In all likelihood, 2017 will go down as one of the vilest seasons for the New York Giants in their entire 92-year history.
And the current numbers justify the horrid record: 28th in total offense and in points per game, 212.5 passing yards per game, 29th in total points for the season, 27th in rushing yards per game, 29th in rushing TDs (with two), 20th in passing yards per game and 30th in first downs.
Last season, at least fans could count on the defense as the offense sputtered, but this year is another narrative. Total defensive ranking? 30th. That’s third from the bottom. 26th most total points allowed (think: Rams), 29th in most points allowed per game and also passing yards per game, second-most TD passes allowed, third fewest INTs (with three), fourth-fewest sacks, eighth greatest average passing yardage per game, 28th in rushing defense, fifth greatest rushing yards allowed per game, and third greatest first downs allowed per game. The only category the Giants defense excels in is the fact that they have only allowed four rushing TDs all season.
But just how ghastly is this year’s team? How does it compare to other really, really horrid squads throughout their history? When the dust settles on the 2017 season, where will this squad ultimately be measured amongst all those other horrible rosters from Giants’ past?
To be fair, the NFL game today is nothing like the NFL games back before World War II. For one, games played up until 1949 did not allow substitutions, just like its grandfather sport of soccer. If a player was hurt, he went off until he could return or was substituted, and with the latter, he could not return.
For the most part, the Giants were one of five dominant franchises year-in and year-out. They won four NFL titles and was the losing club in another 10 championship games. That means this franchise played for 14 league titles. But one of the most horrible stumbles the Giants ever had occurred in 1947.
In 1946, the Giants won the Eastern Division for the eighth time in 14 years. Although only a 7-3-1 record, there were seven players named to the Pro Bowl including RB Frank Filchock, WR Jim Poole, and three offensive linemen. This placed these men on the same All-Star status with other league stars such as QB Bob Waterfield, C Bulldog Turner, RB Steve Van Buren and DE Ken Kavanaugh. The 1946 Giants squad defeated the Chicago Bears 14-0 at the Polo Grounds during the season but lost in the championship game to the same Chicago squad 24-14. The Giants were strong at almost every position and future seasons looked good.
That is, until the following year. It began with a 7-7 tie with the Boston Yanks, who were perennial doormats and huge underdogs in the opening match. Then came a seven-game losing streak in which the club lost by an average score of 29-11. Filchock had been signed away for more money in the Canadian Football League and with him most of the team’s offensive firepower. Three-time All-Pro Poole had retired. Two rookies suddenly started for two more Pro Bowlers who were traded. The end result was a 2-8-2 record.
What ensued from this one year, was a once-proud franchise had delved into the depths of the NFL bottom-feeders and started a decline of nine seasons with only one playoff appearance and the eventual resignation of Head Coach Steve Owen in 1953.
Post-merger years – two words: Ray Handley
Let’s get right after this. Two of the worst years for Giants’ fans happened right after some of the greatest seasons for Giants’ fans. And then, the unraveling and untimely fall from grace.
The Giants had won Super Bowl XXI under head coach Bill Parcells after the 1986 season with a defeat of the Denver Broncos 39-20. Then in 1990, with most of the same athletes, the Giants took Super Bowl XXV with a 20-19 thriller over the Buffalo Bills.
Phil Simms. Carl Banks. Mark Bavaro. LT. Mark Collins. Eric Moore. Pepper Johnson. Matt Bahr. Doug Riesenberg. Dave Meggett. Sean Landeta. Bart Oates. Stephen Baker. Erik Howard. Raul Allegre. Jumbo Elliott. Rodney Hampton. Leonard Marshall. Greg Jackson. Maurice Carthon. Howard Cross. Gary Reasons. William Roberts. Perry Williams. Everson Walls. Odessa Turner.
Yeah, those dudes. The directory was enormous of guys who gut-checked game-after-game in epic battles against guys like Joe Montana and the 14-2-0 San Francisco 49ers, the Washington Redskins and their hogs, Randall Cunningham and the Philadelphia Eagles, plus those pesky Bears. And then there was the All-Star coaching staff of Ron Erhardt, Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Romeo Crennel, Al Groh, Fred Hoaglin, Mike Pope, Mike Sweatman and Ray Handley.
After winning Super Bowl 25, Parcells abruptly retired in May citing heart issues. Another reason he gave was that he was a 1980s coach living suddenly in the 1990s. Funny how life goes that way – one year follows the next. The Mara family was feuding. Half of the club was sold. Parcells left the game with the status of being one of the NFL’s premier head coaches with a knack for being able to make bad teams into winners and was an excellent judge of talent.
General manager George Young felt Belichick was not a leader capable of handling a head coaching position. Plus, the two generally just didn’t get along. Young promoted Handley, the running backs coach, to take Parcells’ place. Handley had never been an offensive coordinator or a head coach at any level before and suddenly this position coach was the head man? Right off, the media picked that off as an odd move by management. Handley was extremely intelligent and almost went to law school right before he was offered the Giants’ head coaching position.
Two coaches then parlayed their duo Super Bowl wins for better jobs. Belichick used his success as the defensive coordinator and accepted the head coaching position with the Cleveland Browns. Coughlin was named head coach at Boston College.
One of Handley’s first decisions was to demote Erhardt, who had held the title of offensive coordinator since 1982. Erhardt departed the Giants the next season and then helped the Steelers capture the Super Bowl in 1996 doing the same thing he had success with while with the Giants. Groh was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator. Handley’s next move was to announce that the QB job was up for grabs between Jeff Hostetler and Simms. Both had won Super Bowls as starting QB, but most fans felt that Simms had more capability and he was the starter until he became injured. In the end, Hostetler was announced as the starter.
After a 4-5 start, the club won three straight only to lose three straight and finish 8-8-0. Five of those wins were against four of the worst teams in the league that year. The offense was anemic and the play calling was horrible. The Giants finished 19th in total points scored (out of 28) and also points per game, 23rd in passing, yet sixth in rushing due to Hampton’s young legs. The team relied heavily on the seventh-ranked defense who found themselves on the field for most of every contest due to the offense’s struggles. LT’s production declined and marked the first time he did not make the Pro Bowl.
And get this: except for Hostetler, the offense was basically the same exact players from the Super Bowl squad with the exceptions of Hampton replacing O.J. Anderson at running back and Howard Cross taking over for Bavaro. The only different starter on the defense included Steve DeOssie taking over for Gary Reasons as one of the MLBs.
Same players. Same team. Same stadium. Same team name. But, not the same results. In fact, this season was regarded with the moniker “From the Super Bowl to the Toilet Bowl.”
In 1992, another problem surfaced when Handley hired Rod Rust as the new defensive coordinator after Groh left for a position on Belichick’s staff in Cleveland. Rust’s scheme was called “read-and-react” which most felt was what players did back in junior high. Plus, Rust had just gotten fired after posting a 1-15 record as head coach of the New England Patriots. Not a lot of folks felt much confidence in a one-win head coach coming to take over one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses. Often during games, defensive players would call out their own plays and ignore Rust’s assignments. Most often, this once-proud defense appeared confused and out of place.
Jim Fassel was hired as the new offensive coordinator. The main concern was that QB issues plagued this team all season. Simms had an elbow injury in Week 4, Hostetler damaged his ribs and had concussion problems. Rookie Dave Brown broke his right thumb while the other rookie QB, Kent Graham, had shoulder complications. Lamar McGriggs took over for Guyton at SS, while FB Jarrod Bunch replaced Carthon. Again, the roster was almost identical to the Super Bowl team of 1990.
With a 4-4-0 record going into Week 10, a 27-7 Green Bay Packers victory, LB Lawrence Taylor tore his ACL and was carted off the field to a stunned Giants’ home crowd. The end result of their fierce leader no longer playing began a five-game losing streak to where the once-dominate defense looked lost most games trying to manage Rust’s scheme and live without LT’s presence. Corey Miller and Kanavis McGhee were nominated for LT’s replacement, and neither was around the ball much.
The media had a hatred for Handley as he would consistently refuse to answer tough questions. After the season, he talked of inconsistent play. In the final game, a 20-10 Eagles win, the team gained zero first downs in the first half and only 40 yards on offense. At Giants Stadium for most of the season, the crowd had chanted, “Ray Must Go!” At Veterans Stadium in Philly that day, their horde shouted, “Ray Must Stay!”
Handley’s second season ended with a 6-10 record. After the final game, Handley mentioned that the team needed to be revamped. It did and started with his firing three days later. George Young is arguably the greatest GM the Giants have ever employed, but one can only imagine if he had simply promoted Belichick instead of Handley.
1973 – 1976: Yankee Stadium, Yale Bowl, Shea Stadium, Giants Stadium
These years were some of the worst smack dab in the middle of the “Wilderness Years.” The Giants had put in a respectable season in 1972 under head coach Alex Webster and hoped to gain on their momentum heading into 1973 although they were nomads while playing at Yankee Stadium and also the Yale Bowl. After a 1-0-1 start, the club lost 12 of their last 13 games. The offense was sixth worst in points per game and total points per season, and although they had a good passing attack with Pro Bowl QB Norm Snead at the helm, the club was almost dead last in rushing. Webster was subsequently fired.
This led to the hiring of the most sought-after assistant coach in the league: Bill Arnsparger. He had built the Miami Dolphins defense into one of the league’s best units for several seasons. The Dolphins had played in three Super Bowls and won twice, including the 1972 perfect season. The Giants wanted a defensive mind to help bring back those glory years from the 1950s-1960s.
In Arnsparger’s first season in 1974, Doug Kotar replaced Ron Johnson at running back while Craig Morton slid into Snead’s QB position; plus roster stalwarts such as WR Don Hermann, C Greg Larson, SS Richmond Flowers and FB Johnny Roland now played somewhere else. The offense was never Arnsparger’s specialty and he didn’t pay much attention to it. He focused most of his concentration on improving the defense and drafted LB Brad Van Pelt plus CB Eldridge Small. The offense scored only 13.9 points per game, rarely rushed for over 100 yards per game and was turnover plagued. The defense, however, ranked third in the league. The fact that they were unable to score while losing seven games by eight points or less, in the end, a 2-12-0 season was the result.
Going into 1975, with a rebuilt defense, Arnsparger pondered this would be the commencement of a successful rebuild. The franchise even had a new logo which would bring in a new age and was set to play all of their home games at Shea Stadium which was close to everyone’s home. Again, the defense was improved and finished sixth best in the league. But the Achilles heel continued on the offense. They only scored 216 points all season. After a 4-5 start, the club lost five in a row by an average score of 22 to 8. They were horrible inside the opponent’s 20-yard line while the offensive line was a disaster. In the end, a 5-9-0 record was the outcome and did show some improvement, but the club still took fourth in the division and never really threatened for a playoff spot.
For 1976, hopes were high. The Giants were anxiously awaiting to be moved into their new digs labeled appropriately “Giants Stadium.” The disco “NY” logo was gone and in its place strongly were emblazoned the words “Giants” across the helmet sides. Fullback Larry Csonka was now a roster member. However, the team’s first four games were all on the road until the final details could be completed with their new accommodations. When the Giants opened their stadium in front of 76,042 fans on Oct. 10, 1976, against their rival the Dallas Cowboys, the club was a miserable 0-4-0. The Cowboys apparently never got the memo to consent for the home team to win their very first game in their brand new stadium and won handily 24-14 for an embarrassing 0-5-0 start.
In the first seven games, the Giants were outscored 165-76 with only a 12.1 points per game average. They found themselves 0-7-0 after a 27-0 defeat by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The next day, Arnsparger, one of the league’s hottest head coaching prospects just three years earlier, was fired before he even finished the final year of his three-year contract. Assistant coach John McVay took over and went 3-4-0, but the club ended the year 3-11-0. Through 14 games, the offense had only scored 20 TDs passing and rushing combined. This side of the ball appeared listless while the defense ranked 13th.
Consider this: out of the 12 worst seasons generated by the Giants (see box), three of those years were inside the years 1973-1976.
1964: Crash of the trade crusade
From 1956 until 1963, the Giants won the Eastern Division six of eight seasons, captured one NFL title and lost in the NFL Championship Game five times. These squads began the fans’ chant for the defense at home games instead of yelling for the offensive players. At the time, head coach Jim Lee Howell stepped down after the 1960 season. Gone were former coordinators Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, so Giants’ GM Ray Walsh hired from within like usual and inked Howell’s genius offensive coordinator Allie Sherman.
Sherman was a former QB and had an innovative mind for offensive strategies and game plans. From 1961-1963, the Giants under Sherman went 33-8-1. His teams averaged almost 30 points a contest and were the pinnacle of the league in passing yards, TD passes, total team points, and scoring. Every season the offense would chalk up several 40-point outbursts.
In Lombardi’s greatest seasons as offensive coordinator with the Giants, his unit only averaged 24.4 points a game. By 1963, Sherman’s squad averaged 32 points a game.
The offense had RB Frank Gifford, WR Kyle Rote, RB Joe Morrison, QB Charlie Conerly, OT Rosey Brown, C Ray Wietecha, WR Bob Schnelker, FB Alex Webster, OG Darrell Dess and WR Del Shofner. Beginning in 1961, the Giants traded their 1960 first-round pick OT Lou Cordileone for QB Y.A. Tittle in a straight-up deal with the 49ers and their offense simply took off. Shofner gained 1,181 yards in a 14-game season in 1961, unheard of for a WR to gain over 1,000 yards in a single season.
The glitch was, Sherman despised the defense. He thought anyone could play defense and didn’t see why the club was paying those players so much. He loathed the defense period - on every team, including his own. For almost 10 years, the Giants defense was the NFL’s most feared. Their players were perennial All-Pros and just as famous as their offensive counterparts. And because of their skill, reputation, and popularity in New York City, the Giants paid them better than any other team paid for defenders.
Sherman wanted that to change. His thoughts were that anyone could tackle and maybe play for a lot less money. Funds taken from overpriced defensive players could, in fact, be used to acquire several better offensive weapons or linemen.
While Sherman spent the bulk of his time with the offense, instead of hiring a defensive coordinator he simply required DE Andy Robustelli to handle the defensive line, gave the linebacker responsibilities to outside LB Harland Svare, and the defensive backfield duties to safety Jimmy Patton. They were the most experienced veterans and now they could run their own defense as they saw fit. Why would they need their own coach?
Beginning in 1962, Sherman traded outside LB Cliff Livingston who had played for the Giants for 11 years. DT Rosey Grier was then traded in 1963 and went on to become a member of the Los Angeles Rams’ fabled “Fearsome Foursome.” Also traded was dependable DT Dick Modzelewski to Cleveland. One month later, five-time Pro Bowler MLB Sam Huff was traded to the Washington Redskins after being told he would never be traded. That swap made front page news instead of the sports page.
In 1964, the Giants once-dreaded defense was in shambles with rookies, unknown talent acquired in the various trades, and players who never quite got their system left over from Landry’s days. The offense had lost its share of players also such as TE Joe Walton, while Webster and OT Jack Stroud were older with diminished playing time. All three were tremendous blockers, essential for the protection of an aging Tittle. While Tittle tossed 36 TDs with only 14 INTs in 1963 along with 3,145 yards, without good blocking support he struggled. His 1964 totals were a despicable 1,798 passing yards, 10 TDs with 22 nasty picks.
The end result was their first losing season since 1953 with a 2-10-2 record. This season marked the beginning of the “Wilderness Years” as the club did not qualify for the playoffs for another 17 years and averaged less than five wins per season during that span. After several more sub-par seasons, including going 1-12-1 in 1966, Sherman was fired one week prior to the start of the 1969 stanza.
In a 72-41 loss to the Redskins in that disastrous 1966 season, Washington head coach Otto Graham was busy getting ready to enter the playing field with seven seconds to play and a 69-41 lead inside the Giants 30-yard line. Seeing his head coach distracted, Huff sent in the Redskins field goal team to which K Charlie Gogolak nailed the 29-yarder to top the 70 point mark and give Huff some revenge on Sherman trading him.
2003: 4-12-0 - pre-Coughlin
The Giants had gone 12-4-0 in 2000 under head coach Jim Fassel, defeated the Minnesota Vikings 41-0 in the NFC Championship Game only to lose Super Bowl XXXV 34-7 to the Ravens. They later went 10-6-0 in 2002 and lost in the playoffs. Then the bottom dropped out. Way out.
Whereas the 2002 offense had gathered over 364 yards per game, the 2003 team could only manage 211.4 yards per game.
They ranked near the bottom in TD passes (16) and second to last in points per game (15.2) and total points per season (243). They just couldn’t score points yet threw more INTs (20) than TDs. TE Jeremy Shockey was the lone bright spot on the offense and made the Pro Bowl. The Giants were 28th in the league in rushing with only six rushing TDs behind a makeshift offensive line.
The defense wasn’t any better as it gave up over 332 yards per game with a 5.0 yards per play average, fourth-most passing TDs (25), but a stingy rush defense highlighted by DEs Michael Strahan, Keith Hamilton, and rookie Osi Umenyiora. They also ranked second in the league in sacks (45) and third in total tackles, but ranked 30th in INTs.
The club was actually 4-4-0 after defeating the crosstown Jets 31-28 in overtime and were confident that their season could be turned around and make a run at a Wild Card berth. Two of their losses were by a combined seven points and the club could easily have been 6-2-0 at this juncture. But interceptions by QB Kerry Collins, who had a reputation for throwing picks at inopportune times in crucial situations, coupled with an offensive line who never quite jelled all season and consistent WR drops crippled the offense. They lost the last eight games of the season and finished 4-12-0. In six of those losses, the offense scored 10 or fewer points. The team as a whole had a tremendous amount of injuries especially during the season-ending skid to which they just couldn’t overcome.
In the end, Fassel, who had been named NFL Coach of the Year in 1997, was another name in a long line of Giants coaches who found the unemployment line. He was hired by the Baltimore Ravens as their offensive coordinator and for the next two seasons, their offense was ranked at the bottom of the NFL. The following season, the Giants tabbed Tom Coughlin as their next head coach.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association