This offseason has been an interesting one for the New York Giants. Big free agency spending, an exciting draft, and biggest of all, Ben McAdoo replaced Tom Coughlin as the head coach.
There has been far more for Giants' fans to talk about in 2016 than for most of the previous decade, or more. Some of it has been good, like the anticipation surrounding the defensive line additions of Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon, or the rave reviews regarding rookies Sterling Shepard and Darian Thompson.
But some of it has been not-so-good, the right tackle situation in particular. The other issue that keeps coming up is Andre Williams.
After a disappointing sophomore season that saw Williams get just 257 yards and 88 carries (2.9 yards per carry), many fans -- and media members -- seem ready to move on from him. Their number, however, doesn't include new head coach Ben McAdoo.
"Andre and I have had some conversations," McAdoo said on Wednesday at the Combine. "I think a lot of people may be willing to give up on Andre. I think it may be early for that. I look forward to Andre bouncing back this year and having a bounce-back year."
"He's a tough, hard runner," McAdoo later said. "He's a smart guy. He's conscientious. He's working at it. I look forward to getting him back."
In June OTAs, McAdoo again praised Williams' work ethic and perhaps pointed to a reason why his second season was a disappointment. "Andre just needs some reps," McAdoo said [at June OTAs]. "He looks good right now. He's moving around well. He's fluid. He's working a lot on catching the ball, and doing a nice job for us there. We're spreading the reps around. It's early. It is June, but we'll see more from Andre when training camp rolls around and we get the pads on."
But fans and the some media members just don't seem to be having it. Many off-season roster predictions leave Williams off for Bobby Rainey, or with the Giants fielding a three man stable of running backs. "Addition by subtraction" is often the explanation for cutting Williams.
But is it?
Are folks on the outside giving up on Andre Williams too soon? Is it, as McAdoo suggests, that Williams 5.5 touches a game weren't enough? Or were there other problems that held him back from not building on his rookie season?
To find out I fired up NFL Game Pass and poured over every carry he had in 2015 from both the end zone cameras and the All-22 tape.
NOTE: I didn't watch the second game against Washington. With the entire offensive line in disarray I didn't think it would be fair to anyone.
Believe me, it wasn't easy, nor was it particularly enjoyable -- to buoy my spirits I'd re-watch Odell Beckham's touchdowns after finishing a game -- however, I've got a much better understanding about what went wrong in Andre Williams' sophomore campaign.
Simply put, the biggest problem with Andre Williams' running in 2015 was the blocking from the rest of the offense (Eli Manning excepted, of course).
It all starts up front with the line of scrimmage, but as much as Giants fans would like to blame John Jerry and Marshall Newhouse, they weren't the only source of poor blocking. With Ereck Flowers and Weston Richburg both playing injured over the course of the season, Geoff Schwartz being lost for the year, and Justin Pugh both moving from left guard to left tackle, to right tackle, and dealing with a concussion himself, poor or inconsistent blocking was systemic. The Giants just couldn't manage to get all five offensive linemen to not struggle at the same time.
But more than the offensive line, the blocking from the fullback(s), tight ends and wide receivers often limited runs that could have been six, 10, or more yards to just two or three. A blatant example would be Williams' second carry against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7.
His first carry came on the Giants' second possession, a good 5-yard gain up the middle that ended in a punishing blow to Rolando McClain as he tried to make the tackle.
For his second carry, Williams was run off the left tackle, a run which was blocked up well, and should have gone for another good gain.
The run is blocked well and there's a big hole... Except for Tyrone Crawford abusing Larry Donnell.
There are few tight ends in the NFL that can realistically be expected to regularly match up with a defensive lineman. But with a run that is this well blocked, all Donnell needed was to get in front of his man and stay there for a second or two and Williams would have been through. Instead, Donnell was on the ground and Williamswas tackled as he got to the line of scrimmage.
There were other, less easily identified problems from some unlikely sources.
This is Williams' ninth carry against the Washington Redskins in Week 3. The play was blocked reasonably well, with one defender unaccounted for (No. 41, who ultimately makes the tackle).
However, for this to be more than just a three yard run Dwayne Harris needs to block the safety as he comes down. Harris, however, is late getting over and misses his block. It's enough to slow Williams down and force him over, helping to improve the tackler's angle. If the safety had been cleared, Williams probably would have been able to run through an arm tackle at speed. Instead, Goldson was able to make a secure tackle.
It's an aspect of the play that doesn't show up at game-speed, is even harder to see on the broadcast angle, and is all too easily chalked up to an error on the running back's part.
Situations And Usage
After blocking, the next biggest problem with Williams in 2015 was simply how the Giants used him.
While it was called a "Running Back By Committee," the Giants didn't truly use that philosophy. Instead, for most of the year the Giants had a "Running Back By Rotation," fielding a different running back for each drive regardless of what happened on the possession before. With three, then four, running backs to rotate through, it could be difficult, if not impossible, for any one back to stay in the rhythm of the game.
As McAdoo said earlier this offseason, Williams is a player who needs reps. When he is allowed to get consistent snaps, he becomes more productive. Defenses are less willing to tackle him and he seems to get a better feel for the timing of the blocks and the angles the defenders will take. And as the year wore on, Williams' snaps decreased in favor of Orleans Darkwa, Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen. Williams is an unremarkable receiver at best, and unreliable at worst. Jennings and Vereen are of more use when the game is on the line, particularly as the defense failed to stop opposing offenses, and his snaps dried up as a result.
And in a world dominated by Fantasy Football, the box score is king, and it isn't kind to Williams. That is largely impacted by the "Committee" part of the Giants' usage. Where Vereen was the dedicated third down and 2-minute drill back, Williams was used heavily in short yardage and goal-line situations.
Backed up on their own goal line, up against the opponent's end zone, or in a short-yardage situation, the Giants would often line Williams up behind a two-tight end or Jumbo formation, signaling for all the world that they would run. With little threat of a pass out of the backfield, defenses were free to attack the run, which would invariably be up the middle. The Giants did capitalize on that tendency on occasion, faking a hand-off to Williams and passing to a tight end or receiver, usually for a big gain. However, when they handed the ball to Williams, he almost always had nowhere to go and an offensive line getting pushed back into his lap.
Finally, the play-calling with Williams appeared to get stale around mid-season. All too often he would be run up the middle, into the teeth of a defense, with the same play called for consecutive snaps. There was little if any creativity or variation until the last week of the season.
- Williams is blocking scheme diverse. He can run out of either a man-blocking scheme or a zone-blocking scheme, and can do so successfully as long as the play is decently blocked. In fact, some of his best runs were zone blocking plays. Likewise, despite many of the plays called for him, Williams was also able to run effectively to the outside, off tackle.
- Contrary to the belief that Williams' vision is lacking, more often than not I found myself surprised by his vision. There were instances where it looked like he missed a hole, but viewed from the end zone camera, the hole was closing and he tried to follow his blockers to pick up as much yardage as possible. In all the runs I charted, I only noticed two where I thought he didn't see a cut-back lane or chose the wrong hole.
- I think part of the perception (in addition to hard to see blocking mistakes by tight ends or receivers), is due to Williams' preference to run through contact rather than try to avoid it and be dragged down. He is almost impossible to arm-tackle, but if a tackle is going to happen, he will square his shoulders and try to deliver the hit.
I'm not going to sit here and say that Andre Williams is the NFL's next great running back. I don't believe that.
What I do believe is that he is more talented than he is given credit for, and I'm inclined to agree with Coach McAdoo. After slogging through a disappointing season, I don't think Williams lacks vision or anything that will keep him from being an effective back. Why, then, was he so much less effective than Jennings or Darkwa? Well, to some extent they were hampered by the same things as Williams. They had runs that could have been big gains cut short by missed blocks, they had runs ended at the line of scrimmage by offensive line failures. They weren't put in the same no-win situations as Williams, and they got more chances to succeed.
After watching it in its entirety, Williams' 2015 season was a lost one. He has intriguing physical tools and is working to improve both his body -- slimming down from 230 to 218 to become more flexible and agile -- and his game. Williams has been trying to improve his shortcomings, but unless the team as a whole improves and becomes more consistent, it won't matter.