EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the NFC East, where a renewed emphasis on the running game has been all the rage in recent years, the Giants have largely sat out of the party. And in a rather starkly related development, Washington, Philadelphia and Dallas have taken turns winning the division the past three years, while the Giants have run their streak of playoff-less seasons to three.
New York’s running game has been the weakest in the division for a while now, and it’s not difficult to identify the correlation between a healthy ground game and success in the NFC East. The Cowboys, behind NFL leading rusher DeMarco Murray, ranked second in the league in rushing last year (147.1 yards per game), and won the division. In 2013, Chip Kelly’s Eagles were top-ranked in the league on the ground (160.4 yards per game) in LeSean McCoy’s best season and won the division. And in 2012, with rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris leading the way in the running game, Washington led the NFL in rushing (169.3 yards per game), winning the division.
The Giants? They were ranked 23rd overall last season on the ground (100.2 yards per game), with an average rush that bettered only two other teams (3.6). In 2013, the situation was even worse (29th, 83.2, 3.5) and 2012 saw New York finish 14th on the ground, with 116.4 yards per game. Clearly it’s time for the Giants to get with the program, as veteran coach Tom Coughlin is astutely aware.
“The emphasis always right away is for us to run the ball, because if we can’t run the ball we can’t do enough things to help ourselves in the NFC East, in this weather pattern we live in,” Coughlin said Saturday, before his team’s second full day of training camp at its own team complex. “So we do start out with that. But we weren’t very good at it last year, and it hurt us. Obviously, God willing if we stay healthy in some spots, we’ll have some people that can threaten to put the ball in the end zone on the snap of the ball.”
The succinct translation for all that is the Giants are very excited about signing versatile and productive former Patriots running back Shane Vereen in free agency this spring and believe he adds an element to their running game that has been solely lacking—even if he technically winds up boosting New York’s passing game more than its running game, as a proven pass-catching threat out of the backfield.
You remember when we last saw Vereen, catching a team-best 11 passes for 64 yards in New England’s thrilling Super Bowl win over Seattle. Five of his 11 grabs produced first downs, and on the Patriots’ game-winning touchdown drive, Vereen touched the ball five times, as Tom Brady continued to feed one of his most dependable targets, exploiting the holes in the Seahawks’ zone defense. New England had four scoring drives in that 28–24 win, and Vereen had the football in his hands at least twice on all of them. Throw in his four carries for 13 yards, and Vereen’s 15 touches that day produced more than five yards per touch—roughly matching his 5.7-yard regular season average, which trailed only Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell in 2014.
“Shane was high on our priority list, because we were looking for a third-down back after losing David Wilson (to a career-ending neck injury last summer),” Giants general manager Jerry Reese said.
“The guy’s just a first-down maker, a chains mover. All he does is make first downs, over and over and over. He’s so crafty out of the backfield, and so friendly to the quarterback, just such a professional third-down back. And what he does, it’s really a part of your running game, because it’s just a long handoff. We thought he would be a real fit for us in this offense.”
The Patriots, with their ever-present next-man-up mantra, never really made a concerted push to retain the 26-year-old Vereen despite his value and dependability, and the Giants snapped him up early in free agency with a three-year, $12.35 million deal. Vereen was never a true No. 1 back in his four years in New England, but he did wind up leading the Super Bowl champs in carries last season with 96 for 391 yards (4.1), despite reaching double digits in rushes in just two games. But his 52 catches (for 447 yards) ranked fourth on the club, and he was Tom Brady’s most trusted performer in the art of blitz pick-up and backfield pass blocking. The Giants haven’t had a running back catch that many passes since Tiki Barber's final season, in 2006.
While holdovers Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams figure to split the majority of snaps on early downs, the Giants admit it might be difficult to keep Vereen off the field, given how many different roles he’s adept at. In any case, New York is intrigued by the combination of the three backs, believing they all have different enough skills sets to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
“For me, the attraction there was with Shane is we’ve never really exercised the option of really using the back out of the backfield to catch the ball as a huge weapon,” Coughlin said. “We’ve checked the ball down and did things like that. But with this athlete we feel like that’s definitely the plus side of what he gives us.
“Now Andre, he’s going to run it up in there and he’s going to catch the checkdowns for you and going to be good on pass protection and he’ll help you on special teams as well. And Rashad, he can do it all. He can run the ball, he can do blitz pickup, and he can catch the ball coming out of the backfield. But we have options now.”
And hopefully a running game that can complement an Eli Manning-led Giants passing game that took significant strides last season under first-year offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, and featured the rookie receiving phenomenon known as Odell Beckham Jr. Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington are expected to emphasize the run again this season, so it’s up to New York to keep pace in a division that has gone to ground in some respects.
“The teams that can the run the ball, those teams get into the playoffs,” Reese said, not mentioning that his Giants have missed the postseason in five out of the past six years and likely will feature a get-there-or-else sense of urgency in 2015 in what could be Coughlin’s final season in New York. “We definitely want to run the ball and believe our offensive line is improved and will give us the chance to do that. The teams we’ve had in the past, most times when we’ve run the ball well, we’ve scored a lot of points. If you’re scoring points and getting leads, it’s overlooked at times, but that’s when you can run the ball well. We want to run it and not have to throw it 40 times a game.”
I’m not sure how the negotiations went between Vereen and the Giants last March, but he probably could have gotten away with just flipping a copy of his Super Bowl tape on Reese’s desk in lieu of a résumé. Because if there was ever the perfect advertisement for his skill set and how he can affect a defense as he entered free agency, his Super Bowl showing did all the selling. With kudos galore to Brady, the Patriots’ game-winning drive might as well been the Shane Vereen Show.
“I think as much as it was unexpected, I timed it up very well,” Vereen said of his difference-making (and money-making) Super Bowl showing as free agency loomed. “I didn’t even know how many catches I had until after the game was over and a reporter who interviewed me told me. I knew I was being used in the game a lot, but I didn’t know it was that much. To me the game was just kind of flowing and I was in the mix of it. You kind of get lost in the game and forget about stats like that.”
Maybe Vereen did in the moment, but the Giants were paying close attention and had been for quite a while. “We’ve been watching this guy for a long time and his contribution in the pass game,” Coughlin said. “You see some games where people are content to just sit back and play zone against Brady, and he might throw it to him five times in a row. Just drop it to him, drop it to him, drop it to him, and stay patient, not worrying about trying to force anything. That really worked well for New England.”
Talking to Reese and Coughlin, neither man seems concerned with the notion that free agents coming from New England have rarely fared better with their new teams, or even lived up to past levels of production as a Patriot. Call it the Damien Woody Effect or what have you, but plenty of teams that have wanted to purchase a slice of New England’s winning ways have been underwhelmed with the final results. See Pittsburgh and last year’s LeGarrette Blount mistake in free agency. Will Vereen’s New York experience follow roughly the same trend? Or will that fate befall the rival Jets, who also signed an ex-New England running back this offseason in Stevan Ridley?
“The head coach obviously runs the entire show in New England, with personnel and everything,” Reese said. “And when he gets a guy, he’s going to make sure that guy is successful, and that means they know what they’re going to ask him to do. They only ask him to do things they know he can do. They know his skill set and they don’t ask him to do things he can’t do. It’s a good situation, because they do a terrific job of playing to that player’s skill set.
“Maybe when they go to other teams, other teams are asking them to do more than what they’ve done in the past. But Shane, he’s a situational type of player. You’re not going to hand him the ball 25 times a game, and we don’t think he’s that kind of back. But he’s a professional back who can do so many things well for you. The only thing really missing with him is the home run threat. He’s not that kind of guy.”
Vereen is anything but unhappy with his new surroundings and hasn’t looked back in regret at not remaining with the AFC’s perennial powerhouse, with whom he went to four AFC Championship Games in his four years in the NFL. Though he made some unaccustomed headlines right after signing with the Giants, calling his move to New York “a step up”, he realizes his Patriots career ended on the best possible note, and it helped set up the rest of his career.
“When you get an opportunity to play for an organization of this caliber, it’s hard to say no,” Vereen said of the Giants. “I think it is a team that’s doing a lot of things right, and I think it’s going to be a fun offense to play in. This was an opportunity that just fit me well. For me and my family, it was a step in the right direction.”
If the Giants are right about Vereen and his pivotal new role in New York’s offense, also heading in the right direction will be a running game that has finally found its missing piece.
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