The hiring of Patrick Graham as defensive coordinator by the New York Giants seemed like a curious one.
If Graham had been good with the Miami Dolphins in 2019, his only season as an NFL defensive coordinator, why would Miami coach Brian Flores let him leave for the same job — assistant head coach title aside — with the New York Giants?
Surely, the friendships between Graham, Flores and new Giants coach Joe Judge, all of whom had worked together for several years under Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots, weren’t so strong that Flores would just let Judge swoop in and take a trusted coach? Teams generally do what they can to hang on to valued assistant coaches.
Besides which, what did Judge know about Graham that made him want to entrust his defense in New York to him after a year that saw the talent-deficient Dolphins finish 2019 last in the league in defense?
In announcing the hiring, Judge indicated that it was because he and Graham shared a vision for what the Giants’ defense should look like.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions, both before he came here as well as since he’s been here, in terms of what he would want to do with the scheme,” Judge said. “We share the same vision to be able to run multiples and use the players on our roster to the best of their ability to match up against the opponent.”
Shared vision or not, Graham’s inexperience running a defense and Flores’ seeming lack of desire to fight to keep him raised questions.
Graham has, to say the least, answered those questions thus far.
The Giants’ defense was rife with question marks about its talent level entering the season. Who was going to rush the passer? Did they have any cornerbacks other than James Bradberry who could cover anyone? Did they have enough athleticism at inside linebacker, or even anyone next to Blake Martinez who deserved to be on the field? How would they fill the hole at safety left by the unfortunate injury to safety Xavier McKinney?
Overall, did they have enough talent to be any better than the group that was 30th in the league in points allowed a season ago?
The numbers tell you Graham and the Giants have found a lot of those answers. The Giants are 13th in the league in points allowed and 15th in yards allowed. Despite a lack of obvious individual difference makers the Giants are second in the league in takeaways with 15, tied for eighth in sacks with 22 and 14th in overall pressure percentage at 23.5 percent.
The Giants have played competent, aggressive, disciplined defense that has given them a chance to win in all but one game this season.
All of that despite going through three different starters at cornerback opposite Bradberry, three different starters at inside linebacker next to Martinez, losing edge rushers Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines to injury, trading Markus Golden, using several players to fill in for McKinney and still not having an individually dominant pass rusher.
Graham has mixed coverages, using more zone than might have been expected after his season in Miami. He has mixed blitz packages, getting at least a half-sack from 14 different Giants. He has found ways to succeed with castoffs like Ryan Lewis, Adrian Colbert, Isaac Yiadom, Devante Downs, Trent Harris and Jabaal Sheard, as well as finding ways to get limited contributions from rookies like Carter Coughlin, Cam Brown and Madre Harper.
Martinez, the Giants’ defensive captain, signal-caller and leading tackler, lauded Graham’s flexibility.
“I think his ability to adjust is one of those things throughout the game, I can’t think of the exact situation but it was a moment where all of a sudden, he comes up to us and he’s like ‘hey, I’m thinking this because we showed this or did these types of things, and I think this is going to mess with them.’ And I’m like ‘oh wow, yeah, that’s actually a great idea.’ I was like ‘you’re really good at this,’ “ Martinez said. “It was one of those moments where you’re trying to see what he’s trying to do and how his brain is working. I think his brain is always working, and that’s what has allowed him to make those adjustments on the fly.”
Nostradamus or Einstein?
Graham’s “brain always working” was never more evident than in the two games the Giants won this season over the Washington Football Team.
In their Week 7 victory, the Giants called and executed a defensive call that Graham had schemed up and installed on Friday, two days before the game, to get a stop on a game-deciding two-point conversion at the end of a 20-19 victory.
“I thought [Defensive Coordinator] Pat [Graham] made a great call on the two-point conversion, that’s actually a call we put in this week,” Judge said. “I thought the guys matched it and played it very well ... The guys did a really good job working that on Friday, really improving on some things that we put on tape in practice that were mistakes, cleaned it up through Saturday, and, hey, practice execution becomes game reality.”
Graham went one better this past Sunday. He came up with a defensive alignment he thought would help the Giants in a specific two-minute situation on Saturday, the day before the game. He got the OK from Judge to install it, had the defense walk through it on Saturday and called the defensive wrinkle twice in Sunday’s game.
The first time, defensive back Logan Ryan messed it up and Washington got a long gain. The second time, Ryan was positioned properly, fooled Football Team quarterback Alex Smith and came away with a victory-sealing interception.
Martinez said seeing something like that be installed so late in the week was “definitely a first for me.”
Ryan praised Graham’s willingness to trust him.
“Last night, we said we were going to try something new and try that,” Ryan said in Sunday’s post-game. “In the first half, I messed up, I wasn’t there, they ran a 32-yard in-cut in the two-minute and that was my fault, that was my job there. I told Pat, I said, ‘Hey, that’s on me. Call it again and I’ll be there, I’ll make it right,’ and at least he thinks it’s going to be there, so he called it again and the next time we ran it was at the end of the game and I was able to make the play. So that’s just the story behind the game and I’m very fortunate that Pat trusts me enough to run my play and to call my play and to call my number,’
Giants defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson said Graham had gone “Nostradamus” with the call, knowing exactly how he wanted to use it and calling it at the perfect time.
Graham doesn’t like talking about himself
Asked about slamming the door on Washington Sunday with interceptions on the Football Team’s final two possessions, Graham refused to take any credit.
“It all comes back to the players. When we have success, it’s the players,” Graham said. “It’s them and if we’re not successful, it’s because there is something I can do better. The success is because of the players.”
He also didn’t want to hear “genius” talk, or make a big fuss out of installing a scheme the day before a game and calling it with the outcome on the line.
“I know a lot is being made of that. Every coach in America does that stuff,” Graham said. “It’s a tribute to the players being able to handle stuff.
“I think I’m the opposite of genius. There is one true genius I know, I’m a big Einstein fan.”
Graham’s work has been noticed around the league. Despite the Giants being 2-7, he is already being mentioned as a potential head-coaching candidate.
The 41-year-old Graham has had successes with the Giants this season, but also failures. A Yale graduate, he takes those personally. None this season more than the Giants giving up two scores in the final 6:21 in their one-point Week 7 loss to the Eagles.
“I consider myself a teacher, first and foremost. I happen to teach football. I think like any teacher, whether you’re a kindergarten teacher or a professor, you’re trying to do your best job so your students can learn. You want to see them have success,” Graham said. “To see them fight so hard, to give up that lead. Usually what happens, as a coach, obviously I didn’t get the right calls in there. I failed them.
“If I’m being honest with you, I was just disappointed in letting them down personally, that’s just me. In that moment of honesty, that’s where I was at, we have to figure this out. For me right there, it was more I look at these guys as I’m a teacher than as a coach. I felt bad I let them down and I had to figure out a way to make sure they can taste success and get the reward of all their hard work. They’re working really hard for Joe. I felt bad. They’re working hard for Joe, working hard for all of us, and we didn’t come away with the win.”
In that instance, Graham is correct that the Giants didn’t come away with a win. Getting Graham away from the Dolphins, though, has undoubtedly been a win for Judge and the Giants.