Hal Hunter started coaching in 1982. He has never dealt with anyone like Kevin Zeitler.
“This is year number 38 for me and he is the most serious, focused, all-about-football guy I have ever been around. I thought it was Kris Dielman [formerly with the San Diego Chargers] before, but he takes it up a notch,” Hunter, the New York Giants offensive line coach, said on Thursday. “You love being around a guy like that. I worry about him wearing himself out mentally because he is so focused and so in tune. I think it starts to get contagious with the other guys. He’s a no-nonsense guy, every day he is a man on a mission, his performance is really important to him. You can see it’s kind of working through the room a little bit. He brings something really different, I’m excited to have him.”
Zeitler, acquired in exchange for Olivier Vernon, is the most important piece — the game-changer, if you will — of the Giants’ once-again revamped, veteran offensive line.
Make no mistake, the Giants’ new line is not filled with great individual players. Or, at least not ones recognized with post-season individual honors. From left to right, Nate Solder, Will Hernandez, Jon Halapio/Spencer Pulley, Zeitler and Mike Remmers have 27 years of NFL experience.
They have a combined zero, yes ZERO, Pro Bowl or All-Pro selections.
Collectively, though, the Giants are hoping the 2019 line will be the closest thing they have had to the David Diehl, Rich Seubert, Shaun O’Hara, Chris Snee, Kareem McKenzie line since, well, since the Diehl-Seubert-O’Hara-Snee-McKenzie line.
Diehl and Snee were the last of those players to hang up their spikes, and neither has played since 2013. Truth is, it’s probably been longer than that since the Giants have had a trustworthy — maybe even an adequate — offensive line in front of Eli Manning.
The optimism for this veteran line, what I have referred to as version 2.0 of GM Dave Gettleman’s offensive line rebuild, is high. The bar, though, at least relative to the 2018 version of the Giants’ offensive line, is not.
That line surrendered 47 sacks of Manning, far more than any season in his career. Manning was sacked on 7.5 percent of his drop backs, also a career-worst. Football Outsiders ranked the Giants 20th in the league in pass blocking, which means as bad as they were 12 teams were even more awful.
The Giants didn’t run block well, either, which makes the brilliant year enjoyed by Saquon Barkley all that much more remarkable. Football Outsiders ranked the Giants 30th in the league in Adjusted Line Yards, meaning Barkley did much of what he did all by himself. They were 24th in the league with 20.9 percent of their runs considered “stuffed” by Football Outsiders. SB Nation ranked the Giants 30th in the league in rushing marginal efficiency, 8.4 percent below league average on the basis of expected success rate per play.
How much better could the Giants’ offense be, even with Odell Beckham Jr. in Cleveland and questions at wide receiver, if they cut the sack number in half? If they can simply be middle of the pack in run-blocking rather than a bottom feeder?
Back to Zeitler. He wasn’t part of the line last year, but he obviously knows what went down And he doesn’t want to be part of a group that lets that happen again.
“The way we look at it is last year is last year. As an o-line, we know the things we need to do, we need to do everything we can to protect, we need to do everything to run block,” Zeitler said. “We’re going to have to take it this whole camp. We just got to keep getting better, keep running, keep learning our reaction times, levels, and all sorts of things. If we do our job, Eli will be able to do his job better, it’s just a simple fact right there.”
Here’s more from Zeitler, and to me this next quote gives you an idea of just how much he feels the responsibility of giving Manning, Barkley and the Giants other play-makers a chance to do their jobs.
“We have a lot of football under our belts, and we all have the same focus. I think we all want to be good, I think we owe it, the oline, owe it to Eli (Manning) and to Saquon (Barkley),” Zeitler said. “It’s up to us to make them the best they can be, just like they’re going to make us the best we can be. So we owe it to make sure we get everything down, learn everything we can, and help this team be the best it can (be).”
When Gettleman has talked about improving the culture in the locker room, bringing in the right kind of people to lead and teach younger players, that is what he is talking about right there.
Hunter said this line features “a different makeup, mentally” than the one the Giants fielded a year ago.
“When you add two veteran players like Mike Remmers and Kevin Zeitler, who are two serious guys who’ve got a lot of NFL snaps, they are a pro’s pro, they are tough, smart,” Hunter said. “All of a sudden you’ve added a lot to your group, so you’ve got some veteran players there, you get Jon Halapio back who brings a real toughness about him, you’ve got Spencer Pulley still in the mix, because I still consider him as starting caliber, and of course you’ve got Nate (Solder) on the left side who brings a lot to the group and Will (Hernandez) will be a second-year older, so you hope that sophomore year, you’d expect a lot of improvement.
“I just think there’s a more serious focus, I would say more of an old-school approach.”
Good health and good performance are never guaranteed, of course, and the Giants aren’t guaranteed to have an improved offensive line. The Giants have been optimistic before that they would field a representative offensive line, only to wind up with a harassed quarterback, inefficient running game and sub-par offense.
This time, though, they might actually have gotten it right. Both Zeitler’s attitude, and talent as one of the best pass-blocking guards in the league in recent years, have a lot to do with that.