We like to think of a “rebuilding” process that takes place on bad teams. Sometimes it involves changing general managers, sometimes it means changing head coaches, and almost always it means acquiring new players to address weaknesses at certain positions.
We also have a mental model of how that is supposed to play out. A bad team with new leadership gradually improves over a year or two, then breaks through to make the playoffs, then makes a deep playoff run, then finally makes and/or wins a Super Bowl. Once that happens, the team remains a contender for years. They usually make the playoffs and often advance deep in the postseason even when they don’t win it all.
The Kansas City Chiefs are a great example. After having losing records five times in six years, they hired Andy Reid as head coach and traded for quarterback Alex Smith. Think the Giants’ first-year turnaround under Brian Daboll is amazing? The Chiefs went from 2-14 in 2012, Reid’s first year, to 11-5 and the playoffs in 2013, losing the Wild Card game. In 2014 they missed the playoffs but were still 9-7. Since then, Kansas City has had a winning record and been a playoff team every year. Twice in the 2015-2017 seasons they lost their first playoff game, and the other time they won once before being eliminated. Then Patrick Mahomes became the starter in 2018. Since then they have made the Conference Championship twice and made the Super Bowl twice, winning once.
Several other teams, e.g., the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, have made the playoffs most years during the 21st Century (14 times for Pittsburgh, 16 times for Green Bay), often advanced past the first round, and occasionally won it all. The 1980s Giants under Bill Parcells were something like that for a little while, making the playoffs five times in seven years, getting past the first round all but one time, and winning the Super Bowl twice. You don’t need to be the Belichick-Brady era Patriots to be a successful franchise.
Are the Giants a successful NFL franchise?
The mental model described above hasn’t applied to the New York Giants for the past two decades. On the surface the Giants appear to be one of the better NFL franchises of the 21st Century, reaching the Super Bowl in the 2000 season and winning it all in 2007 and 2011. Fans of the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, long-time franchises who have never reached the Super Bowl, would gladly take that record of success. The Dallas Cowboys haven’t been to a Super Bowl since 1995, the Washington Commanders not since 1991.
Look closer, though. In the 21st Century the Giants have been like the little girl who had a little curl in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem: When they were good, they were very good indeed. But when they were bad they were horrid (or at least mediocre):
The Giants have only made the playoffs eight times and only won four East Division titles in 23 years despite three Super Bowl appearances. In two of those Division title years they were eliminated in their first playoff game. It’s been all or nothing at all (H/T to Frank Sinatra):
- The 12-4 Kerry Collins-led 2000 Giants under Jim Fassel were a worthy Super Bowl team but they ran into the all-time great Ravens’ defense. The future looked bright, but the Giants were up-and-down after that: 7-9, 10-6, and then 4-12 in 2001-2003, ending the Fassel regime. Their one playoff appearance was the embarrassing Wild Card game in San Francisco in which the Giants blew a 38-14 lead late in the third quarter to lose 39-38.
- With the arrival of Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning in 2004, fans hoped good times were ahead. Progress occurred but slowly. The Giants went 6-10 in 2004 and Manning was terrible when he took over for Kurt Warner as starter. They won the Division title at 11-5 in 2005 but were shut out at home in their first playoff game by Carolina, 23-0. In 2006 the Giants regressed to 8-8 but snuck into the playoffs via a four-way Wild Card tiebreaker. It was for naught, though, as they lost to the Eagles on a last-second field goal, 23-20.
- The 2007 Giants are remembered for Manning’s playoff heroics and the huge upset of the previously undefeated Patriots. The regular season was anything but ideal, though. That team had a great defense but an inconsistent offense. By Week 12, people were still questioning whether Manning, in his fourth year as Giants’ QB (like another QB we know), was “the guy.” That week the Giants lost at home to the Vikings, the worst defense in the NFL, 41-17. Minnesota intercepted Manning four times, three of them pick-sixes. The New York Times account of the game said:
The result is sure to fuel the omnipresent discussions about Manning’s ability to carry the Giants (7-4) and rekindle doubts about the Giants’ ability to finish a season strongly.
- The 2008 Giants considered themselves to be much better than the 2007 Super Bowl champions, with an unstoppable rushing game and dangerous passing game. Then Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself, the Giants staggered to the finish line with their suddenly unimpressive offense, and they were taken down at home by the Eagles in their first playoff game, 23-11.
- In 2009 the Giants had a hangover from their desultory 2008 finish and without Burress dropped to 8-8. In 2010, though, they rebounded to 10-6, tying for the Division title but losing on tiebreakers to the Eagles and being denied the Wild Card by two other teams with the same record. That was bad luck, and in 2011 the Giants had good luck. They won the Division with only a 9-7 record, and with a great offense and below-average defense made another improbable run to a Super Bowl title. It seemed like the Giants were in a golden era, but it was fools gold. In 2012, they were 9-7 but missed the playoffs. Then three consecutive losing years, and Tom Coughlin was gone. Then, speaking of fools gold, 11-5 and another playoff berth under new hotshot head coach Ben McAdoo in 2016 before the Giants’ boat sank and remained submerged until the surprising 2022 season.
Lessons to be learned
The Giants, to everyone’s surprise, are in the playoffs in the first year of a rebuild. Will they be one-and-done, one-year wonders like some of their predecessor playoff teams of the 21st Century? Or will this be the first step to becoming a sustainable contender in the mold of the Chiefs, Steelers, and Packers?
To answer that we must ask: Why did the early 21st Century Giants never become a consistently good team? The failures of the past decade are easily attributed to poor head coaching selections and poor personnel decisions by general managers. The Giants seem to have learned those lessons in spades in 2022.
The inconsistency of the Giants from year to year before that is harder to understand. It wasn’t the fault of the coaching. I wouldn’t put either Jim Fassel or Tom Coughlin on a list of all-time great coaches. But Fassel knew how to motivate his players when the team hit a rough stretch in 2000 and got them to the Super Bowl. And Coughlin, after almost losing the team with his rules and authoritarian style, began listening to his players via a leadership team he created and got two incredible Super Bowl victories out of them.
It wasn’t the quarterbacks. Kerry Collins wasn’t an all-time great, but he passed for 40,922 yards and made two Pro Bowls in his career. Eli Manning, to most Giants fans, will be a Hall of Famer, and he has two rings to support his case.
It wasn’t the running backs. The Giants had Tiki Barber, Brandon Jacobs, and Ahmad Bradshaw from 2000 through 2012, with two of them sometimes there at the same time. David Wilson was next in line but suffered a career-ending injury. The offensive line was generally pretty good as well, though it too was eventually decimated by injuries (e.g., Chris Snee, Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg). It wasn’t the defensive line. Some combination of Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul were there during these years and beyond. The Giants, with a tradition of strong linebackers from the Harry Carson - Lawrence Taylor - Carl Banks era, usually had a good linebacking corps from 2000 onward including Jessie Armstead, Michael Barrow, Antonio Pierce, and Michael Boley.
The receiver situation was somewhat different. For a while the Giants had a nice tandem in Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard, in addition to a great receiving tight end in Jeremy Shockey. In 2005 Plaxico Burress was added. But by 2008, Toomer was nearing the end, the oft-injured and difficult personality Shockey was gone, and once Burress was injured, the Giants found out that Toomer and Steve Smith, a fine receiver for a few years, couldn’t compensate by themselves against good defenses. It wasn’t until Hakeem Nicks was drafted and Victor Cruz arrived out of nowhere that the Giants once again had a top flight passing attack. Even then, without Mario Manningham as WR3 making the second greatest catch in Super Bowl history, the Giants don’t win in 2011. Nicks and Cruz had shortened careers though due to injuries. For one season (2016) the Giants had Odell Beckham Jr., Cruz, and rookie Sterling Shepard together, and coincidentally the Giants made the playoffs that year, though mostly due to their defense.
The Giants’ real weakness, though, has been at defensive back. During the early Fassel years Jason Sehorn was a star. Then Fassel decided to have him return kickoffs, and in a pre-season game in 1998 he tore two ligaments. He returned but was never the same, giving up the first TD of the Super Bowl against the Ravens to Brandon Stokley. Since then the Giants have had several defensive backs who performed well for brief periods of time (e.g., Corey Webster, Aaron Ross), others who had bright futures but succumbed to injuries (Terrell Thomas, Kenny Phillips), imported veterans who eventually aged out or flamed out (Antrel Rolle, Janoris Jenkins), and one who was priced out by the Giants’ salary cap situation (James Bradberry). But never have they had a long-term shutdown cornerback.
The present Giants may be set at quarterback and running back (if they re-sign). They have quality across the defensive line. The offensive line is not there yet but is improving, though more help is needed. The wide receivers have performed well under the circumstances, but sooner or later in the playoffs we can expect them to be exposed by a team with great defensive backs. The Giants absolutely need to draft a potential alpha wide receiver in the Plaxico Burress or Hakeem Nicks mold. They have one good CB who should not be playing special teams anymore (ask Jason Sehorn), but beyond Adoree’ Jackson are a series of question marks, and even Jackson may be best served by moving back to CB2 and having the Giants draft a CB1 who can shut down WR1s in man coverage. Obviously the Giants need to address linebacker as well - if they play the 49ers in the playoffs, we will be reminded vividly of what good linebackers can do for a defense.
Most of all, though, the Giants are a very shallow team with numerous single-point failures. If Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, Dexter Lawrence, or Andrew Thomas go down, the dropoff to the next level will be great. Part of Joe Schoen’s job over the next 2-3 years will be to build depth so that the inevitable serious injuries do not derail a season or even an era, as has happened to the Giants several times in the past two decades. That’s why although the Giants need to address CB, WR, ILB, and IOL in the off-season, I will not be upset at all if Schoen uses relatively high (Day 2) draft picks in 2023 or 2024 on a QB, a RB, an IDL, or an OT if the right player drops to them when it’s their turn to pick. Building the middle of the Giants roster, even at positions of strength, is part of the formula for sustained success.