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Can the Giants’ offense step up over the season’s final eight games?

There are plenty of reasons, but the bottom line is the Giants have not been good enough offensively over the first nine games

Carolina Panthers v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The New York Giants had high hopes that their offense, ranked an unacceptable 31st in the NFL a year ago in points scored, would show dramatic improvement this season.

  • They spent big money to sign free agent wide receiver Kenny Golladay to be the big-bodied, catch in traffic, red zone threat, No. 1 receiver they had been lacking.
  • They used their first-round draft pick on exciting wide receiver Kadarius Toney. The idea was that Toney could use his speed to make plays down the field, and that his electric catch-and-run ability would turn short throws into big plays and make life easier for quarterback Daniel Jones.
  • They signed veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph to be a red zone threat, and do some of the inline and short area work that is not Evan Engram’s forte.
  • They signed speedy John Ross hoping he would overcome his injury history and be a big play threat, and added all-around running back Devontae Booker to provide depth.
  • They were excited about the return to health of Saquon Barkley, and the prospect of having their best player on the field for a full season.
  • They were hoping that a second year in offensive coordinator Jason Garrett’s system would help Jones blossom, and that having a full on-field offseason and real training camp would help Garrett fully teach and implement the offense he wanted to run.
  • They gambled that a young, homegrown offensive line would grow together and give the Giants enough good play to let Garrett open up the offense.

We know things have not gone the way the Giants envisioned.

There have been incremental improvements

Statistically, the Giants have been a fraction better than they were a season ago.

  • The 2021 Giants average 19.9 points per game, 24th in the NFL; In 2020, the Giants averaged 17.5 points, 31st.
  • The 2021 Giants average 334.8 yards per game, 21st overall; In 2020, the Giants averaged 299.6 yards, 29th.
  • The Giants average 1.72 points per possession, up from 1.60 a season ago.
  • The Giants average 5.4 yards per plays, 21st overall; In 2020, the Giants averaged 5.0 yards, 29th.
  • The Giants are 15th in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (39.32 percent); a season ago, they were 29th (36.36 percent).

There are plenty of other examples of these ancillary statistical categories where the changes have shown some improvement.

The Giants have had a couple of excellent offensive games. They put up 29 points and 391 yards vs. the Washington Football Team Week 2. They were a missed Daniel Jones-Darius Slayton connection and a phantom C.J. Board holding penalty from posting 37 in that game. Jones threw for 402 yards Week 4 in come-from-behind victory over the New Orleans Saints.

Still, flashes and incremental improvements have not been nearly enough. The Giants are 3-6 and we’re pretending they are playoff contenders. Realistically, they are last in the NFC East and likely steamrolling toward a fifth straight double-digit loss season. They still have not scored 30 points in a game during Jason Garrett’s 26 games as offensive coordinator.

What has gone wrong? Can it change over the final eight games, beginning Monday night vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Let’s take a look.

Missing, or limited, playmakers

Injuries are part of the deal in the NFL. Still, the Giants’ playmakers have missed an extraordinary number of games.

  • Golladay missed three games with a knee injury, and admittedly played at less than full strength Week 9 vs. the Las Vegas Raiders. He also missed almost all of training camp and the preseason with a hamstring injury.
  • Saquon Barkley has missed four games with an ankle injury.
  • Sterling Shepard will miss his fifth game of the season on Monday with his third injury of the season.
  • Toney has missed only one game. He barely practiced before the season began, though, first because of COVID-19 and then because of a hamstring injury.
  • Evan Engram has missed two games; Darius Slayton and John Ross have each missed three; Backups C.J. Board and Dante Pettis are on IR and out for the season.

If you somehow don’t understand that the accumulation of those injuries matter, the Dallas Cowboys’ 19-9 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday should have provided an example. Dallas played without star receiver Amari Cooper and star left tackle Tyron Smith (we will get to the offensive line later) and lost star receiver CeeDee Lamb during the game. The result? The first time all season they have scored in single digits.

The Giants are expected to get Barkley back Monday night. Golladay and Toney should be at or close to 100 percent following the bye week. The only missing piece will be Shepard, who has already been ruled out.

“When we’re at full strength it’s very exciting I feel like. So, we’ve just got to see how it all shakes out Monday,” Golladay said last week. “I mean, when we had all of us at almost full strength I would say – I think that was the Saints game – I feel like we played pretty well.”

Garrett is looking forward to having more top playmakers at his disposal.

“It’s fun to get them all back and hopefully we’ll get more and more healthy as a group as we go forward,” Garrett said. “I think when we do, I think those combinations of guys give us a good chance to have some success on offense.”

The biggest piece could be the return of Barkley. As well as Devontae Booker and Elijhaa Penny have played, they can’t do the spectacular things a full-strength Barkley has done in the past.

“He’s just a great football player. I’ve told you this before, I was on the other side of this for a couple of years against him and he’s one of those players that can just really impact a game,” Garrett said. “There’s a lot of two-yard runs, three-yard runs, four-yard runs, non-descript plays and then it’s a 68-yard touchdown on a screen or somehow he gets outside, breaks a tackle and gets to the edge and he can be impactful. We saw that in New Orleans. He made those kinds of plays for us. He’s a hell of a football player.”

If Barkley does suit up Monday night, he will be playing for only the eighth time in the last 26 games.

Can Barkley, Golladay and the rest of the Giants’ playmakers remain healthy beyond Monday night? And, how much will all of the missed game and practice time impact what the Giants are able to do offensively?

“You do miss games, you do kind of fall out of rhythm a little bit. Especially when you’re not playing, you’re not running,” Golladay said. “All of that plays a role.”

Offensive line

We will never know if the Giants’ offensive line plan would have worked. It never had a chance. Matt Peart lost the right tackle job to Nate Solder. Shane Lemieux lasted 17 snaps. Nick Gates played 74 snaps and didn’t make it to halftime of Week 2. Andrew Thomas has missed four of the last five games.

The Giants have started seven offensive line combinations and used 11 offensive linemen. They get little push in the run game, averaging 3.9 yards per rush (25th) in the league. The Giants are giving up 2.22 sacks per game, down from 3.125 a year ago. They have, though, sacrificed any semblance of downfield passing attack to protect Jones. After averaging 7.54 or air yards per attempt in each of the Giants’ first five games, Jones hasn’t reach 7 yards per attempt in any of the last four games.

Garrett doesn’t even try to pretend that the play-calling has not been affected by the weakness of the offensive line.

“That’s obviously a big part of it. Football starts upfront in the run game and in the pass game. It’s about offensive and defensive linemen. That’s what it is. The best teams have built their teams that way. That goes back through history. The game is won on the line of scrimmage,” Garrett said.”We’ve had some guys, different combinations of guys playing and it’s our job to try to create an environment where they can have some success. Again, I think those guys have embraced it. It applies to the run game. It applies to the pass game and that’s what we try to do each week to give ourselves a chance against the team we’re playing.”

The Giants could get Thomas back Monday night. Before he suffered separate foot and ankle injuries, the 22-year-old Thomas was looking like the player the Giants expected him to be when they selected him No. 4 overall a year ago.

“I think we’ve all seen his progression,” Garrett said. “He’s going to be a hell of a football player for a long time.”

Unfortunately, the Giants can’t currently do anything about the interior of their line. Center Billy Price, left guard Matt Skura and pretty much anyone else the Giants can currently put in at those two spots are backups playing too many snaps. Will Hernandez has continued to disappoint, at this point compiling the lowest overall Pro Football Focus grade of his career.

“It’s just part of where we are. We’re trying to rebuild a team and that’s a process. It was a process for us in Dallas. At different times, you have to make the decisions and say, ‘OK, we’ve got to allocate this resource because this is important to us,’ and we did that time and time again and all of a sudden, you built a really powerful, strong offensive line that’s still going today,” Garrett said. “They’re really good players, cornerstone players. So that’s what you have to do. In the meantime, you have to somehow, some way create an environment with the guys you have. The guys that we have here have done a hell of a job coming to work every day, practicing, doing everything they can to compete as well as they can on Sundays. We love that as coaches. We love the group of guys we’re coaching.”

Love them or not, the current group isn’t good enough to be an asset to the offense.

Red zone inefficiency

The Giants are currently the worst red zone offense in football. With just 11 touchdowns in 25 red zone trips they scored red zone touchdowns a league-worst 44 percent of the time. That’s 15.8 percent below league average entering Week 11. Yes, they have converted four of eight the last three games, but that is still below league average.

“I think it’s all the stuff we’ve been talking about. It’s about winning upfront in the running game to have some success in the running game to create some matchups that you like in the passing game, and then just the efficiency down there to be able to throw and catch and make the plays we need to make,” Garrett said. “I do think we’ve made progress over the course of the season. Last week I think we were 0-for-2 in the red zone, but there were kind of third downs that were a little bit out. But I think there’s been a trend upward here the last month. I think we’ve been two out of three scoring touchdowns in the last four games, so that’s better and better and better. It comes down to us trying to put our players in a great position and then executing.”

Inability to run consistently has been a handicap, and that is part of the weakness of the offensive line. Passing windows can be much narrower in the constricted space of the red zone, and good teams can depend on their offensive line to get them a yard or two more often than not when they need it. The Giants can’t.

By my count, I have the Giants 19 of 35 passing in the red zone with four touchdowns. Nine of those targets have gone to Shepard, who has six catches but no touchdowns. Rudolph has eight targets with three catches and a TD.

The biggest issue is that Golladay has only one red zone target. Tight end Evan Engram has only three, with one catch for a touchdown. Kaden Smith has none. The 6-foot-6, 222-pound Collin Johnson has only one red zone target.

No doubt the Giants need to run the ball better in the red zone, but there is a big question as to whether or not they can. The other thing they need to do is make better use of Golladay and other big-bodied targets in that area of the field.

Not bold enough

We have been over this topic several times, and my feelings are well known. Head coach Joe Judge needs to be bolder in his decision-making. You can’t score touchdowns when you don’t try. The Giants didn’t try after James Bradberry’s interception put them at the Washington 20-yard line in the closing minutes of that game. They didn’t try on fourth-and-short inside the Atlanta 40-yard line in Week 3. They didn’t try on fourth-and-2 at the Kansas City 5-yard line in Week 8.

Entering Week 11, Edj Sports ranked Judge 30th among head coaches in in-game decision-making. Plain and simple, Judge needs to shed his conservative cloth and be bolder.

Final thoughts

It is still hard to know what Jones can be. I think he is a capable NFL quarterback, maybe top half of the league among starters. He doesn’t have the numbers to back up that assertion. Halfway through his third season, the Giants still haven’t surrounded him with a supporting cast that gives him a full opportunity to put up those numbers.

There is always the question of Garrett’s future, and the final eight games should tell us a great deal about that. If the Giants can stay healthy, even with the weakness of the offensive line, can they function like a league average or slightly better offense? If they can’t, they might decide it’s time to see if Freddie Kitchens can do better than Garrett.

In the end, league average — a stretch right around 25 points per game — is probably what you would like to see. With the playmakers they have, provided the Giants have reasonable health over the final eight games, they should be able to do that despite working around the inadequacies of the offensive line.