What is the New York Giants' best hope of making a run to the NFC East title over the season's final four games? From here, the view if that it would if the team's offense, counted on to be the strength of the 2015 Giants, finally played somewhere close to the expectations placed upon them before the season began.
Before training camp even began, I wrote about those high expectations:
Provided the offensive line gives them a chance the Giants could field an offense among the five best in the league. There are so many weapons for Eli Manning to choose from the Giants should have three to four top-notch play-makers on the field at all times. Rookie Ereck Flowers will make his share of mistakes, but I have a hard time believing the Giants will just put him on an island. They will give him lots of help whenever they can. As for right tackle, I have to believe that if they don't think they have the answer they will go get someone.
Given how good the offense should be, and the fact that the special teams should be better after all of the attention the Giants paid to that group in the offseason, Steve Spagnuolo's defense only needs to be adequate to give the Giants a legitimate chance to reach the playoffs.
The Giants are averaging 25.6 points per game, seventh in the league. That looks perfectly fine, but the truth is the Giants' offense has not done for this team what they hoped it would. No, make that what they needed it to do. Take out the six return scores (two kicks, two interceptions, two fumbles) and the offense is giving the Giants 22.1 points per game.
The defense hasn't been good, we know that. We also knew, however, that Spagnuolo wasn't working with a lot of talent and that at best his group would be decent. Special teams has had a couple of bobbles, but has been notably better than in recent years.
It is the Giants' offense that hasn't lived up to the hype -- not even close. Remember when GM Jerry Reese said this when training camp began?
"I expect our offense to score points. If you don't score 28 points in this league, it's hard to win. Those 14-10 games, there are not a lot of those games left around the National Football League in light of how the rules favor the offense mostly, how the rules are made now. So you have to score points. You have to take advantage of that, of the rules."
The Giants are 15th in the NFL in yards per game. Per NFL GSIS, they are below league average in yards per play, rushing yards per game and per play, passing yards per play, third down percentage, red zone percentage and goal to go percentage.
Time and again this season, Tom Coughlin has -- rightly or wrongly -- asked his offense to win games so that his suspect defense wouldn't have to try and do that. Time and again that hasn't worked, with the end result being those five crushing fourth-quarter meltdowns.
Let's look at four problem areas.
Is there a McAdoo problem?
In an excellent look at the struggling offense, Thomas George of SB Nation wrote this a few days ago:
I don't think management believes in the Tom Coughlin style or effect anymore. I don't think Coughlin believes in his second-year offensive coordinator, Ben McAdoo, and McAdoo's ability to win big in big moments. I don't think McAdoo is happy with many of the on-field decisions and play of his quarterback, Eli Manning. I don't think Coughlin or McAdoo or Manning trusts their defense to do anything major late in a game that matters.
Is there really an issue between Coughlin and McAdoo? Or, maybe by extension between McAdoo and Manning? I don't know that for a fact, but the idea that Coughlin and McAdoo don't see offense the same way has some merit. Coughlin is a down-the-field, attack-oriented, quick-strike coach. McAdoo is a West Coast offense guy, seek completions, eliminate risk, hope for run-after-catch big plays. Yes, Coughlin signed off on the change in philosophy. It doesn't mean the head coach and his play-caller are always going to see things the same way.
Sometimes the Giants look like they don't really have a plan on offense. Maybe that's because McAdoo isn't the offensive genius he was supposed to be. Maybe it's because there's a push-pull going on regarding how the Giants are going to do things. Don't know, but it's an interesting concept. Oh, and could you blame McAdoo if he sometimes pines for Aaron Rodgers?
Where have all the play-makers gone?
Yes, the Giants have Odell Beckham Jr. Yes, he is as electrifying a player as there in the league. Yes, he can take the ball to the house on any play and do some spectacular things human beings aren't supposed to do. Yet, sometimes the Giants offense looks like Manning-to-Beckham and, well, more Manning-to-Beckham. Too often it looks like throwing the ball to Beckham is the only chance they have to do anything.
Whether he is playing hurt, is disinterested or just not as good we thought, Rueben Randle has been disappointing. Victor Cruz never got on the field. Larry Donnell didn't play all that well, and ended up on IR. Will Tye has potential, but he is still figuring out how to be an NFL player.
The one guy the Giants seem to have forgotten about, or under-utilized in the passing game, is running back Shane Vereen. In the Giants' 52-49 loss to the New Orleans Saints, Vereen had eight catches on nine targets. Since then he has only been targeted 16 times in the past four games, with 12 catches. The Giants need to take better advantage of Vereen, particularly in the red zone.
Why are the Giants running in quicksand?
The Giants keep trying ... and trying ... and trying to run the ball. And they keep failing ... and failing ... and failing some more. Balance has always been part of the Coughlin mantra, and Manning has always been better when the Giants have had it. The Giants have to have it, or at least have to have some semblance of it. They obviously don't right now. They are 29th in rushing yards per game and 27th in rushing yards per play. Over and over we have seen that they can't get a yard or two with the run game when they need it.
"The running game has not been what we would like it to be," said Coughlin in understatement.
The Giants have rotated four backs, with none of the group of Rashad Jennings, Vereen, Andre Williams and Orleans Darkwa able to establish themselves as the dominant back. Coughlin refused to blame the rotation for the running woes:
"You know what? That's not the reason the run game is not going, okay? I'll just tell you point blank," Coughlin said. "Believe me, I'd love to stand here and tell you that, "Yeah, that's the reason we're not making any yards running." But it's not, it's not. Now they're not always doing the right thing or making the right cut, but that hasn't been a major, major issue for us."
So, what are the issues? The Giants have an inexperienced full back in Nikita Whitlock, who is actually seeing very few snaps. They don't have a blocking tight end. They have had issues at offensive tackle all season, and now have an even further weakened offensive line.
So much for settling the offensive line
When the Giants drafted Ereck Flowers with the ninth overall selection, it looked like a three-year revamp of the offensive line had finally put them in a solid place along the line. Then, left tackle Will Beatty got hurt. Flowers went to left tackle and Marshall Newhouse was forced to play right tackle. They lost young backup center Brett Jones to a season-ending knee injury. Justin Pugh missed games due to a concussion. Weston Ricburg missed a game due to an ankle issue. Now,veteran guard Geoff Schwartz is on IR. Newhouse is hurt.
The Giants have some nice pieces on the offensive line. Flowers will be a good player. Rookie Bobby Hart shows potential. Still, though, the line is in a constant state of flux. Just like it has been for years now.
Whatever the issues, the belief here is that the offensive unit is the one group truly capable of raising its level of performance over the final four games. If Manning, Beckham & Co. can, perhaps the Giants will end up with a division title. If they can't, the Giants probably go home early again. And perhaps we look at the beginning of an overhaul.