It’s weird enough that Tom Coughlin is gone after a remarkable 12-year run with the Giants. What’s even weirder is that’s about the only thing that’s changed. Coughlin’s old offensive coordinator, Ben McAdoo, got promoted to head coach, so the offense won’t change. And McAdoo kept the same defensive and special teams coordinators. Eli Manning and most of the same core of players return, too.
Oh, there was a $200 million spending spree in free agency on defensive players — pretty smart considering the Giants’ defense was the third-worst statistically in the history of the NFL last year. That should obviously help. But mostly, the Giants are hoping a younger, fresher approach will lift the team out of the doldrums of three straight losing seasons and four straight of missing the playoffs. The owners say they weren’t blaming Coughlin, just that “it was time” to try something new. They hope that the change — and $200 million worth of new defensive players — will be enough to help Manning to lead them on one last championship run.
It’s still Manning’s team, now more than ever considering he’s put together his best back-to-back seasons in the two years with McAdoo running the offense. The quick-throw, short-passing game is perfect for a QB who is brilliant at making reads and getting his receivers in the right positions but has tended to force things when a play takes too long to develop.
It also helps that he still has the incomparable Odell Beckham Jr. to be his big-play threat and one of the most dangerous receivers in the league. While it hasn’t slowed Beckham, the Giants still don’t have a reliable No. 2 receiver. They hope rookie Sterling Shepard, their second-round pick, will immediately have an impact (and be more reliable than their old No. 2, Rueben Randle, who lost Manning’s trust by too often running sloppy or flat-wrong routes). The Giants also are dreaming of the return of Victor Cruz, who has missed most of the last two seasons with knee and calf injuries. That’s a longshot, though.
What would really boost their offense is a reliable running game. They didn’t develop one until late last season when they abandoned their ill-conceived four-running back rotation and let Rashad Jennings become their workhorse. It’s unknown if that’s in McAdoo’s plans again. It would also help if they got some better blocking out of their offensive line, where the right side of guard John Jerry and tackle Marshall Newhouse has been in need of an upgrade that hasn’t yet come.
It’s hard to truly describe how ineffective the Giants’ defense was last season, but consider this: Their pass rush was virtually nonexistent until Jason Pierre-Paul showed up and immediately became their best pass rusher, four months after a fireworks accident that cost him most of his right hand. It also shows the Giants’ desperation that their top free-agent priority was bringing JPP back. JPP was a disruptive force during his eight games last season — and was a big reason why the now-departed Robert Ayers had a career-high 9.5 sacks. But at least this year the Giants got him some help. They beefed up their line with the high-profile additions of end Olivier Vernon and tackle Damon Harrison. Those players, plus the healthy return of tackle Johnathan Hankins, should give the Giants their best front line since their last Super Bowl team (2011).
They also boosted their secondary by signing Janoris Jenkins and drafting Ohio State’s Eli Apple in the first round. Together with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, they could be as good as any trio of corners in the league. Sure, there are issues at linebacker — where they have a cast of unproven characters trying to fill the (oft-injured) shoes of the now-retired Jon Beason — and safety, where they’ll head into camp having no idea who will play alongside Landon Collins (third-round pick Darian Thompson might be the best bet). But at least they should have the two elements that make up the best defenses — a strong pass rush and the ability to cover. They had neither of those last season, which is why they set an NFL record by blowing five fourth-quarter leads.
After years of mediocre-to-miserable special-teams play, the Giants not only found some consistency last season, but they also discovered some weapons. The biggest addition was Dwayne Harris, who out of necessity doubled as their third receiver. His most important role, though, was as the kick and punt returner, where he excelled and even scored two touchdowns. Giants returners hadn’t really been a threat to reach the end zone for years.
Harris will be back this season, and so will all of the Giants’ specialists. They re-signed kicker Josh Brown at age 37 because he’s shown absolutely no sign of slowing down. Maybe he doesn’t have the leg strength that he used to, but his kickoffs are fine. And much more important, he’s made 91.7 percent of his field goals in his three seasons with the Giants, including a career-best 93.8 (30-of-32) last year.
A first-year coach with a team he believes can immediately be a contender doesn’t need to mess around with a young, unproven kicker. Brown is becoming one of the most reliable in the league.
The Giants also return their young punter, Brad Wing, who was acquired from Pittsburgh in a trade last year and replaced the reliable — but older — Steve Weatherford. Wing was terrific in his first season, showing off everything — a booming leg, great directional kicking ability and a knack for landing punts inside the 20 (where 33 of his 76 landed).
McAdoo sure did step into a good situation. He was handed a proven quarterback, a dangerous receiving weapon and a veteran group on offense that knows his system. And then he watched as the Giants went crazy buying new defensive players.
That last part may be the key, because in fairness to Coughlin, the Giants simply didn’t have enough good players on defense in his last few years. They were in nearly every game last season and blew those five leads in the fourth quarter. If they just could’ve protected three of those leads, they would’ve been 9–7 instead of 6–10, maybe won the NFC East and Coughlin would still have a job.
With the ability to mount a fourth-quarter pass rush and cover, they should be able to protect those leads now. And the offense, which ranked eighth in the NFL last season, should be at least as good as long as Manning stays healthy. They were closer than you think last year in a terrible division. But even if the NFC East is better this season, the Giants should be good enough to contend. How good? Well, the Giants’ dirty little secret is that by almost any measure they’ve been the most injured team in the NFL over the last five years. McAdoo hopes to change that by overhauling the Giants’ strength and conditioning program among many other behind-the-scenes changes he’s made. If it works, they have the players to be a 10-win team. They don’t have a ton of depth, though, so in the end they’ll need them all.