There has been a good deal of attention in the press lately to two NFL teams who had successful 2022 seasons but didn’t even make their conference championship game, much less the Super Bowl: The New York Giants and the Minnesota Vikings. It’s easy to see why - there are numerous parallels between the teams:
- Both hired first-time “hotshot” analytics-oriented general managers and offensively-minded head coaches after disappointing previous seasons.
- Both have had question marks at the quarterback position.
- Both performed above expectations in the first year of their new regimes.
- The teams split two close games against each other in 2022, suggesting that they were pretty evenly matched.
- According to Bill Barnwell of ESPN, teams like the Giants and Vikings that won a lot of close games with fourth-quarter comebacks, a negative season point differential, and poor defenses are set up to regress in 2023.
Given all the similarities between the teams, you’d think that they would be following similar paths in 2023 to take that next step toward being Super Bowl contenders. Yet that’s not the case, or at least, it’s not necessarily the public perception.
Team building can take two extreme forms. A team that didn’t win in the previous year but feels they have most of the pieces in place and are close will make some small tweaks and otherwise “run it back,” expecting a better result the second time. At the other end of the spectrum, a team that sees its current roster as lacking in important ways and regards its previous success as fool’s gold will “tear it down,” massively overhauling the roster and sacrificing near-term success for what they hope will be greater and more sustainable success in the long term.
Recent histories of the Giants and Vikings
If you’re here reading Big Blue View, you know the Giants’ recent history. A new head coach and free agent shopping spree in 2016 to get Eli Manning one more Super Bowl run created an 11-5 playoff team with many close wins whose boat sank in their only post-season game. The Giants’ Jerry Reese mostly ran it back in 2017, but 2016 turned out to be fool’s gold as the team collapsed to 3-13. A new general manager and head coach in 2018 but not a complete tear-down, since Eli Manning returned as quarterback, but the results were hardly better. Finally, a new starting quarterback (after two games) in 2019, and another new head coach in 2020, none of which got the Giants anywhere.
While the Giants were bottom-feeding the past few years, the Vikings were doing something different but perhaps as frustrating - giving their fans hope and then snatching it away from year to year. Unlike the Giants, they had stability at general manager (Rick Spielman) and head coach (Mike Zimmer) for many years:
- They seemed on the verge of Super Bowl contention in 2017 when they went 13-3 and Case Keenum hit Stefon Diggs on a miracle 61-yard TD play to defeat New Orleans in the Divisional Round, but then they were blown out 38-7 by eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game.
- Having decided that the quarterback position was standing between them and a title, they signed free agent Kirk Cousins to the first fully guaranteed NFL contract, at what was then the most lucrative value ever in the NFL. They went 8-7-1 and missed the playoffs in 2018.
- In 2019 they made the playoffs at 10-6 and had another thrilling playoff win, in overtime in New Orleans, but then were beaten handily by San Francisco.
- In 2020 Diggs forced a trade to Buffalo, but the Vikings replaced him with an even better receiver in Justin Jefferson. It did no good as they fell to 7-9. 2021 was no better, as they finished 8-9. This led to Spielman and Zimmer being replaced by Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell.
Chronic ineptitude or mediocrity with occasional false hopes. Giants fans, would you trade places with Vikings fans?
Two new regimes, two different approaches?
The Vikings: Competitive rebuilding or tearing it down?
When Adofo-Mensah was hired by the Vikings in 2022 he described his philosophy as “competitive rebuilding,” i.e., trying to re-tool the roster on the fly while still having a chance to contend and at the same time navigating a difficult salary cap situation. Despite the flashy name, his philosophy was viewed by everyone else as, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” Adofo-Mensah signed several prominent veteran free agents to one-year deals and drafted some developmental players. In-season, Minnesota acquired tight end T.J. Hockenson from Detroit, the main asset surrendered being a 2023 second-round draft pick.
Otherwise, the Vikings pretty much ran it back in 2022. And it worked. They went 13-4 and won the division. Most of their wins were close, and three of their losses were blowouts, hence the view of many that they were “fraudulent.” That’s not a fair sentiment, though. They did win a thrilling back-and-forth game at Buffalo, for example, and they dominated Green Bay in their opening game.
But their playoff loss to the Giants left them with a bad taste. In particular, the Giants exposed the Vikings’ weaknesses on defense and showed that they were a one-man crew (Justin Jefferson) on offense.
So in 2023, Adofo-Mensah has apparently gone into “tear it down” mode, according to Pro Football Talk and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Several older prominent veterans were jettisoned, many of them on defense (Za’Darius Smith, Patrick Peterson, Eric Kendricks) but also wide receiver Adam Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook. More of this may happen in 2024 when Cousins’ contract is up (but with a $28.5M dead cap hit if they decide not to extend him).
Adofo-Mensah drafted wide receiver Jordan Addison to try to alleviate the double-teaming of Justin Jefferson that allowed teams like the Packers and Giants to limit Minnesota’s offense. They also interestingly drafted a quarterback, Jaren Hall of BYU. A possible successor to Cousins in 2024?
But not everyone sees what the Vikings are doing as a tear-down. Kevin Seifert of ESPN feels that Adofo-Mensah is still walking the “competitive rebuilding” tightrope. He anticipates that Minnesota will have 7-8 new starters in 2023, but feels that 2024 will be where the rubber hits the road: A decision on Cousins combined with $53M in 2024 effective cap space, the 10th largest in the NFL, will define where the Vikings go.
Minnesota used only three draft picks on defense, their 2022 Achilles heel, so whether the defense is better or worse than in 2022 is questionable.
The Giants: What exactly is their philosophy?
It’s not easy to decipher how Giants’ GM Joe Schoen would like to build a team. In 2022, he was stuck with a mess: A bad team with bad contracts that put him in a $40M salary cap hole as a welcoming present. Job No. 1 for Schoen was getting the Giants into salary cap compliance while finding some way to put together 53 players who were collectively better than their 2021 counterparts.
Departing GM Dave Gettleman did leave Schoen a housewarming gift by acquiring 2022 first and fourth-round picks in the 2021 trade-down with Chicago, as well as a 2022 fifth-round pick and a 2023 seventh-round pick in the deal that made Ben Bredeson a Giant. Schoen added to those by executing two trade-downs during his first draft in 2022. Then he acquired third and sixth-round picks in 2023 for problem child Kadarius Toney. Those moves could be construed as a tear-down philosophy...if the 2021 Giants could be defined as something that could be torn down. Torn apart, maybe.
What Schoen didn’t do, though, was acquire a new quarterback to replace Daniel Jones. Maybe the 2022 class just didn’t appeal to the Giants. Maybe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll entered their Giants’ tenure wanting to give Jones and everyone else a chance under a new coaching staff. Maybe they just didn’t see a path to getting an elite quarterback in the draft or by trade. Whatever the reason, it didn’t look like a tear-down.
The season didn’t play out that way, either. Daboll never conveyed a sense that he was just trying to get through the season and evaluate players for the future. Instead, down a point with a minute to go in his first game, he went for two to win rather than tie. When the Giants clinched a playoff spot by defeating the Colts, Daboll said after the game, “Our goal – it’ll never be just to make the playoffs,” Daboll said. “That’ll never be just our goal.” That sounds like “competitive rebuilding.”
Should the Giants have torn it down this year?
As exhilarating as the 2022 season was for the Giants and their fans, the stark reality was that they got “smoked” twice (as Daboll said) by the NFC champion Eagles and also lost twice to the division rival Cowboys. Despite that, the Giants are projected to have maybe only five to six new starters this year (Darren Waller, Parris Campbell, John Michael Schmitz, Deonte Banks, Bobby Okereke, and maybe Bobby McCain). Can the Giants ever hope to win the NFC East and legitimately challenge for the Super Bowl with a roster anything like the current one?
Much of that question falls into the lap of Daniel Jones. The Giants shoved their chips to the middle of the table (h/t: the late Jim Fassel) by giving Jones a big four-year contract. Adofo-Mensah didn’t do anything like that with Kirk Cousins. Can Jones produce like an elite quarterback over a full season? Or will the Giants find themselves in “quarterback hell” (h/t: Dave Gettleman), stuck with a good but not great quarterback who can get them to the playoffs but not to the big show? Schoen did not draft a developmental quarterback this year as a hedge against Jones wilting in the spotlight.
Is the offensive line, with Evan Neal re-tooling his stance and John Michael Schmitz added, within striking distance of being a unit that can hold off the ferocious pass rushes of the Eagles and Cowboys? Are the additions of Waller, Campbell, and Jalin Hyatt enough to create a championship-caliber receiver room? (Pro Football Focus doesn’t think so - they rank the Giants’ 2023 receiving corps No. 25 in the NFL.) Is the Wink Martindale defense, with the additions of Banks, Okereke, and A’Shawn Robinson, capable of matching what his best Baltimore Ravens teams did a few years ago?
Schoen and Daboll obviously think the answers to these questions are “yes,” or at least that they have progressed from “no” to “maybe” since 2022. The 2023 season will show us whether the Giants’ 2022 was fool’s gold.
What if the Giants regress in 2023?
That is what Barnwell is predicting. It could happen. At this time in 2017 the Giants were in almost the same position as they are now: Coming off a playoff berth with a successful head coach entering his second season.
Let’s imagine a 7-10 2023 season. Not as bad as the Giants’ 2017, because we have to give Daboll’s impressive staff the benefit of the doubt, and because most of their core players are still young. But bad enough to be a big disappointment.
A lot will depend on why they regressed. A slew of debilitating injuries to key players? Everyone hopes that the new MetLife turf allows the Giants to no longer be among the leaders in man-games lost to injury. But if this does happen, it’s hard to imagine a change in approach.
Luck runs out in close games? That’s entirely possible. Is it enough for Schoen to change his thinking? Probably not.
2023 Daniel Jones = 2022 Daniel Jones? That might be the thing that gets Schoen and Daboll thinking. Jones had a good 2022, very good if you go by a metric such as ESPN’s quarterback rating (QBR). But with an anticipated improvement in the receiver corps and offensive line, more is expected. Here’s a comparison of four quarterbacks for the 2022 season from the NFL Quarterback Cards app:
Jones and Cousins had pretty similar 2022 seasons in terms of expected points added (EPA), completion percentage over expected (CPOE), defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), and PFF grade. Jones trailed Cousins in defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR), but then Jones wasn’t throwing to Justin Jefferson.
But the two Super Bowl quarterbacks were better in most of these metrics - the incomparable Patrick Mahomes to be sure, but Jalen Hurts as well. No team can expect a Mahomes clone, but somewhere between Hurts and Mahomes is probably what is needed to make a serious run at a Super Bowl.
If Jones’ 2023 is similar to Hurts’ 2022 but the Giants’ record is worse than in 2022, most likely the Giants stay the course and just try to add pieces. If Jones plateaus at his 2022 level, then the challenge becomes greater. Do the Giants then tear it down and start over? What does that look like for a team with mostly young players in key positions already?
The Giants only have the normal seven picks in the 2024 draft, so it probably means unloading veterans in-season for picks, e.g., Leonard Williams or Adoree’ Jackson to a contender that has lost a starting interior defensive lineman or cornerback to injury. Maybe it even means trying to get a first-round pick for Jones from a team that sees itself as a contender and then trying to package two first-rounders next winter to get a ticket in the Caleb Williams/Drake Maye sweepstakes. As the chart earlier in this article shows, the Giants have even more 2023 effective cap space than Minnesota ($58M, ninth most in the NFL), so they could be more active in free agency than they have been to date.
If the Giants are faced with an unfortunate scenario like this, Joe Schoen may be watching closely as Kwesi Adofo-Mensah walks that same path.