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New York Giants season preview: Giants begin critical, fascinating year

Let’s look at how the Giants got here, and what might be ahead

New England Patriots v New York Giants
Ben McAdoo
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The New York Giants embark Sunday on what promises to be a a unique and interesting 2016 season. It is also an incredibly important one.

The Giants are one of the NFL’s flagship franchises, founded in 1925. They have won four Super Bowl titles, with only the Pittsburgh Steelers (six), Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers (five apiece) having won more. Including the pre-Super Bowl era the Giants have eight championships. Only the Green Bay Packers (13) and Chicago Bears (9) have more.

The Giants see themselves as a model NFL franchise, a team that sits alongside the Packers, Steelers, New England Patriots and a handful of others as the best franchises in the NFL.

Thus, the last few years have been a torture chamber for the organization. Since an improbable late-season run saw them win another unlikely Super Bowl in the 2011 season, little has gone right.

Four straight playoff-less seasons, the last three with losing records, put the Giants in a place they haven’t been since the dark days when they missed the playoffs every season from 1964-1980. That place? Not among the league’s elite, but among its dregs. Not quite a laughingstock, but closer to the league’s perennial bottom-feeders that its perennial contenders.

“We've had three losing years in a row. Let's be honest, we've lost some credibility as an organization. When you have three losing years in a row like that, you face a lot of criticism. A lot of it is deserved. It's up to us now to turn that around and get back to where I think we should be.”

That was co-owner John Mara speaking the day the Giants began, in earnest, to find a way to change whatever was ailing them and move away from the losing years. That was the day they said goodbye to Tom Coughlin as head coach after 12 seasons and two Super Bowl titles. Technically, Coughlin stepped down with his dignity intact. It was apparent, however, that ownership didn’t encourage him to stay.

Ben McAdoo ascends

After serving a two-year “internship,” if you will, as the team’s offensive coordinator the Giants turned to McAdoo as their 17th head coach in the hope he could lead them to a brighter future.

From the day he was hired, McAdoo promised to be “comfortable in my own skin,” to attack the job, to keep what he thought was working and to change what he felt wasn’t. It was about “evolution, not revolution,” and McAdoo has been good to his word.

The Giants are his team. He has mixed a few of Coughlin’s old coaches with a lot of new ones. The offseason program was different. The players’ schedule is different. McAdoo’s handling of the media has differed from Coughlin’s, though he isn’t necessarily more forthcoming with information.

McAdoo doesn’t act like a rookie coach. He was constantly asked about the new things he was experiencing throughout the spring and said he was “over it” in terms of those experiences. He says his first regular-season game as a coach is “just the next step in the process.”

Of course, part of that process has been rebuilding the roster.

NFL: New York Giants-Minicamp
Olivier Vernon
William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

Getting better players

Notable free agent additions: DE Olivier Vernon; DT Damon Harrison; CB Janoris Jenkins; LB Keenan Robinson; LB Kelvin Sheppard; OT Will Beatty

Notable free agent departures: DE Robert Ayers; CB Prince Amukamara; DT Cullen Jenkins; WR Rueben Randle

Notable cuts from 2015 roster: RB Andre Williams, MLB Jasper Brinkley

Whatever you think of what happened around the Giants the past four seasons, and each season was and is a story of its own, the overriding reason the Giants haven’t been back to the playoffs since 2011 is that they have not had good enough players.

Ownership chose to allow GM Jerry Reese to stay on despite those years of personnel failings, but not without putting some heat on him.

“We need to bring some more players in here, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. That's where we were obviously lacking this year,” Mara said. “Jerry knows this is on him. I've had that discussion. You can't hide from the record. It's up to you now to get it fixed because the last three years are just not acceptable.”

Reese responded with the most aggressive free-agent splurge of his career as general manager. Olivier Vernon (five years, $85 million, $52.5M guaranteed), Janoris Jenkins (five years, $62.5 million, $28.8M guaranteed) and Damon Harrison (four years, $46.25 million, $24M guaranteed) were brought in. Jason Pierre-Paul was brought back on a one-year deal. Linebackers Keenan Robinson and Kelvin Sheppard were added. Veteran cornerback Leon Hall was signed during training camp.

In the draft, three of the first four picks were on defense. First-round pick Eli Apple, a cornerback and third-round pick Darian Thompson, a free safety, will likely be important players this season. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo now has better talent at every position than he he did a season ago.

On offense, there were no big free-agent acquisitions. Second-round pick Sterling Shepard, a wide receiver, replaces Rueben Randle as the No. 2 receiver. Fifth-round pick Paul Perkins could be the running back of the future and sixth-round pick Jerell Adams could be used as a blocking tight end this season.

There is, of course, still much gnashing of teeth over the team’s inability to acquire a big-name upgrade at offensive tackle. Still, the presence of Will Beatty — who missed all of last year with injuries and was only recently re-signed — could help there.

Why is 2016 so important?

Remember that I began by calling this season “an incredibly important one” for the franchise. Why? Two reasons. Eli Manning and that 1964-1980 time frame some refer to as the “Wilderness Years,” for the Giants.

Manning is a 35-year-old two-time Super Bowl MVP. He is still playing at an incredibly high level, maybe more efficiently than he ever has. Still, he’s in his 13th season and the clock is ticking on Manning’s time as a championship-level quarterback. Father Time, as they say, always wins.

The Giants have squandered four of what could — no, should — have been the best years of Manning’s career. There are maybe only three or four really good years left for him.

The McAdoo hire has to be right. The personnel decisions have to be right. If they aren’t, the final good years of the best quarterback in franchise history go up in flames. And a return to those “Wilderness Years” might await.

Reality is, franchise quarterbacks aren’t easy to find. You have to take advantage when you have one because you just don’t know when the next one is coming along. Before Manning, who came along in 2004, the last one the Giants had was Phil Simms. He retired after the 1993 season. Between Simms and Manning? A few good seasons, but lots of floundering. Guys like Dave Brown, Danny Kanell and Kent Graham at quarterback.

Do I think that’s where the Giants are headed? No. I absolutely believe from what we have seen thus far that McAdoo is the right man for the job. Building a team through free agency is not usually recommended, but for the most part you have to be impressed by the pieces the Giants added. They needed difference-makers, because after Manning and Odell Beckham they really didn’t have any. Now they do. Vernon, Jenkins and Harrison all fit that description.

They needed to rebuild the young core of this team through the draft, a core that was absent because of the draft shortcoming from roughly 2010-2012. The last three drafts, provided the Giants can resign some of their players to second contracts, seem to have done that.

NFL: Preseason-Buffalo Bills at Washington Redskins
Kirk Cousins
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 NFC East

All of that lengthy preamble brings us to a look at the NFC East in 2016. As it was last year, when the Giants coughed it up, the division is there for the taking. No one has won the NFC East in back-to-back seasons since the Philadelphia Eagles won it four straight times from 2001-2004.

The Washington Redskins are the defending champions. A bottom-dweller for most of the last decade, under the direction of GM Scot McCloughan the Redskins somehow look like the most stable team in the division. Still, it is difficult to look at Kirk Cousins, a first-time starter last season in his fourth year, and be certain that he is a franchise quarterback.

Our friends at Hogs Haven, writing for the SB Nation season preview, believe in Cousins:

“I firmly believe that Kirk Cousins is for real, and we should continue to see this season what we saw last season. Even if he doesn’t pick up where he left off after his last 10 games of 2015, when he threw 27 touchdowns to three interceptions, the truth is he can be incredibly successful without hitting those kinds of numbers.”

If he can’t repeat last season’s unexpected success, neither can Washington. The Redskins, of course, also signed the Odell-Beckham-baiting cornerback Josh Norman as a free agent. So, there is that to look forward to.

The Dallas Cowboys, on paper, should have won the division a year ago. They probably would have, too, if not for Tony Romo playing only four games due to a pair of collarbone injuries. The Cowboys, instead went 4-12 and won just one game in which Romo didn’t play.

Romo is, of course, hurt again. He fractured his back during the preseason. Dallas fans, though, are optimistic this time things will be different. They are excited by the outstanding preseason play of fourth-round pick Dak Prescott. Excited enough to believe they can win games with him this year, and that he might be the heir apparent to Romo.

Our friends at Blogging The Boys in the SB Nation preview:

“There is definitely some level of confidence in Dak Prescott, mainly because of the way he has played in the preseason. Most Cowboys fans and media didn't think he would be this good right away, since he's a rookie and he's running a system that is different than what he ran in college. Everybody was expecting a learning curve, but so far he has surpassed all expectations. He's looked poised in the huddle and in the pocket, he's making accurate throws and good decisions, he's spreading the ball around, and he can help out his offense by running the ball occasionally. The good news for Prescott is he's playing behind one of the best offensive lines in football, so he'll get time to throw on a regular basis. He's also got an array of skill position players like Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Ezekiel Elliott to help his transition into the regular season. He doesn't have to do it all on a bad team like a lot of rookies -- he just needs to make some plays and not turn the ball over. As for him continuing to start when Tony Romo returns, there's no way to accurately gauge that question until it happens. If the Cowboys are 6-0 and Prescott is playing well and Romo is finally healthy, I think you could see a situation where Prescott remains the quarterback. Basically if Prescott is playing the way he is in preseason, and the Cowboys are winning almost all of their games, then you could have a Brady/Bledsoe situation. If Prescott struggles or the team overall is struggling to win games, then the Cowboys will go back to Romo when he’s healthy.”

The Philadelphia Eagles are a team that has appeared more focused on eliminating every trace of former head coach Chip Kelly than on winning in 2016. After dealing away virtually every player Kelly ever acquired, the Eagles put the coup de grace on their makeover by sending starting quarterback Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings just days before the start of the season. That leaves them with Carson Wentz, the second overall pick who played at North Dakota State, an FCS school, as their starting quarterback.

Here are our friends at Bleeding Green Nation talking about Wentz BEFORE the trade of Bradford:

“I definitely think Wentz has potential. He has great size and athleticism. He’s tough and smart. There are no questions about his arm strength. With that said, he’s far from a finished product. He still needs to refine his accuracy. Wentz has a tendency of sailing passes over the heads of his targets. The Eagles coaching staff has been working with him to improve his footwork. I’ll need to see Wentz in more game action before I can get a great read on him, but for now I’m cautiously optimistic.”

The Eagles, quite honestly, look like the likely bottom-dwellers in the division this season. Not that the moves they made weren’t the right ones, but they are clearly more concerned about the future than the present.

Final prediction

In the end, how do I think the 2016 Giants will do? There is no doubt in my mind this is the best roster they have put together in several years. It is also, for now, the healthiest. It is, however, not a perfect team. I will venture a prediction of 9-7 overall. If that doesn’t win them the division, it should put them right there for a wild-card berth.