EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Every NFL game on Kickoff Weekend has an element of the unknown, but the Giants opener tomorrow against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville will include more mystery than most – most belonging to the visitors.
This will be their first game under new head coach Brian Daboll. The Giants have two new coordinators in Mike Kafka on offense and Wink Martindale on defense. Kafka will call the offensive plays, a duty he performed for the first time in the preseason. He is part of a coaching staff with 15 new members. Twenty-nine of the 53 players (54.7%) on the current roster are new to the team.
All this turnover was engineered by new general manager Joe Schoen and Daboll, whose arrival was precipitated by five consecutive losing seasons, including a 4-13 record in 2021 when the Giants lost their final six games.
The roster reconstruction is an ongoing process, but the Giants must be ready to play for keeps when the ball is kicked off. Why does Daboll believe they're ready for the regular season?
"I'd just say they've worked extremely hard," he said. "They've picked up the offense, the defense. The kicking game is fairly similar. They come out here, they give 100 percent every day in practice. I think they learn from their mistakes."
But he conceded first games are difficult to predict under the best of circumstances. Daboll can cite last season, when he was the offensive coordinator of a heavily favored Buffalo Bills team that lost a home game to Pittsburgh, 23-16.
"I don't think you ever really know - no matter where I've been - how opening day is going to go, whether it's a team that's won a Super Bowl or a team that hasn't won many games," Daboll said. "I think you do your best job to prepare the players both mentally and physically and do everything you can do to go out there and put your best foot forward and then go play a good game and not focus on 'What if this happened,' or 'If this bad play happened.' Just be very positive in your approach, be real, and just go out there and trust your preparation."
The Giants still have Daniel Jones at quarterback, Saquon Barkley in the backfield and Sterling Shepard, Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney playing wide receiver. But they are playing in a new system and will run plays dictated by Kafka, who spent the previous five years working in Kansas City for Andy Reid – who calls the Chiefs' plays.
Jones is confident the new arrangement will succeed.
"I think he's done a great job," Jones said of Kafka. "I thought he did a great job through the preseason and in training camp. I really enjoy working with him."
Kafka will call the plays from the coaches booth and not the sideline.
"It's a special opportunity," he said. "I definitely don't take that for granted. Any opportunity you can to call plays in the National Football League is an honor. I'm working to put my best foot forward and give our guys the best opportunity to be successful."
Daboll was chosen for his current job in part because of his success designing and directing the high-scoring Buffalo Bills offense from 2018-21. The new head coach remains an integral part of the planning process but will let Kafka decide which plays to run on game day.
"I think it's going to be collaborative," Kafka said. "When you are in the flow of a game, I think everyone has input and ideas. I welcome that, I love that. The best part of building that staff was all the ideas and everyone's vision of the game. Obviously, I've got to have a clear picture of what I'm feeling and what I'm seeing out there, but I'm always going to rely on the eyes of my staff and the coaches out there."
Daboll was a play caller for nine seasons, so he well understands the challenges Kafka faces. The last thing he wants to do is meddle and provide unnecessary advice.
"You really need silence on the headset because you have to do it so quick," Daboll said. "And there's a lot of things to think about when you're a play caller. And you might be thinking one thing's coming up, and then all of a sudden there's a sack. And now you've got to think of something totally different. Or you've got three calls in mind, and anytime – 'Well, think about this here.' Well, that's just as a play caller, 'I was just about to – now the time's running down.' So, I think it's important that in between series is really where you want to (talk to Kafka)."
Many successful coordinators become head coaches. One of the most important decisions they make is whether or not to continue calling plays, which is likely one of the primary reasons they ascended to the head chair.
Daboll was confident in giving up that responsibility because he was certain Kafka could excel at it.
"Mike is sharp," said Daboll. "He's played quarterback, and he understands the urgency of getting play calls in. And being around him through the preseason and the camps, I think he's done a really great job.
"I've asked a lot of guys that have done this job, and most of them are since retired, their input on things. Ultimately, I have to make the decision that I think works best for us, and in the preseason and what we've done out here at camp, I think Mike's done a good job. And we all work together. But there's got to be one person calling it, and that will be Mike."
Tomorrow, he gets his first big test.
View photos from practice as the Giants prepare for the season opener against the Titans.
*The Giants are 50-42-5 on opening day and, coincidentally, 50-42-5 in road openers. They are 33-27-5 in season-opening road games.
*However, the Giants have recently struggled on Kickoff Weekend, losing their last five and 10 of their last 11 season-opening games.
*This is the Giants' third consecutive opener against an AFC team, the first time that's ever happened. They began the last two seasons at home against Pittsburgh and Denver.
*The Giants are opening against an AFC opponent on the road for the first time since 2001, when they lost in Denver, 31-20.
*This is the Giants' second opener against the Titans franchise. The last one was in 1973, when the franchise was based in Houston and the Titans were called the Oilers. The Giants won in Yankee Stadium, 34-14, and went on to finish 2-11-1.
*The regular-season series is tied, 6-6. The Giants and Titans have split their last two meetings after each had five-game winning streaks in the series. The Giants won the first five games between 1973 and 1994. The Oilers/Titans won the next five games. The Giants broke that streak on Dec. 7, 2014, when they routed the Titans in Nashville, 36-7. Andre Williams rushed for 131 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown; Eli Manning threw a touchdown pass to Odell Beckham, Jr.; and Josh Brown kicked five field goals. The Giants didn't fare as well in their most recent meeting. On Dec. 16, 2018, they lost in MetLife Stadium, 17-0, their most recent shutout defeat. Derrick Henry rushed for 170 yards and two touchdowns.