At the end of the 2018 season, the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts were in very similar places.
The Giants were coming off a 3-13 season. They had played much of it without superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., and many other injured players. They had fired GM Jerry Reese and coach Ben McAdoo. The offensive line was a sieve and the only thing the defense could stop was the Giants from winning. The Giants were — finally — starting over.
The Colts went 4-12. They played the whole season without star quarterback Andrew Luck. They fired coach Chuck Pagano. Their offensive line was a sieve, surrendering 56 sacks. Their defense might have been even worse than the Giants. They, too, were starting over.
As the teams meet in Week 16 of the 2018 season, they are in different places.
The Giants are 5-9 and already out of the playoff chase. They started 1-7 and have shown some progress, but not enough to take advantage of an NFC East that was there to be had.
The Colts, after a 1-5 start, have won seven of eight. They are 8-6 and legitimate contenders for an AFC wild-card playoff berth.
“They’re a little bit like we are, a game or two better right now. They won a couple close games that we didn’t,” Shurmur said. “They started out slow in terms of wins and losses, they’ve been consistent, I think they found a little groove with Andrew Luck (who) is back healthy. We all understand he’s a terrific quarterback and he’s had a lot to do with their success on offense certainly. They’re just like any new team, trying to put it together and move forward.”
Shurmur’s perspective is understandable, but obviously tainted by which team he coaches. The Colts have moved forward at a faster pace than the Giants. Why has the Colts’ rebuild taken hold more quickly than the one the Giants are undertaking? Let’s look at some of the reasons, and see if they mean anything for the Giants going forward.
They lucked into the right head coach
Having a first-year head coach — the Giants have Pat Shurmur, the Colts Frank Reich — is just one of many areas where New York and Indianapolis have taken similar paths.
The Colts very nearly ended up with Josh McDaniels as their head coach. The New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator, you will recall, agreed to become the Colts’ head coach only to leave the Colts at the altar, backing out two days later. McDaniels had gone so far as to hire assistant coaches — who signed contracts with Indianapolis — before jilting the Colts.
Gregg Doyel of the Indy Star wrote recently that things turned out perfectly for the Colts:
McDaniels isn’t the reason the Indianapolis Colts are suddenly the hottest team in the NFL, stealing that title from Houston and Dallas by knocking off both in the past eight days, snapping the Texans’ winning streak at nine last week and on Sunday ending the Cowboys’ streak at five with a 23-0 domination of America’s Team.
But McDaniels was the first domino to fall, taking the Colts’ head coaching job in mid-January and then backing out, allowing the Colts to hire the right coach in Frank Reich. And it was McDaniels – who isn’t good for much, but apparently can pick a coaching staff – who saddled Reich with the right defensive coordinator, a man Reich knew very little about when he came to Indianapolis: Matt Eberflus.
What has Reich brought to the Colts?
“A good leader will get guys to do what he wants them to do and believe in themselves, whether you’re 1-5 or 7-1 through the last eight games,” offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said Tuesday.
”It’s obviously his leadership abilities and then Frank being an example of what we want players to be. What I mean by that, is that we want players to be the same guy every single day. ... Frank definitely does that because he is the same guy every day.”
Here is what Chris Blystone of SB Nation’s Stampede Blue told me about Reich:
“He has been perfect for this team in a number of ways. Maybe the most underrated and important characteristic of his is that he is a teacher. For a roster that is one of the youngest in football (our numbers are skewed upward by Adam Vinatieri) they desperately needed a coach who could develop young guys and grow them into great players. Frank Reich has that, and has built a staff that is strong in that area as well.
“In addition, Reich’s offensive mind and game planning have been instrumental in the Colts’ success this season. Despite having a less than stellar group of pass catchers, this offense has managed to get them open with regularity and to move the ball well. What’s more, Reich has gotten this team bought in to the mentality of finishing games. Under the Chuck Pagano Colts, we watched this team fritter away wins so often that it was infuriating. This team more often than not wins the games it should, and that is new territory.”
In no way is this meant to be a shot at Shurmur or an indication I think he was the wrong choice for the Giants. He was a perfectly understandable if not exciting choice given what the Giants went through with Ben McAdoo. I think he has done a number of really good things and has the Giants pointed in a positive direction. Can he finish the job by turning the Giants into consistently playoff contenders? That remains to be seen.
The Colts and Reich, though, have seemingly found a little magic.
The Colts hit a home run in the draft
The Giants had the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. They bypassed the idea of taking a quarterback an an heir to Eli Manning, taking offensive guard Quenton Nelson to address their offensive line need, or trading down to acquire picks they could use to supplement their Swiss Cheese roster.
The Giants took running back Saquon Barkley, and they got themselves a great player. No doubt. No argument. And, when is it wrong to add a potential gold jacket player to your team? Still, the Giants kicked the quarterback can down the road and made their much-needed offensive line rebuild harder to accomplish.
The Giants got a really good offensive line piece in Will Hernandez in Round 2, and a pair of defenders (B.J. Hill and Lorenzo Carter) in Round 3 who should be building blocks going forward.
Still, as good as that haul is, the draft is advantage Colts.
They took their third overall pick traded down to No. 6 with the New York Jets and got Nelson to anchor their offensive line rebuild. Nelson, considered the best guard prospect to come out of college in decades has been as advertised.
Rather than quote a bunch of subjective Pro Football Focus stats, how about a ‘Baldy’s Breakdown’ to tell us what Nelson is all about? This, incidentally, is Nelson against a Tennessee Titans defensive line that dominated the Giants a week ago.
.@colts @BigQ56 #fightingirish #colts Welcome to Gator Country. After BigQ “goes about his business” he likes to sit on his victims like a Lion sits on his game for the whole pride to eat. No one plays the game like this . I can’t wait for next Sunday. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/o1xNxhL0cw— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) November 19, 2018
The Titans also used a second-round pick they got from the Jets to select right tackle Braden Smith 37th overall. Smith has started 11 games.
The Colts offensive line has surrendered a league-low 16 sacks and Football Outsiders has that group ranked sixth in the league in run-blocking and third in pass protection.
Only three teams have given up more sacks than the Giants (48) and Football Outsiders has the Giants 26th in run-blocking and 22nd in pass-blocking.
So, pretty easy to see that the Colts’ offensive line rebuild has progressed more rapidly than the Giants.
“Quenton Nelson has been instrumental in a shift for this offensive line. He has brought a bully mentality to the field that immediately became infectious. The coaching staff has talked about the offensive linemen coming to the sideline after a series and comparing their number of knockdowns, the going back on the field to outdo one another,” Blystone said.
“The results have been clear in the way the line has played. Braden Smith is much less heralded, but was drafted as a guard and was given snaps at right tackle because Matt Slauson had the guard spot locked up early on. The right tackle position was a revolving door early in the season and Smith locked it down and made himself a key part of the line there.”
Then, there is Darius Leonard.
The Colts selected the South Carolina State linebacker 36th overall, and only found themselves a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
Leonard has seven sacks, leads the league it total tackles (146) and solo tackles (99). He has four forced fumbles, 12 tackles for loss and six passes defensed.
Darius Leonard has been absolutely incredible to watch,” Blystone said. “Coming from a small school, it was tough to know what he could do in terms of raising his level of play to the NFL. What he has done is have arguably one of the best rookie seasons by a linebacker in NFL history, and certainly the best by any Colts player that comes to mind. Add to that the fact that he is humble, a great guy for the community, and a player who pumps up his teammates, and he is exactly what this defense needed.”
Leonard’s production puts him in pretty good company.
Who's having a better season than Luke Kuechly did in his rookie year? .. @dsleon45! #DPOY pic.twitter.com/B1nXw4GS7h— Kay Adams (@heykayadams) December 18, 2018
The only thing he doesn’t have is a spot in the Pro Bowl, which is an absolute travesty that tells you how much anyone should really care about who is or is not a Pro Bowler.
Leonard (53) can play the run:
He can rush the passer:
He can cover. Yes, that is slot receiver Cole Beasley who Leonard is matched up in the GIF below:
So, yeah, he’s pretty good. For what it’s worth, Eli Manning should know he’s also pretty angry about not making the Pro Bowl.
Andrew Luck’s comeback
There was a time not that long ago when many wondered what Luck’s future in the NFL looked like as he missed an entire season trying to recover from shoulder surgery. Now, Mark Maske of The Washington Post believes Luck is “the obvious choice for NFL comeback player of the year.”
Luck is back to resembling the franchise quarterback that he was drafted to be. The seamless transition from Peyton Manning to Luck was to have resulted in a Super Bowl triumph by now, the way the Colts once viewed things. But those notions were shelved by Luck’s shoulder issues, which produced a period of uncertainty volatile enough to wonder if Luck never would return to this level. After Sunday’s win, it’s clear that he has.
The Colts are protecting him and have their once and future franchise quarterback again playing extremely good football — playing as well as he ever has.
Luck is playing at an “elite level,” per Reich.
“I really think he’s playing great football right now and we just are looking at it like we’re just scratching the surface,” Reich said.
The Giants? Manning has had good games and is having a career year in some statistical categories. He has not, however, played at an elite level. Manning might have two games left. He might, in fact probably will, be the Giants’ quarterback in 2019. He is not, however, the team’s future. That much is obvious.
Maybe the two teams weren’t starting from completely equal places. The 4-12 season was the Colts’ only losing one since 2011. The Giants’ 11-5 2016 was their only winning season since 2012. So, perhaps the under belly of the Giants was softer than that of the Colts.
Still, it is apparent that the Colts are getting where they want to go faster than the Giants are — and that the model they are using is one the Giants should pay attention to.