The New York Giants finished 25th in the NFL in overall special teams play in 2014, according to a comprehensive special teams study done annually by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. That is up from 28th in 2013, but as Jordan Ranaan of NJ.com points out, the Giants actually scored worse in terms of total points accumulated in Gosselin's grading system.
Many of you are going to read that and the first thing that you are going to do, or want to do, is scream, "how does Tom Quinn still have a job?"
Well, yours truly has in the past been one of those calling for Quinn, Giants' special teams coordinator since 2007, to be replaced. After a second straight playoff-less season, one that included some special teams struggles, there seemed to be a chance Tom Coughlin would replace Quinn following the 2014 season. Instead, Quinn will return in 2015 for his ninth season running the Giants' special teams units.
"The area where you're dissatisfied there is we didn't cover punts very well and I think there are couple of reasons for that and our return game was just a little better than average," head coach Tom Coughlin said in his season-ending press conference. "But if you look at the body of work, we improved in every statistic, in every area from 2013 to 2014."
So, let's look at that body of work.
Give 'Em A Gold Star
Placekicker Josh Brown had an outstanding season, making 24-of-26 field-goal attempts, a career-best 92.3 percent. Brown also 46 touchbacks in 82 kickoffs, an impressive 57 percent. The Giants were outstanding in kickoff coverage, second in the league with an average of 18.3 yards surrendered per kickoff return.
Happy, And Unhappy, Returns
The Giants' return game was a mixed bag in 2014. Ultimately, though, I have to give Quinn some credit here for making something out of what looked like nothing when the season began.
When training camp began the Giants thought perhaps Odell Beckham would be their punt returner from the beginning. If not, there was former Denver Broncos return man Trindon Holliday. Well, we know what happened. Beckham got hurt. so did Holliday. Charles James got cut. Jayron Hosley got suspended. Preston Parker ended up with the job. He did OK until Beckham was healthy enough to take over the job, averaging 6.6 yards per return and losing a couple of longer returns to penalties. Beckham provided some spark, averaging 8.1 yards per return. It will be interesting to see going forward how often the Giants are willing to use Beckham as the returner.
Quintin Demps was supposed to be the best Giants kickoff returner in years. Flop. Holliday was the backup plan. Oops! David Wilson was the backup/backup plan. Jerrel Jernigan was in there somewhere. Oh, well. Somehow, Parker ended up with the job. He did OK, fumbled it away to Michael Cox, who did a good job until breaking his leg, and Parker got the job back. Parker ended up averaging a solid 24.2 yards per return.
Give Quinn credit here for shuffling returners, and for constantly juggling return formations and lead blockers until he found something that worked.
Adventures In Punt Coverage
As Coughlin indicated, this is where the Giants fell down on special teams. A 71-yard Week 2 punt return score by Ted Ginn was, in reality, the single play that cost the Giants a victory in that game. Overall, the Giants surrendered 10.6 yards per punt return. That was 27th in the league. Their net average of 38.6 yards per punt was 23rd in the league.
What went wrong here? Why could the Giants cover kickoffs as well as anyone in the league, yet pretty much not cover punts at all? Many of the same players were on both units.
My belief is that the health of punter Steve Weatherford had a lot to do with it. Weatherford tore four ligaments in the left ankle (the foot he plants into the ground when punting) when he was roughed during a Week 1 loss to the Detroit Lions.
You have to give Weatherford all the credit in the world for gutting his way through a season where he was never healthy, where simply getting on the field each week and punting as well as he did with an ankle basically made of spaghetti was admirable. Yet, you have to wonder how much Weatherford's injury had to do with the team's struggles in coverage.
Weatherford's 45.5 yards per punt average was good, although it marked the lowest average of his four seasons with the Giants. There were plenty of times, though, when it seemed like the punter wasn't able to put the ball where his coverage team expected it, or hit the ball as high as might have been preferable. There were times when Coughlin indicated he thought the ball was coming out too slow. There was a sideline incident between Quinn and Weatherford.
The 71-yard return by Ginn came on a line drive punt directly down the middle of the field. Zack Bowman missed a tackle on the play, but no one else was even close to being in position to make a stop. No punter is perfect, but Weatherford's ball placement was never an issue in previous seasons. You know lack of a solid base due to his ankle injury had to be problematic.
Did Quinn not do a good enough job here teaching and prepping his coverage team? Did Weatherford's health make it more difficult? Did coverage guys just not do what they were supposed to do? I honestly am not sure of the answer. Maybe it's all of the above.
The ranking is what it is, and 25th is not good enough. When you really look at it, though, the one area that came up lacking was punt coverage and it's just hard to assess blame there.
As for Quinn and his job status, there have been plenty of times I have thought the Giants needed to find someone else to run their special teams. I honestly think assistant special teams coach Larry Izzo is a guy who is ready for and deserving of a promotion.
When you really break down 2014, though, Quinn seems to have done the best he could with what was really a makeshift group in many areas. The view from here is that replacing him after last season would really have been more for show, more to simply say, "we did something" than about his actual job performance.