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Valentine’s Views: Whoever you blame, Giants’ struggles land at the feet of the offense

Let’s look at the key factors

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

While dealing with Twitter angst over the state of the New York Giants early this season Carl Banks has consistently said that to properly evaluate a team, to really know what they are, you had to wait four games. That’s a quarter of an NFL season. That is where we are right now. So, let’s ask — and answer — the question.

What are the 2018 Giants?

Right now, they are not a very good football team. They are 1-3, last in the NFC East. Depending upon what model you use the Giants’ chances of making the playoffs range from 4 percent (FiveThirtyEight) to 11 percent (Team Rankings). Slim, no matter how you slice it. That means the season is likely over when it has, for most of the league, barely begun.

This year was supposed to be different. New GM in Dave Gettleman. New coach in Pat Shurmur. New offensive line. A largely new roster dotted with veteran leaders and more than 50 percent filled by players who weren’t part of last season’s 3-13 debacle.

The Giants, though, look on the field, and sound in the locker room, like the plethora of bad teams the Giants have fielded since they won the 2011 Super Bowl.

They don’t score enough points (we’ll get into the reasons for that in a bit). The defense plays hard and is pretty much middle of the pack, but isn’t good enough to dominate or win games by itself. Special teams? Every time the Giants return a kick you expect something bad to happen — and it often does. The Giants have a razor-thin margin for error, and just can’t overcome penalties and turnovers.

Fans leave MetLife Stadium in droves long before games end. They take to the Internet to rip the GM, the coach, the quarterback, the writers who dare to disagree with them.

So far, 2018 has been a torturous continuation of the same old miserable song and dance we have been enduring from the Giants for most of the past seven seasons.

Playing the role for us here of the player who sounds like so many players before him over the past few seasons will be center John Greco.

“I’m kind of at a loss right now,” Greco said after Sunday’s loss. “Pointing the finger at myself first. I feel like a lot of guys are looking around like ‘man, what just happened?’ That’s a good team we played and we made too many mistakes.

“The first quarter of the season’s over. We’re not where we want to be. We’re looking now to do everything we can to get where we want to be.”

Can the Giants change it?

It’s about the offense, stupid!

Well, OK, not stupid. I just wanted to make sure I still had your attention. Anyone who has watched the Giants this season ... or last season ... or the season before that ... or, well you get the point.

It’s about the offense.

In an era where offense is exploding around the league, where the rules make everything easier for quarterbacks and receivers, where teams regularly score 30 or 40 points a game, the Giants have for years been the guy bringing the sparklers to the Fourth of July fireworks show.

There’s this from Peter King:

Offense has too much of an edge. The recent history of 400-yard passing games shows that as well as anything:

2014: 11 400-yard passing performances in 256 games

2015: 10

2016: 12

2017: 8

2018: 12 … through 62 games!

“The game is becoming far less physical, and the intimidation factor is gone,” former defensive tackle and current ESPN Monday night analyst Booger McFarland said. “The quarterbacks know they can get hit, but not really hit like they used to.” Agreed.

These tweets from columnist Judy Battista also show just how much the game has tilted in favor of the offense.

Yet, the Giants limp along. They are a quarter of the way through a third season without hitting the 30-point mark, a streak that has now reached 37 games including the 2016 playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.

They averaged 19.4 points per game (26th) in 2016, 15.4 points in 2017 (31st) and are at 18.3 (29th) this season. In three of four 2018 games they haven’t even hit the 20-point mark, much less 30.

It’s flabbergasting that in this era of NFL football, where just about anything that looks like a hard hit is a penalty on the defense, that the Giants haven’t accidentally managed to dent the 30-point barrier once or twice.

Let’s look at the culprits at whom the fickle fingers of frustrated fans point most often.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Eli Manning

There is no doubt that Manning has to take his fair share of the blame for what has been going on with the Giants’ offense. He’s the guy who touches the ball on every play. He’s the one making the decisions on where the ball goes, and who is responsible for delivering it on target.

Many of Manning’s numbers look just fine. His completion percentage of 74.2 and passer rating of 99.1 are — by far — the best numbers of his 15-year career. He’s on pace for the seventh 4,000-yard passing season of his career.

The Giants, though, aren’t scoring. They seem to have forsaken downfield aggression for efficiency, underneath throws, getting the ball out quickly. Has Manning become ‘Checkdown Eli,’ dumping the ball off as quickly as possible, or is the offense largely designed that way? Are the Giants trying to just stay ahead of the chains, stay in good down and distance, protect Manning, work around an offensive line that still isn’t good enough, and hope that their play-makers can make yards after catch magic with the ball in their hands?

Reality is, it’s probably some of both. I’m not going to debate which throws should have gone downfield and which shouldn’t. The only ones who know that for certain are Manning, Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Mike Shula. The rest of us can argue forever, but we don’t know for certain.

The Giants have fielded a lot of bad teams in recent years. They are 34-50 in the last six seasons and Manning started 49 of those losses. He’s been sacked no less than 21 times in any of those seasons and has already been sacked 15 times this year. Lord knows how many times the 37-year-old has been hit.

Manning’s temperament never seems to change. He can’t be the same guy he was 8-10 years ago, though. All of that losing and all of those hits have to have taken some type of toll on him.

Manning can still deliver. There are still brilliant games like his 25-of-29 Week 3 performance against the Houston Texans. And great throws like the one below to Sterling Shepard on Sunday vs. the Saints.

Every quarterback misses a throw on occasion. Did you see Case Keenum miss a wide open Demaryius Thomas on the second-to-last offensive play for the Denver Broncos Monday night, a throw that should have resulted in a game-winning touchdown for the Broncos? That happens. Quarterbacks are human beings, not robots. I’m not going to kill Manning, or any quarterback, because every throw isn’t perfect.

There are, however, times when his lack of mobility makes it difficult for him to find a clean throwing lane. Times when he’s uncomfortable or not trusting that he’ll have the time he needs. That’s obvious. And when he’s in one of those situations, he’s not good. And the ball probably doesn’t get thrown down the field when, with a little more trust or comfort, it would.

What we know is that Manning’s Intended Air Yards of 6.3 per pass attempt is lower than only five quarterbacks — David Carr, Blake Bortles, Sam Bradford, C.J. Beathard and Blaine Gabbert.

I don’t know if the play below is a check down by Manning or a designed catch-and-run for Sterling Shepard. It sure looks like Manning is looking for the short throw the whole way, despite it being third-and-14. It also looks as though had Manning waited he could have had a chance with Russell Shepard or Odell Beckham Jr. This, simply, is not acceptable on third-and-14.

Early in his career, Manning made a living using play-action and throwing the ball down the field. Covered or not, Manning would throw the 50-50 ball and give receivers a chance to make the big play. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it led to what looked like bone-headed interceptions.

The arc of his career statistically, using Pro Football Reference, shows that he has been different for a while. While his completion percentage has trended up and his interception percentage down in recent years, his touchdown percentage and yards per completion have trended down.

And the Giants, plain and simple, aren’t scoring enough points.

Manning even sounds like a different quarterback. He was asked Monday about taking deep shots in less-than-ideal circumstances, something he did routinely during the earlier part of his career, probably roughly translated as the Kevin Gilbride era.

“That usually leads to bad plays,” he said. “There’s ways to get explosive plays without throwing it deep. It’s not like they all have to be go-routes or post-routes. Hitting guys on the move when they do play man, in zones you can still hit plays. In breaking routes and buying time. You can still hit explosive plays when teams are trying to take away the deep shots.”

Manning isn’t buying the idea some have expressed that he’s turning down chances to throw the ball down the field.

“Risks are not what you want to take. You throw the ball down the field when it’s not risky, and then there’s forcing things and that leads to turnovers that leads to mistakes. I’m not having shots down the field that I’m not taking,” he said. “It’s just a matter of whether you want to scramble around, whether you want to buy time and kind of let things, or have a guy open not the way you drew it up. Can guys move around and find areas in the zone to get open on scramble drills. So, just kind of weighing those options sometimes.

“You can look at it and say, oh, I had time here. Then you can look at other ones and say, you know I wouldn’t have had time there to do that. Then, that leads to sacks and fumbles. It’s just kind of having that feel, and feeling the rush and having a good understanding of when you can do it and when you can’t.”

Has that been coached into Manning in the post-Gilbride era? Is that just the natural maturation process, a quarterback getting older and not being willing to accept as much risk when he lets go of the ball?

I don’t know. But it sure seems different.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Pat Shurmur

The Giants hired Shurmur because of his success as an offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, Minnesota Vikings and even with the Cleveland Browns. They hired him because he has gotten good play out of many different types of quarterbacks — mobile ones, pocket passers, first-round picks, undrafted free agents.

They hired Shurmur to fix their broken offense. They hired him to make sure that they maximized whatever time Manning still had left at quarterback.

So far, that’s not happening. The offense is, obviously, still broken. Manning? He’s completing a nice percentage of his passes, but he’s generally leading an offense that is stuck in quicksand.

To use a Shurmur phrase the Giants “pick away” at opposing defenses. Ultimately, that’s sort of like picking away at that novel you have always intended to write. You get nowhere, which is precisely where the Giants offense has gotten far too often in 2018.

The offense was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be more creative. It was supposed to maximize the talents of Beckham, Barkley, Engram and Shepard. It was supposed to create mismatches and allow Manning to find them and either deliver the ball or hand it off to take advantage of them.

And yet ....

And yet, the Giants are still averaging 18.25 points per game. The offense still too often resembles, as Brian Baldinger pointed out above, “McAdoo 2.0.” It’s still short pass, short pass, short pass. Horizontal stuff. Not enough challenging the defense, and too much talk about “soft zone” coverages and teams not allowing the Giants to do what they want. Too many times where, despite drafting a terrific running back No. 2 overall, where the Giants forget to turn around and hand him the ball. In losses to Dallas and New Orleans, games where the score was close enough until very late that the running game could have had an impact, Barkley got a total of 21 carries while Manning threw a combined 85 passes.

Shurmur is supposed to be better than this.

He admitted he made a mistake against the Saints when Barkley carried just 10 times, saying “I wish I would’ve called more runs. That’s the reality of that, because I think the ball in Saquon’s hands is a good thing.”

The other thing that would be good is if the Giants were able to attack vertically more. Some of that has to be Manning. Some of that, quite obviously, is a lack of protection at times. Some of that is also the way Shurmur seems to want Manning to play.

Above, Manning talked about not taking risks. Here is Shurmur seeming to advocate that lack of risk-taking:

“There were deep routes called that we couldn’t get the ball downfield, so you check it down. Then you move on,” he said on Monday. “You call plays to be aggressive. If they’re there, you take your shots. That’s how you dictate. And if they’re not there, you check them down, and then the backs catch the ball and run with it.”

Maybe Shurmur isn’t calling enough shot plays. Maybe he’s coaching Manning to be too cautious. Maybe that’s just where Manning is in his career. I wrote Monday about the Giants seemingly being unable to find ways to get Beckham and Barkley to complement each other.

All I know for certain is that Shurmur was hired to fix the offense. Right now, it’s not fixed.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New York Giants

Offensive line

Gettleman walked in the door proclaiming that the offensive line had to be fixed, then set about completely overhauling it.

Shurmur has said on multiple occasions that the Giants will only go as far as the re-constructed offensive line will take them.

We have been asking for months whether or not that will simply be different than the one that it replaced, or whether it would be better.

So far, the answer is “different.” And the line isn’t taking the Giants’ offense very far.

Manning has been sacked 15 times, that’s on 9 percent of his drop backs. The highest sack rate of his career was 6.6 percent in 2013, when he was sacked a career-high 39 times.

So, obviously, at least some of the passing game is getting blown up by lack of protection. Those sacks, incidentally, also put the Giants in long-yardage situations that are difficult to convert.

The Giants are also not running the ball efficiently. Yes, Barkley is averaging 4.6 yards per carry. What he is getting, though, he is largely getting on his own. He is fourth in the league in evaded tackles (23), fourth in yards created (136), 18th in PFF’s Elusive Rating and sixth in PFF’s Breakaway Percentage.

The Giants are getting far too many negative plays in the running game.

Football Outsiders says that only 39 percent of Barkley’s runs have been successful, placing him 32nd in the league in that category.

Free agent left tackle Nate Solder is a good, but not great player. Second-round pick Will Hernandez appears to be developing nicely, but he’s still a rookie. John Greco has replaced the injured Jon Halapio at center. Most likely, the long-term answer at that position isn’t on the current roster. Patrick Omameh is pretty much an adequate player at right guard. Chad Wheeler has already replaced Ereck Flowers at right tackle, another position where the Giants might go hunting for a long-term answer this offseason.

The line, undoubtedly, is part of the problem.

Final thoughts

I don’t know what percentage of the blame to lay at the feet of each party here. I just know it should be better with the players the Giants have. It has to get better — now — if the Giants are going to have any chance of being a competitive team this season.