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Why the New York Giants could regress in 2023

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell lists several reasons, and we debate them

New York Giants Offseason Workout Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The New York Giants were a surprise team last season, going 9-7-1 to earn a wild-card berth and beating the Minnesota Vikings in a playoff game.

In an ideal world, the Giants would progress from there. They would win more game in 2023, maybe win two playoff games and move closer to becoming a true perennial title contender. Maybe that will happen.

SB Nation’s Mark Schofield made me realize a long time ago, though, that progress isn’t always linear. Sometimes it can be made even when the results on the field aren’t indicative of that.

Which brings me to the Giants and the potential for regression in 2023. I have been clear that I believe the roster, as it stands now, is improved over the one the Giants finished last season with. Yet, that does not guarantee the same number of or more victories in 2023.

Bill Barnwell of ESPN recently looked at the Giants and Minnesota Vikings, two teams that outperformed expectations a season ago, and looked at all of the reasons why the winning formulas used by those two teams in 2022 is likely unsustainable.

Let’s break down each of Barnwell’s red flags for the Giants. I will summarize what Barnwell has to say, and offer some thoughts of my own.

Red flag No. 1: Relying on fourth-quarter wins

We know that the Giants had four fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories in 2022 and that quarterback Daniel Jones engineered five game-winning drives. In his first three seasons, Jones had only two fourth-quarter comebacks and three game-winning drives.

Barnwell points out that the Giants were -1.2 in Win Expectancy Added (WPA) through the first three quarters of games in 2022. They were +2.2 in WPA in the fourth quarter, second only to the Vikings, who had eight fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories and a league-best +6.1 WPA in the fourth quarter.

Barnwell points out that the Giants were +3.4 wins in the fourth quarter better in 2022 than in 2021, the 33rd biggest jump over 448 teams since 2009. The Vikings +7.7 fourth-quarter WPA jump from 2021 to 2022 in the best ever recorded.

Barnwell writes:

The bad news, unfortunately, is that teams that have played that way generally took a step backwards the following season. The 32 teams that finished between the Vikings and Giants weren’t able to keep up their fourth-quarter heroics the following season; they went from generating a combined 90.2 WPA in the fourth quarter to just 19.2 the subsequent year. And their overall record declined by an average of 1.7 wins per 17 games.

Red flag No. 2: Relying on wins in close games

From 2000-2022, 50.41% of NFL games were decided by eight points or less — in other words, by one score or less.

To end up with a good won-loss record, you generally have to win a good number of close games.

The Giants went 8-4-1 in games decided by eight points or less last season. Their only victory by more than eight points was a late-season rout of the terrible Indianapolis Colts.

The only team better than the Giants in one-score games last season was the Vikings, who went an unprecedented 11-0.

Barnwell writes:

Teams that win all of their close games in a given year don’t keep that up the following season. If we go back through 1950 and look at the NFL franchises that played at least five games decided by eight points or fewer and went undefeated in those contests, they weren’t able to hold onto their mastery of the narrow margins. After going 110-0 in those close games, those teams went a combined 73-68-4 (.518) the following season. Convincing yourself you can win coin flips is a dangerous way to survive in the NFL.

Consider how many of those one-score victories could have easily been losses for the Giants last season:

  • In Week 1, Tennessee Titans’ placekicker Randy Bullock missed a makable 47-yard field goal as time expired, allowing the Giants to escape with a 21-20 victory.
  • In Week 2, Graham Gano made field goals of 52 and 56 yards in the final 12 minutes as the Giants beat the Carolina Panthers, 19-16.
  • In Week 5, the Green Bay Packers reached the Giants’ 6-yard line with 1:11 to play trailing by seven points. They didn’t score and the Giants won, 27-22.
  • In Week 7, Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Christian Kirk is stopped at the 1-yard line as time expires in a 23-17 Giants’ victory.
  • In Week 15, the Washington Commanders were on the Giants’ 1-yard line with 1:03 to play, trailing by eight, 20-12. An illegal shift penalty and two incompletions allowed the Giants to hang on.

That is five victories that could have easily been losses or ties. Some years, the penalties, the bounces of the ball, and the field goals go your way. More often than not, they did for the Giants in 2022.

Some years those things don’t go your way. What kind of year will 2023 be for the Giants?

Red flag No. 3: Relying on avoiding takeaways

Giveaways, like takeaways, are unpredictable. Sometimes, a tipped pass in the middle of the field falls harmlessly to the turf. Sometimes — disaster! Sometimes, a fumble rolls harmlessly out of bounds or a teammate is in the right spot to save the day. Sometimes — disaster!

Despite the preaching of offensive coaches to protect the ball and defensive coaches to rip it away at every opportunity, those statistics tend to fluctuate for teams from year to year.

Barnwell says “Protecting the football is a strong indicator of what wins games in a given season, but it’s also a strong indicator of which teams are likely to decline the following season.”

Specifically regarding the Giants, Barnwell notes:

The Giants thrived on offense by protecting the football last season. Jones posted the league’s lowest interception rate at 1.1%, marking the third consecutive season in which he reduced his pick rate. Daboll’s offense turned the ball over on just 7.3% of their possessions in 2022, which was the lowest mark in football. Their 16 giveaways were the second-fewest of any team in football, with only the Lions turning the ball over less often.

If we just take the top five teams in total giveaways each season from 2002 through 2021 and track what they did the following season, Giants fans might have a reason to be worried. Just 25 of those 100 teams made it back to the list the following season. The average team fell down the rankings by an average of nearly 10 spots and generated an average of 6.3 more turnovers than they had the prior season. Unsurprisingly, their win totals also declined: Those teams fell off by an average of 1.4 wins. (Both of those numbers are adjusted for a 17-game schedule.)

As the Giants open up their offense more with the addition of Darren Waller and a deeper, more talented group of wide receivers, you have to expect that Daniel Jones won’t repeat his career-best 1.1% interception rate from 2022.

There will be more turnovers as the Giants push the ball down the field more. Barnwell also reminds, though, that the Giants should create more takeaways after finishing 25th in the league with just 19 last year.

Red flag No. 4: The Plexiglass Principle

Barnwell says the Plexiglass Principle “holds that teams that make a dramatic rise in some element of their play in a given season almost always give some of those gains back the following season.”

This idea would mean that the Giants would likely take a step back on offense in 2023 after rising from the bottom of the pack in 2021 to pretty much league average overall in 2022.

I’m not sure I’m buying this one. Saquon Barkley will be back one way or another, and the Giants should be set up to be better on offense. As long as their still-young offense line makes strides the offense looks primed to get better, not worse, even if the turnover rate goes up. The Giants were last in the league in explosive passing plays a season ago, and there is no way that should happen again.

Red flag No. 5: Their defenses weren’t along for the ride

The Giants’ defense was not good enough in 2022. New York finished 25th in yards allowed, 29th in DVOA, 28th in Expected Points Added (EPA), 31st in yards allowed per rushing attempt, and as we mentioned earlier 25th in takeaways.

The Giants have improved on defense this offseason. The defensive line is deeper with Rakeem Nunez-Roches and A’Shawn Robinson. Bobby Okereke is the best linebacker the Giants have had in years. Cornerback Deonte Banks was picked in Round 1.

Here, though, is Barnwell’s warning:

What’s important to keep in mind, though, is that improving a little bit on that side of the ball isn’t likely to produce superior results to what these two teams enjoyed in 2022. The Giants and Vikings each posted a record that was out of line with how they respectively played this past year. History tells us that they’ll need to drastically improve their underlying level of performance to simply keep their record, let alone take a step forward in 2023.

Barnwell adds simply that the Giants “won in unsustainable ways” last season and that incremental improvements might not be enough to offset expected regression to the mean in many categories.

In this case, I have a hard time poking holes in most of Barnwell’s arguments. We will just have to see if he ends up being right, or if the 2023 Giants can be an exception to the rule.