Before the 2021 season, Giants team president John Mara was cautiously optimistic in his annual training camp press conference with reporters.
"I do feel like we're heading in that direction, yes," he said when asked if the Giants were finally on the right track.
Mara made sure not to attach any specific expectations regarding the number of wins to prevent a total tear-down of the entire football operation.
"I'll look at that at the end of the season and see whether I think we're continuing to make progress and moving in the right direction, but I'm not issuing a playoff mandate," Mara said. "I don't think those ever do you any good. I don't think I need to say or do anything to motivate the people in this building any more than they're already motivated. They all want to win.
"I think when I walk off the field after the last game, whenever that is, I want to feel like, do we have a chance to win a Super Bowl with this group? Does this group give us a chance to win the Super Bowl? Are we moving in that direction? If the answer to that is yes, then we're not going to consider making any changes. If I feel like we're going backwards, that's another discussion."
After the first nine games of the season, it's hard to say for sure if the Giants, holders of a 3-6 record, are indeed moving in the right direction. On the one hand, injuries have been such a factor that it's fair to wonder just how many adjustments the coaching staff has been forced to make to compensate for the lost man games that currently rank in the top five league-wide.
But then again, every NFL team has injuries, though the Ravens and Titans have somehow found a way to survive their injuries.
That all said, the past is in the past. The Giants, who return from their annual bye week refreshed (hopefully) and with some answers about what's worked and what hasn't, are set to roll through the second half of their 2021 campaign with these storylines looming large.
Eye on the Playoffs?!
To be clear, this Giants team hasn't looked like a playoff-bound team. Then again, given all the injuries, does anyone know what this team is supposed to look like?
So indulge me here for a moment while I "go there."
Looking at the remaining games, the Giants have the 25th easiest strength of schedule remaining, according to Tankathon. Their three most formidable opponents are the Bucs, Cowboys, and Chargers. The easier games are the two with the Eagles, and the solo games versus Washington, Miami, and Chicago.
If the Giants win those easy games and at least one of their three most challenging games, that would be six wins, getting them to a 9-8 record. Only the Eagles and the Falcons, who are vying for a playoff spot, have a more manageable schedule the rest of the way.
In terms of tiebreakers, the Giants hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Saints and the Panthers, currently the sixth and seventh seeds, while being at a disadvantage against the Falcons, who now have a 4-5 record, one win coming back in Week 3 versus the Giants.
Head coach Joe Judge has urged his players to stay focused on the next opponent on the schedule and nothing more.
“The biggest thing we’re focused on right now is just improving ourselves and going 1-0 each week,” he said. “You do that, it’ll take care of itself in the big picture. Are you conscious of what’s going on in the rest of the league? You are. But are you focused on it? No.”
Still, no one could blame anyone on a Giants team that last year came close to a playoff berth only to lose out in the final week of the season if they are sneaking peeks at the playoff picture every week.
If the Giants can get back some of their injured players and avoid any more catastrophic injuries and on-field meltdowns, you just never know where they might end up once the dust settles.
Revisiting the Injury List
The bye week couldn’t have come at a more perfect time for the Giants as far as their injury list is concerned.
Indeed, the Giants training room has been packed at times, which is never a good thing. But in having had an extra week for everyone to rest and heal, the Giants are hoping to get several key players back from injuries that have caused them to miss multiple weeks.
At the top of the list are left tackle Andrew Thomas (foot), eligible to come off IR, and running back Saquon Barkley (ankle), who has missed the last four games.
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Before landing on injured reserve, Thomas had developed into the Giants' most consistent offensive lineman, allowing just seven pressures in six games. Meanwhile, Nate Solder, in the one game in which he started at left tackle this season, allowed eight pressures, while Matt Peart, who has since worked at left tackle after Solder's struggled, has allowed six pressures in two games.
Barkley? Before getting his ankle tangled up with a Dallas Cowboy defender in Week 5, he was slowly starting to look like his pre-injury self as both a rusher and receiver. But that ankle injury put Barkley back behind the eight ball, making it to where he's only been on the field in five of the last 23 games over the last two seasons due to injury, not what you want to see with a significant financial decision looming.
Judge said that both Barkley and Thomas are making progress (which is to be expected since the further out a player gets from an injury, the better). Given the Giants don't play again until next Monday, they have some additional time on their side.
"The way the schedule will flow, we’ll have time to kind of build these guys up and then rest them," Judge said. "We’re optimistic about it. We’ll see how it comes out of the bye."
The same holds for outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter, who's been sidelined with an ankle injury. Judge indicated that Carter would try to get out there on the field this week moving around.
But the Giants' head coach was less certain about receiver Sterling Shepard, who missed three games with a hamstring strain and recently dealt with a quad injury that cost him Week 10 and counting.
"I think Shep right now is on a little bit different of a timetable in terms of just how we’re going to manage his body throughout the week," he said. "But he’s in the same plan in terms of dealing with the trainers and has a little flex time."
Other guys have been hurting as well, such as receivers Kenny Golladay (knee) and Kadarius Toney (ankle), and those who were banged up in the last game like tight end Kaden Smith (concussion) and running back Devontae Booker (hip). Running back Gary Brightwell (COVID-19) is also another missing player.
With the Giants having a Monday night game coming up and then a quick turnaround before they host the Philadelphia Eagles, it will be undoubtedly interesting to see who they can get back over the next two games.
Who's Earned More Playing Time
Once a coaching staff has a chance to catch its breath, one of the things to come out of such self-scouting includes increases and reductions in playing time for specific players.
Mainly, younger players or guys coming off the injury list gradually see their snap counts start to increase, usually at the expense of players who haven't been as productive or who might not be in the long-term plans.
Thus it will be interesting to see what future snap counts the coaches have in mind for defensive end Elerson Smith, cornerback Aaron Robinson, outside linebackers Trent Harris and Quincy Roche, and defensive lineman Raymond Johnson on defense.
On offense, will Barkley, once he's back, have his snaps managed the rest of the way as part of a rotation with Devontae Booker to help keep Barkley healthy and on the field?
Will Wes Martin, who thus far has been a backup offensive lineman, get some game snaps as part of a rotation? And what about the players elevated from the practice squad? Will Benardrick McKinney ultimately siphon away snaps from Reggie Ragland at inside linebacker?
These are just some of the questions to watch when it comes to player-personnel deployment in these final few games.
Play Caller Changes Coming?
Judge said there were no plans to make a change "at the moment" to anyone calling plays, but it's fair to wonder how much longer the Giants can stick with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
To be fair, the injuries have mucked things up, but what has remained a constant in sickness and in health is the personnel deployment.
For example, what took so long to finally get the tight ends more involved in the offense?
Personnel deployment aside, the Giants continue to be disastrous in the red zone. They rank 32nd inside the opponent's 20-yard line, having converted just 44 percent of their trips into touchdowns. That's simply not going to cut it if you're trying to win, and that's a big reason why this offense, for the second year in a row, is averaging under 20 points per game (19.9).
It's too late to do anything about the scheme. Still, it certainly bears watching that if the Giants offense continues to draft the team down and the Giants continue to have a chance at a playoff berth, would Judge shift around some responsibilities on the offensive side of the coaching staff just to shake things up?
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