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Early signs of a new Giants offensive attitude

What looked like a conservative game plan actually had subtle indicators of an attacking offense

New York Giants v Tennessee Titans
Sterling Shepard on his way to a 65-yard touchdown Sunday vs. the Tennessee Titans
Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

It’s not news that the New York Giants ran a very traditional, conservative offense in 2021: Lots of short passes, lots of beat-your-man isolation routes rather than route combinations that put defenders into conflict, very little pre-snap motion, lots of runs vs. passes compared to most other NFL teams in today’s pass-happy NFL.

The hiring of Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka presumably heralded the arrival of a more modern offensive philosophy based more on the pass than the run. You wouldn’t have known it at first glance this past Sunday. The Giants’ offense ran only 26 pass plays (21 passes, most of them short, plus five sacks of Daniel Jones) and 32 rushing plays, which works out to 45 percent passes. Over a full season that would have placed the Giants dead last in the NFL in 2021, according to Sharp Football Stats, which reports that no team passed less than 50 percent of the time last season.

This is only one game, of course. It was a day when the Giants offensive line was run blocking pretty well and Saquon Barkley looked like his 2018 self. In addition, Kafka increasingly used the run-pass option (RPO) as the game went on to counter the Titans’ pass rush, so part of that 26-32 pass-run split may have been due to decisions that Jones made after the snap.

Nonetheless, the aggressive offensive philosophy of Daboll and Kafka compared to their predecessors showed up in other more subtle ways, and not just the decision to go for two at the end of the game. Consider this stat from Warren Sharp for the 2021 season:

A quick look at the box scores for the first halves of 2021 games suggests that the statistic shown above was not the result of Jones being injured during the last six games. The Joe Judge/Jason Garrett/Freddie Kitchens regime just believed that after an unsuccessful first down play, the correct strategy is to run the ball, get a few yards, and make the third down conversion easier.

This past Sunday, the Giants had three unsuccessful first down plays that left them with 10 or more yards to go on second down in the first three quarters. Here are those plays, from the ESPN game summary:

9:48, 1st quarter:
First down, Jones incomplete pass short right to Shepard
Second down, Jones pass to Barkley for 6 yards

4:30, 1st quarter:
First down, Jones sacked for 5 yard loss
Second down, Jones sacked for 5 yard loss

9:28, 3rd quarter:
First down, Barkley run for 1 yard loss
Second down, Jones pass to Shepard for 65 yards and TD

(For the record, the Giants had another unsuccessful first down play in the fourth quarter and Kafka called a second down pass then also.) It’s a small sample, but it suggests that the Daboll-Kafka regime embraces the tenet of modern offensive philosophy that second down is the time to try to get the first down, rather than when the offense’s backs are against the wall on third down.

That is a no-brainer when you’re calling plays for a Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen offense. It’s interesting to see them apparently embracing it for a Daniel Jones-led offense. Here is an interesting chart from Timo Riske of Pro Football Focus from Sunday’s games (Seattle and Denver, who played Monday night, are not included):

The bad news is that the Giants were not an offensive juggernaut on Sunday (you already knew that), converting to a new series of downs only 69 percent of the time, 20th out of 30 teams. But they were among the league leaders at converting after two downs at 58 percent, trailing only four other teams. Kafka called plays to try to get the first down quickly. He fared poorly on first down (only 19 percent conversion, but eight teams were worse), but did an excellent job on second down, converting 39 percent on that down alone, trailing only the Kansas City Chiefs. The Giants were among the poorest teams on third down, but overall the chart indicates an aggressive offensive philosophy.

Perhaps Kafka will get more pass-happy as the season progresses. Here is another chart from Riske, ranking the pass defenses that each NFL team will face for the rest of the season after Week 1:

Image from Timo Riske/Twitter

This chart uses the previous season’s information to predict the future, and as such does not account for any defensive improvements teams made during the off-season. But it reflects the Giants’ easy schedule, which includes many teams whose defenses were poor last year. Don’t expect the Greatest Show on Field Turf, but an attacking pass offense combined with a Saquon Barkley-led running game could at least make the 2022 season fun to watch. It did last Sunday.