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Special teams units adjust to 'totally different' wind at MetLife Stadium

Thomas McGaughey before a week 4 NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks Monday October 2, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey
(Evan Pinkus / New York Giants)
Thomas McGaughey before a week 4 NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks Monday October 2, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey (Evan Pinkus / New York Giants)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – In 34 seasons as the Giants' home, Giants Stadium was known as much for its unpredictable swirling winds as it was for thunderous crowds, great games, and championship teams.

Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells has long insisted the key to defeating Washington in the 1986 NFC Championship Game was the Giants winning the coin toss and taking the wind at their backs – instead of the ball – in the fourth quarter. That was an era when few teams won the toss and deferred possession until the second half. The Giants jumped out to a 10-0 lead on their first two offensive series and won, 17-0, as Washington quarterback Jay Schroeder completed only 20 of 50 passes in the gusts.

Now the winds have moved next door to MetLife Stadium, and last week they wreaked havoc with the Giants' punt returners in a 14-7 victory against the current Washington team.

Rookie Eric Gray, the team's primary returner all season, and wide receiver Sterling Shepard, who was asked to field punts for the first time in his eight-year career, each muffed a punt. Shepard's miscue was recovered by the Commanders and led to their only touchdown, on a 21-yard drive. The Giants later used another veteran wideout as a first-time returner in Darius Slayton.

"It was difficult," Shepard said. "Punts ain't an easy thing and in my first time being back there, I definitely understood how those guys have to prepare for it and an appreciation for it. Those guys catch a punt and everybody's just like, 'Oh, that's what you're supposed to do.' But you know what I mean? If something goes wrong back there, it can cost you the game. I mean, those guys, I really respect what they do."

View photos of the Giants on the practice field ahead of the Week 8 matchup against the New York Jets.

Ironically, Washington's punter is Tress Way, who was Shepard's teammate at the University of Oklahoma in 2012. Way is a left-footed punter who kicks a funky ball.

"I remember those guys back there struggling during practice, trying to catch his punts," Shepard said. "Definitely wasn't an ideal day for my debut back there, but I don't really make excuses. I get a couple at practice here and there. So, I just got to be ready to go back there and field the punt. Like I said, I gotta be ready at all times. So, if that's what they call me to do, then I got to be ready for that."

It would help to do it on a calm day without the breeze blowing in the stadium like last Sunday.

"It was waving around back there, for sure," Shepard said. "It would start out to the right and end up all the way back on the left side of the field. Like I said, I have an appreciation for guys going back there and doing it. Just to try to help out the team any way I could when Gray went down. It's unfortunate that I didn't come up with that one. I'm still beating myself up about it."

Special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said conditions for punt returners are routinely difficult in MetLife.

"It's always tough," he said. "That was a tough day Sunday. Not just for the guys catching punts, you look at the kickers, it was a tough day. You look at their guy, Joey (Slye) struggled on the same end (kicker) Graham (Gano) struggled on. Their guy put a ball on the ground because it was just a tough day. It was gusty winds and then you got two power punters that are left footed, which is not easy to catch. It was a whole process and it's never a good thing when you have to go through those things, but that's just ball. That happens. Especially here in the Meadowlands. I mean, that's what you are going to deal with at times. I was here before when it was 10 times worse than this, so I mean it's just something you've got to deal with."

McGaughey said the unpredictability of MetLife's winds has been compounded because of the offseason razing of the old Meadowlands Racetrack, which stood close to the stadium's northwest corner.

"It's totally different," McGaughey said. "When they knocked down the racetrack over there, it changed the whole wind pattern to one end of the stadium. It used to be a definite wind pattern in the stadium and once they knocked the race track down, that far end to the left of our bench is just totally different.

"The wind swirls down on that end and it pushes back, so it's just different and that's something we've just got to get used to."

Gray was placed on injured reserve this week with a calf injury. The Giants' return saga continued with the practice squad signing of Gunner Olszewski, who will likely be elevated for the Giants' Sunday home game vs. the Jets. Olszewski impressed the Giants in a workout.

"He did a good job," McGaughey said. "He's typical Gunner. The same thing you see on tape, he does a good job of tracking the ball and excellent punt catcher. Early in his career, he had a really, really, really good start. He does a great job of getting the ball vertical, so good player."

Olszewski has 75 career punt returns, including a 70-yard touchdown for the New England Patriots in 2020, when he was a first-team all-pro. But Olszewski also has nine career fumbles, losing four, including two this season before he was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"That's something you are always trying to get better at," McGaughey said. "Ball security is something that we work every day. I talked to him, had a good talk with him about it and I think he's in a good space, so we just got to keep working at it. That's all it is.

"We'll get them all ready. We catch balls in the stadium, we'll catch them out here (on the practice field). Obviously, we know it's windy out here, so that's just something that we'll do moving forward, just making sure we get acclimated better to it and just to be able to use it to our advantage. Just being able to go over there and catch balls in the stadium."

View rare photos from the local rivalry between the Giants and Jets.

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