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Cover 3: Reflections on the 2018 season

In this week’s edition of “Cover 3” on Giants.com, we give our closing thoughts on the Giants’ 2018 season:

JOH SCHMEELK: The Giants’ season has come to an end. They finished 5-11 with a lot to analyze now that the season is over. There’s no doubt the Giants played better in their final eight games than they did before the bye. Their 4-4 record versus 1-7 to start the season is obvious but their point differential is more significant: +12 in the second half of the season versus -55 in the first half. Their records in both halves of the year were pretty accurate with their point differential.

Why? The easy answer is turnover differential. In every one of their wins, the Giants were +2 or better in turnover ratio, which is a hard thing to have to count on to win games. The Giants were -4 in turnover differential the first half of the season, and +6 in the second half of the year. Their defense scored some points and gave the offense better field position. The Giants scored about nine more points in the second half (18.75 vs 27.4) of the season once the offensive line began playing better.

The improved play up front allowed the Giants to run the ball more consistently and therefore more frequently, which led to a more balance offense. The team played with more two tight end and fullback packages, and used a lot more play action from under center rather than straight drop backs from shotgun, which endanger the quarterback more. The team found a way to be successful offensively consistently in the team’s final eight games thanks to more competent play up front. Manning was sacked 31 times in the first half of the season versus only 16 times the second half of the year.

The defense did struggle to close games at the end of the season (they went 3-6 in what I would consider close games), and an infusion of talent, especially pass rushers, will no doubt be a focus this offseason. The Giants defense allowed just under 26 points per game in the final eight games of the year while facing backup quarterbacks like Nick Mullens, Chase Daniel, Mark Sanchez and Ryan Fitzpatrick (all wins). This is a red flag moving forward.

All in all, the Giants became the team in their final eight games I thought they would be at the start of the year. They played like a borderline top ten offense thanks to more competent play up front, but struggled on defense in the secondary and getting to the quarterback. They were an improved team on the field compared to 2017, and had a much better culture in the locker room. If they continue to progress on the path they are on, they could seriously compete for a playoff spot in 2019.

DAN SALOMONE: Some people had high expectations for the Giants heading into the 2018 season. Others had low ones. I came in just looking for improvement from a 2017 campaign that was one of the lowest points in the history of a franchise founded in 1925. That sounds like a low bar for an organization that has four Lombardi Trophies in its foyer, but I wasn’t thinking strictly in terms of wins and losses for a single season. I was thinking big picture. General manager Dave Gettleman came in looking to re-establish the championship culture he has grown accustomed to in his career, while new coach Pat Shurmur repeated throughout the season that this team needs to “learn how to win again.” Lookin at things you can quantify, the Giants improved their win total by two games and made gains in nearly every major statistical category on both sides of the ball. The intangibles, though, make the biggest difference in getting to where the Giants want to go. The Giants aren’t there yet by any stretch, but they are certainly on a better course. A year from now, they should be even closer. Shurmur knows his players better. Just as importantly, he also has a year of working with his assistant coaches, too. Other than linebackers coach Bill McGovern, Shurmur had never worked with any of them.

“When you take these jobs, you really don’t know much about anything in the building other than the history and the tradition and some of the players, the ownership and the people in positions of authority,” Shurmur said in his season wrap-up press conference. “But having not worked with them, as coaches we get a feel for players and people after we work with them. So I certainly have a much better view of what this organization is, and I can help more or have more educated ideas as to what we can do moving forward because I know the players, and now I have a staff of guys that I’ve worked with. … I purposely didn’t hire some of my friends who are now no longer my friends, but I’m really pleased. And again, we can all grow, there’s things that we can all do better, but I’ve got a bunch of guys here that I’m looking forward to moving forward with.”

LANCE MEDOW: There’s a very fine line between winning and losing in the NFL. All you have to do is compare 2016 to 2018. In the former, the Giants went 11-5 but played 11 games decided by seven points or loss. They went 8-3 in those contests including 4-1 in games decided by three points or less. Flip the calendar forward two years, and this time the Giants played in 12 games decided by seven points or less, posting a 4-8 record including 2-4 in games decided by three points or less. Much like 2016, 2018 was also defined by close games. But unlike 2016, this season the Giants couldn’t close out those games consistently.  

Don’t misinterpret my words. In no way am I defending the results of 2018 or spinning things to make the record look much better than it is. I’d actually argue 2016 could have easily turned out very differently given all 11 games legitimately went down to the wire which wasn’t necessarily the case this season. The point is while it may appear that there’s a huge disparity between teams that make the playoffs and those that don’t, given the level of parity in the league and the constant number of close games, there’s not a huge divide. What separates the men from the boys is the ability to finish games and that’s where the 2018 Giants fell short across the board. Sometimes it was the defense not being able to make a stop, other times you can point to the offense failing to get into field goal range or finishing a drive with a touchdown and, in some cases, both. There’s plenty of examples across the board but the big looming question is why did, more often than not, the Giants end up on the wrong side of the score?

Several elements come to mind but the one at the top of the list is penalties. The Giants finished with 114 accepted penalties this season (tied for ninth most in the NFL) and committed at least ten penalties in four of their final six games. It’s no coincidence they went 1-3 in those contests. A number of offensive mishaps stalled drives throughout the season and, on the flip side, defensive penalties extended opposing drives such as Week 16 when the Giants were called for a pair of pass interference penalties during what turned out to be the Colts game-winning possession. As a means of comparison, in 2016, the Giants collected 88 penalties (tied for second fewest in the NFL). Combine that with the defense’s reliance on takeaways to cover up issues such as stopping the run, getting off the field on third down, and consistent pressure on the quarterback, and it’s very difficult to consistently win close contests. The Giants went 5-1 in games when they won the turnover battle but 0-10 in contests they lost in that category or drew even.

The Giants implemented new offensive and defensive schemes and completely revamped the roster in 2018. Less than 15 players from 2017’s group suited up for the team this past year. Sometimes things click instantaneously. Other times, it may take a season or two. With that being said, the production of the 2018 draft class, especially Saquon Barkley, as well as the wide receiver depth chart in the absence of Odell Beckham, improved play of the offensive line in the second half off the season and Aldrick Rosas’ overall campaign are all encouraging signs that the Giants can build off of in 2019. But, as we saw in 2016 and this past season, the ability to finish games will ultimately tell the whole story.

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