The New York Giants finished the 2014 season feeling pretty good about where they are headed, at least as good as a 6-10 team headed home without a playoff appearance for the third straight season can feel.
The air of optimism was unbroken by a sloppy 34-26 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, a loss marked by many of the things that have plagued the Giants for two seasons now. Poor defense, special teams gaffes, untimely penalties, lack of on-field discipline, a critical turnover. An offensive line that can't run block.
Yet, there was an air of confidence around that the Giants that there is a bright future ahead.
"I think it's headed in the right direction," said Tom Coughlin, the coach who hopes to be back on the sidelines next season.
"I think from the offensive standpoint, I feel like we definitely made strides and we're playing pretty good football here at the end of the year," Eli Manning said. "I felt very good in the offense and I hope that I can stay in it and we'll go from there."
"I definitely have seen us growing in the offense and get rolling. Unfortunately, it is too late," Odell Beckham said. "All you can do is look into next year with a smile on your face. Praying for my brother Victor [Cruz] to get healthy and have a return that will be worth the wait. Rueben [Randle], Vic [Cruz], myself. So much to look forward to next year."
"I feel like we are building something, although we haven't had the season that we wanted to have. We are still building something," Antrel Rolle said. "I think there is a lot of room for us to grow with what we have accomplished thus far."
There was a report Sunday that co-owner John Mara was "pleased" with the direction of the team and that he was likely to retain Coughlin as head coach. Coughlin certainly sounds like a man who expects to be back, and who would like his coaching staff to remain intact.
There is certainly reason to be optimistic. If Odell Beckham doesn't win Offensive Rookie of the Year after his record-shattering season there should be an investigation. Eli Manning just completed one of the best seasons of his career, one which included a career-best 63.1 percent completion percentage. There is a core of young players, led by what looks like a stellar 2014 draft class, to build around. There is the feeling that adding many of the veterans who finished on IR to the young group that succeeded at the end of the season could get the Giants back on the winning track.
The Giants, though, need to be honest. The end of the season winning streak came against the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and St. Louis Rams, all losing teams. They have had six- and seven-game losing streaks the past two seasons. They have won more than nine games only once since 2008, a playoff-less 10-6 season in 2010. They went 9-7 in 2012, 7-9 last year and 6-10 this season. A backwards trend. The only above .500 team they beat all season was the Houston Texans, who finished 9-7. They still haven't beaten a playoff team with its starting quarterback since the middle of the 2012 season.
Sunday's game was a stark reminder that the Giants may have won those three games, but they haven't fixed all of their issues. John Mara, Jerry Reese, Coughlin and other members of the Giants' brass are likely having some lively conversations today. Let's hope they aren't doing it with blinders on.
Coughlin, in my view, deserves to stay for the final year of his contract. He has Beckham, Manning, offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and the promise shown by the offense to thank for that.
Thing is, Coughlin -- legendary for his attention to detail and for being a stickler for fundamentals -- has to answer for why his team does so many stupid things. Why does it commit so many unnecessary penalties? Why does it make so many assignment errors? Even with Manning cutting down on interceptions, why do the Giants put the ball on the ground so often?
Why does the Giants' defense under the direction of Perry Fewell perennially finish toward the bottom of the league in points allowed? Why is there always something broken on Tom Quinn's special teams? While they appear to have had an excellent 2014 draft, why did they get so little out of the draft for so long before that?
The Giants can put a happy face on things and keep the status quo if they want. John Mara could stand in front of the media Tuesday and justify that by agreeing with Coughlin that the team is pointed in the right direction. Which it is.
Doing nothing, though, would be a mistake. The Giants need a fresh voice to coordinate their defense. They might need some new leadership, too. It says here that Antrel Rolle didn't play well enough, or lead well enough, to deserve the money he is going to want. It can't be a lock that he comes back. They still need help on the offensive line, defensive line, linebacker and safety. Maybe even at tight end and running back, too.
The Giants have been mired in mediocrity for a while now, a stretch of six years interrupted by one magical Super Bowl run. They need to remember that when they decide how to go about preparing for 2015. Keeping the status quo, both with the coaches under Coughlin and the players on the field, isn't going to get the Giants where they believe they can go.