Published August 26, 2014
(SportsNetwork.com) - The New York Giants have been an outlier in today's change-constant NFL, the rare team that's kept the same head coach and quarterback throughout a decade-long stretch that's produced a pair of Super Bowl titles.
That trademark patience could be wearing thin, however. The Giants have missed the playoffs in back-to-back years since their most recent championship run of 2011, and last season's roller-coaster 7-9 finish marked the club's first losing campaign since the 2004 debut of the Tom Coughlin/Eli Manning era.
Coughlin will be 68 on Aug. 31 and is under contract for only two more years, while Manning is coming off his worst season since he was a rookie and is due a non-guaranteed $17 million salary in 2015. Those minimal future commitments suggest that the Giants are about to embark upon a critical season that may very well determine the long-term fates of their two on-field leaders within the organization.
"We want to take notice that we haven't made the playoffs in three (of the last) four years and we don't want that to be our trend," general manager Jerry Reese said at the conclusion of last season. "We want to be a team that goes in every year and has a chance to make it to the tournament. The last couple of years we haven't been able to do that. That bothers me, I'm sure it bothers our ownership as well. Our standards are high around here."
That sense of urgency was evident during an offseason where Reese was highly active in free agency, though the Giants weren't necessarily big spenders. The team did splurge on talented cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, expected to be the lynchpin of a secondary brimming with potential, but mostly focused on bringing in mid-level types such as running back Rashad Jennings, guard Geoff Schwartz, nickel back Walter Thurmond and linebacker Jameel McClain in an effort to plug glaring roster holes.
The most significant personnel change may have come on the coaching staff. Intent on repairing an offense that ranked an undesirable 28th in total yards and was labeled "broken" by owner John Mara at last season's end, coordinator and longtime Coughlin confidant Kevin Gilbride was let go and replaced by Green Bay quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo, who's incorporated a faster and more West Coast-rooted philosophy to the play-calling.
McAdoo's scheme is a stern departure from Gilbride's vertical-based approach, and the preseason results indicate the revised offense remains very much a work in progress. How long it takes Manning and his teammates to get comfortable with the new playbook may be the key to this season, as the Giants desperately can't avoid another slow start like the turnover-ravaged 0-6 beginning that ruined the previous one.
"We have good receivers, we have good players. We have running backs who can run the ball and catch it out of the backfield," said Manning. "It's just a matter of having confidence and trust in the system and fully trusting that it's going to give us an opportunity to get guys open and the guys are going to be able to do their jobs and win those individual battles."
2013 RECORD: 7-9 (3rd, NFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, defeated New England in Super Bowl XLVI
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Tom Coughlin (90-70 in 10 seasons with Giants, 158-130 in 18 seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ben McAdoo (first season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Perry Fewell (fifth season with Giants)
KEY ADDITIONS: RB Rashad Jennings (from Raiders), WR Odell Beckham Jr. (first round, LSU), LG Geoff Schwartz (from Chiefs), C J.D. Walton (from Redskins), LB Jameel McClain (from Ravens), CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (from Broncos), RB Andre Williams (4th Round, Boston College), TE Kellen Davis (from Seahawks), C/G Weston Richburg (2nd Round, Colorado State), G John Jerry (from Dolphins), OT Charles Brown (from Saints), DE Robert Ayers (from Broncos), DE Israel Idonije (from Lions), CB Walter Thurmond (from Seahawks), CB Zack Bowman (from Bears), S Quintin Demps (from Chiefs)
KEY DEPARTURES: RB David Wilson (injured reserve), WR Hakeem Nicks (to Colts), TE Brandon Myers (to Buccaneers), LG Kevin Boothe (to Raiders), C David Baas (free agent), RG Chris Snee (retired), DE Justin Tuck (to Raiders), DT Linval Joseph (to Vikings), SLB Keith Rivers (to Bills), FS Will Hill (to Ravens), RB Andre Brown (free agent), RB Brandon Jacobs (retired), WR Louis Murphy (to Buccaneers), TE Bear Pascoe (to Falcons), C Jim Cordle (free agent), G David Diehl (retired), DT Shaun Rogers (free agent), LB Allen Bradford (to Jaguars), CB Terrell Thomas (to Seahawks), CB Corey Webster (free agent), CB Aaron Ross (to Ravens), S Ryan Mundy (to Bears)
QB: McAdoo's first order of business will be to restore Manning's confidence that appeared to be shaken during a disastrous 2013 season in which the two- time Super Bowl MVP threw a league-high 27 interceptions and was sacked a career-worst 39 times operating behind a porous front line. The durable veteran also faces the challenge of learning an entirely different offense after running Gilbride's system the past seven years, which so far hasn't shown to be a seamless transition.
Second-year man Ryan Nassib seems to have a considerable lead on journeyman Curtis Painter for the backup job following a solid preseason showing, though whether or not the 2012 fourth-round pick can emerge as Manning's heir apparent is a question that's yet to be answered. He may not get the chance to prove it this season, since Manning hasn't missed a start since taking over as New York's quarterback midway through the 2004 schedule.
RB: This area was dealt a tough blow when David Wilson, the team's best big- play threat out of the backfield, failed to gain medical clearance in the summer from a serious neck injury suffered last October that will likely end the former first-round pick's career. The Giants were already making contingency plans during the offseason, however, targeting Jennings in free agency and drafting Boston College workhorse Andre Williams to create what the team envisions to be a formidable tandem.
Jennings, fresh off a breakthrough year in Oakland that saw the career backup compile over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, is the more well-rounded of the duo, possessing good receiving skills as well as the ability to work between the tackles. The 230-pound Williams, a Heisman finalist who racked up 2,177 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior at BC, figures to play a bruiser role reminiscent of the one Brandon Jacobs successfully held for years with the G-Men.
Versatile vet Peyton Hillis was re-signed to presumably hold down another roster spot, perhaps as a pass-catching fullback similar to how John Kuhn was used at McAdoo's prior employers in Green Bay. The Giants also have a pair of quality traditional fullbacks in Henry Hynoski and John Conner, though it's unclear if there'll be a true need for a primary lead blocker in the new offense.
WR: Expect the Giants to employ far more multi-wide receiver sets under McAdoo, which helps explain the team's decision to utilize its first-round pick in May's draft on LSU speedster Odell Beckham Jr. Though the rookie's development has been set back a bit by a hamstring strain in camp, New York is counting on him to be an instant contributor alongside holdovers Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle in an offense centered around the wideouts.
McAdoo's scheme looks to be an excellent fit for Cruz, who came up just short of a third straight 1,000-yard season after missing the final two games of 2013 due to a knee scope. The proven playmaker will work almost exclusively out of the slot, the position where's he been most effective, and should do plenty of damage playing the Randall Cobb in the Giants' version of the Packers' offense.
The staff is also hoping for a big leap forward from Randle, who's displayed flashes of dominance along with frustrating lapses over his first two seasons. The biggest receiver of the trio at 6-foot-2, he's got the size and talent to be an asset in the red zone, an area where New York really struggled in 2013.
Jerrel Jernigan performed well in place of an injured Cruz late last season and could see time as a second inside receiver in four-wide looks, while the Giants may have found a diamond in the rough in Corey Washington, a big-bodied undrafted rookie out of Division II Newberry College who caught a touchdown pass in each of the first four preseason games.
TE: The Giants received meager production from the tight end spot a season ago, and the outlook seems even more bleak for 2014 with a cast of unproven or uninspiring options on hand.
Veteran Kellen Davis, the most experienced member of a contingent that also includes youngsters Larry Donnell and Adrien Robinson and retread Daniel Fells, is an able blocker but hasn't caught more than 19 passes over his six NFL seasons.
Fells once caught 41 balls with the Rams, but that came in 2010 and he wasn't even in the league last year. Robinson, whom Reese once referred to as the "Jason Pierre-Paul of tight ends" for his impressive athletic gifts, has the greatest upside of the quartet. However, the 2012 fourth-rounder has seen action in just three games over his two seasons and still has yet to earn the coaches' trust.
OL: Probably the most disappointing aspect of the Giants' overall unsatisfying 2013 season was the subpar play of an offensive line that couldn't properly protect Manning and was forced into constant shuffling along the interior due to a rash of injuries. Reese made addressing the unit an offseason priority, signing the steady Schwartz to man left guard and nabbing promising prospect Weston Richburg in the draft's second round to compete with another free-agent addition, J.D. Walton, to start at center.
Unfortunately, more health concerns have crept up this summer to put the line back in a state of flux heading into the opener. Right guard Chris Snee, a four-time Pro Bowler and the group's unquestioned anchor over the years, retired in July because of a chronic elbow problem and Schwartz dislocated his toe in the fourth preseason game, an injury that will likely keep him on the shelf for over a month. Walton comes with a checkered injury history as well, having been limited to just four games over the past two years by a broken ankle.
On the positive side, Richburg has acquitted himself well enough to where the coaches feel the rookie can adequately fill in for Schwartz, while 2013 first- round selection Justin Pugh should continue to make strides off an encouraging debut season at right tackle.
Plenty of questions still linger, however. The Giants sorely need a bounce- back year out of left tackle Will Beatty after Manning's blind-side bodyguard failed to meet expectations in 2013. Of the top two candidates to replace Snee, third-year pro Brandon Mosley and Dolphins castoff John Jerry, neither has really distinguished himself during the preseason.
DL: One very familiar face has departed, but several others remain on a front four that's traditionally been a strength during Coughlin's tenure. The front office bid adieu to stalwart left end Justin Tuck after nine mostly outstanding seasons, leaving the defense bereft of its top sacker from last year as well as an esteemed voice within the locker room. Though the latter won't be easy to replace, the Giants believe they'll still be in good shape at the position with mainstay Mathias Kiwanuka handling base downs and ascending sophomore Damontre Moore ready for increased responsibility as a situational rusher after seeing spot duty as a rookie.
A return to form from Pierre-Paul, who tallied 16 1/2 sacks during New York's championship campaign of 2011, would certainly help ease Tuck's departure as well. The usually explosive pass rusher was a shell of his prior self last season, mustering a paltry two sacks in 11 games while slowed by nagging back and shoulder issues.
The Giants also let tackle Linval Joseph, a key reason why the club allowed just 3.8 yards per rush attempt in 2013, walk in free agency, mostly because of the faith they have that 2013 second-round choice Jonathan Hankins can step right in. The young wide-body will be used in a rotation with seasoned vets Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson, with intriguing rookie Jay Bromley (3rd Round, Syracuse) also in the mix for snaps.
LB: Coordinator Perry Fewell's defense put forth a noticeable turnaround over the second half of last season, which the team attributed in large part to the insertion of Jon Beason into the all-important middle linebacker slot. The ex- Panther proved to be a stabilizing presence after being acquired from Carolina in early October, and the Giants acknowledged that value by awarding him a new three-year contract in March.
Beason's re-signing doesn't come without risk, however. The 29-year-old has been beset by injuries throughout his career, including a fractured foot that's kept him out of training camp and threatens his availability for Week 1. As insurance, Reese brought in ex-Raven Jameel McClain, who sports experience in the middle but is best off being used as a two-down thumper on the strongside that leaves the field in nickel situations.
Provided Beason can stay out of the trainer's room, McClain's addition -- plus the continued development of Jacquian Williams -- allows returning starter Spencer Paysinger to move into a fourth linebacker role he's most suited for. Williams, New York's fastest and best coverage linebacker, takes over Paysinger's old post at the WILL after improving his strength and instincts during the offseason.
Also factoring into the equation on the strongside is rookie Devon Kennard, a fifth-round pick who's turned some heads during camp. The USC product owns an edge in athleticism over McClain but obviously isn't as battle-tested.
DB: Fewell was able to piece together a solid secondary last season in spite of a few injury depletions and a pass rush that was often sporadic. This year's edition may have a chance to be special if all the parts come together as planned.
In the 6-foot-2 Rodgers-Cromartie, the Giants now have a corner with the size, physicality and ball skills needed to lock down an opponent's top receiver and enable Fewell to deploy more press-man schemes that the defending world champion Seahawks have made en vogue. Motivation may be the only obstacle concerning the now well-paid cover man, who delivered a banner season in Denver during a contract year in 2013.
Thurmond, an overlooked part of Seattle's defensive success during last year's title run, also provides an upgrade over the departed Terrell Thomas as the main nickel back, while No. 2 corner Prince Amukamara is a sound tackler capable of holding his own opposite Rodgers-Cromartie when healthy. Depth is good as well, with former Bears special-teams ace Zack Bowman and returnee Trumaine McBride both coming off strong seasons.
The back end loses free safety Will Hill, cut loose in June following a third drug-related suspension in three years, but regains 2012 revelation Stevie Brown after he missed all of last season with a torn ACL. The latter came out of nowhere to amass a franchise-record 307 return yards on eight interceptions two years ago, and the signing of veteran Quintin Demps allows Brown to be eased back into action if need be.
Antrel Rolle helped offset Brown's absence by producing a personal-best six picks and topping the team in tackles from the other safety spot, earning a third career Pro Bowl nod in the process. The 31-year-old may be most valued, however, for his contributions as the defense's vocal leader.
SPECIAL TEAMS: After ranking near the bottom of the league in the return game, an aspect where the Giants have been mostly moribund for years, steps were taken during the offseason to provide a much-needed spark. Demps has carved a niche as a standout kick returner and averaged a sizzling 30.1 yards per runback with the Chiefs last season, while Beckham took two punts for scores during his time at LSU and figures to play a prominent role on special teams as well. Pint-sided wideout Trindon Holliday, another offseason addition, generated six return touchdowns -- two of which came in a playoff game -- with Denver over the last two years, and he's viewed as a longshot to even make the final roster.
There's far less turnover in the kicking department. Placekicker Josh Brown was re-signed after going a reliable 23-of-26 on field goal tries in his first season in New York, strong-legged punter Steve Weatherford has averaged better than 46 yards per boot in his three years with the team and Zak DeOssie has been a dependable long snapper as well as a core member of the coverage units.
One area where the Giants really need to clean up is in defending punts, with last year's squad surrendering a dreadful 13.6 yards per return along with three touchdowns.
COACHING: Coughlin may be portrayed as a rigid and outdated dinosaur by a current media that's become infatuated with the growing ranks of spread- offense wizards, but the man's track record is awfully hard to dismiss. His teams have reached the postseason nine teams in 18 years, captured a pair of Super Bowls and gone 12-7 in the playoffs, the fifth-best winning percentage of any current NFL head coach.
Fewell has produced mixed results in his four years as New York's defensive architect but certainly deserves praise for his work last season, molding a crew that possessed few true impact performers into a cohesive group that ranked fifth overall in yards allowed per play and eighth in total yards permitted.
McAdoo comes to New York with a strong reputation as a disciple of the well- respected Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, but this will be his first go-around as a play-caller at the pro level. There could be a learning curve for both he and his new charges before the Giants' offense gets into full swing.
THE SKINNY: It's not hard to pinpoint the determining factor in last year's up-and-down season. When the Giants took care of the football, they almost always won. When they didn't, the result was usually a loss. And there were far too many giveaways to sustain any sort of consistent success in 2013. Simply put, the onus is on Manning. If he's able to grasp McAdoo's system, keep the mistakes to a minimum and get at least passable protection from an offensive line that remains a suspect outfit, there's no reason to think New York can't contend in an NFC East that doesn't appear to contain any indisputable powerhouses. That may be too many ifs, however, to believe anything above another middle-of-the-road finish is on the horizon.