Despite the worst record in the NFC East, the New York Giants have the best DVOA in the division, per Football Outsiders. That might seem like faint praise because of how disappointing the division has been as a whole this season, but the Giants rank pretty favorably among all teams — they’re currently 14th in overall DVOA and 12th in Weighted DVOA, which puts more focus on the most recent games to get a better idea of how teams are playing right now.
Before we get into how this happened, let’s give a quick intro to DVOA for those who might be new to the metric. Basically, it’s Football Outsiders’ team efficiency metric, which takes play-by-play success, adjusts for things like opponent and game situation, and rates teams against a league average opponent. For a much more detailed explanation, go here.
By both overall DVOA and Weighted DVOA, the Giants are currently an above average team — 2.3 percent above average overall and 8.8 percent above average in weighted.
In this week’s DVOA commentary, Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz noted the Giants’ most recent five-game stretch has been better than the Cowboys’, which has turned them into a playoff contender. Schatz does note some of the defensive metrics are aided by facing Mark Sanchez in Week 14 and getting the adjustment for Washington’s overall season. But he also notes the Giants’ rating is mostly propelled by the offense and special teams.
We don’t know exactly what goes into DVOA specifically, but we can take a look at what the Giants have done lately that could make the metric look at them favorably.
Success on first and second down, mostly
74.5 percent of the Giants’ first downs this season have come on first or second down, which is the sixth-highest rate in the league. That is the sign of a good offense and suggests they gained an impressive amount of yards on early downs — until they don’t.
The Giants also ranked 31st in average third down distance — 8.3 yards — which also suggests when the Giants aren’t gaining a lot of yards on first and second down, they aren’t really gaining any. But in this case, the success on early downs outweighs the bad when they bring up long third downs, especially since success on first and second down is more predictive than success on third down.
With Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley, the Giants’ offense was always going to have potential for the big play. To this point, that potential has been fulfilled and the Giants rank third in big play rate at 9.7 percent. That was the case earlier in the year, too, but the Giants were also surrounding those plays with a lot of negative ones, especially on the ground.
From Weeks 1-8, 27 percent of the Giants’ rushing attempts went for zero or negative yards. That’s no way to run an effective offense no matter how many big plays or how pass-heavy the team was at the time. But since the bye, only 14.3 percent of the Giants’ runs have gone for zero or negative yards, which is still a lot but more manageable than it happening on more than a quarter of their runs.
Red zone inefficiency isn’t a complete killer
Like the split between first and second down success and third down success, play in the red zone is less predictive than play across the other 80 yards of the field. In that area, the Giants are fine then they get bad once they cross the 20 — just 28th in touchdowns per red zone trip. Just getting to fine in the red zone would be a massive improvement for the Giants and that could still come.
The Giants also get bailed out there because it’s not as if they’re not scoring points in the red zone — though they’re still just 23rd in points per trip — they’re just almost exclusively kicking field goals. That brings us to …
The special teams are great
The Giants are currently third in special teams DVOA, a year after finishing 32nd. They’ve gotten great value whenever they have kicked the ball — the third-most value from kicking field goals and extra points, second-most on kickoffs, and third-most on punts. They’re also eighth in kick return value and that’s enough to cancel out the No. 30 ranking on punt returns.
They’re also 32nd in “hidden value,” which Football Outsiders describes as “the advantage teams have received from elements of special teams generally out of their control: opposing field goals, kickoff distance, and punt distance,” so basically things like losing games on 63-yard field goals.
So, is any of this sustainable?
Yes and no. The Giants’ offense is built around big plays and while those aren’t really sustainable for an average offense, it’s likely to be more so with Beckham and Barkley getting the majority of touches on the offense. The key, though, is going to be matching the explosiveness in play-to-play efficiency, which could come. The Giants’ ability to play relatively well on first and second down and for the first 20 yards of the field suggests regression should come on third down and in the red zone, even if that doesn’t pop up until 2019. Of course, some of the 2019 projections will also need to account for what the personnel looks like next season.
The special teams have been a big factor in the Giants’ success, but of the three phases of the game, it’s the least reliable from year-to-year — just look at the jump the Giants made from 2017. If the offense is still fine and the special teams drop to just average, that’s going to be a big hit.
Still, the Giants should be getting credit for playing even better than it has seemed over the past few weeks, even against weak opponents and bigger tests will come against Tennessee and Indianapolis. But even with that, there will be more the Giants need to fix to keep some of these positives going through the offseason and into 2019.