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Friday spotlight: Jason Garrett returning to Dallas, already under fire in New York

Can Garrett fix the league’s lowest-scoring offense?

NFL: New York Giants at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

In every Zoom videoconference he has done this season with New York media, New York Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has deflected any question he has received about his time as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

With the Giants facing the Cowboys on Sunday — at the JerryDome in Arlington, Tx. no less — Garrett was of course asked again about the Cowboys and how his time there ended. Again, he deflected.

“The biggest thing that we’re all focused on is what we can do to help the New York Giants play as well as we can play. That’s what we’re focused on as players and coaches,” Garrett said. “Many people around the league, you have history in another place. You know people on other teams. I obviously spent a lot of time in Dallas and am very grateful for my experience there, all the players I was fortunate to coach, the guys I was fortunate to coach with, and everyone in that organization and really the people of Dallas. They were amazing to me. It was a great time of my life. Forever appreciative of that and forever grateful of that, but I’m excited about this opportunity and trying to help this team get better.”

Garrett has bigger problems that need his attention than worrying about how he will be received by the 20-25,000 or so fans allowed into AT&T Stadium on Sunday.

Like figuring out how to get some production out of what is, through four games, the worst offense in the NFL.

  • The Giants average a league-worst 11.75 points per game. The No. 31 New York Jets average 16.2 points, almost 4.5 more than the Giants.
  • The Giants are last in the league in points per play at 0.195.
  • The Giants (0.8) are the only team in the league averaging less than a touchdown per game.
  • At 278.0 yards per game, the Giants are tied for last in the league with the Jets. They have yet to gain 300 or more yards in a game.
  • The Giants are 29th in the league in offensive plays per game at 60.2.
  • The Giants are 30th in first downs per game at 18.5.
  • The Giants are 30th in the league in yards per pass attempt (5.4) and 29th in yards per completion (8.9).
  • The Giants are 31st in the league in yards rushing per game (76.5).
  • Per Sharp Football, the Giants have 19 explosive plays out of 241 snaps. That is 8 percent, 28th in the league. The Giants have 9 explosive passing plays and 10 explosive runs. Only 6 percent of the Giants’ passing plays are considered “explosive,” 31st in the league.

So, yeah, Garrett has bigger problems than whether or not he gets booed Sunday in Dallas.

Explosive plays needed

Part of the reason the Giants have struggled to generate explosive plays is that Saquon Barkley is out for the season. They are also operating without wide receiver Sterling Shepard, who has averaged 4.6 catches and 11.5 yards per reception throughout his career.

Garrett, though, knows the Giants have got to generate more explosive plays.

“I don’t think there’s any question you want to make explosive plays. That’s a big part of playing offensive football and scoring points. I think if you look at the statistics on drives when you make an explosive play versus not making an explosive play, the spread is almost 50 percent different. That’s an important thing. It’s something we try to emphasize,” Garrett said.

So, why haven’t the Giants been able to generate them?

The absences of Barkley and Shepard from the lineup is undoubtedly part of it. There is also the Giants’ struggling offensive line, which is last in the league in run-blocking and 27th in pass-blocking, per Football Outsiders. Second-year quarterback Daniel Jones is learning a new offense and hasn’t played as well as he did last season. Oh, and when you are losing games late teams play softer zones, taking away the chunk plays.

“Obviously, being able to run the football, being able to control the line of scrimmage, being able to pass protect the way you need to, impacts your ability to throw the ball vertically down the field,” Garrett said. “If you take those shots and you’re not able to hold it and protect it the way you need to, a lot of bad things happen and you find yourself digging out of those drives. You have to be selective, again, when you’re kind of rebuilding with a team to find those spots. But there’s no question they’re important in drives, they’re important in drives if you want to score points.”

Discovery process

NFL teams didn’t get to do on field work in the offseason and had a shortened training camp/preseason. For a team like the Giants — first time head coach, new offensive system, young quarterback, young and revamped offensive line — that was always going to present a challenge. Without Barkley, with Devonta Freeman having only been a Giant for two weeks now, with newcomers C.J. Board and Damion Ratley playing significant snaps at wide receiver, that’s an even greater challenge.

Garrett admitted the process of figuring out what his players do best is ongoing.

“You certainly want to do the things you’re good at, and we’re trying to discover what those things are, again both in the run and the pass game,” Garrett said. “You want to make sure that you’re finding ways to keep the defense off balance, whether it’s using tempo, which we’ve used a lot of this year, whether it’s using formations and movements, or just the combination of run and pass and different ways to do that. We’re all trying as a coaching staff to do a great job of putting our players in a good position.”

What do the Giants want to be on offense?

Head coach Joe Judge says the Giants want balance. That, though, doesn’t mean a 50-50 split between running and passing. It means being able to do what they want when they want.

“I don’t care who the personnel is. I think balance is what you want to be. To me, balance is not having to run it and throw it 50-50. To me, balance is being able to run it when you have to run it, and throw it when you have to throw it,” Judge said. “No matter who the personnel is, no matter what the game plan is, you want to be able to be balanced to play the game on your terms.”

Despite not getting the ball into the end zone, the Giants believe they made some progress toward that goal last week. They ran the ball for 136 yards, with 88 of that coming from running backs Freeman, Wayne Gallman and Dion Lewis on 18 carries (4.88 yards per carry).

“The more we do it together, I think the better we’ll get at it. There was some progress in the game the other day. It’s really the first time we ran the ball relatively consistently throughout the year,” Garrett said. “That certainly helped us gain the balance that we want. I think it helped the passing game and the protection as that game wore on. We’re certainly striving for that, and guys are working hard every day to achieve it.”

What, really, is a Jason Garrett offense?

Before joining the Giants, Garrett was last an offensive coordinator in 2010. He has rarely called offensive plays since, and prior to the opening of the season had been several years since he called them at all.

Garrett is considered to be a disciple of the Air Coryell offensive philosophy. In a ‘Summer School’ post years ago, we took a deep dive into the Air Coryell attack. The features associated with the system are vertical pass routes to spread the field, good timing between quarterback and receivers and a power running game. Our post also highlights the need for good offensive line play, which the Giants have not yet had.

Over the summer, Mark Schofield broke down what a Garrett passing attack might look like. Schofield included quick game concepts, play-action passing, running back involvement as a receiver and vertical concepts.

There have been perhaps surprisingly few downfield throws from Daniel Jones thus far. Per Pro Football Focus, Jones is 27th in the league with only eight passing attempts of 20 yards or more. Four of those have been completed.

For context, Aaron Rodgers has 30 attempts and 12 completions on throws of 20 yards or more. The other side of the coin is that Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs has only 14 deep attempts with three completions.

Here, though are more numbers that show the lack of verticality and explosiveness in the offense thus far:

Daniel Jones

Yards gained per attempt: 2019 (6.6) | 2020 (6.0)
Intended air yards per attempt: 2019 (8.0) | 2020 (6.6)
Adjusted net yards per attempt: 2019 (5.38) | 2020 (3.81)

Golden Tate

Yards per reception: 2019 (13.8) | Career (11.9) | 2020 (7.4)
Yards per target: 2019 8.0 | Career (7.9) | 2020 (5.7)

Evan Engram

Yards per reception: 2019 (10.6) | Career (11.2) | 2020: 7.7
Yards per target: 2019 (6.9) | Career (6.8) | 2020: 4.4

RJ Ochoa of SB Nation’s Blogging the Boys told me this week that he isn’t surprised by the lack of verticality in Garrett’s play-calling.

“I’m not surprised,” Ochoa said. “Jason Garrett’s offense, he’s a product of the 1990s Cowboys. He believes in running the football and establishing the run and dominating the line of scrimmage and dominating time of possession. I’m not surprised to see him carrying them over with a new offense.”

Will it get better?

The Giants need Jones to grow, to make fewer mistakes and better decisions. There are already Trevor Lawrence drumbeats in the fan base, and they will grow louder if Jones keeps making the same mistakes over and over.

The Giants need the offensive line to improve. Andrew Thomas hasn’t looked like a franchise left tackle in the early going, but the Giants are banking on him becoming one. Can Nick Gates be a quality starting NFL center? The jury is out. Can this line develop the necessary cohesion?

Will Garrett adjust his thinking and be more aggressive if Jones and the offensive line show improvement, if Shepard gets healthy?

The Cowboys and their worst-in-the-league defense offer the Giants a chance to begin to fix what ails them on offense. Somehow, considering Garrett’s history in Dallas and the mixed feelings he generates, that is appropriate.