever that sports science coordinator is doing it appears to be working, as the Eagles list only six players on injured reserve.
The Offensive Line Is Still a Work in Progress
Following the debacle of 2013, it was as plain as day that the offensive line was in need of an overhaul, particularly along the interior.
How bad was it in 2013? According to Football Outsiders, the Giants’ offensive line was ranked 30th in the league in run blocking and 18th in pass blocking.
Since head coach Tom Coughlin desires a balanced offensive attack, the line underwent an overhaul in the interior.
Center Kevin Boothe was not re-signed, right guard David Diehl retired and left guard James Brewer just wasn’t very consistent.
Those three were supposed to be replaced by a healthy Chris Snee, veteran J. D. Walton at center and free-agent pickup Geoff Schwartz at left guard.
But it was not meant to be. Snee realized before the start of camp that he was done physically, so he retired. That thrust rookie Weston Richburg, a natural center, into the right guard spot.
Schwartz ended up suffering a toe injury that cost him most of the season before an ankle injury finished him off. He was replaced by former Dolphins offensive lineman John Jerry.
So how did that work out for the Giants? Football Outsiders' latest rankings (as of 12/23/2014) have the Giants as the 22nd-best offensive line when it comes to run blocking and the 13th best when it comes to pass protection.
It’s progress. But it can be better, and it will be better in 2015. Presumably, Richburg will move to center in place of Walton, who could stick around as a backup guard and center.
Right tackle Justin Pugh could be moved inside to left guard—remember, he played left tackle in college, so it might be more natural for him to line up with his left hand in the dirt.
As for right tackle, the Giants could look to fill that spot with either a draft pick or a free agent still to come, a move that would likely complete what has turned into a two-year renovation project.
Special Teams Were Inconsistent
Special teams coordinator Tom Quinn, who is believed to be on the year-end hot seat, didn’t hesitate when asked for his assessment of how the Giants special teams unit performed this season.
“Punt coverage is the one that stands out. It’s been the black eye for us,” he said. “Kickoff coverage has done a decent job. Kickoff return, of late, has given us decent field position just in returns.
“We’ve had to work a couple of different returners, which is always a little bit of a challenge to fit the returns. And then punt return...Odell (Beckham Jr.) has given us a spark back there.”
The Giants’ return games, which started out shaky, have definitely improved since receivers Preston Parker and Beckham have taken over the kickoff and punt return duties respectively.
The Giants kickoff return unit entered Week 17 averaging 23.3 yards per return, putting it 14th in the NFL.
The punt return unit is averaging 7.7 yards per return as a whole, though Beckham alone is averaging 8.1 yards per return.
Let’s focus on the “black eye”—the punt coverage unit, of which Quinn had this to say when asked what his chief criticism was.
“Just the consistency of the location, the hang times aren’t all matching with guys being in their spots,” he said. “But then it also comes down to just tackling and coverage runs that have not been as good as it needs to be.”
The Giants entered Week 17 tied for 17th (with the Buffalo Bills) with a 39.1 net average. They are also one of 11 units to give up a punt return for a touchdown and have given up the sixth-highest return yardage total (380) in the NFL.
Will Quinn be relieved of his duties after this season? Per Football Outsiders, the Giants special teams unit, currently ranked 13th, was ranked 28th in the NFL last season, which would indicate a sharp improvement in the unit overall.
However, the consistency hasn’t been there, and it might be time to contemplate a different direction.
Patricia Traina covers the New York Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and The Sports Xchange. All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced. Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.