Of all the mysteries surrounding the New York Giants since their disappointing 2014 season ended, perhaps the biggest and still as of yet unsolved one is why the team retained special teams coordinator Tom Quinn.
It’s a legitimate question, especially considering that the Giants special teams as a whole have been inconsistent in their year-end ranking every year since Quinn was promoted to his current role following the 2006 season.
|NY Giants Special Teams Rankings Under Tom Quinn|
So why did head coach Tom Coughlin retain Quinn after yet another year of his not being a difference-maker in the team’s second straight losing season?
Let’s sort through the rubble for clues.
The Good: Brown and Beckham
Without a doubt, two Giants special teams players who had a big hand in making the special teams somewhat respectable were kicker Josh Brown and receiver/punt returner Odell Beckham Jr.
The first is kicker Josh Brown, 35, the ageless wonder who finished with a 91.3 field-goal conversion rate, a career-best and the fourth-best mark among NFL kickers in 2014, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
On kickoffs, Brown had 46 of his 80 kickoffs go for touchbacks (57.5 percent). Some may argue—and perhaps rightfully so—that eliminating any chance for an opposing kickoff returner to do damage helped the kickoff coverage’s final numbers.
Besides giving credit to Brown for his often-spectacular kickoffs, there were numerous other players on that kickoff coverage unit who graded out positively.
Those include Damontre Moore, Nat Berhe, Devon Kennard, Henry Hynoski, Orleans Darkwa, Spencer Paysinger, Dallas Reynolds and Chandler Fenner, a group that accounted for 42 of the 78 (53.8 percent) special teams tackles that PFF recorded for the Giants in 2014.
The other major player who potentially helped Quinn’s case was Beckham, who took over the punt return duties.
Beckham returned 21 punts for 171 yards, a respectable 8.1 yards per return and the best production, per PFF, from a Giants punt return group that included Preston Parker, Rueben Randle, Michael Cox and Quintin Demps.
However, it does need to be said that the punt return unit hasn’t been pristine, and that’s evident by the fact it’s been five years since the Giants had a punt returned for a touchdown. (Domenik Hixon was the last Giant to do so, that happening in the 2009 season.)
The Giants weren’t as productive on kickoff returns, where they finished 17th in the NFL with their 23.3 team average.
Parker, who took over those duties for Demps, the latter of whom was signed as a free agent in part for his kickoff and punt return abilities, finished with a team-high 24.2 average, with Cox coming in a close second with a 23.7 average.
The Bad: Punt Coverage
A legitimate beef against Quinn and the special teams in general lies in the punt coverage unit, where, per PFF, five players—Zack Bowman, Paysinger, Moore, Rashad Jennings and Mike Harris—finished with positive overall grades.
However, the punt coverage unit allowed a punt return for a touchdown (the Arizona Cardinals' Ted Ginn Jr. in Week 2) and allowed a blocked punt for a touchdown in Week 17’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
In fact, the Giants have given up four punt returns for touchdowns over the last two seasons alone.
What went on with the punt coverage team?
“Just the consistency of the location, the hang times aren’t all matching with guys being in their spots,” Quinn had told reporters before the Giants wrapped up the season against the Eagles.
“But then it also comes down to just tackling and coverage runs that have not been as good as it needs to be.”
Interestingly, the 21 missed tackles by the Giants were less than the league’s top special teams unit, per Football Outsiders—the Philadelphia Eagles, who, per PFF, had 22, and the second-best special teams unit, the Baltimore Ravens, who had 30.
The Ugly: Musical Chairs
Another issue with special teams is the lack of consistency in the execution, a result of the “musical chairs” game that Quinn has had to go through now for at least two seasons.
With the injury bug tearing through the Giants roster in each of the last two seasons, guys Quinn might ordinarily count as staples in his punt coverage unit might have had their special teams snaps reduced or eliminated because those players were needed on offense or defense given the injury situation.
A good example of that is Herzlich, the Giants' top special teams player (not counting Brown or punter Steve Weatherford) in 2013.
According to data gathered from the official NFL game books of the last two seasons, Herzlich saw a 9.4 percent reduction in his special teams snaps from 2013 to 2014.
Still, a top-notch special teams coach should be able to adjust to the personnel he gets every week.
Quinn tried and at times had some success, but it wasn't as much as some of his colleagues around the league who also had to go through the musical-chairs game due to injuries—per Football Outsiders, some examples include the Ravens (second place) and the Buffalo Bills (fourth place).
The other factor that has to be examined is Weatherford, the affable punter who in 2014 gutted out a difficult season that included a severe ankle injury and a back issue.
Weatherford, who had 52.7 percent of his punts returned, finished with a 39.1 net average, tying him for 19th in the league among those who punted at least 30 times this season.
While that net average isn’t all on Weatherford—again, his coverage guys are partially responsible—it is legitimate to wonder just how much of a factor his injuries were in contributing to the Giants punt coverage unit allowing 391 return yards, the sixth most in the league.
Did Coughlin Make the Right Call?
With that all said, it’s possible Coughlin realized that not only did Quinn improve the special teams in several areas from a year ago, but he did so despite the fact that injuries were tearing through the roster on both sides of the ball.
The fault, though, in the logic of keeping Quinn is in the consistency. In looking at the first table in this article, the Giants special teams units have been a mixed bag—one never seemed to know what to expect from the unit.
The lack of consistency over the body of his work probably should have been more than enough evidence to go in another direction.
The reason why this was not a factor might be twofold.
First, the NFL always has been a “what have you done for me lately?” league. Today’s heroes can easily become tomorrow’s goats and vice versa. When the stock continues to drop, that is when it’s time to move on.
A closer look at the stats indicates that Quinn has managed to keep his head above water—barely at times, though. That leads into the second reason why Quinn was likely retained.
Coughlin is in a “win or else” mode. If he’s going to have his feet put to the fire, he’s going to do so with his handpicked assistant coaches.
Given that Quinn still has a job with the Giants, it’s apparent that Coughlin is willing to roll the dice on his ability to get the special teams unit back to being a top-10 overall unit.
All stats and grades courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) unless otherwise sourced.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced. Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.