The New York Giants begin the final quarter of their 2018 NFL season on Sunday in Landover, Md. against the Washington Redskins. As the season, one that will almost certainly see the Giants miss the playoffs for sixth time in seven seasons, winds down they find themselves in a strange position.
They are 4-8, last in the NFC East. After a 1-7 start, they have won three of four games. They appear to be making some gains, at least offensively. They are averaging 29.25 points over their last four games, which would put them fourth in the league over the full season. They are, however, 25th in the league in points allowed at 26.2 per game. Over their last four games, they have given up 27.5 points per game.
The Giants, amazingly enough, lead the NFC East in points scored (267). Yet, they are last in the division in points allowed (315) and in point differential (-48). Yet, somehow, Football Outsiders DVOA rankings list the Giants as the best team in the division.
It’s all very confusing.
What are the Giants? Where are they going?
In many respects, I think the Giants themselves are trying to figure that out.
The Giants lost seven of eight games during a first half of the season in which their schedule, on paper, was more difficult than than what they are in the midst of facing over their final eight games. In that first-half stretch, there were a couple of difficult-to-stomach defeats.
Over the last four weeks, they have won three times. Those victories, though, have come against teams not at their best. The now 2-10 San Francisco 49ers were using third-string quarterback Nick Mullens. The now 5-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers started Ryan Fitzpatrick and replaced him before game’s end with Jameis Winston. The Chicago Bears entered MetLife Stadium last Sunday with a five-game winning streak, but without starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. An uneven performance by backup chase Daniel was a big factor in the Giants’ victory.
Still, they were victories
And the Giants won’t give them back.
As coach Pat Shurmur said this week, the Giants are trying to “flip culture.” They are trying to claw their way back from an embarrassing 3-13 2017 season, not to mention what is about to become the sixth season in the last seven during which they will miss the playoffs.
Winning some games at this point in the season damages the Giants’ standing in terms of where they will ultimately pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. It is, however, valuable for the players on the roster the Giants hope will be part of their future. It is also important for Shurmur and GM Dave Gettleman as they try to show that while they haven’t solved every problem they have been presented with that they do have the Giants going in a positive direction.
“We’re building a house, and I think everything’s connected. I mentioned it last night on the radio, but everything is connected,” Shurmur said this week. “We took over a 3-13 operation, we need to learn how to win again. Moving forward next year, and this is not looking toward next year, but moving forward next year, a lot of these same guys are going to be with us – hopefully, most of them. There’s a lot to be learned about battling through adversity at the end of the season and fighting to win games. I think you create a memory bank of stuff that helps you moving forward.”
It was important for the Giants that they beat the Bears, especially the way they won the game. It was sloppy. The 30-27 overtime victory was anything but great football. The Giants didn’t start well. Then, they got — and blew — a lead. Ultimately, they came out on top.
It was important for Shurmur that players like Landon Collins, Sterling Shepard and Saquon Barkley fought injuries that could have — and in the cases of Collins and Shepard perhaps should have — sidelined them to help the team win a game.
This is what Shurmur said in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s victory:
“I’m fond of tough, resilient people. When you’re trying to flip culture, when you’re trying to build something, you’ve got to really dig in on that. There was some toughness and some resiliency. It would have been easy to cave when they came back, an 8-3 team, came back and tied us up, they had a little bit of juice, a little bit of mojo, but our guys found a way to put points on the board and then stop them at the end. I’m fond of toughness and resiliency, and our team showed that today.”
Maybe that partially answers the question of what they are. The Giants are a tough, resilient, imperfect football team. Players are buying into what Shurmur is selling, continuing to play hard, continuing to try to add blocks to the foundation Shurmur is trying to lay this season. The Giants are also nowhere close to being a finished product. They still have a lot of holes to plug on a roster that is not yet anywhere near complete, and a long way to go before they can call themselves a good football team.
They are, dangerously, favored to win Sunday in Maryland against a wounded and reeling Washington Redskins team that has lost three straight and will be using a quarterback who has been on the team for three weeks.
It should surprise no one, however, if the Giants lay an egg on Sunday and lose a game that is begging to be won. That is where they are right now. Nothing can be taken for granted.
Which leads me to the final four games of the season, and the decisions the Giants need to make once they are done.
How should the Giants handle their quarterback situation over the final four games?
Put another, more direct, way — when and how much should Kyle Lauletta play?
The Giants are caught here between competing desires.
From everything I’ve heard, I believe wholeheartedly that they want to see Lauletta, the fourth-round pick from Richmond, play before the season ends. They have seen him every day in practice for months, and learned enough about him to push him up to the No. 2 role and activate him in game days. They know, however, there are things they won’t be able to learn until Lauletta plays real snaps in a real game. They know the quarterback situation is a critical piece of their offseason puzzle, and that finding out what they can about Lauletta is a piece of that puzzle.
They also, however, want to do everything they can to win games. They aren’t going to the playoffs. They know that. It’s about the word Shurmur keeps coming back to, and that he and GM Dave Gettleman have been preaching since they walked in the doors at 1925 Giants drive. It’s about culture.
Remember what Shurmur said about building a house and learning how to win. The Giants have been winning some games. They have been playing well on offense, averaging 29.25 points per game over their last four. Eli Manning is showing that he can be productive when the blocking allows him to be. The Giants are continuing to play hard and play together, continuing to not just go through the motions of a season that hasn’t gone the way they wanted it to.
They continue to believe trying to win games now is an important part of getting to where they want to go down the line. They continue to believe that a 15-year veteran quarterback with two Super Bowl MVPs who is top 10 in NFL history in many of the league’s passing categories gives them a better chance to win games than a fourth-round pick who hasn’t taken a snap and spends his practice time splitting scout-team reps.
“We’re trying to win this game. We’re trying to get 8-8 one game at a time and then see what happens from there,” Shurmur said.” We have all types of discussions behind the scenes, it’s very fluid. Dave and I talk throughout the week, I have conversations with John (Mara), Steve (Tisch), we’re always talking about this team, evaluating or really talking about who played well, who needs to play better as we move forward, this and that. There’s always conversation about what happened, where we’re going, short and long term plans.”
The Giants seem to be going week-to-week at this point, with no definitive “this is when Lauletta will play” plan.
“We’re trying to win every game we play,” Shurmur said. “You can look at this a lot of different ways, there’s a lot of models to developing a quarterback. A year ago in Kansas City, the only game (Patrick) Mahomes played was the last game of the year that had nothing to do with their playoff status. But they had seen enough to say we’re going to do this with this quarterback, and do this with this quarterback.
“The models are all different when you develop quarterbacks. We have a starting quarterback that we believe in. We put him out there because we believe he’s going to lead us to victories, and then behind the scenes, much like every other position, we’re developing those players.”
Offensive line rebuild
At the midpoint of the season, the “Hog Mollie” rebuild by Gettleman did not appear to be going well. Since then, left tackle Nate Solder has played better and waiver-wire acquisition Jamon Brown has been a stabilizing force. If the Giants can re-sign Brown, a free agent, this offseason then Brown, Solder and rookie Will Hernandez give them three-fifths of the offensive line that should open the 2019 season.
It figures that center Spencer Pulley and right tackle Chad Wheeler will face competition for those spots, and that both could likely be considered as auditioning over the final four games.
Shurmur said “I think so” when asked this week if the current offensive line could be the 2019 offensive line. In reality, what else was he going to say?
“I think this group has played well together, so when you have a group of guys out there playing well together, then the important thing for them to do is to continue to get better,” Shurmur said. “We’ve got some young players in there, we’ve got some new players, and I think we all understand that between the first time you do something and the second time, there’s huge improvement.”
Entering the season, there were really more questions about the defense than the offense. As we near the season’s exit, the song remains the same.
You can make an argument that the Giants need help at every level of their defense. They need more pass rush. Shoot, they need SOME pass rush. They need better player from their linebackers. They need more cornerbacks. They need a free safety.
They have an offseason decision to make about the out for the season Landon Collins. Perhaps how well or poorly rookie Sean Chandler plays over the final four games will have some impact on that.
The Giants have offseason decisions to make on highly-paid veterans Olivier Vernon and Janoris Jenkins. Both have not had great season but played well Sunday against Chicago. How they fare over the final four games could impact how the Giants proceed this offseason.
Can young players like Chandler, Tae Davis, Grant Haley, R.J. McIntosh and anyone else who gets a chance should use the next four games to show they could be part of the team’s future?
Overall, these final four games are important because the Giants have so many critical personnel decisions to make going forward, and none of them are easy. Each game will give the organization more critical information as they shape the roster for the future.
“I think it’s important for everybody and like you said, each season brings its own challenges, its own entity, but at the same time, to be able to say, ‘hey, regardless of how we started, this is how we finish,’ “ said Michael Thomas. “That’s the mindset of this team going forward, so whoever’s going to be here has to understand that’s our mindset. Every single person that’s finishing these last four games and has been here for the second half of the season, in our eyes, this mindset is like, ‘hey, your name is on this.’ This family is going to stay with you forever, so what you do when you’re 1-7, everybody’s going to see.”