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Can a team with subpar receivers make the playoffs?

Usually not, but there are some interesting exceptions that may be relevant to the 2022 Giants

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Syndication: Florida Times-Union
Marcus Johnson failing to make a catch against the Jacksonville Jaguars
Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Unio / USA TODAY NETWORK

The 2022 New York Giants have been the surprise team of the NFL, putting together a 6-2 record and finding themselves in good position to pursue a playoff berth when they return from their bye week. The fact that they have done this despite an anemic passing game is all the more surprising. The Giants rank 29th in Pro Football Focus team receiving grade thus far. The teams ranking near them all have losing records, a combination of teams that were expected to be bad and others that were expected to be good but have disappointed:

Data courtesy of Pro Football Focus

The top teams in receiving grade, by contrast, consist of the league’s elite Super Bowl contenders and other likely or possible playoff teams:

Data courtesy of Pro Football Focus

PFF grades are intended to reflect the performance of the individual players, so the 29th place ranking above is specifically an indictment of the Giants’ receivers rather than their quarterback, offensive line play, play calling, or quality of opposing defenses. According to Pro Football Reference, the Giants are 30th in passing yards (and one of the two teams behind them, the Tennessee Titans, has played one fewer game). Their 1,273 yards to date projects to only 2,705 yards for the season. The Giants are tied for fourth in the NFL with 13 dropped passes. That by itself is not damning - the Miami Dolphins, leading the league with 17 drops, also lead in receiving yardage with their highlight-reel wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. But in the Giants’ case it is symptomatic of a group viewed by many fans as currently consisting of not-yet’s (Wan’Dale Robinson), has-beens (Kenny Golladay, Darius Slayton), and never-were’s (Marcus Johnson, Richie James, David Sills).

Despite this, General Manager Joe Schoen did not add any wide receivers before Tuesday’s trade deadline passed. In fact he did the opposite, giving up Kadarius Toney last week for draft picks and making the wide receiver room even thinner. Many fans were understanding of the long-term view Schoen is taking. Others felt that he was sacrificing the Giants’ chances to get to the playoffs and make a deep run this year.

So the question is: In the modern, passing-driven NFL, can a team make the playoffs with subpar receivers?

Gone and soon forgotten

Mostly, the answer is no. In the past five seasons, only six teams out of the 40 that finished in the bottom 25 percent of PFF receiving grade got to the post-season. A few of them were the type of team fans fear the receiver-depleted Giants will be if they do make the playoffs: One and done, nice-try teams that had a cup of coffee and are barely remembered today:

  • The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers: A washed-up Ben Roethlisberger limping to the end of his career was given a gift playoff game when the Los Angeles Chargers couldn’t preserve an overtime tie against the Las Vegas Raiders that would have put both teams in the playoffs. The Steelers were drummed out of the playoffs by the Kansas City Chiefs, 42-21.
  • The 2020 Washington Football Team: The default champions of the pandemic year “NFC Least,” a 7-9 team that got into the playoffs by defeating a Philadelphia Eagles team that put the last half of its game against them into the hands of Nate Sudfeld. The WFT, led by Taylor Heinecke, did give the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a good fight before succumbing to the eventual Super Bowl champions, 31-23.
  • The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 12-4 despite their lack of a passing game under an aging Roethlisberger and were primed for a deep playoff run. Then the Cleveland Browns ambushed them 28-0 in the first quarter and eventually won 48-37. Roethlisberger did finish with 501 passing yards but on 47 for 68 passing and with four interceptions.

Today these franchises are in relatively poor shape. They did not build on their playoff appearances and instead regressed. Pittsburgh has a young quarterback but does not know if he is the answer, and they just traded one of their best receivers. Washington has an impressive set of young receivers now but is most likely in “quarterback hell.” Both could be tales of caution for the Giants, who have not yet determined their long-term quarterback plans and have just traded their potentially most dangerous receiver for draft picks. But the other three examples may be of more direct interest to the Giants’ future, for different reasons.

The 2017 Buffalo Bills

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins
Tyrod Taylor in action during the Buffalo Bills’ playoff berth-clinching final game against Miami in 2017.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

A 17-year playoff drought to start the 21st century led the Buffalo Bills’ ownership to take drastic, if somewhat unusual, steps in 2017. Early that year they hired Sean McDermott as head coach but retained General Manager Doug Whaley, who conducted the 2017 draft. Then immediately after the draft they fired Whaley and replaced him with Brandon Beane. Shortly thereafter, Beane hired Joe Schoen as his assistant GM.

Beane and Schoen thus began their Buffalo careers in an unusual position - playing their first season largely with players they did not choose, without the opportunity to sign priority free agents or to conduct a draft to make things over the way they wanted, and with a new head coach they had no part in hiring either. Somehow it worked. Led by current Giants’ backup QB Tyrod Taylor, the Bills were 5-3 at the season’s midpoint but dropped to 8-7 entering the season’s last week. They beat Miami in the last game of the season to finish 9-7 but were in a scrum with three other teams to secure the final AFC playoff spot. Their prayers were answered when Cincinnati Bengals’ QB Andy Dalton threw a last-minute fourth down TD pass to defeat the Baltimore Ravens, dropping the Ravens to 9-7 and giving the Bills the final Wild Card berth on tiebreakers.

The 2017 Bills finished dead last in the NFL in PFF receiving grade. (The Ravens were 29th.) They only accumulated 2825 passing yards, only a little more than the 2022 Giants are projected to have. Here are their leading receivers:

Data courtesy of Pro Football Reference

Only one wide receiver among their top four receivers, and no one who averaged even 40 receiving yards per game. Their two most “prolific” WRs, Deonte Thompson and Zay Jones, had catch percentages of 52.9 percent and 36.5 percent, respectively.

Here are the 2022 Giants top receivers after eight games:

Data courtesy of Pro Football Reference

Team leader Darius Slayton is on track to accumulate 493 receiving yards this season projected to 17 games, a bit less than 2017 Bills’ leader, tight end Charles Clay.

The Bills lost 10-3 to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wild Card game. Jacksonville reached the AFC Championship Game and gave the New England Patriots all they could handle before losing late 24-20, so it was no disgrace for Buffalo to have gone out in the first round. Reaching the playoffs for the first time in 17 years had to be considered a tremendous accomplishment for that team and a harbinger of good things to come. Taylor had a good 2017 season, with a 74.5 PFF passing grade and only 5 interceptions despite only 14 TD passes. But Buffalo had a weak receiving corps, so that could be expected. Get a few reinforcements in the draft and free agency, and the Bills would go on to bigger and better things, right?

But we all know that is not what happened. Before and during the next draft, Beane did the following:

  • Traded Taylor to the Cleveland Browns for a 2018 third-round draft pick (which was used to draft LB Tremaine Edmunds and not to replace Taylor).
  • Moved up from No. 21 to No. 12 in the draft by trading starting left tackle Cordy Glenn, the 21st pick, and a fifth-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals; Buffalo also received a sixth-round pick.
  • During the draft, moved up to the No. 7 pick by sending the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the No. 12 pick and two second-round picks (Nos. 53 and 56).
  • Selected QB Josh Allen with the No. 7 pick.

The 2018 and 2020 Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens v Kansas City Chiefs
Ravens’ WR John Brown catching a TD pass from Lamar Jackson in 2018
Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The 2018 Ravens finished tied for 28th in PFF receiving grade, in good part because their quarterback situation was in flux. Starter Joe Flacco had a good first half of the season statistically, but the team was 4-5 and he was replaced as starter by rookie Lamar Jackson in mid-season. In 2018, the best that could be said about Jackson was that as a quarterback, he was a good runner. Despite starting seven games Jackson only passed for 1,201 yards and 6 TDs, although he partly made up for that with his 695 yards and 6 TDs rushing. There was no inkling at that time of the QB who would go on the next season to pass for 3,127 yards and 36 TDs with only 6 interceptions and become the NFL MVP. Yet the Ravens went on a run with Jackson behind center and made the playoffs at 10-6 on the strength of Jackson’s legs. They were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, though, by a Los Angeles Chargers team whose defense flummoxed the rookie QB.

In 2018 the Ravens had a more accomplished (though not elite) set of receivers than the Giants do this year despite ranking 28th in PFF’s grades:

Data courtesy of Pro Football Reference

To some extent the low ranking probably reflects the growing pains experienced by Jackson that season. In 2019, Jackson’s MVP year, the Ravens’ receivers rose to 15th in PFF grade. The receivers weren’t actually better that year statistically, with only now-elite TE Mark Andrews (852 yards) and rookie Marquise Brown (584 yards) breaking the 500-yard mark. But they didn’t have to be, with Jackson having become the focal point of the offense and taken tremendous strides as a passer (85.3 2019 PFF passing grade vs. 59.3 in 2018). The 2019 Ravens and their newfound balanced passing-rushing attack took the NFL by storm with a 14-2 record. But that record and the first round bye it afforded them did them no good - they lost their first playoff game to the Tennessee Titans in the Division Round.

In 2020 Jackson regressed a bit but still had a very good season (76.9 PFF score). His receivers however were back near the bottom of the PFF rankings (28th), though it was mostly the same set of characters:

Data courtesy of Pro Football Focus

The 2020 team, despite being less impressive on the passing side than the previous year, began 6-2, just like the 2022 Giants. They then lost three in a row to drop to 6-5 but rallied with five straight victories to finish 11-5. Unlike their predecessors they won their first playoff game against Tennessee before succumbing to a Buffalo Bills team in the next round that now featured peak Josh Allen paired with Stefon Diggs.

What does this mean for the 2022 Giants and beyond?

The Giants can absolutely make the 2022 playoffs given their 6-2 start. A New York Times playoff calculator gives them a 77 percent chance after their loss to Seattle. They have two winnable home games against Houston and Detroit after the bye, home and away games against Washington, and a home game against rudderless Indianapolis. Winning next week against Houston gives them an 84 percent chance, and beating Detroit as well would increase their chances to 90 percent. Home victories over Washington and Indianapolis get them to 93 percent. And that’s without a single victory in their four games against Philadelphia, Dallas, and Minnesota and a loss at Washington.

The precedents above also offer some hope. The 2017 Buffalo Bills, a team very much like the 2022 Giants in overall talent, were a playoff team despite having one fewer victory than today’s Giants after eight games. The 2018 Ravens had more talent but were in much worse shape than the 2022 Giants even after nine games. However, of the six teams mentioned above, only one made it past their first playoff game, the 2020 Ravens team that was much more experienced and complete than this Giants team is.

Thus, while it’s reasonable to imagine the Giants being a playoff team, it’s not realistic to imagine a deep playoff run. That having been said, there is probably only one NFC team that is considered a viable Super Bowl contender, Philadelphia, with Dallas being on the fringe.

Looking beyond 2022, the immediate question is whether Schoen will follow in Beane’s footsteps. Beane determined that Taylor was not the answer at quarterback and moved on the first time he had the chance despite the success of the 2017 season. Whether Schoen has the same taste for wheeling and dealing as his mentor, we do not know. His failure to make a deal for a receiver this week might be interpreted to mean he does not. More likely it just means he didn’t get an offer he couldn’t refuse. But just a few days earlier he gave up perhaps the most talented receiver on the Giants’ roster for 2023 draft picks. Is he positioning himself to move up in the draft for a quarterback? Or will he keep Daniel Jones a Giant?

We all know that success with Josh Allen in Buffalo took some time. The Bills had a 6-10 record in 2018 and finished dead last in receiving grade. In 2019 they went 10-6, finished 24th in receiving, and made the playoffs but were knocked out by Houston in the Wild Card Game. During this time they were in no hurry to upgrade the receiving corps. In 2018 they only drafted WRs in Rounds 6 (Ray-Ray McCloud) and 7 (Austin Proehl). In 2019 they did not draft any WRs; instead they picked up Isaiah Mackenzie on waivers in 2018 and signed free agents Cole Beasley and John Brown. But it was not until 2020 that they made their big trade for Stefon Diggs. That same year they drafted Gabriel Davis in Round 4 and Isaiah Hodgins, now a Giant, in Round 6. And the rest is history (or it will be if they win the Super Bowl this season).

The Ravens’ experience is more indirectly relevant to where the Giants currently stand. Even now the Ravens do not have one of the NFL’s great groups of wide receivers, although the receivers they have featured the last few years (including elite TE Mark Andrews) are better than anything the Giants have on their present roster. They were a playoff team for three consecutive years anyway before injuries undermined them in 2021, and by 2020 they had taken the step of advancing one round in the playoffs.

Baltimore’s coaching staff made that happen by recognizing the strengths and limitations of their QB and creating a unique offense that optimized his effectiveness. The 2022 Giants are to some extent similar - their offense has been designed to make use of Daniel Jones’ running skills as well as those of Saquon Barkley, while necessarily de-emphasizing passing. It is not known yet whether Jones can excel with a more dangerous set of receivers and a better pass protecting offensive line. How the Giants’ braintrust will answer that question is anyone’s guess.

What makes the current situation fascinating is that we are possibly at a turning point in NFL offensive philosophy. The conventional wisdom for the past decade has been that an elite QB and a quick-strike offense with explosive WRs is the only way now to win a Super Bowl. This year scoring is down, though, and it may have something to do with the two-high safety defenses that have become a popular way to limit explosive passing plays. A few teams such as the Giants and the Atlanta Falcons, though, are being successful with a creative run-oriented offense. Ted Nguyen of The Athletic suggests that the value of elite running backs like Saquon Barkley may be the league’s antidote to the two-high safety, light box defenses we are seeing more and more this season. Even the pass-happy Buffalo Bills, the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl with a QB who does it all, pass and run, just made a trade for Colts running back Nyheim Hines, formerly considered an elite back but overshadowed the past couple of years by Jonathan Taylor.

Daniel Jones is not of the caliber of Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson. But he is almost as dangerous as them as a runner. And 2022 vintage Saquon Barkley is superior to most other running backs in the league. Whether Schoen, head coach Brian Daboll, and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka are envisioning a Giants Super Bowl contender in the mold of recent elite passing QB + explosive WR teams or in a new paradigm that emphasizes the run more, we don’t know. In about six months, when we see what free agents they have signed and prospects they have drafted, we’ll find out. All Giants fans can do until then is to enjoy the ride.