The New York Giants' season ended with four minutes left in the fourth quarter in Week 5. On the next play, somehow, it got worse. On second down, the Giants lost Odell Beckham Jr. to a fractured ankle that could cost him the remainder of the 2017 season. He was the team's fourth wideout to be forced out of the game Sunday. After Beckham was carted off, a shellshocked Giants team tried to throw the ball, only for Eli Manning to be strip-sacked. The previously hapless Chargers recovered the fumble and scored a game-winning touchdown one minute later.
Either play would have been crushing; the Giants' playoff hopes were effectively nil as an 0-5 team with Beckham or a 1-4 team without him. To suffer both those blows in a matter of moments, though? Even the most pessimistic Giants fans would have struggled to conjure up a scenario this nightmarish before the season started. Before the season, ESPN's Football Power Index gave the Giants a 2.1 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl; now, FPI thinks they have a 3.8 percent chance of coming away with the first overall pick in the 2018 draft.
While the Giants had a successful 2016 season, their run into the playoffs overshadowed many of the problems with their roster and set unrealistic expectations for what was about to come next. The 2016 Giants were a flawed team with great luck; the 2017 Giants are a flawed team with terrible luck. Understanding how and why the Giants got into this mess may help your favorite team avoid the same fate.
The problems for the Giants start with one number. On the right are the 2016 playoff teams ranked by the number of players they drafted between 2009 and 2013 who were on their roster for at least one snap last season.
This should be the core of most teams' rosters, players who are finishing up their rookie deals and guys who get signed to extensions after developing into homegrown starters. The Seahawks, for example, can call upon Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson as part of their homegrown core. The Giants lined up Jason Pierre-Paul, Johnathan Hankins, Justin Pugh and backup offensive lineman Will Beatty, with Ryan Nassib failing to take a snap all season. JPP, Pugh, Manning and long-snapper Zak DeOssie are currently the only homegrown Giants who aren't on rookie contracts (and Manning is technically a Chargers pick).
Giants general manager Jerry Reese simply didn't do a good enough job of drafting talent from 2008 to 2013. As I wrote in a 2013 piece for Grantland, a shocking number of Reese's picks suffered serious injuries before finishing their rookie deals, and that was before 2012 first-rounder David Wilson was forced to retire with spinal stenosis. Many of the midround picks who stayed relatively healthy, such as Jayron Hosley, Jerrel Jernigan and Ramses Barden, weren't any good. And the Giants showed little faith in some of the veterans who did pan out, with Prince Amukamara and Linval Joseph leaving after solid careers in New Jersey.
Reese hasn't shown much aptitude for handling the draft. He deserves credit for drafting a pair of superstars, Beckham and Landon Collins, in recent years, but he has shown little interest in acquiring extra draft picks. He hasn't traded down a single time during his 10-year tenure as general manager, and while Reese did trade up for Collins, his other trade-ups were to grab Barden, Nassib, Bryan Kehl and Adam Bisnowaty, who combined to start six games in East Rutherford. The Giants traded up to grab Bisnowaty this year, then cut the sixth-rounder in camp, although he remains on the practice squad. And while the 2015 draft did deliver Collins, a Pro Bowl safety, it has otherwise been a mess. But more on that in a minute.
The wheel of cash
In response, to fill out his roster, Reese did what desperate teams do: He spent oodles of money in free agency. First, he pursued a bevy of midtier free agents with limited success, paying premiums to add replacement-level players such as Dwayne Harris, Rashad Jennings and J.T. Thomas to fill spots smarter teams would occupy with draft picks. The Patriots have targeted veterans to fill those roles from time to time, but they often do that in trading for guys who require no long-term commitment and offer the possibility of draft pick compensation if they leave in free agency. The Giants were signing these players in free agency and foregoing the compensation themselves.
When that didn't work, Reese raised the stakes. After the Giants finished 30th in defensive DVOA in 2015, Reese went into free agency last offseason and cleared out the bank account. He re-signed Pierre-Paul to a one-year deal and spent top dollar to bring in free agents Damon Harrison, Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon. The moves worked. All four of the players were wildly productive before Pierre-Paul went down with a core muscle injury in December. Collins matured into a superstar in his second season, and first-round pick Eli Apple overcame a slow start to play well as a rookie, which allowed the Giants to paper over some of their holes on defense. New York finished the season second in defensive DVOA and rode that defense to the playoffs.
Buoyed by his success, Reese doubled down this spring. He re-signed Pierre-Paul to a massive deal, giving the oft-injured defensive end a four-year, $62 million contract with $49.5 million due in the first three seasons. When former Jet Brandon Marshall expressed interest in taking a pay cut to stay in the New York area, Reese signed the 33-year-old wideout to a two-year, $11 million deal. In an attempt to give Manning extra weapons, he followed things up by spending the Giants' first-round pick on tight end Evan Engram. After Reese threw asset after asset at improving his team's top-tier defensive talent, he was going to do the same thing to its passing game.
The spending also has incurred an enormous opportunity cost in terms of improving the weaker spots in the Giants' lineup. The Giants did not have the financial wiggle room to target any of the veterans available in free agency this season along the offensive line, limiting them to a Chargers castoff, D.J. Fluker. They sat out the free-agent market at running back and came back with 2016 fifth-round pick Paul Perkins, who hasn't shown much aptitude to be an NFL starter, as was the case with predecessor Andre Williams, a fourth-round pick in 2014. The Giants did invest previously in Shane Vereen, but it took an injury to Perkins for them to give the more promising duo of Orleans Darkwa and Wayne Gallman a shot against the Chargers. Their linebackers remain a mix of overmatched special-teams players and inexperienced late-round selections or undrafted guys.
On the whole, the 2017 moves haven't been effective. And while the Giants will surely suggest otherwise, it wasn't really hard to see those problems coming after 2016.
The false hope of 2016
When I included the Giants among five teams likely to decline in 2017, I pointed out several elements of their 2016 season which were unsustainable. They've all cropped up as issues this season:
They were lucky to win a disproportionate number of their close games. Much of the Giants' improvement between 2015 and 2016 came down to their performance in games decided by seven points or fewer. Both the 2015 and 2016 Giants were 3-2 in games decided by eight or more points, but the 2015 Giants were 3-8 in the close contests, while the 2016 Giants went 8-3. There was no reason to think they would continue to win nearly 75 percent of their close games on an annual basis.
So far, the Giants have regressed way past the mean. They're 0-3 in one-score games, and the margin with which they've lost those games has been remarkably thin. They were about to go into overtime with the Eagles until some bad clock management gave Philadelphia a possession and a shot at a game-winning 61-yard field goal, which itself is incredibly unlikely. They failed on a two-point conversion in Tampa and set up Nick Folk to hit a game-winning 34-yard field goal, which is notable given that Folk is otherwise 1-of-6 on field goals over the past two weeks. On Sunday, they somehow managed to lose a one-score game to the Chargers by turning the ball over and setting up Los Angeles with a short field and a game-winning touchdown.
They were remarkably healthy, especially on defense. The Giants lost rookie Darian Thompson at safety after two games last season and turned things over to Andrew Adams. Outside of losing an option at a position that was already likely to be a weakness, their 10 other Week 1 defensive starters stayed on the field for the vast majority of the season, missing a combined six games.
The Giants haven't had any serious injuries on defense this season, but they've already lost their starters for four games, including two for starting middle linebacker B.J. Goodson. Jenkins missed a week, and Vernon battled through an ankle injury and played limited snaps for two weeks before finally succumbing and sitting out the loss to the Chargers. Those injuries push replacement-level players into the lineup, as the Giants swapped in undrafted rookie Calvin Munson for Goodson, while 2014 undrafted free agent Kerry Wynn came in for Vernon.
They also aren't getting the same level of production from their stars. Pierre-Paul and Vernon, the highest-paid defensive end duo in football, have a combined 3.5 sacks and six knockdowns through Week 5. Apple has been a liability in coverage and given up a bevy of big plays, either through completions or pass interference calls. Collins, too, has slipped badly from his Pro Bowl form from a year ago, failing to make much of a mark on the stat sheet while finding himself in coverage on a number of big plays, such as the 26-yard pass play that set up Folk's game-winning field goal. The Giants don't have the depth to look good when their stars aren't dominating.
The offense has been harder-hit by injuries after its 11 projected starters combined to miss just 12 games last season. Four starters have combined to miss five games already, and that number is about to rise. Beckham is likely done for the season. Marshall and Sterling Shepard left with ankle injuries, and Marshall is out for the season, too. Center Weston Richburg is out with a concussion, and Perkins is dealing with a rib injury. The Giants were the league's most injury-riddled team from 2013-15, and they have been badly hit by injuries this season, though they'll struggle to top the Ravens and Chargers.
Again, the Giants don't have the depth to deal with those problems. Their only healthy wideout right now is 2016 undrafted free agent Roger Lewis. Brett Jones, a 2015 undrafted free agent, filled in for Richburg. Fluker came in the lineup and forced an offensive line reshuffle, with Pugh moving from left guard to right tackle. No quarterback can deal with losing his top three wideouts (with Philip Rivers as one of the few exceptions), but even if the Giants had only lost Beckham, that might have been enough to drag their offensive into a ditch. While Engram has been off to a great start as far as rookie tight ends go, Marshall had been a disappointment through five games. He has 18 catches for 154 yards and no scores through five weeks, putting him on pace for 58 catches and 493 yards. Not exactly what the Giants imagined.
They wouldn't be as good in the red zone, especially on defense. Teams can't rely on being great in the red zone year after year, as there's too much randomness involved in what's a small sample of plays. The Giants had the league's best red zone defense last season, allowing right around 4.0 points per trip. This year, while it hasn't been bad, Steve Spagnuolo's defense is allowing 4.9 points per red zone possession, which is 11th best in the league.
Thompson got an interception in the red zone to stop one Chargers drive Sunday, but it wasn't enough. If the Giants had been able to hold the Chargers to a field goal on that short field late in the fourth quarter, it's at least possible to imagine the Giants driving downfield for a possible game-winning field goal try. The touchdown put the Chargers up five and forced the Giants into a drive that eventually stalled at midfield.
The offensive line has been a disaster. You've probably heard by now. What's truly frustrating about Reese spending money on Marshall and Rhett Ellison this offseason in lieu of addressing the offensive line, though, is the schedule. Since the end of the 2016 season, the Giants have known exactly who they were going to play. They have a brutally tough schedule of pass-rushers this season; they either have faced or are scheduled to go up against Ezekiel Ansah, Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa, Aaron Donald, Justin Houston, Melvin Ingram, Chandler Jones, Khalil Mack, Von Miller and Robert Quinn, in addition to two games each against Fletcher Cox and Ryan Kerrigan. I'm not even counting DeMarcus Lawrence, who unexpectedly leads the league with 8.5 sacks.
In the short term, there's not much the Giants can do. Coach Ben McAdoo can decide to give up playcalling duties to focus on running the team, which might help his decision-making in critical situations. They'll need to find some wide receivers to suit up for Sunday's game in Denver against the devastating Broncos pass defense, which could see them sign Travis Rudolph off the practice squad and make a move for free agent Victor Cruz. They could be aggressive with the Ereck Flowers problem and move Pugh yet again to see if he can hold up at left tackle, but all that would do raise the impending free agent's market value.
While it might be tempting for the Giants to approximate tanking in the hopes of coming away with a top-three pick in a draft that is expected to have top-tier quarterback talent, Big Blue is probably too good to lose on purpose in a league with the Browns, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Offense is going to be a struggle with this offensive line and Beckham missing the rest of the way, but it's hardly out of the question that a lucky version of this Giants team could be 3-2 right now. They have 1.4 Pythagorean wins through five games, roughly the skill level of a 4.5-win team over 16 games. The Giants are bad, but they have only a 48.6 percent chance of finishing with a top-five pick, according to FPI, which is hardly a guarantee.
I also would venture to say that it's not time for the total rebuild Giants fans might want right now, if only because the New York cap situation precludes the Giants from really clearing house in a similar way to how the Jets dumped their veterans this offseason. The Giants will have about $22 million in available cap space heading into 2018 before signing their two useful offensive linemen, given that Pugh and Richburg are both unrestricted free agents after the year. As bad as the line is with them, it would be even worse without them.
The Giants can clear out some cap space, but they can't reshape the core of their roster until 2019. Reese can create $10.5 million next year by dumping Marshall, Harris and John Jerry, with an extra $6.5 million off the books for releasing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Beckham is on the books for $8.5 million in the final year of his rookie deal, but the Giants will likely franchise Beckham if he hasn't agreed to a long-term contract. In a weird way, the ankle injury may be enough to lower Beckham's asking price and create a compromise between the two parties.
Manning's deal, meanwhile, is winding down in such a way that the Giants could theoretically get out of it as early as 2018. Eli has a $22.2 million cap charge in 2018 that could be lowered to $12.4 million if the Giants chose to trade or cut Manning, or, notably, if he chose to retire. If they got rid of Eli -- who will turn 37 on Jan. 3 -- as a post-June 1 release, his dead money would fall to just $6.2 million.
At the same time, what would the point be of moving on from Manning? Whoever takes his place is going to be running operations behind an awful offensive line, which can sap a young passer's confidence. Much of the veteran defense is under contract without outs until 2019 at the earliest. They're all but committed for another run with Eli in 2018.
So, while 2017 is lost, the Giants should do that and make one more run. They'll need to spend this offseason building an offensive line, even if it comes at the expense of Rodgers-Cromartie and Marshall. If a quarterback they like falls to them in the first round, the Giants should take him, but they shouldn't invest multiple first-round picks on trading up for a quarterback.
As much as Giants fans might be thirsty for blood at the moment, the Mara family simply doesn't run the organization in a reactionary way. Neither Reese nor McAdoo is directly on the hot seat, but if the Giants can't make it back to the playoffs in 2018, they'll have spent a lot of money over the past several seasons without finding a successful young quarterback or winning a playoff game. That would be the time to make a move.
What to learn
The biggest lesson from the Giants' fall from grace is simple: If you're a coach or an executive, be honest with yourself when you evaluate your team. If the metrics disagree about your team, as is the case with these Giants, you might want to re-evaluate whether you're actually as good as your record says you are. The most common mistake fans make in evaluating their teams before the season is to count on everything that went right a year ago to stay right while all the problems get fixed. Organizations make the same mistakes sometimes, too.