Does the success or failure of the 2020 season for the New York Giants depend on whether or not they win the NFC East, thus making the playoffs?
That is a variant of the “how would you define a successful season for the Giants?” question that I have been asked and have answered a number of times this year.
It is also a question Giants coach Joe Judge was asked on Monday, with two straight losses and only two games left to change the math dimming the playoff optimism that surrounded his team a couple of weeks ago.
“I don’t think our progress as a team is going to be measured necessarily on making the playoffs. I’m focused right now on Baltimore this week. This is obviously a team that we knew when the schedule came out early on, this would a great challenge for us,” Judge said. “One thing that I am very interested in as a coach is seeing how our team responds to challenges, how they are able to adapt to different game plans and different styles of play from opponents, see how they work going forward.”
Judge then returned to the idea of making constant improvement that he has preached throughout the season.
“There’s a lot of things we have to improve on, big picture wise. There’s a lot of progress we still have to make. I’m pleased with the way the players have been working. This will be a great challenge,” Judge said. “I’m not downplaying playoffs. It’s the National Football League. We’re all here to compete. We’re all here for the highest prize in all of sports. We all know what that is. At the same time, I’m a firm believer in just keeping our sights on what the immediate goal is and the long-term goal will take care of itself.”
Judge was also asked why has has consistently downplayed his team being in the playoff race.
“There may be a time that we talk about it in the future, possibly, based on what the situation is,” Judge said. “That being said, it’s always been my belief to keep focused on what you’re doing right now. We can’t do anything about Dallas [Week 17] right now, that’s a week away. We can only control Baltimore. Anything that may or may not come after that doesn’t even exist yet.
“Wasting mental energy and focus on something that doesn’t exist, to me, is just wasted time. We need to focus on Baltimore. They are very real. They are getting ready. They’re a very good team, they are very well coached. They are very talented, they are very physical. They’re good in all three phases and they have some dynamic players. We start looking past Baltimore, then anything that may come after them is not going to matter anyway.”
Judge is absolutely right not to adopt some type of ‘playoffs or bust’ mentality. This season was never about playoffs for the Giants. An NFC East championship would be nice, and no one is going to be unhappy, if that happens. The season, though, is not a failure if the Giants fall short of winning the division.
The Giants were never supposed to be in contention for the division title. Honestly, they shouldn’t be. They are not really there on merit. They are not a playoff or championship-caliber team. Not close. Not yet.
The Giants are in contention only because none of the teams in the NFC East has been very good this season. Seven of the NFL’s eight divisions feature at least one team, the AFC North and AFC South have two, that already has at least 10 victories. The NFC East champion will do no better than 8-8, a .500 record. If the Giants win the division, no better than 7-9.
I have said many times this season should really be defined by finding out whether or not the Giants have the right head coach and quarterback to move forward with.
I think we have enough information on the former, despite recent quibbles about the handling of Daniel Jones’ injury and his Sunday night fourth-down decisions, to feel comfortable with the idea that Judge is the right head coach for the foreseeable future.
On the latter, we have incomplete information. Jones was never really working this season with a full deck, losing Saquon Barkley in Week 2, working around an offensive line that struggled to find its way early on, not getting consistent help from his receivers and now being hurt.
Jones’ play, and the Giants’ offense, were on upward trajectories when he injured his hamstring against the Cincinnati Bengals. All of that has been interrupted now, and we won’t get to see how much progress Jones and the offense could have made if he hadn’t gotten hurt.
There are no guarantees, of course, but I feel reasonably certain that Jones will be the quarterback in 2021. Do we know if he can lead the Giants to a championship, or be the quarterback for the next decade? No. We didn’t, though, know those things about Eli Manning until he accomplished them.
In my view, I think we know enough about Jones to want to see more. To see if he can build off the solid play he was putting on display before his injury.
Besides, what are the options? The Giants are not going to be in position to draft a quarterback guaranteed to be better than Jones. They aren’t in a position to trade away top draft resources for one. They have the advantage of a quarterback on his rookie contract for a couple more years, and with the salary cap going down this offseason it makes sense to try to maximize that opportunity.
Back, though, to the idea of a successful or failed season.
No one wants to see the Giants finish 5-11. Even 6-10 would mark their fourth straight double-digit loss season, and their sixth in the last seven season. A 7-9 mark, playoffs or no playoffs, sounds better.
Judge and the Giants, though, aren’t in this to avoid double-digit loss seasons. They are in this to build something long-term that offers them the opportunity to consistently have chances at double-digit victory seasons, at consistent playoff berths, at chances to be legitimate championship contenders.
The Giants have a loooong way to go to get there.
They need continued improvement from Jones. They need a couple of dynamic receivers. They need a healthy Barkley. They need a premier pass rusher. With key defensive players Logan Ryan, Leonard Williams and Dalvin Tomlinson all headed to free agency, they need to figure out how to keep as much of their defensive core together as possible. They might need at least one more piece on the offensive line.
The Giants have, though, found their head coach. At least, I believe they have. They have a solid foundation on defense, provided they can keep it together. They have a young, improving offensive line that needs to continue developing. They have more quality players they can go forward with than they have had in several seasons.
Yes, the Giants’ playoff hopes have taken a wrong turn the past couple of weeks and that’s a bummer. And yes, five victories is not enough. Viewed through the progress lens rather than the playoff one, and the idea that the Giants organization wanted to come out of the season feeling like there was optimism for the future, I think you can argue that the Giants will end this season in a better place than they have been in for a while.
Playoffs or not.