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Cover 3: What we learned about the Giants in 2020

COVER-3

In this edition of Cover 3, the Giants.com crew reflects on the first season of the Joe Judge era.

John Schmeelk: In the end, the Giants weren't good enough to make the playoffs. With all the talk about the Sunday night game, there was a way the Giants could have made Philadelphia's strategy irrelevant in the grand scheme of things - win seven games.

Ironically, the Giants would have won seven games if they held onto a 21-10 lead at Philadelphia on Oct. 22. On that day, the Giants failed to make enough plays on both sides of the ball to secure the victory they needed against a division opponent that would have given them seven wins and a playoff berth.

It is only one example, but there are others when the Giants could have won another game or two and came up short. Every other NFC East team probably can say the same thing. Washington did enough to win the division and the three other teams did not.

So why were the Giants unable to do that in 2020? In seven of their 10 losses, the Giants scored fewer than 17 points. They surpassed 24 points only twice and never had a 300-yard passer. They finished next to last in the NFL in points and yards per game.

It is impossible to win with any level of consistency, especially against the better teams in the league, when a team cannot generate more points. A young offensive line has to continue to improve in pass protection and the team must get more from their perimeter playmakers. It takes explosive plays to win games and the Giants only had 36 completions of 20+ yards (only the Bengals had fewer). Perhaps this was less of a reflection on Daniel Jones than what was happening around him.

The team seemed to have found something defensively, using a powerful front, multiple safeties and a zone-heavy scheme to slow down opposing offenses. They made teams earn their way up and down the field. Only four teams allowed fewer than the Giants' 43 passes of 20+ yards. Patrick Graham looks like an up-and-comer as a defensive coordinator, and they have a good base to build on.

In what may be the most significant revelation from 2020, the Giants appear to have found a long-term solution at head coach. Joe Judge has taken to the CEO role of a head coach, managing all aspects of the team while letting his assistant coaches run their units. He has a philosophy, is flexible, steady, smart and has an obsessive attention to detail while being able to connect to his players on a personal level.

Judge's vision on how to win is fairly clear. He wants smart, tough players who can handle shifting schemes each week and guys who will win up front. Like the Steelers or Ravens, he wants his team to be the more physical team and to win the trenches when they take the field each week.

As the Giants' front office continue to build the roster, it will be important to keep that in mind when trying to figure out what players they may target in the draft or free agency. The foundation of that identity was built this season, but there is still a lot more work to do.

Re-live the most memorable moments and images from the first year of the Joe Judge era.

Dan Salomone: While teams like the Chiefs and Packers washed windows on their skyscrapers, the Giants worked on their foundation in 2020. That's how you get back to the top – not only for a season, but for many seasons.

That was Joe Judge's stated goal when he took over as head coach one year ago this week. He didn't promise to bring any magic wand to the organization or feed fans with the schematic flavor of the year. Rather, he set his sights on improving one percent each day. Although it may not have looked like it on the outside when the Giants started 0-5 (and then 1-7), Judge said after the regular-season finale that he learned more about the team during that stretch than he did during its four-game winning streak - one that kept the NFC East race alive until the 256th and final game of an unprecedented NFL season.

So, what's Phase II of the construction project? Judge was a little less forthcoming with those blueprints in his season-ending press conference.

"I have kind of a vision internally that I know where we're going, and I have a process and steps," he said. "Obviously, we have to improve on the field with some tangible results. We could look at that. We have to make sure we make progress across the board with personnel and schematics. But I have kind of measures in the rungs along the way that I kind of keep tabs on. I make sure the team is moving in the right direction. Not to be kind of evasive with that answer right there, but I'm not going to set out some identified goal for everyone to go ahead and measure us against on a yearly basis."

You'll know it when he takes out the Windex and squeegee.

Lance Medow: The 2020 Giants' season can be summed up in this way: walking that fine line between winning and losing. Many will focus on the late three-game losing streak for a team that went 4-2 against the division and finished one game out of first place, But it's really what happened early in the season that came back to haunt the team. Consider that 10 of New York's 16 games were decided by one possession (eight points or less) and the Giants went 5-5 in those games. In fact, six of those 10 games were decided by three points and in three of those six, they blew double-digits leads. When you play that many close games, it's the little things that add up and get magnified. The Giants had opportunities to control their own destiny and let those chances slip away earlier by not closing out games.

Overall, it's fair to say the defense exceeded expectations. Given they were implementing a new scheme during an unconventional off-season, added Logan Ryan right before the start of the season and didn't have a premiere pass rusher (with multiple double-digit sack years), it says a lot about where the unit finished. Compared to 2019, from a statistical standpoint, the defense essentially improved across the board and finished tied for 12th in the NFL with 40 sacks and tied for 10th with 22 takeaways. Several rookies contributed in their first year and received valuable snaps, including Xavier McKinney, Darnay Holmes, Tae Crowder, Carter Coughlin and Cam Brown. There's a lot to like in terms of where the overall group started to where it finished, but the key will be maintaining continuity considering Leonard Williams, Dalvin Tomlinson and Kyler Fackrell are scheduled to be free agents.

Although the defense made strides, that unit faced a lot of pressure with a minimal margin for error, given the offense averaged just 17.5 points per game (31st in the NFL). The Giants scored less than 20 points in nine of their 16 games and went 2-7 in those contests. That's no coincidence. Neither is the fact that 11 of this season's 14 playoff teams finished among the league's top 14 teams in scoring. There were a variety of factors that contributed to Giants' low output: red zone struggles, third-down inefficiency and turnovers. New York's offense scored just 25 touchdowns in 16 games; they had 41 the year before. The Week 17 win over the Cowboys was their first win of the season in which they lost the turnover battle after going 0-5 in that situation.

It was a down year for the entire NFC East with each team starting multiple quarterbacks, leading to a rare seven-win champion. That's more of a reason why it's imperative to take care of your own business as opposed to relying on outside circumstances.