New York Giants safety Michael Thomas, having watched the Giants find yet another incredible way to lose a game on Sunday, told assembled media — including yours truly — they they could “write a helluva story about this season.”
So, let’s try to do that.
As we begin 2019 (Happy New Year, everybody!!!) let’s look back at the Giants’ 2018. Where were the Giants when they started? Where are they as it comes to an end? Where might they be going in 2019?
Where did they start?
From rock bottom, that’s where.
From the wreckage of a 3-13 season that saw the locker room left in disarray, the roster without nearly enough talent, and the coach and GM both sent to the unemployment. Where, for whatever it’s worth, both still remain.
They started with a new GM in Dave Gettleman, a man getting a second chance as a GM and his second tour with the Giants after a long run in the team’s personnel department.
They started with a new coach in Pat Shurmur who was also getting a second chance after an aborted two-year stint as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
They started with clean slates for holdover players, but also with a massively overhauled roster.
They started from a place where the talent needed to be upgraded and a losing culture needed to be overcome.
They started with the idea of building around Eli Manning for another year or two rather than going into full tear-down mode and bringing in the player they hoped would be his heir as the team’s franchise quarterback.
Where are they now?
The Giants just finished a 5-11 season, last in the NFC East for the second straight season. That’s the first time they have finished last in the division in successive seasons since doing so three consecutive times from 1976-78.
Really, though, the Giants appear to be in a much better place than they were a year ago.
“I told the players and it really is true, what we’re going through, trying to grow away from 3-13, this really is not about football. This is about leadership, people in control, people in the locker room, this is about team building. It just so happens we play football. When we tip those first couple things over, we’ll start to see the results that we’re looking for,” Shurmur said. “I think a lot of people get tired of hearing about the process of things, but we’ve got to flip the table on what wasn’t good around here and make it happen. I think at least we’re on the right path.”
The events of the season’s second half show that Shurmur is probably right about that.
The Giants began the season a bumbling 1-7, then closed the season 4-4 with heart-breaking last-minute one-point losses to playoff teams in each of their final two games.
The best thing about the 2018 season was that the Giants didn’t fracture after a miserable first half of the season. They didn’t turn on their first-year coach, or each other. They continued to buy into Shurmur’s messages that “teams beat teams” and that they needed to play for each other. Even in the final two weeks, eliminated from the playoffs, the Giants — except for Curtis Riley’s “ole’ tackle vs. Dallas — played hard.
“I think we figured out that you have to play for each other and believe in each other. When you go out there, you play for your teammates,” running back Saquon Barkley said. “You go out there and have fun like a little kid playing little league football, things just happen. Big plays happen, wins happen. I think that was the message that we had during the second half of the year. I think that’s what really helped us.”
Which team are they? Probably the one that won five games overall. They were good enough to beat some teams that weren’t at full strength, but for much of the year not good enough to beat the top teams. They were unable to close out a number of winnable games.
The Giants lost an NFL-high eight games by seven or fewer points. They joined the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers with a league-high 12 games decided by seven points or less, going just 4-8 in those games.
A Week 2 loss to Dallas, a Week 7 loss to Atlanta and a Week 8 loss to Washington all featured late scores that made games appear closer than they were. There were, however, gut-wrenching last minute losses to the Carolina Panthers, Eagles, Colts and Cowboys.
“In a close game, you’ve either got to get a stop or you’ve got to get a score. In the games that we’ve lost, we haven’t done those things,” Shurmur said. “I think we’ll have a winning team when at the end of the game we can either stop the team or score against the team we’re playing, and again that’s part of being coordinated.”
Shurmur was hired partially because Gettleman and co-owner John Mara said he was an “adult,” and that’s what they needed following the trauma of 2017. He was also hired, though, to fix the offense.
The Giants took steps toward doing that in 2018. They averaged 23.1 points per game (16th in the league) after scoring only 15.4 points per game in 2017. Over their final eight games, the Giants averaged 27.4 points and crossed the 30-point threshold four times. They figured out that using the running game and playing through Barkley was their best path.
Defensively, the Giants weren’t good enough. They gave up 25.8 points per game, 23rd in the league. They were 30th in sacks with just 30. Two starters, Damon Harrison and Eli Apple, were jettisoned at the NFL trade deadline. The Giants didn’t really have enough depth — or enough playmakers — at any level of their defense.
Special teams was a plus. Second-year kicker Aldrick Rosas became a Pro Bowler and punter Riley Dixon had a solid season as the Giants were seventh in the league in net punting average. After the Giants struggled much of the year to find kick and punt returners, Corey Coleman and Quadree Henderson showed potential in that area.
In the draft the Giants added at least four players — the wondrous Barkley, left guard Will Hernandez, defensive tackle B.J. Hill and outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter — who are building blocks.
Where are they going?
The Giants have many decisions to make. We will examine them in depth throughout the offseason. For now, let’s look quickly at the major ones.
Quarterback — What happens with Manning? Is he back? Whether he is back or not, do the Giants draft his potential heir this spring? Do they opt to use free agency or the trade route to either supplement the quarterback room or replace Manning?
Offensive line — Gettleman promised to fix the Giants’ porous offensive line. He took a big swing at that in 2018, but only partially made contact. Hernandez and left tackle Nate Solder are set. The center, right guard and right tackle positions are in flux. Do they re-sign Jamon Brown? Do they have enough at center with Jon Halapio and Spencer Pulley? Hoe do they upgrade right tackle?
“I think you’ve got to always try to upgrade your offensive line to some degree because when you look around and you start to see teams that are playing bad offense, don’t look at the skill players first,” Shurmur said. “If you can’t block them, then nothing fancy looks good, nothing normal looks good, nothing that you need to do in football looks good if you can’t block them.”
Highly-paid veterans — What do the Giants do about Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon, veterans who have huge contracts they really didn’t live up to? Do they move on from them, or keep them and try to re-structure their contracts?
Landon Collins — The talented safety can be a free agent. Do the Giants sign him to a long-term deal? Use the franchise tag to keep him off the market? Let him enter free agency? This one will be fascinating.
Pass rush — The Giants have to bring in more guys who can rush the passer, especially if they move on from Vernon. Fortunately, the upcoming draft class is said to be rush in edge rushers.
Defensive backs — An upgrade at free safety has to be found. So do more quality cornerbacks.
I would agree with Shurmur’s assessment that the Giants are on the right path. There are, however, three keys to building a better future.
- Getting the long-term future at quarterback right — Whether Manning is the quarterback in 2019 or not really isn’t the important part of the equation, though it’s the one everyone seems focused on. His time is short. That doesn’t mean the Giants need to jump at the first quarterback who comes along. It does, however, mean when they find the guy they think can be the answer they need to jump.
- Getting the offensive line right — This is a must, whether Manning is the quarterback or not. Spectacular plays from Barkley aside, if you paid attention in 2018 you saw that the Giants played good offense when they got people blocked, and had no chance to do that when they couldn’t. With Gettleman’s history, and the fact that Shurmur is on the same page when it comes to the importance of the hog mollies, I have confidence the Giants will eventually get this fixed.
- Fixing the defense — I don’t think it’s fair to judge defensive coordinator James Bettcher off the 2018 season. While the Giants have some nice building blocks on defense there isn’t a single level — interior defensive line, edge, linebacker cornerback, safety — that doesn’t need help. You know what makes a team look like it has learned to win games? Having a defense that is good enough to create short fields for the offense and to get stops when games are on the line. I would expect the Giants to focus heavily this offseason on adding defensive talent in an effort to get closer to that.