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What can the Giants (and their fans) learn from the final four NFL playoff teams?

Patience is a virtue

Baltimore Ravens v New York Giants Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

This weekend the four remaining NFL Playoff teams will compete to go to the Super Bowl. Each of them has taken a different path to get there. Perhaps there are some lessons we can learn from each of them that can provide perspective on how to view the current situation of the New York Giants.

Kansas City Chiefs

Courtesy of Pro Football Reference

It’s pretty obvious why the Chiefs are playing on Conference Championship weekend, just as they do every year. They had an established offense-minded head coach in place and were already a playoff team (four times in five years with Alex Smith at quarterback, and the one miss was still a 9-7 season). Then they traded up in the 2017 NFL Draft to No. 10 and selected what most people regard as the hands-down best quarterback in the game. Even with subpar wide receivers for the first time in his career, Patrick Mahomes still has his team in position to go to another Super Bowl. Yet even Mahomes didn’t start as a rookie.

Mahomes is a unicorn, but there are still things about the evaluation process surrounding him that can teach us something. Mahomes was available at No. 10 in the 2017 draft, and Kansas City only had to give up future first and third-round picks to move up from No. 27 to get him. There were red flags that caused him to drop that low: Coming from an Air Raid offense that would not translate to the NFL, not being able to operate from the pocket, a losing record, undisciplined. Matt Waldman of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio said this about such criticisms, comparing Mahomes to previous first-round misses (who had the more traditional look of what an NFL quarterback is “supposed” to be):

Their failures to sustain starting jobs were due to a lack of productive creativity within a traditional passing strategy. Another way of saying it? They weren’t aware, intuitive players.

If Mahomes becomes the first quarterback taken in this class, he’s likely going to a team that not only has a GM or coach with a more flexible mentality than most of the league but one that doesn’t allow a CYA mentality to dictate important decisions. If Mahomes has long-term success it will only happen if the GM and coach both value Mahomes for how he plays right now.

The problem is that by now much of the NFL has learned this lesson. Presumptive No. 1 pick Caleb Williams has some of Mahomes in him, and as a result, the Chicago Bears, if they decide to trade the No. 1 pick, (a) will find many more suitors for him, and as a result, (b) will get a lot more for the pick than Kansas City had to surrender to get Mahomes.

Teams with that CYA (yes, it means cover your...) mentality will not take that chance. If it backfires, you’re in draft hell for a couple of years. The 2024 Giants are not in the same position as the 2017 Chiefs, a perennial playoff team with an elite tight end and elite wide receiver, were. They need picks.

Giants fans, would you give Joe Schoen the benefit of the doubt if he swung and missed on Williams and mortgaged the future in doing so? If they did somehow get Williams, would you be patient enough to see him sit for a year as Mahomes did before taking over?

San Francisco 49ers

Courtesy of Pro Football Reference

The 49ers have not won a Super Bowl since the 1994 season, when Hall of Famer Steve Young was the quarterback. Young played three more seasons but never got back to the Super Bowl, and since then San Francisco has relied on a succession of below-average to above-average, but never great, starting QBs: Jeff Garcia, Tim Rattay, Alex Smith, Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill, Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert, Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, and now Brock Purdy. Despite that they made two Super Bowls and almost won both of them.

For the past seven years they have been coached by Kyle Shanahan, an offensive innovator. Shanahan led the 49ers to a 6-10 record his first season (2017), an improvement over the previous year’s 2-14 disaster under Chip Kelly. Then in his second year, with starter Jimmy Garoppolo hurt most of the season, the team regressed to 4-12 (including a loss to the lowly Giants) with Nick Mullens under center. Shanahan was not fired despite not showing progress. Forbes Magazine had this perspective on the 49ers as they closed out their 2018 season:

The team’s focus will soon turn to what promises to be a vital offseason for general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Having pretty much taken over an expansion roster back in 2017, the on-field results have not terribly impressed since. San Francisco heads into the season finale with just four wins and is guaranteed to lose more games than during the first season for this duo in Santa Clara. Season-ending injuries to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and running back Jerick McKinnon before Week 3 had even concluded played a major role in the lack of any real on-field progression.

But like last season, San Francisco has been much more competitive once the calendar hit December. It’s coming off a hard-fought loss to the Chicago Bears — a loss that came on the heels of consecutive victories over Denver and Seattle. This gives the 49ers a bit of optimism heading into the offseason.

Sound a bit like the Giants? Vital offseason for the general manager and head coach - check. Having pretty much taken over an expansion roster in their first year - check. Guaranteed to lose more games than in their first season - check. Season-ending injury to starting quarterback (and not one that was considered elite in the first place) - check. Much more competitive late in the season - check.

A few of the other subsections of this article are titled:

  • “Mixed Results in First Two Drafts of New Front Office”
  • “Major Need for Upgrades at Guard”
  • “DeForest Buckner Morphed Into Elite Defender”
  • “Still Need EDGE Pass Rush Help”

Substitute Dexter Lawrence for DeForest Buckner and these could be part of an article about the Giants entering 2024. The 2018 49ers did have a couple of pieces in places on defense in addition to Buckner - Arik Armstead, an aging Richard Sherman, and rookie Fred Warner, whose play that first year was only average. On offense, the one thing they did have was George Kittle, plus one stud offensive tackle in Joe Staley nearing the end of his career. That did not look like a team on the verge of greatness, though.

Yet a year later they were 13-3 and in the Super Bowl, losing only because of Mahomes magic late in the game. How did they do it? After two mediocre drafts, Lynch finally hit it out of the park in the 2019 draft, grabbing Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, and Dre Greenlaw. You couldn’t have seen it coming after his first two drafts.

The following year, though, San Francisco dropped again to 6-10, yet Shanahan remained as head coach. In 2020 they had drafted Brandon Aiyuk late in the first round to be their WR1, but Aiyuk disappointed as a rookie. He doesn’t disappoint now. The other thing they did in that draft was send third- and first-round picks to Washington for OT Trent Williams. In 2021 Lynch made a disastrous trade-up from No. 12 to No. 3 to select QB Trey Lance, giving up two extra first-round picks and a second-round pick to do so - similar to the gamble that worked for Kansas City three years earlier but at a steeper cost. It didn’t ruin the 49ers because they had built such a solid foundation of plus players in the previous two drafts.

No one from that 2020 draft has become a star, but Ambry Thomas, Deommodore Lenoir, and Talanoa Hufanga have solidified the secondary. 2022 was no great success story either, with no first round pick and only one pick of note in retrospect - Brock Purdy at the very end of the draft. From the 2023 draft, another year with no first round pick, only safety Ji’Ayir Brown has made an impact.

It’s now been seven seasons. 49ers ownership was patient with Lynch and Shanahan and were rewarded with one outstanding draft succeeded by lesser drafts that nonetheless added solid players and two draft trades, one of which netted perhaps the best offensive tackle in the NFL and the other of which blew up in their faces. Though the 49ers brain trust has made mistakes and has yet to win it all, no one is talking about firing Lynch and Shanahan and starting over.

Compare this to the Giants situation. Unlike Shanahan, Brian Daboll got an undermanned Giants team to the Divisional Round of the playoffs his first year before the team regressed, as a result of a tough schedule and an amazing number of injuries, in his second year. That’s considerably better than Lynch and Shanahan did in their first two seasons, yet Schoen’s and Daboll’s job security somehow seems more fragile entering their third year. Many people will want one or both of them gone if the Giants don’t return to the playoffs in 2024. Might we learn a lesson of patience from the 49ers’ stability? Seven years with the same GM and head coach - what a concept.

Baltimore Ravens

Courtesy of Pro Football Reference

Speaking of stability, perhaps no franchise has been as stable as the Ravens. Baltimore has had only two head coaches in the past 25 years: Brian Billick from 1999-2007, and John Harbaugh for the 16 years since then. After Billick won a Super Bowl (against the Giants) in his second season he had up-and-down results thereafter, with three losing seasons, a one-and-done Wild Card playoff season, and a Divisional Round exit, but the Ravens stuck with him for nine seasons before moving on to Harbaugh.

Harbaugh began his tenure in Baltimore with five consecutive playoff appearances, culminating in a Super Bowl Championship in 2012. He followed that, though, with a stretch of six years with only one playoff appearance (a Divisional Round exit), including one 5-11 season. Again, Ravens’ management showed patience. They have been rewarded with five playoff appearances in six seasons since then, but no more Super Bowl or even AFC Championship Game appearances, until this Sunday.

That is just the head coach position. How about general manager? Ozzie Newsome was the organization’s GM for 18 years (1996-2003). His successor, Eric DeCosta, has just finished his fifth year. Again, the message for the Giants and their fans is that patience can pay off if you think you have capable people in charge. There were legitimate reasons to question that over the past decade, but the sense of Daboll’s and Schoen’s jobs being on the line in only their third season because year 2 was less successful than year 1 is short-sighted.

Two other big decisions the Ravens did make in the past few years are also relevant to the Giants’ situation. The first and biggest was drafting Lamar Jackson in 2018. The fifth quarterback off the board in that draft, Jackson has been the best or second best of the group despite almost dropping out of the first round.

The Ravens’ process to get Jackson was a bit head-scratching. They began that draft with the No. 16 pick, which they traded, along with a fifth-rounder, to Buffalo for No. 22 and a late third-round pick. Then they traded No. 22 plus a sixth-rounder to Tennessee for No. 25 and a fourth-rounder. Then they didn’t even use No. 25 on Jackson - instead they took tight end Hayden Hurst. Finally, they sent 2018 and 2019 second-round picks to Philadelphia, plus exchanging fourth-round picks, to move back into the first round at No. 32, where they selected Jackson.

Trading back into the first to get Jackson makes sense because of the fifth-year option, which the Ravens wouldn’t have had if they’d waited until Round 2. Why they didn’t just select him at No. 16, or No. 22, or No. 25, is the mystery. Perhaps Ozzie Newsome felt he needed to acquire extra picks so to justify giving up picks to get Jackson. That doesn’t explain, though, why he passed on Jackson for Hurst at No. 25. Whatever, his gamble worked.

There are several lessons from Jackson’s career to date that are worth pointing out. Jackson came out of college with a reputation as a runner who wasn’t all that accurate as a passer. There were in fact multiple NFL teams that wanted him to work out as a wide receiver at the Combine, plus a former GM who thought he’d be better as a receiver as well.

Once again, though, let’s go to Matt Waldman, who had this to say about Jackson:

Jackson might be the best pocket passer in this draft. Isn’t that an ironic statement considering that he’s also the best runner at the position? Jackson is a rare player with a rare combination of skills. If he gets the opportunity he deserves, he has the talent to become an NFL superstar.

As devastating a runner as Jackson is, what makes him a special prospect—and potentially a special NFL quarterback—is his willingness to fight first and flee much later. No quarterback in this draft owns the pocket as well as Jackson.

Combined with his patience to cycle through two, three, and even four reads—and often back to his first or second if he has time—Jackson’s pocket presence and running ability often presents a no-win situation for defenses.

Whatever the reason(s), 32 NFL teams passed on Jackson (including the Ravens, 3 times), but Baltimore finally did the right thing. The quarterback in this draft who most resembles Jackson in his play is Jayden Daniels, although Daniels, unlike Lamar, does flee at the first sign of pressure. Can that be coached out of him? Waldman, I believe, would say yes, because he cites Michael Vick and Steve Young as run-first, pass-second QBs who learned to do the opposite eventually and went on to have great careers.

The Ravens did Jackson no favors his first few years by giving him a subpar set of receivers other than tight end Mark Andrews until adding Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr. this year. Coincidentally Jackson passed for over 3,000 yards this year for the first time in his career. They have also given him one of the NFL’s better offensive lines. Take note, Giants. Jackson is now in his sixth year, still looking for his first Super Bowl appearance, but the team around him may finally allow him to get there.

The Ravens did one other thing that should interest the Giants and their fans. When Wink Martindale left his job as defensive coordinator, the Ravens hired Mike McDonald to replace him. McDonald doesn’t blitz anywhere as much as Martindale did (21.3% and 21.9% in his two seasons, compared to Martindale’s 39.7% and 45.4% with the Giants). Still, his defense has philosophical similarities to what Martindale did in its usage of defensive linemen to sometimes drop into coverage, to have defensive backs blitz, and to overload one side of the line to create a free rusher. As the Giants search for a new DC, we might imagine them looking for someone whose approach will make for an easier transition for the existing players rather than the more passive zone defense that predecessor Patrick Graham ran.

The Ravens have had a Super Bowl drought almost as long as the Giants have, albeit with more success during that time. Their philosophy all along has been to stay the course and slowly build a stronger team. It may pay off this year.

Detroit Lions

Courtesy of Pro Football Reference

The Lions are the square peg in this Final Four - a perennially inept team that has never even been to the Super Bowl much less won one. It’s still not clear how good this team really is, and the evidence to date doesn’t suggest that they are on the same level as the other three. With two home games as champions of a weak division, Detroit has gone down to the final minute of both playoff games before securing victories against two of the weakest teams in the playoffs.

Detroit is evidence that you can win without a great quarterback if you have the other pieces in place. They didn’t at the time of the blockbuster trade that sent Matthew Stafford to the Rams in return for Jared Goff, but they used the picks they got in that trade to build multiple parts of the roster.

What the Lions did already have in place was one of the league’s best offensive lines, an important complement to an immobile quarterback like Goff. In the trade they received two first-round picks plus a third-round pick. They traded both firsts, one to move up and one to move down and acquire more picks. The final tally for the players received along with Goff were WR Jamseon Williams, RB Jahmyr Gibbs, TE Sam LaPorta, DL Josh Pascal, CB Ifeatu Melifonwu, and DT Brodric Martin.

The Rams won’t complain - they got a Super Bowl victory from Stafford. The Lions, though, filled out their roster with the proceeds. Not necessarily efficiently - they took Gibbs at No. 12, higher than everyone thought they needed to when they had another first-round pick at No. 18. They could have used No. 12 on cornerback Christian Gonzalez to help their fourth-worst pass coverage unit. But in the end it has worked to make them a competitive team.

Goff is no small part of that. There is a tendency in NFL circles to divide QBs into two classes: Franchise QBs you can win a Super Bowl with, and all the other ones, who (according to fans) should be sent packing. Goff, a former No. 1, was seen as holding the Rams back because he couldn’t read defenses well, a perception enhanced by the Patriots’ flummoxing him with zone defenses that took the deep ball away from him in the Super Bowl. Rather than taking a quarterback in 2023 at No. 6 (Will Levis was still on the board), they built other parts of the team...and THEN, in the third round they drafted Hendon Hooker as a developmental project. Is Hooker the starter-in-waiting? Maybe. For now, though, Goff seems firmly entrenched.

The other thing Detroit has done is to build their defensive front. The secondary is still susceptible to good passers, but that doesn’t matter so much when the pass rush gets to the quarterback. Detroit led the NFL with a 28.2% pressure rate, despite being in the bottom half of the league in sacks. Aidan Hutchinson led the NFL with 110 pressures. That gives Detroit a puncher’s chance in any game they play.

This is Year 3 of Dan Campbell’s tenure as Lions’ head coach. His tenure has followed the arc that fans would hope for from a new head coach: 3-13-1 in his first year, then 9-8 in Year 2, and finally 12-5 and a division title in Year 3. Fans like to see that slow steady progress. Never mind that Detroit botched its chance for the playoffs last season with a late-season loss at Carolina. Most likely the Lions won’t get to the Super Bowl this year. They never have. It won’t matter much after a short grieving period, because they feel that their team is on the rise. They’ll be patient. If only Giants fans would.