Taking Stock of New York Giants at Halfway Point of Season
It’s been one nightmare of a ride for the New York Giants, a team that was expected to build on its 11-5 record from a year ago.
Expectations for the Giants coming into 2017 season were sky-high, with some prognosticators even putting the Giants in the same sentence as “Super Bowl contenders.”
The Giants, who were also thought to have the best receiving trio in the league when they had Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard healthy and ready to go.
But a mixture of injuries and poor performances—general manager Jerry Reese opined that the Giants might have believed their preseason press clippings and hence weren’t as hungry as they had been last year—have resulted in a team that has managed just one win and whose prospects for the rest of the year are growing stormier by the week.
Let’s take a look at what has ultimately led to this collapse of gigantic proportions.
The Offensive Line Is Still Unsettled
The Giants decided to stick with the same offensive line combination that finished last season because they were young and because they would presumably benefit from another year of playing together, right?
That was a nice thought, but there were several fatal flaws with that plan. For one. The offensive line that finished last season—Ereck Flowers, Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, John Jerry and Bobby Hart—wasn’t good to begin with and was not a match for a quarterback who just doesn’t make plays with his feet.
Second, the depth continues to be an issue. The Giants traded up in the sixth round to get Adam Bisnowaty out of Pittsburgh, but as of this writing, he’s languished on the practice squad after struggling to make it at the pro level.
The depth situation got so bad in fact that when injuries, the third factor, started hitting a unit that this past weekend fielded its sixth different starting combination in eight games, each personnel change necessitated moving multiple players around.
Lastly, Reese stood before the media and, in trying to explain why the team didn’t bother to pursue 35-year-old Andrew Whitworth in free agency, cited the desire to have the team get younger. Yet that didn’t stop Reese from overlooking Brandon Marshall’s 33 years of life.
The bottom line is the Giants front office gambled on the offensive line and failed so miserably that it’s a wonder they didn’t lose the house. But who knows? Maybe their failed gamble will cost them something more precious, such as jobs.
The Injury Bug Is Back
In what has become the year of the ankle, the Giants lost receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall to season-ending ankle injuries. They have also seen defensive end Olivier Vernon, receiver Sterling Shepard, cornerback Donte Deayon, and linebacker B.J. Goodson among others miss games due to ankle sprains.
Currently, the Giants injured reserve list has 16 players listed. Of those 16, three are starters (Marshall, Beckham and Weston Richburg) and six (Adam Gettis, Dwayne Harris, JT Thomas, Cap Capi, Romeo Okwara, and Mark Herzlich) were expected to provide depth.
While injuries aren’t the sole excuse for the Giants' misfortunes this year, there’s no denying the impact injuries have had on this team nor is there much doubt that the Giants, who up until last year were among the most injured teams in the NFL, are headed back to reclaiming their spot at the top of that chart.
The Defense Lost Its Bite
A year ago, the Giants front office took a huge gamble when it plopped down close to $200 million in contracts to rebuild a defense that, the year prior, couldn’t get out of its own way.
Not knowing how the big personalities they were signing—defensive end Olivier Vernon, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, and defensive tackle Damon Harris, just to name a few—would mesh with their existing system and in their locker room, there is little question that the results far exceeded anyone’s expectations.
That 2016 Giants defense finished as a top-10 unit overall, and a top-five unit against the run and in average points allowed per game.
With most of the same personnel returning from that defense—the only notable changes to the starting lineup were Dalvin Tomlinson for Johnathan Hankins at defensive tackle; B.J. Goodson for Kelvin Sheppard at middle linebacker; and Darian Thompson for Andrew Adams at free safety—the 2017 Giants defense has taken several steps backward.
For starters, the Giants' pass rush this year has just 13 sacks at the halfway mark and has a 101.0 NFL rating in coverage after allowing 31 big-pass plays of 20 or more yards, nine of which have gone for 40 or more yards.
Per NFL.com the Giants the 2016 season with 35 sacks, a 75.8 NFL rating (second-best in the league), and 59 big-pass plays of 20 or more yards with only 12 going over 40 yards.
Injuries have been a factor—the Giants have missed Vernon, linebacker Jonathan Casillas and Goodson in multiple games. So, too, have the suspensions of cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins and the benching of cornerback Eli Apple.
The biggest difference from last year to this year has been the lack of a bite. Whereas in 2016, the Giants were tackling much better, shedding blocks and playing tighter in coverage, they have significantly regressed in the fundamentals and in holding down a lead late in the game, thus turning back into a pumpkin.
Ben McAdoo Finally Delegated Play-Calling (after Resisting)
It took McAdoo 21 regular-season games into his head-coaching career in which he doubled as the team’s play-caller to realize that the entire team needed him and that calling the plays was not allowing him to give himself in the way a head coach needed to.
That decision came down following the suspension of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. While McAdoo insisted that he came to the decision himself, James Kratch of NJ Advance Media, in speaking with Giants co-owner Steve Tisch, reported that McAdoo might have been nudged in that direction by ownership.
With offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan now calling the plays, the Giants offense has scored 57 points in three games compared to the 82 scored in the first five games of the season.
It remains to be seen if McAdoo will stick with the current arrangement moving forward, and it’s also unknown just how much, if any, McAdoo overrides calls made by Sullivan, but the current arrangement is one that hopefully McAdoo will leave alone for the rest of the season.
There's a Potential Culture Problem
When cornerback Eli Apple was benched earlier in the season, he let it slip that there was a culture issue that was contributing to the losing.
While players and head coach Ben McAdoo denied it, the suspensions of Jenkins and Rodgers-Cromartie, with came within a three-week period, sent up further red flags that maybe something wasn’t right in the Giants locker room.
Most recently, Rodgers-Cromartie, speaking to reporters after the Giants were trounced by the Los Angeles Rams, was asked if the struggles of the team was a matter of execution or something deeper.
"It’s something deeper than that, man," he said. "I know we’ve got playmakers that can take over a whole ball game. For some reason, nobody’s doing it."
McAdoo has vehemently denied there is a culture issue brewing among the ranks. The players, when asked, have denied it as well, but the fact remains that it’s rare to see so many discipline related issues that warrant the notoriously private McAdoo to fess up to why players are either being benched or missing from practices despite not being listed on the injury report.
The only logical conclusion one can draw is that the culture in the locker room has changed from what it was last year when these types of issues weren’t dominating the headlines.
Something's Gotta Give
No team ownership wants to make changes at the top of the organization depth chart for the simple reason that it suggests that there is chaos and a lack of stability. However, the Giants' ownership tandem of John Mara and Steve Tisch might not have any choice this year.
Reese’s record as general manager, most notably his poor drafts and his questionable free-agent decisions, have thrust this team into a vicious cycle in which for every high draft pick who doesn’t work out, they have to overspend in free agency.
As a result, they are left with cap problems that have, at least on two occasions (Linval Joseph and Johnathan Hankins), cost them a chance to re-sign players they might have wanted to keep.
As for McAdoo, he’s only in his second year as a head coach, and while he’s been slow at times to pick up on the mistakes he’s made—such as allowing a loose culture and retaining the play-calling—he seems like he’s starting to grasp what it takes to be a head coach.
However, a deeper problem with McAdoo is that he has a system in place that isn’t an ideal match for the starting quarterback, who is not going to make many plays with his legs.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, ownership cannot keep the status quo. A change needs to be made at the top; the question is will the Maras and Tisches agree.
Patricia Traina covers the New York Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.