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‘Things I think:’ No, it’s not alright, and other thoughts about the 0-3 Giants

Jason Garrett, fourth down decisions, offensive line, more

Atlanta Falcons v New York Giants Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

As New York Giants head coach Joe Judge stepped down from the podium Sunday night after his team fell to 0-3 with a second straight last-second loss in a game it should have won, the coach sought to soothe the room after answering a slew of questions about what was wrong and how it could be fixed.

“We’re gonna be alright, guys,” he said. “Alright? We’re gonna be alright.”

Well ...

Maybe that’s the case. The problem is there is currently zero evidence to back that up. Currently, the Giants are definitely not alright. Nothing about the start of the 2021 season has been alright.

The Giants have gone 0-3 in the softest three-game stretch they will see this season.

They weren’t truly competitive against the Denver Broncos in Week 1. That, to be honest, is a game where I felt the lack of practice and game reps for so many key players throughout training camp and the preseason left the Giants unprepared to play.

The last two weeks were losses in game that should have been won to teams that, in my view, were not as good as the Giants.

The Giants made costly mistake after costly mistake in both games, leading to both lost points for their offense and added points for their opponents. The Giants are fourth in the league in penalties against. They have wasted several timeouts, usually because of some manor of confusion. They have been unable to get critical stops on defense, too often looking utterly helpless on defense when it mattered most. The Giants have yet to surrender a first-quarter point this year. They are, though, 25th in the league in fourth-quarter defense, giving up an average 14.3 points in the final 15 minutes. There have been far too many conservative decisions.

Most distressingly, in my view, is that the Giants have been outcoached. Nick Falato put Judge is the ‘losers’ column in his weekly league-wide ‘Winners and Losers’ post, and you won’t get an argument from me.

Nothing that has happened so far this season has been alright. Nor has any of it been a good look for Judge and his staff. Judge is a coach who preaches discipline — loudly and aggressively — yet coaches what has thus far been an undisciplined, mistake-prone team. We will talk more about his fourth-down decision-making, but he is a young head coach who appears to ignore current analytics and treats fourth down in an old-fashioned manner.

Maybe things will be alright. For this season to be alright, though, progress on the field has to be shown. Co-owner John Mara has been blunt that it’s time to win some games. I would define ‘alright’ by getting to at least eight or nine victories. That would mean the Giants would have to go at least 8-6 the rest of the way.

Does anyone have confidence they can do that? Off what we have seen thus far, I know I don’t.

About those fourth down decisions

I was critical of Judge’s lack of aggression on fourth down against Washington, pointing to data that showed going for first downs on two occasions inside the Washington 40-yard line would have increased the Giants’ chances of winning.

Against Atlanta on Sunday, Judge chose to punt on fourth-and-3 at the Atlanta 39-yard line while trailing 7-6 midway through the third quarter.

Judge was asked on Monday to explain his fourth down decision making process.

“Do we have people talking to me? Yeah, I’ve got people that I reference up top in terms of some situational awareness, but I make the decisions. In terms of that fourth-and-four that we punted the ball down there, it was simple. I wanted to make sure we maintained the field position at that point,” Judge said. “Did I want to be aggressive and go for it on offense? Yeah, there’s an opportunity to go ahead and push it, but then in terms of knowing the flow of the game and how your defense at that point is playing – I had confidence to go ahead and put those guys down there inside their 10-yard line and we ended up putting them down there inside the five-yard line. Then, play to your defense.

“At that point in the game, not only was it field position, there was a strong wind blowing into that end zone, so even if you have to punt coming out of that end zone – and we had to in the first half – you’re not going to get much for the coverage game. You’re almost ensured of playing on a short field if you can go ahead and hold them on defense. My thought process on that fourth down was go ahead and make sure we maintain the field position and give ourselves an opportunity to get seven off that.”

The analytics show that Judge once again made the wrong call.

Edj Sports called Judge’s decision one of the five worst coaching decisions of Week 3.

Joe Judge has struggled with fourth down decision making as a head coach and Week 3 was no different. Trailing by one just over halfway through the third quarter, the Giants faced fourth-and-3 at the Falcons’ 39-yard line. Judge decided to send out his punt team, giving New York 5.4 percent less chance to win vs. going for it. Even a long field goal attempt would have given the Giants 1.2 percent greater chance to win. A successful conversion would have increased their win probability to 68.4 percent from 61.2 percent, while a failed attempt would have dropped them to 50.1 percent, still very much in the game. The required success rate on the fourth-and-3 GO attempt is around just 39 percent, while a team would be expected to convert this a little over 50 percent of the time.

In general, aggression tends to be rewarded. Playing passively and hoping for an opportunity later does not. After the Giants punted, Atlanta moved from the 5-yard line to the 37 before punting. The Giants gained nothing in terms of field position or points, and lost more than three minutes off the clock.

I have previously pointed out that Judge has been one of the league’s most conservative coaches in terms of fourth down decision making. That has to change.

About Jason Garrett

The Giants are coming off a game in which they scored 14 points against a team that had given up 80 over two game, albeit 14 of those came on Pick 6’s thrown by Matt Ryan. Still, by itself the Atlanta defense had given up 33.0 points per game thru two weeks.

The Giants are 0-3. They are averaging 18.7 points, 24th in the league. They have, basically, had one excellent offensive game and two poor ones.

It is easy, and understandable, for fans to call for Garrett’s head, to call for him to be the sacrificial lamb. Sure, that would show that something is being done about the Giants’ awful start.

Would it, though, really solve anything for this season?

Yes, the Giants are 28th in the league in yards after catch. Yes, the amount of times Giants’ receivers catch the ball standing still or coming back to it makes me crazy. Yes, the timing of some play calls makes me scratch my head. Yes, the inability to fully integrate Kadarius Toney into the offense — especially Sunday with Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard hurt — tests my patience.

Garrett, though, doesn’t block. He doesn’t run or catch. He doesn’t throw — well, he throws a lot but none of it counts in games. He doesn’t make in-game decisions regarding whether to be conservative or aggressive, the head coach does.

If the Giants continue to lose games and the offense continues to not put up enough points, changes certainly need to be made. The biggest one that could be made, and probably would be made, is Freddie Kitchens taking over play-calling duties from Garrett.

Would that, though, really fix anything? Kitchens had a successful half-season as offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns in 2018, then got fired after one miserable season as Browns’ head coach. His offense, despite having Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and Baker Mayfield, averaged 20.9 points per game.

Besides, you can’t overhaul an entire offense mid-stream and install a new scheme. What the Giants would have is Kitchens calling the plays in Garrett’s offense, which is awkward.

There has been speculation that Kitchens, who has a long relationship with Judge, has really been offensive coordinator in waiting for the Giants. That has especially been true since Judge moved him from tight ends coach to senior offensive assistant for this season.

If the Giants continue to struggle, no one will be surprised when or if the Garrett/Kitchens domino falls. Will it work? Nobody knows.

One thing I do know is that if Judge plays that card and it doesn’t work, the bulls-eye of blame points closer to him.

Interior offensive line jigsaw puzzle

From the time it became obvious that the Giants were planning to go with a young, untested offensive line full of players they had drafted or signed and developed, it has been acknowledged that this was the biggest gamble the organization was taking entering the 2021 season.

Would it have worked? We will never know.

Two-fifths of that planned offensive line — center Nick Gates and left guard Shane Lemieux — is on IR. The Giants got 17 snaps out of Lemieux and 74 out of Gates. Second-year offensive tackle Matt Peart, counted on to bookend Andrew Thomas, lost that job to Nate Solder, who played terribly in 2019, didn’t play last season and hasn’t played right tackle since 2011.

The Giants also watched depth players Zach Fulton and Joe Looney retire. Second-year guard Kyle Murphy is also on season-ending IR.

They have, as every Giants fans knows, been left scrambling. Billy Price and Ben Bredeson, now starting, were both traded for at the beginning of the season. Matt Skura and now Wes Martin have been added as depth.

I am not going to criticize the Giants for letting guard Kevin Zeitler go. That was a cap move that had to be made, and Zeitler was coming off the worst season of his career. I would rather let a player go a year too early than a year too late.

In retrospect, though, it is absolutely fair to be critical of the Giants for not adding at least one offensive lineman in the draft.

Some want to crush the Giants for not staying at No. 11 and selecting Rashawn Slater, who went 13th and has played exceptionally well for the Los Angeles Chargers. I loved the trade down, though we can argue about the Kadarius Toney pick.

Some want to crush the Giants for not being the team that took a chance on Trey Smith despite his health concerns. A early-round talent, Smith went to the Kansas City Chiefs in Round 6 and is now starting. Hindsight is 20/20, but I can’t go there. Thirty other teams wouldn’t take the Smith risk, either.

Where I’m focused is the third and fourth rounds, where the Giants got cornerback Aaron Robinson and edge defender Elerson Smith. One or both might end up quality players, but neither has even been on the active roster yet.

The Giants traded up from 76 to 71 to take Robinson. Darnay Holmes’ inconsistent playing time (just one snap vs. Atlanta) tells you why. The Giants wanted an upgrade there.

Still, here is the list of interior offensive linemen the Giants left on the board when they took Robinson:

I was a big Davis fan before the draft. Green is starting at center for the Steelers. Cleveland has played 58 snaps in two games. Meinerz played 25 snaps in Week 3. One of them would have looked nice as a Giant.

In Round 4, the Green Bay Packers took guard Royce Newman 26 picks after the Giants took Smith. He is starting for them.

Don’t blame any of this on Andrew Thomas

Picked No. 4 overall by the Giants a year ago, Thomas had a miserable rookie season that had many questioning the wisdom of that pick. Everyone who follows the Giants knows that.

Well, don’t look now but Thomas has been outstanding through three games.

Among 26 qualifying offensive tackles, Thomas had the seventh-highest Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade (73.9). Thomas has given up five pressures in 134 pass-blocking snaps, and his 98.0 pass-blocking efficiency percentage is eighth among 26 tackles. As a run blocker, Thomas has thus far graded 32nd among 57 qualifying tackles.

I think the 22-year-old is going to be just fine.