The Wall Street Journal (and, yes, I still have a hard time getting used to the WSJ covering New York sports) has posted a fascinating look at the the circumstances under which Eli Manning and the New York Giants offense function the best.
The conclusion? The traditionally smash-mouth Giants need to forget the fullback -- and maybe even the tight end -- and copy the New Orleans Saints.
Last year, Eli Manning's yards per pass attempt and ratio of TDs to interceptions improved greatly with each additional receiver added to the field. This is an unusual pattern in the NFL, as teams generally throw most effectively when their intentions are camouflaged by deploying both a tight end and fullback.
But with the extra blockers, Mr. Manning was below the league average: 7.23 yards per pass attempt compared with 7.51 and more picks than touchdowns. Add a third wideout, and the advantage was his: 8.15 yards per attempt to an NFL average of 6.99. With two extra receivers, the edge grew to 8.22 to 6.57. Mr. Manning is clearly at his best when he has Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham at his disposal.
But by finishing seventh last year in rushing average in addition to finishing second in passing average, New Orleans showed that opening up the offense doesn't have to come at the expense of the ground game. The Giants are primed to duplicate this type of balance because starting tailback Ahmad Bradshaw was actually better in 2009 with more receivers on the field. He averaged five yards last year on 58 carries in three- and four-WR formations versus just 4.5 when he had a tight end and fullback blocking.
This makes sense on a couple of levels.
First, fullback Madison Hedgecock is not a player who really needs to be accounted for by the defense. Thus, when he is out of the game the Giants have more weapons -- and are more dangerous. Second, Hedgecock has one job -- clearing lanes for running backs -- and really has not been that good at it the past couple of seasons.
Second, Bradshaw is at his best in space. A spread formation with more receivers split out rather than a tight formation with a fullback and tight end gives Bradshaw more space and more one-on-one opportunities, where he excels. It probably helps Brandon Jacobs, too, since he isn't exactly great at squeezing though tight spaces.
Especially right now, without Kevin Boss, it would make seem to make sense for the Giants to split Travis Beckum off the line and run more single-back type formations.
I have a feeling that the Giants' offense may be evolving more and more in this direction, anyway. It is, however, intriguing information.