EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Ben McAdoo doesn’t want to single out just one change he’s made since the end of his first season as an NFL head coach. Instead, he says, he’s made 100 changes to how his team is approaching its business this season. It’s hard to imagine there being that many things to change, but sure enough, McAdoo starts ticking them off: better nutrition, hydration, mental conditioning, drills on fundamentals, cross-training between all three phases of the game. Etc.
“To make sure no one is getting too comfortable after an 11-win season,” McAdoo explains.
Perhaps one of the most critical changes, though, will not be something done behind closed doors in meeting rooms or on the practice field, but something very apparent to both viewers and opposing teams alike. Last season, it was hard to ignore the glaring monotony of the Giants offense. Nearly all of its plays were run out of the same personnel grouping: three wide receivers, one running back and one tight end (a set called 11 personnel).
Yes, that’s the most popular set in today’s pass-happy NFL, and yes, there are an exponential number of formations and play calls that can be run out of that group. But the Giants used it to an extreme. Per Football Outsiders, an analytics website, the 2016 Giants were the first team to ever use 11 personnel on more than 90% of its snaps. League-wide, it was used on 60% of offensive plays.
The Giants were simply doing what worked best within the limitations of their roster. They didn’t have great options at tight end or running back, and they didn’t have a fullback, so their best chance for success on any given play was to run out Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz with one running back (most often Rashad Jennings) and one tight end (usually Will Tye). But the homogeneity presented some serious limitations for a unit that ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in both yards gained and points scored.
“It was a challenge,” McAdoo says of using 11 personnel almost exclusively in 2016. “You had to find ways to run the football, which isn’t easy all the time; and protecting the quarterback, there are some problems there. But we realized as we went through the season, we had to slow things down and play a muddle-huddle type offense, and play field position and good defense to win ball games. That’s the way it went, and we don’t have to apologize for that. It just depends on how your team is built, how the season goes and how each game unfolds.”
This year’s team is built differently. Brandon Marshall, a 6' 5" target who had been a No. 1 receiver in Denver, Miami, Chicago and most recently with the Jets, was brought in as a complement to Beckham. In terms of personnel flexibility, the biggest difference is at tight end, where the Giants drafted dynamic pass-catcher Evan Engram in the first round, and also signed Rhett Ellison, a primarily blocking tight end, in free agency. They have been lining up all over the field—in line, in the slot, in the backfield or, in Engram’s case, split out wide. They’ve been on the field together. The Giants also have a rookie fullback, Shane Smith, vying for a roster spot.
The early returns have been, well, sluggish. Although bear in mind that it’s preseason, where starters don’t play long enough to get into a rhythm and no one is game-planning. Plus, with the injuries last week to Beckham (ankle) and Marshall (shoulder), we might not see either of them until the regular season. But even if the results are not yet apparent, the Giants are counting on their increased flexibility opening up chances for them on offense. In order for the team to build on last year’s 11-win season and contend for the NFC East title, that needs to happen. Too many times last year, it was the Giants defense—which ranked second in the league in points allowed—that carried the team to victory.
“We were just in that  personnel, whether it was third-and-1 or we were down in the red zone at the 1-yard line,” quarterback Eli Manning says of last season. “Teams just didn’t have to prepare for many things. I think it will help being a little bit more multiple, giving defenses different looks and different personnel to prepare for.”
In practice and the exhibition games, they haven’t been exclusively in 11 personnel. They’ve used sets with two tight ends, with two running backs, and with two tight ends and two running backs. McAdoo says he had fun this offseason, diving back into old playbooks, dredging up plays he ran earlier in his Giants tenure, in Green Bay and even from the NFL history books.
When the Giants first signed third-down back Shane Vereen in 2015, for example, McAdoo, then the offensive coordinator, took a look back at some of the plays run by 49ers legend Roger Craig. After drafting Engram, McAdoo is pulling from some of the concepts they used with Jermichael Finley in Green Bay. Engram’s blocking is still a work in progress, but the aim is to use him, as the rookie excitedly puts it, as “a mismatch piece, using my speed and my ability to get open.” During the installs, the Giants sometimes watch old Packers film, and Engram has been studying some of the Finley plays, focusing on how to sell routes to the defense with his eyes and his feet, and especially being on time for the quarterback.
“You take good football players, and you go dust off some books to see what you can find to put their strengths to work for them,” McAdoo says. “No question, it gives us a chance to use multiple personnel groups, which helps instead of staying in the same personnel group. You have players that you can use interchangeably at different spots, and make things look different, and make them look the same at the same time through the QBs eyes, and that helps.”
McAdoo’s earlier point is an critical one, that using groupings other than 11 personnel, which is the light passing formation, could help with two areas in which the Giants struggled last year: their ground game, which was near the bottom of the league, and protecting the quarterback. “It can help,” Manning adds, “just showing different run actions and different protections for the offensive line, so they are not blocking the same few protections.”
Of course, that’s not saying different personnel groupings alone will fix these concerns. The ground game has been a years-long woe for the Giants, and so far this preseason, starting running back Paul Perkins is averaging just 1.2 yards per carry. The whole first-team offensive unit has seemed to be a bit out of synch so far.
That was true last season, too, and the Giants still made the playoffs. But the expectations have been raised. Open up the offense, and that opens up the possibilities for what this season can hold.
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