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Talent or coaching? For mediocre Giants, it's both

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What are the Giants, and what has gone wrong?

Tom Coughlin
Tom Coughlin
Rich Schultz

What are the New York Giants? Are they simply a bad football team without enough talent to compete at the highest level? Bill Parcells and many others have come to that conclusion. Are they a team that should be doing better despite its talent shortcomings, but that just isn't coached well enough? Perhaps there is also some truth in that viewpoint.

Reality is, the Giants have not been a good football team since the midpoint of the 2012 season. They were 6-2 at the halfway point in 2012 and appeared certain to reach the playoffs, That didn't happen as they went 3-5 the rest of the way. Since that high water 6-2 mark the Giants have gone 13-20. That doesn't make them the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Oakland Raiders. It also, however, makes it obvious that they aren't ready to compete with the league's best teams.

So, is it talent? Is it coaching? I keep getting asked variations of that question on Twitter. My answer? It's both. Let's look at both areas, offer some thoughts on what has gone wrong, what needs to change and what the future might hold.

Coaching

Let me start with this. If you have read Big Blue View for an extended period of time, you know I have always been a supporter of Tom Coughlin. Still am. Still believe the man can coach. Still believe the man's message is right. Still believe the man can win. That doesn't mean he should be absolved of fault here, or that I am certain he is the right coach going forward.

Coughlin isn't blameless in the fall of the Giants. He has a philosophy he believes in, one that has won titles, and he's not changing it. His offense? Sure, he will change that. Not, however, his core beliefs on how the game should be played. Coughlin's biggest flaw might be his fierce loyalty, something I have written about before. Players and coaches may love him for it, but it sometimes leads him to not see when it is clearly time to move in a new direction. That probably was true with David Diehl a season ago, and it's undoubtedly true with Mathias Kiwanuka this season. There is a deep trust in Kiwanuka, but also a blind spot to the fact that both Robert Ayers and Damontre Moore are better players right now.

I think the same thing happens with Coughlin and his coaches. Although he signed off on the radical change the Giants made to the offense by bringing in Ben McAdoo as coordinator, Coughlin still believed in Kevin Gilbride. It is my belief that had Gilbride not "retired," the Giants would have had to fire him last offseason over Coughlin's objections.

Reflecting on the seemingly massive overhaul the Giants made last off-season with an entirely new offensive coaching staff and about two-dozen new players, I have wondered if that change didn't go far enough. I believe Coughlin should have stayed, but in retrospect why weren't defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and special teams coordinator Tom Quinn shown the door along with Gilbride?

Fewell has been Giants' defensive coordinator since 2010. Coughlin arm-wrestled him away from Lovie Smith and the Chicago Bears back then. Fewell's defenses with the Giants have at times been good, but never top-notch on any sort of consistent basis. He's a bright man who loves to scheme up complicated coverages and packages that put players in exact positions. Maybe too bright. The problems are the same year-in and year-out. Busted coverages. Players out of position. Too often a passive approach rather than an attacking one that lets his front seven get after the opposing quarterback. Players consistently saying they didn't play 'assignment football,' didn't do what they were coached to do.

Fewell is an adequate defensive coordinator. He's not in way over his head like Bill Sheridan was. But he's not one of those guys you look at and think "he's a great defensive coordinator destined for a head-coaching job." After five years, I think we know he's not that. He's adequate, nothing special.

Part of the current problem with the Giants defense is lack of talent (we will get to that). Part of the problem, however, has always seemed to be this. Fewell can't seem to consistently get players to understand or execute what he wants. He can't seem to get them to play at their best more than occasionally.

Unless something changes dramatically with the defense over the next seven games it is virtually impossible to see how Fewell returns to the Giants next season.

As for Quinn, this is simple. He has been the Giants' special teams coordinator for eight years. Can you recall a time during those eight years where those special teams were ever considered to be "good?" Without looking up the year-by-year statistics, I know I can't. Some of those teams have had very talented rosters. Some have not. Every year, though, the Giants get hurt by poor special teams play, whether it be poor coverage, poor punting, poor returning, lack of awareness or whatever. Year in and year out it seems that special teams play is something the Giants have to overcome, rather than get help from.

Larry Izzo, a bright young coach who was one of the best special teams players in NFL history, has been Quinn's assistant for four seasons. Why isn't Izzo already in charge of special teams?

There are many calls for Coughlin's job, and those calling might get their wish. There are others who think that even if the Giants don't push him out the door at the end of the season that Coughlin will walk away on his own. Entirely possible. I still believe, however, that John Mara and Steve Tisch would ideally like to see Coughlin return next season to finish his contract, then turn the reigns over to McAdoo.

Even if Coughlin does return next season, I think we've seen enough over the past several seasons to know that the defensive and special teams coaching staffs are due for the same type of shake-up the offensive staff got last off-season.

Talent

Let's put it bluntly. The New York Giants do not have championship-level talent. With all the injuries they have suffered (an amazing 12 players now on injured reserve) they don't currently have playoff-level talent, either. The Giants will fail to make the playoffs this season for the fifth time in six years.

That is pretty clear evidence that the Giants have just not had enough good players during that period of time. And it is a pretty clear indictment of the work done by GM Jerry Reese and Vice President of Player Evaluation Marc Ross.

I said recently that I thought the Giants' last two drafts were solid, and that there appeared to be a young core of players who could develop and lead the Giants to a brighter future. That is true, but for the last several seasons the Giants have been paying a steep price for the sins of the past.

Andy Furman (@UltimateNYG) pointed out recently on Twitter that Reese and Ross have drafted one Pro Bowl player -- Jason Pierre-Paul -- since the magical 2007 season. Go a step further and include 2007 and Reese/Ross have drafted two Pro Bowlers (wide receiver Steve Smith made it once).

That means the Giants have largely collected mediocre talent -- which, unless you work miracles like Coughlin and Eli Manning did in 2011 -- leads to mediocre results.

Here is another startling fact. Of the players drafted since 2008, Will Beatty (Round 2, 2009) is the only player to have gotten a second contract from the Giants.

There is no one left from the 2008 class. Only Beatty remains from 2009, and only Beatty and Hakeem Nicks are still in the league from that class. Only Pierre-Paul remains with the Giants from 2010, and only JPP and Linval Joseph ever amounted to anything from that group. The only unquestioned quality player out of the 2011 class is Prince Amukamara. That class was a wasteland that included Marvin Austin, Jerrel Jernigan, James Brewer and Tyler Sash. At least sixth-round pick Jacquian Williams plays -- although you could argue all day about whether or not he is actually a good NFL linebacker. The 2012 draft class? Another wasteland. The only useful player the Giants have from 2012 is Rueben Randle, and most analysts don't think he has become the play-maker the Giants hoped for.

So, there is a five-year period during which the Giants got very little from their draft. They got lucky with the signing of Victor Cruz as an undrafted free agent, but from 2008-2012 they got, and are still getting, far too little from those draft classes.

That is why they had to go on a free-agent binge last off-season. It's why there often aren't quality reserves when players go down to injury. You can't find these guys on the street.

Reese, like Coughlin, is stubborn. He has final authority in the organization on who makes the roster and who doesn't, and the general manager obviously hates to admit his own mistakes. He has a well-earned reputation for hanging on to failed draft picks too long, leaving the coaching staff hamstrung with players it doesn't want. This year's roster is no exception. People in the know will tell you that there are players on the current Giants' roster who are there because the GM wants them there, not because the coaching staff wants them or will use them unless there is no other choice.

Offensively, the Giants could probably use an explosive play-maker at running back, one more mauling offensive lineman and at least a complementary receiver to join Odell Beckham.

Defensively, the Giants are a mess. The linebackers, without Jon Beason, are entirely inadequate. Beyond Johnathan Hankins there are no proven, physical run-stopping defensive tackles. The cornerbacks are all on IR, except for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The guy who should have been their best safety couldn't stay out of trouble and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.

The last two drafts have been a step in the right direction, and some of the free-agent signees could be long-term puzzle pieces. After five seasons that simply weren't good enough from a talent acquisition standpoint, though, it is going to take the Giants time to recover.