Questions. The New York Giants open the 2015 season in less than a week, and everywhere you look around this proud franchise there are questions. The Giants have not made the playoffs in three seasons and have suffered two straight losing years, with each season being worse than the last. Let's start a discussion about these questions with, what else, questions. Why have things gone wrong for the Giants the past three seasons? What can they do get things going back in the right direction again? What happens if they don't?
These are the primary questions. As the new season begins, there are questions underneath each of these questions. Subtexts, if you will, that could lead the Giants to a vastly different place a year from now than where they are today. Where the Giants are a year from now, what the franchise looks like, is a question that can only be answered by how this season turns out.
Let's examine some of the questions facing the Giants as their season-opening showdown with the Jones boys, otherwise known as the Dallas Cowboys, looms in just a few days.
The "What happens to Tom Coughlin if?" question
Let's not mess around. Let's get right to the juicy stuff. This is the BIG question, the elephant in the room, the question that ALL of the other questions will ultimately answer. Coughlin, 69, is the league's oldest coach. He makes no secret, however, of how much he loves his job and that, if it were up to him he would probably die on the sidelines coaching the Giants as a very, very old man. Not the moderately old one he is now. At the end of last season, Coughlin jokingly said he would love "a 10-year extension."
He was being funny, which is something he is much better at than people think. Deep down, though, you knew he meant it. The man would, or will, coach as long as his health and that of his wife, Judy, allows. Thing is, can the Giants keep letting him to do that if they keep traveling in the wrong direction?
Make no mistake here. I'm not calling for Coughlin's head, and I probably never will. The man has his faults, and without doubt one of them is that loyalty to players and coaches he has had success with sometimes leads him to be slow to move on from those people. Another is one that afflicts many NFL coaches, not just Coughlin. That would be a tendency to sometimes focus on what players CAN'T do, rather than find what they CAN and utilize it. This, to me, is the thing that makes Bill Belichick the best in the business.
Thing is, you will never get me to believe that the mess of the last two seasons can be laid at Coughlin's feet. The brutal truth is that the rosters Coughlin has been handed have simply not been good enough, not close to playoff caliber. The Giants are still digging out from under years of poor draft choices, some misfortune, and free-agent mistakes.
Still, whether the mess is of his making or not, the wins and losses go on Coughlin's record. Co-owner John Mara has not denied this is a "win or else" season for Big Blue. Ultimately, if the losing continues it will be nearly impossible for the Giants to do anything but move on from the beloved coach. When the Giants set their roster on Saturday, making some difficult choices, Coughlin said this:
"You wouldn't think that a team who won six games would stay where they are. Well, they're not. You have to try another direction."
He wasn't talking about himself, of course, but he could have been.
Jerry Reese -- Photo by Trevor Ruczkowski, USA Today Sports
The Jerry Reese question
So, OK, if the whole mess (part of it, yes) can't be laid at Coughlin's feet and it's about the (lack) of talent, why aren't the Giants holding GM Jerry Reese's feet to the fire?
Thing is, the Giants don't fire general managers. George Young had the job from 1979-1997, Ernie Accorsi from 1998 to 2006 and Reese from 2007 until now. He isn't going anywhere.
The better, more realistic, question for me is if the Giants continue to field an inferior product when will they shake up the personnel department that reports directly to Reese? Marc Ross, currently with the title Vice President of Player Evaluation, has been in that capacity since Reese became GM. He's in charge of college scouting. In that time, the Giants have drafted only two Pro Bowl players -- Jason Pierre-Paul and Odell Beckham. It would take the fingers of both hands, if not more, to count the draft mistakes that have been made.
Ken Sternfeld has been Director of Pro Personnel since 2012. He's the guy in charge of scouting pro players and helping the Giants decide which free agents to target, which guys to put in waiver claims on, etc. In those four years, how many free-agent successes have the Giants had? How many flops? If you go player-by-player, the latter is going to outnumber the former.
If the Giants continue to fall short, when does the department responsible for bringing in the guys who wear Giants' uniforms get a makeover?
The Eli question
OK, so I have already written a short novel here. There are a lot more questions to go through, though, and I will try to get through them succinctly. After all, there will be roughly a gazillion more things posted here at Big Blue View today and I do want to leave you time to read them all.
The Eli question is, basically, "when will he and the Giants finally come to terms on a contract extension?"
He says he wants that to happen. The Giants say they want that to happen. Neither side seems to be in a rush to make it happen, though you can remain almost certain that it will happen.
Still, the fact that we have to ask the "when" question leads to another nagging question. Could there still be just a teeny, tiny shred of doubt in the mind of John Mara? A part of him that might be willing to let this play out for another year? A part of him that thinks, "if this year goes bad and we have to rebuild with a new coach, do we want to do that with a 35-year-old quarterback?"
I think Eli gets his extension, and deserves it, but the question is still worth asking.
Jason Pierre-Paul -- Photo by Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports
The Jason Pierre-Paul question
It really is a whole lot of questions, which boil down to one essential one. Will Jason Pierre-Paul actually be able to help the New York Giants at some point this season? The answer is another question. Who the heck knows?
Will Pierre-Paul show up this week, as promised, to let the Giants examine the hand he damaged so badly in a Fourth of July fireworks accident that he ending up having his right index finger amputated? He is reportedly supposed to do that on Monday. What will the Giants think when they examine said hand? Will Pierre-Paul finally sign his franchise tag? Will he be able to play Week 1? A few weeks down the road? Six to eight weeks from now? What kind of player will he be whenever he plays? Will he be tentative, or will he be willing to use that hand to grab 330-pound linemen, haul down running backs and bat down passes?
Here is an even bigger question, in fact for me it's the biggest one. Is Pierre-Paul worth all this aggravation? I have said before that the Giants and Pierre-Paul need each other, and they do. For now.
The guy had a great year in 2011 He had 16.5 sacks, a couple of forced fumbles, seven passes defensed, Pro Bowl, All-Pro. What's he done since? He's certainly spent a ton of time talking about how great he thinks he can be, or is, but he hasn't spent much time proving it.
Blame it on adjusting to the added attention from offenses after 2011. Blame it on his back injury. Blame it on the fact that maybe he is a good player and not a great one. In the three seasons since 2011 he had one good five-game stretch, which of course came in the last five games of the 2014 season. It was glorious to watch, as he had nine sacks in five games, but it raises more questions.
What do we make of that? Was it just good games against bad teams? Where was that kind of play earlier in the year when it would have meant something? Was it just a salary drive, JPP realizing he had to get some numbers to get paid?
Bottom line is, can you really trust this guy? Can you build a defense around him?
Soooo many questions. None of them really have solid answers.
The Steve Spagnuolo/defense question
When the Giants re-hired Steve Spagnuolo, architect of the last truly great Giants defense, to replace Perry Fewell as defensive coordinator, the fan base rejoiced. "Spags is back!" was the jubilant refrain. All would be well, the defense would once again be aggressive rather passive, the Giants would once again strike fear into opposing quarterbacks and more Canton of Heroes parades had to be forthcoming. Right? Well, not so fast there Obi-Wan.
It was Spagnuolo himself who reminded everyone that this is 2015, not 2007 or 2008. That these are the current Giants. That Hall of Famer Michael Strahan doesn't play anymore. Neither does Osi Umenyora or Antonio Pierce. Justin Tuck wears that despicable silver and black belonging to the Oakland Raiders.
"This isn't a on and off switch where, boom, all of a sudden we're back to 2007 and we pick up where we left off. It doesn't work that way and so to me I treat them differently. It would be no different than if I had left Baltimore and went to another team. It's a different challenge. It's a different year. It's different personnel and we're talking about all of these things right now," Spagnuolo said back in May during his first meeting with the media. "I'm not a magician. No coaches are magicians. Things aren't going to happen like they may have happened in a different time, but hopefully something exciting will happen. At least that's the goal."
Bringing Spagnuolo back to New York was, and is, a feel-good story. It was, and is, the right move. The move the Giants had to make. They needed someone capable of at least trying to put the swagger back in the Giants' defenseless defense. They also needed someone who wouldn't be starting at square one with the 69-year-old Coughlin. Spagnuolo was the right choice.
Will it work? That's the question, and the answer is a mystery.
To a man, every player you speak to says he loves the scheme Spagnuolo has installed. They love playing for him. Players -- except the ones he coached with the New Orleans Saints in 2012 -- have always loved playing for Spagnuolo. Do they have the talent to make Spagnuolo once again look like one of the game's brightest defensive minds?
The player who is supposed to be their best defender hasn't even shown up yet. Yes, that's two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. JPP is supposed to show his face, and his now four-fingered right hand, to the Giants some time this week. Finally. No one knows when Pierre-Paul will actually be ready to play, or how good he can actually be.
Beyond that, there are questions everywhere.
Can the Giants rush the passer? They might be able to, but they might also have to bring the house to get that done. Can they defend the run? Truthfully, they didn't do that much better this preseason than they did last year, when they surrendered a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry. You need two safeties. The Giants have one they are pretty sure can play, rookie second-round pick Landon Collins. After that, they have hope. And prayers. And duct tape. And, well, questions.
This might work out beautifully. During Spagnuolo's first go-round no one was sure what the Giants had. Until they had it. There might be a fairy-tale ending. There might also be a train-wreck.
As with so many other things about this Giants team, it is a great big question mark.
The offensive line question
For three seasons, GM Jerry Reese and the Giants have tried to atone for past sins and mistakes by spending high draft picks and lots of John Mara's dollars to fix what had become a broken-down, leaky, unreliable offensive line.
When Reese selected offensive tackle Ereck Flowers with the ninth overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft you could just picture him at one of those senior citizen bingo nights. Reese might just as well have stood up and screamed "BINGO!" at the top of his lungs because you know he thought he had just uncovered the final piece to his reconstruction. He had just been handed the winning chip.
"We think this can help solidify the offensive line, so hopefully this will settle the offensive line down and we don't have to keep talking about the offensive line as much," Reese said the night the Giants selected Flowers.
Then, of course, offseason workouts began. And because these are the Giants, the plan went to seed before the Giants even had a chance to implement it. Left tackle Will Beatty suffered a torn pectoral muscle lifting weights. During a supervised session at the Giants' Quest Diagnostics Training Center, for Jiminy's sake! How does that happen? It's the Giants, so of course stuff like that happens.
So, the Giants have to throw Flowers to the wolves and force him to play left tackle. They have to use journeyman Marshall Newhouse at right tackle. They have to hope high-priced free agent Geoff Schwartz can duct tape his feet and ankles together, somehow stay healthy and earn some of that money the Giants doled out to him. They have to hope second-year man Weston Richburg can handle center, and that his left knee doesn't become a bigger problem than it already is. They have to hope they made the right choice by moving Justin Pugh from right tackle to left guard.
In other words, there are still questions about the offensive line. Lots of 'em. Again. Reese's cry of "BINGO" turns out to have come too soon.
The Victor Cruz question
Will Cruz ever be something close to the wide receiver who set team records and took New York by storm before Odell Beckham Jr. TOOK NEW YORK AND THE NFL BY STORM last season? Cruz caught 82 passes for a team-record 1,536 yards in 2011, and followed that with 86 catches in 2012. He was the Giants' Beckham before Beckham. But, what is he now?
A torn patellar tendon wrecked his season a year ago after six games, and also somewhat wrecked the Giants' season. For months the speculation has been whether or not he could make it all the way back from that gruesome injury. I don't know about you, but I hope I never again see a player crying like that and hear players talk about listening to Cruz's agonized screams. Just when it looked like he might be ready to return, a calf injury came along to derail him and start the merry-go-round of questions again.
Will we see him in the season-opener? If not, when? Is this the beginning of a spiral where he becomes what Jon Beason is, a once-great player whose body won't let him be what he knows he should be? Or, is that all just too dramatic? Will he be just fine once the calf heals, allowing Cruz, Beckham, Rueben Randle, Shane Vereen and Eli Manning to scare the bejeebers out of defenses and cause opposing defensive coordinators to have sleepless nights?
There is no way for us to know. Until, of course, we know.
The NFC East question
This, really, can be phrased like this. "No matter what the Giants do this year, are the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles just better?" I am not going to say that the answer is a definitive "yes," because that is why the games are played, you never know about injuries, weird bounces of the ball, etc. You never know how things are going to turn out. If you did, Las Vegas bookmakers would go out of business rather than get rich off your hunches. On paper, though? Entering the season -- and please don't kill me for this -- it certainly would appear that the Jones and Kelly boys are ahead of the Giants.
The Cowboys won the division a year ago with a 12-4 record. They lost DeMarco Murray to the Eagles in free agency, but they remain loaded on offense. They have Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and the group generally considered the best offensive line in the league. On defense, they get linebacker Sean Lee back after a year lost to injury and, like it or not, have added pass rushers Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory. They will be good again.
The Eagles missed the playoffs, but still won 10 games. They got an offseason makeover -- basically, they got "Kelly'd" after the season ended. New quarterback in Sam Bradford, new running backs in Murray and Ryan Matthews, a revamped offensive line and secondary. The Eagles will be good, especially if Bradford can stay on the field all season.
The Giants have to prove they can be good. Unless you are wearing blue-colored glasses and just can't see the truth, you have to know that the Cowboys and Eagles already are good.
The final question
That, of course, is the playoff question. Will the Giants make the playoffs for the first time in four years, or won't they? I'm going to keep this one short and sweet. I think they will. I don't know exactly why, to be honest. Maybe I'm overly optimistic. Maybe I just believe that the Coughlin-Manning duo has to eventually get it right. Maybe I'm just rooting for Coughlin to be able to go out on his own terms.
I like what I've seen of the 2015 draft class thus far. In fact, the last two draft classes. I like bringing Spagnuolo back. I like adding Shane Vereen. Despite keeping Markus Kuhn, I like the fact that the Giants have re-shaped the roster and finally gotten rid of some players they should have shed before now.
Do I think this is a Super Bowl team? No. I do, however, think that it is time for the Giants to get some breaks, to have some things go their way, to make some of the coulda/woulda/shoulda plays that escaped them the past couple of seasons.
Some how, some way I think this team finds its way back to the playoffs at the end of this season.