A temporary benching for muffing a punt is not going to turn permanent for the New York Giants, apparently. According to head coach Brian Daboll, Eric Gray’s benching following his muff was temporary, as the team will return to Gray as the starting punt returner.
The #Giants are going back to rookie Eric Gray as the punter returner on Sunday vs. Miami, per Brian Daboll. After Gray muffed a punt, they turned to veteran Adoree Jackson on Monday night.— Jordan Raanan (@JordanRaanan) October 4, 2023
Risky move considering Jackson is their top CB and was injured last year returning a…
It’s been a rocky start for the fifth-round rookie as a punt returner. He had a muffed punt negated by a fair catch interference penalty against San Francisco. Against Seattle, he muffed another one at his own 35-yard line, but Nick McCloud managed to find the loose ball to avert disaster.
Although it’s easy to blame the interference for Gray’s first muff, the circumstances were actually quite similar to the one he had against Seattle. Both times, Gray had difficulty tracking the punt and had to lunge for it at the last second. Perhaps he would have come up with the punt against San Francisco had the interference not happened, but it’s part of a larger theme for Gray: he is simply not comfortable back there.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda
Gray’s struggles with handling punts go back to college. From 2019-21, he had two muffed punts on 36 punt return attempts, or one every 18.0 attempts. The average in a given season is roughly one every 27 attempts, which may explain why he did not have any punt return attempts in 2022. It seems that this is a problem the Giants could have and should have anticipated.
Furthermore, the Giants had some reasonable alternatives on their 90-man roster in training camp. Jamison Crowder, Jaydon Mickens, and Kalil Pimpleton were all part of the competition. Crowder has fielded 168 punts in his career and has just five muffs, or one per 33.6 fielded punts. Mickens has four muffs on 119 fielded punts, or one per 29.6. Pimpleton was not sure-handed in college with eight muffs on 95 fielded punts (one per 11.9), but he averaged 11.3 yards per return and scored twice. Gray brings the worst of both worlds: lack of consistent return ability and also a tendency toward muffs.
With all the special teams struggles the Giants have had, including seven penalties (six accepted) against Seattle, they cannot afford to be constantly worried about muffed punts. Muffed punts are arguably far more damaging in a game than strong returns are helpful. Going back to Gray is undoubtedly a risk.
Still, if the alternative is Adoree’ Jackson, it may just be a risk the Giants need to take. Jackson suffered a sprained MCL in 2022 while returning a punt against the Lions in Week 11. He missed the remainder of the regular season and returned for the playoffs. The Giants went 2-4-1 while he was out, surrendering 23.9 points per game after averaging 18.5 in their first 11 games (though that likely also had to do with the quality of competition). Jackson replaced Gray after the muffed punt and had one fair catch.
So has the Giants’ season gone, a series of choices between a rock and a hard place. For now, they’re choosing the hard place.