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I’m shoving my chips to the middle of the table

The Giants are going to the playoffs

New Yoek Giants’ coach Jim Fassel speaks after a practice se Photo by Mike Albans/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

There. I said it. I’m opening myself up to unimaginable ridicule (that is, beyond the normal amount of ridicule I get). The late New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel guaranteed that the Giants were going to make the playoffs in 2000 after the team had lost two consecutive home games, and didn’t play well in doing so, in dropping to 7-4. That was a high-stakes gambit by Fassel...but it worked. Amazingly, Fassel’s team responded to this and ran the table the last five games to indeed make the playoffs, and they went all the way to the Super Bowl before losing to the all-time great Baltimore Ravens’ defense.

This Giants team is not going to the Super Bowl. They are nowhere near as good as that 2000 Giants team. They are, however, going to make the playoffs against all odds. Everyone is predicting just the opposite, that this team will implode and revive memories of the 2017 disaster. People are now seriously contemplating the possibility that the Giants could win the Caleb Williams sweepstakes, and barring that, will draft high enough to grab Drake Maye, Bo Nix, Michael Penix Jr., J.J. McCarthy, Shedeur Sanders, or some other quarterback.

I’m here to tell you that the only one of those quarterbacks the Giants may draft will be whichever one drops to Round 3, and only as insurance for Daniel Jones, who will be entrenched as the Giants’ franchise quarterback by January. How do I know this? Read on.

The league has not figured out Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka

There is a narrative out there that says that the Giants’ 2022 season was fool’s gold. They made hay early in the season with innovative play designs that hid their weaknesses and allowed them to squeak past their opponents, many of whom were supposedly good teams who were actually having a down year. They built up a 6-1 cushion, and then the league had enough film of them to figure them out, and they staggered to the finish line 9-7-1. Their 3-6-1 record after a close win in Jacksonville showed us the true Giants team, and this year we are seeing that. The jig is up. Daboll may go the way of Ben McAdoo. Mike Kafka will not be getting any head coach interviews next off-season. Wink Martindale will really be able to sleep like a baby because he’ll be out of a job.

That isn’t really true. What is partly true is that the Giants played better teams after their 6-1 start than before - an elite Eagles team twice, a final eight team in Dallas, and games against playoff teams Seattle and Minnesota plus an up-and-coming Detroit team.

What is more true, though, is that the Giants by Week 8 were decimated by injuries:

Courtesy of Pro Football Reference

Look at how the injuries began to pile up toward the end of the Giants’ early 6-1 run: Daniel Bellinger, Ben Bredeson, Cor’Dale Flott, Tony Jefferson, Evan Neal, Azeez Ojulari, Aaron Robinson, Sterling Shepard, Nick Williams. Add in Wan’Dale Robinson early during the losing streak. A roster that was being built out of the ashes of the Dave Gettleman regime did not have the depth to withstand that much attrition once the tougher part of their schedule came up.

Daniel Jones is a better quarterback than he’s looked this season

I don’t think Jones is an elite quarterback. A couple of months ago Ed Valentine asked the BBV writers which NFL quarterbacks they would trade Jones for straight up. I think I had six or seven, QBs like Mahomes, Allen, Jackson, Burrow, Herbert, Lawrence. I think there are a few more that are currently better than Jones but that I wouldn’t want for other reasons (age, injury, etc.). Jones doesn’t have the anticipation, pocket presence, short-game accuracy, and patience for read progression that the elite QBs do (though if you were getting hit as much as he does you might not have the patience to get to your third and fourth reads). But frankly there aren’t many who do have these things. My take was that Jones’ “equilibrium” level would be somewhere near the bottom of the top 10, either slightly above or slightly below.

Is that good enough to win a Super Bowl? I don’t know. Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jalen Hurts have almost won Super Bowls in the past decade. Maybe Jones is good enough, maybe he isn’t. He’s one tough sonofagun, though, and he adds value in the run game.

What I do know is that Jones wasn’t the reason the Giants had a poor 2022 second half. Here are Jones’ regular season PFF grades week-by-week:

Jones was really bad in Seattle last year...same as he was bad at home against Seattle this year. Jones also played fairly poorly in Dallas on Thanksgiving. Overall, though, Jones’ performance trended upward throughout the season. The Giants won with Jones rather than because of him early in the season. As the season progressed, they started to win at least in part because of him (Chicago, Green Bay, Jacksonville, Washington, Minnesota, Indianapolis). During the last four weeks of the regular season he played at an elite (> 80) or nearly elite level, and that doesn’t even include the Wild Card Game in which his PFF grade was 80.9. Jones didn’t suddenly forget how to play this season.

The one game late in the season in which Jones performed poorly? That would be the Divisional Round loss to the Eagles (46.7), in which Jones was pressured and faced good pass coverage. Which brings us to...

So why have the Giants been so bad in 2023?

There are two reasons:

The schedule

It’s amazing to me. As soon as the Giants’ 2023 schedule was announced, everyone bemoaned the fact that the Giants would face a murderer’s row of opponents early on, and that the travel involved wouldn’t do them any favors either. Then the Giants went out and lost four of their first five, which many people predicted (not me, I admit) and people were saying the season is over.

I get it - it’s the way they have been losing that no one anticipated. We all hoped that the Giants would at least keep things close against the likes of the Cowboys, 49ers, and Dolphins of the NFL, and they didn’t. That’s why people are disillusioned, and rightly so.

But look again. The week after Dallas skunked the Giants 40-0 they beat the Jets almost as badly, 38-10. The Arizona team that the Giants beat turned around and handily beat Dallas. The 49ers team that beat the Giants 30-12 just dominated Dallas 42-10. The Dolphins team that beat the Giants 31-16 has put up 36 and 70 points in two other games this season. The Giants were 5 points down to San Francisco late in the third quarter and 11 points down to Miami until the very end of the third quarter. They were about to close to within a touchdown of Seattle until Jones made his worst read of the season.

For whatever reason, there are a lot of games in which the best teams are running up the score against their opponents so far this season. We may see another one Sunday night in Buffalo.

The offensive line

You can have the most beautiful, finely tuned car in the world, with a high-performance engine and luxury accessories, but if the brakes are completely shot none of that matters. It’s going to crash when you take it out for a drive.

For sure, the Giants are no Bugatti La Voiture Noire. They may have the potential to be a Mercedes-Benz CLA. Without an offensive line, though, they are a junker. No quarterback, even the very best, can succeed in the face of a constant pass rush and hit after hit...never mind in the absence of an effective running game to go along with it (gentle reminder that Saquon Barkley has been out during the recent three-game losing streak). Ask Tom Brady in his Super Bowls against the Giants. Ask Patrick Mahomes in his Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay. Since you probably won’t have a chance to talk to either one, let’s look at how they did.

Here are Brady’s stats kept clean vs. under pressure from the first Super Bowl against the Giants:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Brady was pressured 23 times by the Giants (43.4% of dropbacks) and sacked 5 times. He accumulated all of 91 yards on those pressured dropbacks. His PFF grade was a “replacement-level player” 54.7 when under pressure. He had only one big time throw (BTT) all game, and his NFL passer rating when under pressure was a subpar 69.4. Remember also that he had Randy Moss and Wes Welker to throw to in that game. The greatest offense in NFL history put up 14 points that day.

Now here are Mahomes’ stats from the Super Bowl loss to the Buccaneers:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Mahomes was pressured 31 times by Tampa Bay (55.4% of dropbacks), accumulating only 78 yards on those dropbacks with a 34.6% completion rate, also graded a replacement-level 53.6, and had an awful NFL passer rating of 27.4 on those pressured dropbacks. God bless him, he managed two BTTs when under pressure. And remember that he was throwing to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. The Chiefs scored 9 points in that game.

Daniel Jones has been pressured on average on 46.2% of his dropbacks this season, i.e., almost every week he’s facing what Brady and Mahomes faced in those games. He’s no Brady or Mahomes, but if even they wilt under relentless pressure then any quarterback will.

It may even go further than that. Has Jones become a more conservative quarterback overall because of his expectation of pressure? That’s not easy to prove, but let’s return to 2020 Patrick Mahomes and look at his individual game statistics. If pressure doesn’t “get into a quarterback’s head,” then their performance when pressured should be independent of how often they are pressured. Here are Mahomes’ individual game stats:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Pressure isn’t the only thing that affects a QB. Coverage does too, and sometimes a player just has a bad day. That 22.9 grade when only pressured 31.4% of the time was a game against the Patriots, and Bill Belichick has been known to thwart opposing offenses now and then. Occasionally the great ones play great under pressure regardless (Mahomes graded > 70 under pressure in two games in which he was pressured more than 40% of the time.)

Overall, though, there is a negative correlation (-.32) between how well Mahomes performed under pressure in a given game and how often he was pressured. His five elite (> 80) performances under pressure all came in games in which he was pressured less than 35% of dropbacks. Five of his seven below average (< 60) performances under pressure came when he was pressured more than 35% of the time.

Is it a coincidence that the two NFL teams with the worst pass protection this season are 1-4?

The failures of the offensive line are the No. 1 reason the Giants have lost four of their first five games. They’ve played some great pass rushers so far, no doubt. But if you watched the 49ers-Cowboys game, you might be surprised to find out that Micah Parsons played 59 snaps. He was invisible, winding up with two pressures and a PFF grade of 54.2, the lowest of his career. The 49ers blocked him successfully. Think that had something to do with the 40-burger San Francisco put up? No pass rusher has been invisible against the Giants this season, unfortunately.

You think the NFL has figured out the Daboll-Kafka playbook? Sure. The playbook is nothing more than a bunch of variations on the basic theme of “get the ball out of Jones’ hands before he gets killed.” All the other pages have been torn out. When defenses can crash down, not fearing even intermediate, never mind deep, shots, there’s not much an offense can do, regardless of who the QB is.

Dream of Caleb Williams if you wish, but maybe first dream that Schoen, Daboll, and Bobby Johnson figure something out on the OL so that we can begin to see something like the Jones that we saw toward the end of the 2022 season.

Playoffs?! Don’t talk about - playoffs! You kidding me? Playoffs?!

I’m not claiming that the rest of the Giants roster is star-studded, but it’s not worse than the team that got to the playoffs in 2022. In many ways it is better. Tae Banks has quietly settled in at cornerback and allowed only a 59% completion rate with no explosive pass plays against. Bobby Okereke, after a slow start, is getting comfortable in Martindale’s defense and had an interception and a tipped pass on another interception on Sunday. Isaiah Simmons’ speed is starting to make itself known, though he is still a liability against the run (yet Micah McFadden, who was a liability last year, has gotten better). John Michael Schmitz looked capable before being injured. Jalin Hyatt has shown his potential in one game and will get more chances...if the line can block long enough. Darren Waller was one play away from his first signature game as a Giant.

Lost in the anguish over Jones’ pummeling by the Miami pass rush was that he had his first two BTTs since the Arizona game. (Neither was caught in bounds.) Top 10 QBs usually average 2-2.5 BTTs per game. Jones has never averaged that many - he had 20 and 24 in his first two seasons, but in the following two seasons he had only 7 each time as he was made into an overly cautious quarterback by some combination of the Judge-Garrett regime and the problems of the offensive line. Eli Manning had 21, 24, and 19 BTTs in 2006-2008 before he broke out in 2009 and became a BTT machine with 30, 36, 53, and 46 the following four seasons. Clearly something like that needs to happen if Jones is to justify his contract. It can’t unless he gets at least marginally adequate protection. If he does, a playoff run is still possible, for one reason...

Unlike last season, the schedule lightens up considerably after Buffalo:

Courtesy of ESPN

Week 10 at Dallas, Week 16 at Philadelphia, and Week 18 home against Philadelphia are all tough asks. Add Sunday night at Buffalo and it’s likely that the Giants are headed for a minimum of eight losses this season. All the other games are winnable, though none of them are guarantees. 9-8 would put the Giants in the mix. It’s not unheard of - last season Detroit started 1-6 and missed the playoffs only because they laid an egg in Carolina late in the season. Fassel’s 2000 Giants won 7 in a row after his “shoving my chips” speech before being steamrolled by the Ravens. Maybe Brian Daboll has a similar motivational tactic he can pull out of the bag.

Sure, I wouldn’t want to bet on that happening. Without on-the-fly renovations of the offensive line, there’s no way it’s happening. If Daboll loses the locker room at this critical juncture the way McAdoo, Shurmur, and Judge did, it’s not happening. If Jones’ neck injury keeps him out the rest of the season as it did in 2021, it’s not happening.

But haven’t we had enough sky-is-falling content for the moment? How many different ways can we say that the Giants are awful right now? Imagine instead that Andrew Thomas and John Michael Schmitz get back soon. Imagine that Justin Pugh still has something left in the tank. Imagine that La’el Collins, or Yodny Cajuste, or the one that got away (Tyre Phillips), or someone else puts on blue and can play at a minimum level of competence.

Or let’s get wild and imagine that Evan Neal, or Josh Ezeudu, or Marcus McKethan get some good coaching for a change and actually improve. Why not? Look on the bright side of life, as Monty Python advises. Jim Fassel did, and it got him pretty far. It’s less satisfying to jump on the bandwagon after it’s moving than it is to be there before it leaves. I don’t have as much at stake as Fassel did, and since I’m predicting a loss to Buffalo, my theory won’t be tested until the following week, by which time this article will be long forgotten. For now, though, it’s fun to think about a better tomorrow amidst the doom and gloom of today.