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Valentine’s Views: Pat Shurmur has Giants pointed in positive direction

A year ago the Giants were fractured, but new coach has changed that

New York Giants v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s a couple of days before Thanksgiving, and thankfully your New York Giants are actually still playing games that matter. Their season may still be on life support, but it’s alive. Let’s offer some thoughts on where the Giants are as they head into a Week 12 game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Shurmur deserves credit

Fans are going to complain no matter what. The Giants have won two straight games and Evan Engram has made big plays in both, yet I have people in my Twitter timeline either a) bashing the kid or b) bashing the way the Giants are using him. Eli Manning completed 17-of-18 passes on Sunday and got booed by the MetLife Stadium crowd for the one he missed. Shoot, I have people in my timeline complaining about punter Riley Dixon? Why? Other than the fact that they can’t come up with anything to complain about, I have no idea.

Which bring me to head coach Pat Shurmur. You can find whatever you want to complain about when it comes to Shurmur’s personnel decisions or in-game management. Why didn’t he kick a field goal here or go for it there? Why did he pick Player A over Player B? Why did he have a couple of games early in the year where he strayed from using the running game?

Shurmur, though, has been consistent in his message. And you can see from both the recent results on the field and the positive attitudes of players in the locker room that players are buying what he is selling. When you are trying to turn around a franchise that went 3-13 a year ago, had a fractured locker room and has done a whole lot more losing than winning over the preceding six seasons, those are the truly important things. Those are the ones that make you think Shurmur might just end up being the right coach at the right time for the Giants.

The message?

“I keep answering the same questions about it, you keep playing and you keep improving. You never know what happens. You can never tell what’s going to happen, and that’s why you keep playing and that’s why it’s important for our locker room not to get ill,” Shurmur said on Monday. “If you lose a game and you battle, you’ve got to find a way to come back and make the corrections, and move on to the next one. You can’t let that game create an illness on your team, and I think our guys have listened to that message.

“I think the leadership in our locker room is good, and we’re just going to try to battle this thing all the way to the end because that’s what we do. That’s what we do as coaches and players, that’s why we’re in this for the competitive spirit of this with the goal of winning each game, and then we’ll let everyone that does the math add it up at the end.

It is no coincidence that Shurmur talked about “illness” in the locker room, and that many of the players the Giants brought in this season are high-character veterans. When the Giants started 0-5 a year ago, the locker room fractured with Ben McAdoo at the helm. Many of the players didn’t truly respect the coach, and from his words the coach made it apparent the opposite was also true. Consequently, the Giants were rife with disciplinary issues, the locker room was a toxic place and the product was a hopeless one.

Not so in 2018. The results haven’t been great, but two victories in a row have brought a sense of optimism. Regardless of what happens, it feels like there is progress being made.

Starting center Spencer Pulley, who arrived Week 1 after a waiver claim, talked about the attitude in the locker room.

“It’s kind of a unique situation for me getting here Week 1, but I think from Week 1 on there’s been progress every week. The way this team works, even when we hadn’t won a game for a while, the team kept working the same way,” Pulley said. “Guys weren’t checking out and that’s a really special thing. I’ve seen it the other way around.”

Credit for the fact that things haven’t gone sideways goes to Shurmur. I think back to 2013, when the Giants started 0-6 and finished the year 7-9. Tom Coughlin won two Super Bowls as Giants head coach, but I always thought of that as perhaps his finest coaching job.

Right now, it feels like this has the potential to turn out the same way.

Can the Giants really pull this off?

Can the Giants really win eight straight games? Can they really go from 1-7 to 9-7 and make the playoffs?

The Giants are one quarter of the way there, but a single stumble or unfortunate bounce of a ball at the wrong time could kill the dream that Odell Beckham Jr. put voice to. Still ...

“It’s really only crazy until you do it,” Beckham said Sunday after the Giants defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Realistically, though, the chance of a miracle finish are slim. Both FiveThirtyEight and Team Rankings continue to give the Giants a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight predicts 4.9 victories and Team Rankings 5.4.

They just scratched out victories over two bad teams. That doesn’t mean that with a leaky defense and a still-suspect offensive line they are suddenly good enough to win their next six games, even though there doesn’t appear to be a dominant team left on their schedule.

It just means they have a chance. And, to be honest, it’s more fun to talk about this stuff to simply be sitting around for a few months waiting for free agency and the draft.

A little math. At this point, the path to the playoffs has to be winning the NFC East. The first problem is the Giants are in last place, three games behind the 6-4 Washington Redskins. They are 0-3 in the division.

The 6-4 Redskins, now without Alex Smith, are 2-0 in the NFC East with four division games to go. The defending champion Eagles are 4-6 (1-1 in the division). Will they ever look, or play, like the defending champs for more than a game here and there? If so, the division is still probably theirs. The Dallas Cowboys. They are 5-5 (2-1 in the division). It would be a dream to have the Dec. 30 game at MetLife Stadium mean something in terms of the standings, but the reality is that for the Giants it probably won’t.

It is certainly reasonable to hope. To believe. To feel good that the Giants are making progress. If only Graham Gano hadn’t made that 63-yard field goal the path might be a little easier to see.

This is what the Giants envisioned

Over the past two games, the Giants’ offense has resembled what they had to hope it would look like at the beginning of the season.

The Giants have run the ball well (53 carries, 248 yards, 4.7 yards per carry). The offensive line has been better, opening holes in the run game and making Eli Manning more comfortable in a pocket that has often been cleaner than what he has seen most of the season.

Manning has taken advantage. His 17-of-18, two-touchdown performance on Sunday made him 36-of-49 (73.4 percent completions) for 419 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions over those two games. Manning has been getting the ball down the field, not checking it down with the frequency he had been earlier in the season. Big plays in the passing game have come from Odell Beckham Jr., Evan Engram, Saquon Barkley and Sterling Shepard.

The Giants have averaged 32.5 points in those two games.

There is only the tiniest chance the Giants can make a run to the playoffs, as we already discussed. There is no guarantee they can continue to play well on offense over the remainder of the season.

What, though, if the offense continues to make progress? If the Giants continue to run the ball well. If the offense continues to protect Manning, he continues to play efficiently and the Giants continue to score points at a rate we haven’t seen since 2015? What if the Giants go, say, 5-3 over the second half of the season?

What do the Giants do about the quarterback position in 2019?

Those who long ago checked out on Manning thought I was nuts when I suggested a couple of weeks ago that it might be possible for Manning, who is under contract for next season, to show during the second half of the season that he could still be a viable option for the Giants in 2019.

If the Giants continue to get the kind of production on offense they have gotten the past two weeks it’s not difficult to imagine GM Dave Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur concluding that they made enough progress and saw enough good things to continue with Manning for another year.

That doesn’t mean the Giants would once again bypass the top quarterbacks in the 2019 NFL Draft. They simply can’t keep kicking the quarterback can down the road. It just means that there is a chance Manning could be part of the plan for another year if things continue trending in this upward direction.

What about Kyle Lauletta?

Even as the Giants have been winning and the offense has been playing well, there have some in the comments and in the @BigBlueView Twitter timeline wondering when the Giants would yank Manning and get rookie fourth-round pick Kyle Lauletta on the field.

The view here is, despite whatever you may have read into remarks by Shurmur, that was never happening until the Giants were eliminated from playoff contention. It’s still not. Shurmur has sold the players on the idea of just continuing to work, continuing to grind, continuing to try and get better and win each week. They are buying in.

If he yanks the starting quarterback now, while they still have some semblance of a chance and are actually performing well, and throws up the white flag he undercuts his own message. He probably loses some of the support he has in the locker room. He makes it harder for players to fully buy in to whatever message he tries to impart going forward.

Simply put, in my view he makes it harder to successfully coach the football team going forward.

When the math officially says the Giants have no chance to make the playoffs they might consider giving the kid some snaps. Until then, it’s not happening.