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The making of a Super Bowl champion: The 2011 New York Giants

You can’t always get what you want. But you just might find that you can get it twice in five years.

New York Giants v New England Patriots Getty Images

After their stirring, improbable victory over the Patriots in the Super Bowl in January 2008, the New York Giants rightfully felt like they were on top of the world. With a great blend of youth and experience, with good coaching to boot, there was no reason not to be confident. It didn’t last, though. The Giants didn’t return to the Super Bowl for four more years. What happened, and how did they finally get back?

The slow-motion disintegration of a Super Bowl champion

Michael Strahan had retired, but Justin Tuck had burst onto the scene, Mathias Kiwanuka was improving, Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield were anchoring the interior line, Antonio Pierce was a force at middle linebacker, and the Giants seemed to have an embarrassment of riches in the secondary in the form of Aaron Ross, Corey Webster, Michael Johnson, James Butler, and two impressive rookies, Kenny Phillips and Terrell Thomas, who had been drafted in Rounds 1 and 2. (They also had Osi Umenyiora, but he missed 2008 with an injury.) The defense that stymied Tom Brady looked like it had gotten even better.

On offense, Eli Manning had finally shed the doubts about whether he was “the guy” and was on the verge of his first Pro Bowl season. The Giants’ three-headed “Earth, Wind, and Fire” running game was at its peak with Derrick Ward having a 1,000-yard season. Third-round pick Mario Manningham had been added to a stable of clutch receivers that included Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, Steve Smith, and Domenik Hixon, although Super Bowl hero David Tyree was lost for the season with knee surgery and then a hamstring injury.

This looked like the best team in the NFL, and the players felt that way too. They showed it when they got onto the field, winning 11 of their first 12 games. Toward the end of that run, though, everything changed when Burress hit himself with his best shot. The injury laid bare that the Giants’ passing game was a bit of a house of cards, with Amani Toomer nearing the end of his career and no alpha receiver to go to. The Giants staggered to the finish line, losing 4 of their final 5 games and then being booted from the playoffs by Philadelphia when their now-anemic offense could not score a touchdown.

In 2009 General Manager Jerry Reese remedied that problem by drafting wide receiver Hakeem Nicks in the first round. Along with Manningham, tight end Kevin Boss, and especially a 1,220-yard receiving season from Steve Smith, Eli had his first 4,000-yard passing season and the highest QBR (71.3) of his career. The 2009 team was the offensive juggernaut that the 2008 team had fallen short of being.

The problem was on the other side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had left to become head coach of the Rams. He was replaced by linebackers coach Bill Sheridan, who lasted only one season as the defense gave up 427 points, second most in its history. The team got off to a 5-0 start but then lost 8 of its final 11 games, giving up 40 or more points five times and missing the playoffs for the first time in five years. In fairness, the defense was decimated with injuries to Ross, Phillips, and Pierce, and injuries were the undoing of the Giants’ secondary during much of the post-2008 period, with Phillips and Thomas in particular never having a chance to fulfill their tremendous potential.

Perry Fewell replaced Sheridan for the 2010 season, and for one year anyway the defense improved. Perhaps the drafting of Jason Pierre-Paul and Linval Joseph in the first two rounds of the draft had something to do with that. Eli continued to perform at peak level (his elite 82.4 Pro Football Focus passing grade was the first of his career) and the Giants bounced back to 10-6. That team should have gone to the playoffs. It didn’t because of a seventh-round draft pick, punter Matt Dodge, whose awful-in-every-way punt to DeSean Jackson with a minute to play after the defense had blown a 31-10 lead in only 7 minutes of game time snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The Giants finished in a tie with the Eagles for the NFC East title (which the Eagles won because they defeated the Giants twice) and in a tie with Green Bay for the second Wild Card (which Green Bay won because they had beaten the Giants 45-17 a week earlier).

The 2011 season

By the end of the 2010 season, it was difficult to know what to make of the Giants. They seemed to have more talent than the results they had gotten, which seemed to indict the coaching staff. Nonetheless, the Giants signed Tom Coughlin to a one-year extension in July 2011.

The Giants didn’t get much help from the 2011 draft. Their only pick of note was first-rounder Prince Amukamara, who had several solid years as a Giant but who played little as a rookie. That was all right, though, because Jason Pierre-Paul in his second season tore up NFL offenses with 16.5 sacks, making first-team All-Pro. The Giants lost several free agents of note, though, including Steve Smith, Kevin Boss, and Barry Cofield, and their only addition of note was punter Steve Weatherford.

There was one other addition of note. Undrafted free agent wide receiver Victor Cruz had wowed the Giants in 2010 training camp, including a 3-TD game against the Jets. He made the team and appeared briefly in three games without catching a pass before a hamstring injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. Cruz was back in 2011. Could he be a productive NFL receiver when the bell rang? 82 catches, 1,536 yards, 9 TDs, 7 100-yard games, and a second-team All-Pro selection later, the Giants had their answer. Eli Manning had his best year as a pro, with a career-high 90.1 PFF passing grade, 4,933 passing yards, and an amazing 70 big-time throws (as far as I can tell, the highest ever recorded by PFF).

The 2011 Giants were probably not a better team overall than the 2010 Giants. They were luckier, in at least two ways, and unlike the previous Super Bowl winner that we discussed in the previous article, their luck was pure luck rather than being the residue of design. First, they only finished 9-7, vs. 10-6 for the 2010 team. The defense in its second year under Fewell regressed from 11th to 19th in points allowed. Yet in a down year for the NFC East, the Giants were the only team above .500 and won the division. (They were only 3-3 vs. the NFC. East so it’s not as if they outplayed their division rivals.)

The Giants started the season strong at 6-2, then faltered with four consecutive losses, albeit three of them to strong playoff teams. Sitting at .500 the Giants had one of two signature games during that season, in Dallas. The lead went back and forth all game but the Giants trailed 34-22 with 5:52 left. They drove and scored on an 8-yard pass from Manning to tight end Jake Ballard to close to 34-29, then the defense held and got the ball back to Eli with 2:20 to go. The Giants drove again, and Brandon Jacobs scored around the right end. With a 2-point conversion, the Giants led 37-34 with 0:51 left and things seemed to be in hand.

But of course, they weren’t. Tony Romo completed 22, 6, and 23-yard passes to get Dallas into 47-yard field goal range, but JPP, who had sacked Romo for a safety early in the game, blocked the field goal attempt and the Giants escaped with a victory. Still, the Giants came right back with a terrible 23-10 loss at home to 5-8 Washington in which their only TD came in the last minute of the game.

That set up a Week 15 matchup with the Jets as the crux of the season. The Jets dominated early, had a 7-0 lead, and had the Giants backed up to their 1-yard line. That’s when Victor Cruz made the signature play of his career on third-and-10:

The 99-yard score propelled the Giants to a 29-14 victory, setting up a final-week showdown at home against the Cowboys with the Division title and playoffs on the line. The Giants jumped out to a 21-0 lead, allowed Dallas to close within 21-14 in the fourth quarter, and then scored 10 points to put the Cowboys away and win the division.

The Giants didn’t have to be “road warriors” this time in the playoffs, not just yet anyway, because they had won their division. They were the clear fourth seed behind 15-1 Green Bay, 13-3 San Francisco, and 13-3 New Orleans, all of whom had defeated them in the regular season. They hosted the Wild Card game against NFC South runner-up Atlanta.

The Falcons took it to the Giants in the first half, going ahead 2-0 when Manning was called for intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety. It could have been worse, but Atlanta QB Matt Ryan was stuffed by LB Michael Boley and Linval Joseph on a fourth-and-1 sneak at the Giants 24. The Giants finally scored in the second quarter with a 4-yard Manning pass to Nicks and then a third-quarter field goal put them up 10-2.

The game turned for good late in the third quarter when once again Ryan was stuffed on a fourth down QB sneak deep in Giants territory, this time by JPP and LB Chase Blackburn. The Giants took over, and three plays later, the tremendous YAC ability of Nicks put the game away. Manning hit Nicks on a shallow crosser just past the first down marker. Nicks turned upfield and somehow managed to split three defenders on his way to a 72-yard TD:

The Giants won going away, 24-2. Their reward was another playoff trip to Lambeau, this time to face Aaron Rodgers rather than Brett Favre. It didn’t matter, the result was the same. In fact the Giants shocked the NFL world by winning handily, 37-20. Once again it was Nicks doing major damage. First, he caught an intermediate pass from Manning, bounced off a tackler, and took it 66 yards for the go-ahead score:

After a Packers TD and Lawrence Tynes field goal, it seemed that the Giants would head to the locker room at the half up 13-10. They got another chance though with time running out. Eschewing a short pass to set up a long field goal attempt, Manning instead threw a Hail Mary that Nicks corralled in the end zone as time expired:

The Giants gradually pulled away in the fourth quarter for a shocking 37-20 victory over the top-seeded Packers.

This is where the Giants’ second gargantuan piece of luck occurred. The Giants’ opponent in the NFC Championship Game would be either New Orleans or San Francisco. Both teams had beaten the Giants in the regular season, but the Saints’ explosive offense was a bad matchup for the Giants’ porous defense, and the Superdome was a tough place to play during the Drew Brees era. The 49ers had a less fearsome offense with Alex Smith, and the Giants had already shown they could hang with them. The 49ers and Saints staged one of the greatest back-and-forth playoff games ever, but in the end San Francisco prevailed. The Giants surely were happy to be making a return trip to San Francisco than one to New Orleans.

The NFC Championship Game was a brutal contest. Vernon Davis gave the Giants fits, catching two touchdown passes of 73 and 28 yards. That was pretty much the entire San Francisco offense - Alex Smith had only 95 passing yards the rest of the game, although San Francisco did churn out 150 yards on the ground, with only a field goal to show for it. The Giants offense was doing better, if doing better is defined not to include your quarterback getting killed. Manning passed for 350 yards and 2 touchdowns, one for 6 yards to tight end Bear Pascoe and one for 17 yards to Mario Manningham. He paid the price, though. Here are the pressure statistics for the game:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Manning was pressured 42 times, sacked 7 times, and hit 7 other times. Defensive ends Ray McDonald and Justin Smith in particular had a “field” day - and I mean that literally, because on one of the plays Manning was driven to the turf, he got up with his helmet askew and a piece of the turf stuck to it. The abuse went on for the entire game, but the game got to overtime, and finally Lawrence Tynes kicked the Giants to the Super Bowl for the second time in five years after sixth-round draft pick Jacquian Williams stripped the ball from punt returner Kyle Williams:

Giants-Patriots, Part Deux

Having run the gauntlet of 15-1 Green Bay and 13-3 San Francisco on the road, the Giants found themselves once against matched up with New England in the Super Bowl. We tend to lump the two Super Bowls together, but this Patriots team was not seen as the seemingly invincible juggernaut that the 18-0 2007 team was. In fact, after the Giants knocked them off their perch that year, New England was developing a reputation for choking in big games. They had won the Super Bowl in three of four years early in the previous decade, but they had not won one since 2004 despite being in the playoffs almost every year. They had barely gotten by Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game, requiring a fourth quarter comeback to do it. Thus, the Super Bowl seemed like a more even matchup than the previous one had been, especially given the Giants building reputation for knocking off elite teams in the post-season.

This was a game of momentum swings (you can watch the full game here). The Giants had the early advantage, driving to the New England 33 on a 19-yard Manning pass to Nicks on their first possession before losing yardage on three consecutive plays, two of them sacks of Manning, before having to punt. Steve Weatherford’s punt was downed at the 6, and on New England’s first play from scrimmage, Justin Tuck pressured Tom Brady up the middle. Brady, in the end zone with no one open, threw deep up the middle with no receivers nearby and was called for intentional grounding, giving the Giants a safety and a 2-0 lead:

When the Giants got the ball back, Manning drove them the length of the field, the biggest play being a 24-yard run by Ahmad Bradshaw. A 2-yard Eli pass to Victor Cruz gave the Giants a touchdown and a 9-0 lead early in the second quarter.

The momentum then shifted to New England. Brady drove the Patriots down to the Giants 11 but New England had to kick a field goal to make it 9-3. The teams exchanged punts, and with New England getting the ball back with four minutes left in the half, Brady drove them downfield, finally throwing a 4-yard TD pass to running back Danny Woodhead with 0:15 for a 10-9 Patriots halftime lead.

When the second half began, New England got the ball to start, and Brady drove them 79 yards for another TD, this one on a 12-yard pass to tight end Aaron Hernandez, for a 17-9 lead. Things were looking bleak at this point for the Giants, who had allowed the Patriots to put up 17 straight points. Manning got the momentum back a little bit, though, driving the Giants to the Patriots’ 20, and Tynes’ 38-yard field goal got them back to within a touchdown of the lead, 17-12.

After forcing New England to go three-and-out on the next possession, the Giants got the ball back near midfield and drove for another Tynes field goal to cut the deficit to 17-15. Then came one of the great plays in Giants history. The Patriots drove almost to midfield at the start of the fourth quarter, at which point Brady dropped back to pass. He was immediately pressured up the middle by Linval Joseph, who got hold of his jersey but couldn’t sack him. Brady rolled out to his right, spotted future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski deep downfield, and let it fly. This was going to be the Patriots’ payback to the Giants for the helmet catch four years earlier.

One person had other ideas, though. Chase Blackburn had been a solid if unspectacular linebacker for the Giants after joining them in 2005 as an undrafted free agent. After the 2011 NFL lockout ended in July, he was not invited to camp and took a job as a substitute eighth grade math teacher. He did not rejoin the Giants until late November, after an injury to Michael Boley. Blackburn did the math in his head and figured out where and when to jump, and the rest is history:

In fairness, Gronkowski was nursing an ankle injury, but Blackburn’s perfect positioning and timing (just like David Tyree’s four years earlier) made the difference, and the Giants had the ball back. The fourth quarter was tense, with the two teams exchanging five-minute drives that got into their opponent’s territory, but never quite close enough for a field goal attempt.

Finally, with 3:46 to go the Giants got the ball back on their own 12-yard line after a punt. On first down, Manning threw the second most famous pass in Giants history:

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had instructed his defensive backs to make Eli throw to Mario Mannigham. Manningham was a good receiver. During his three year run as a Giants starter, he had Darius Slayton-like stats (825, 944, 712 yards, and 5, 9, 7 TDs), and like Slayton he was a deep threat. But where Slayton has been the Giants’ leading receiver for four of his five seasons, Manningham was only WR3 on the depth chart behind Nicks and Cruz. You couldn’t blame Belichick for his coverage plan.

Regardless of the plan, the coverage was pretty good. Manningham got a step on rookie cornerback Sterling Moore, and with safety Patrick Chung closing in, Manning’s beautiful pass dropped into the arms of Manningham in the only place it could and have a chance to be completed. Manningham did an amazing job of securing the ball and toe-tapping the turf in-bounds for a 38-yard gain. Two more completions to Manningham, for 16 and 2 yards, two to Nicks for 14 and 4 yards, and a sprinkling of Bradshaw runs, and the Giants were on the Patriots 4-yard line with 1:04 left. Bradshaw reluctantly dropped into the end zone for what would be the winning score when the Patriots let him through to conserve the clock, and with a missed two-point conversion the Giants led 21-17 with 0:57 left.

New England had one last gasp, getting to midfield before a Brady Hail Mary was tipped by Giants defenders and almost grabbed by Gronkowski before hitting the ground. The Giants improbably were Super Bowl champs again.

What made this a championship team?

You aren’t quite what your record says you are

The famous saying from Bill Parcells certainly contains some wisdom. But don’t tell that to the members of the 2011 Giants. They were clearly not the best team in the playoffs. No one would argue that they were better than the 15-1 Packers, 13-3 49ers, or 13-3 Patriots, all of whom they defeated. Heck, this Giants team had to score 10 points in the final quarter of their final game just to get into the playoffs. They were the 56th-ranked Super Bowl winner in history in DVOA, ahead of only the 1970 Baltimore Colts.

Parcells’ statement would imply that this Giants team was not as good as the 12-4 2008 team. But the 2008 team lost a key player and then folded like a cheap suit. The 2011 team was more fortunate in the sense that they didn’t have any mid-season injuries to key players. But they were no match defensively for the 2008 team, and yet when the bell rang, the defense held up against four good playoff teams. After the Super Bowl ended, I didn’t say, “Well a Super Bowl championship is nice, but it’s not very satisfying since they barely sneaked into the playoffs at 9-7. With that record they didn’t deserve it.” Nope. If loving a 9-7 Super Bowl champ is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

The 2023 Giants were not a good team. A 6-11 record establishes that beyond doubt. Imagine, though, if that 6-11 record had occurred in 2022, on the heels of the 2021 meltdown, and that it was followed by the 10-8-1 season that the Giants actually had the year before. The narrative would be completely different: “Brian Daboll and Joe Schoen are slowly building a Super Bowl contender.” Instead, the 2022 playoff season seems to no longer have existed in the minds of some Giants fans, and the 2023 team was the “real” Giants.

Here is my list of the three best players on the 2023 Giants: Dexter Lawrence, Andrew Thomas, Saquon Barkley. All of them missed games in 2023 and were not at full strength when they returned. They also lost their first- and second-string quarterbacks and several other starting offensive linemen for part of the season. Yet they beat two playoff teams, Green Bay and Philadelphia, almost beat the Eagles a second time, and would have beaten Buffalo, the Jets, and the Rams if not for an awful mistake or decision in each one. They were better than their record. It’s fair to say that the 2022 team wasn’t as good as its record. One successful Randy Bullock field goal and that 2022 team finishes 8-8-1 and misses the playoffs. The real Giants at this point are probably a middling team.

It’s precisely because the 2011 Giants weren’t a great team that they’re so interesting. How can the present Giants get there? Let’s begin with: What were the 2011 Giants good at? Pro Football Focus ranked them No. 4 in passing (behind Green Bay, New Orleans, and New England), and No. 3 in receiver route running (more on that just below). The defense was only No. 11 overall, but was No. 5 in pass rush. Let’s look at those aspects in more detail.

Depth at wide receiver is essential

Plaxico Burress was clearly a difference maker for the Giants. When he went down in 2008, the Giants offense was a shell of its former self. Amani Toomer, who had been that guy early in the decade, was nearing the end of the road and no longer capable of being WR1 by 2008. In 2007, though, with Burress, Toomer, Steve Smith, and Tyree, Eli had many different ways to beat an opponent.

In 2011, Hakeem Nicks was that go-to big guy, having his best season with 1,192 receiving yards. Nicks was only 6 feet tall, but he played big and had the combination of strength, moves, and speed that made him a tough assignment for any defensive back. In the 2011 playoffs, he dominated:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Those totals included 75, 86, 7, and 37 YAC. Nicks was more dangerous after he got the ball than before it. Unfortunately foot and knee injuries shortened his career, and by 2014 he was gone to Indianapolis. 2014 was also the year of Victor Cruz’ effectively career-ending patellar tendon injury in Philadelphia. Imagine a trio consisting of a healthy Nicks, Cruz, and rookie Odell Beckham Jr. in 2014. Wow.

The Giants have not had a top-flight big wide receiver since then. They hoped Kenny Golladay would be that - and Golladay was, earlier in his career - but he was done by the time he reached the Giants. In this year’s draft, the consensus top three quarterbacks are likely to be gone at No. 6, where the Giants draft, and in any case, the vibes coming from the Giants are that the Giants are not looking to use a pick that high on a quarterback. In that case, a big talented X receiver would seem to be just what the doctor ordered for this offense. Here is a comparison of four of the leading prospects from @TheoAsh on X:

Credit: @TheoAsh

The most prototypical X-type receiver in the group is Rome Odunze (6-foot-3, 215 pounds). The low drop rate and outstanding contested catch rate stand out. At the present time on most boards he is WR3 behind Marvin Harrison Jr. and Malik Nabers, so he may be there when the Giants pick. Adding one of these players to Darius Slayton, Wan’Dale Robinson, and Jalin Hyatt could be a big step toward a productive 2024 Giants offense.

Just get to OK in pass blocking

What the Giants were NOT good at in 2011 was pass blocking. In fact they ranked dead last in the NFL with a PFF pass block grade of 57.8. That however was worlds better than the 43.4 grade of the 2023 OL. Among linemen who played regularly, only Andrew Thomas (80.4) and Tyre Phillips (64.5) had at least average pass blocking grades. In 2013 four of the five OL starters had at least an average grade: Will Beatty (68.3), Kevin Boothe (67.0), David Baas (63.0), and Chris Snee (61.9). David Diehl had a terrible 39.6, having moved inside to guard by this time. That team still won the Super Bowl, and Eli Manning had his career best year (90.1) passing behind it.

The Giants at the moment have one great OL in Andrew Thomas. They don’t need five. They don’t even need three. Just get to the point where four of the five starters can play consistent football. Then, with a good group of receivers, whoever is the quarterback will at least have a fighting chance. Will that QB be capable of peak Eli? We won’t know until the line becomes adequate.

Bolster the pass rush

Here are the 2011 Giants pass rush stats for the edge and interior defensive linemen:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Now that was a defensive line. Three edge defenders with double-digit sacks. JPP averaged a sack and a QB hit per game, and he batted down 10 passes. The entire Giants front line this year batted down 11 passes. The interior was stout too, with Linval Joseph and Chris Canty. Where have you gone, JPP, our Giants nation turns its lonely eyes to you? Well, that JPP has probably left and gone away, but how about a free agent like Josh Allen, or Brian Burns, or Danielle Hunter, or Bryce Huff? Or maybe a second round draft pick such as Chris Braswell, Jonah Elliss, or Chop Robinson?

We’ll take a 9-8 or 10-7 Super Bowl team in 2025 if we can get it.