Reflections on the Coaching Staff Decisions and Nine Other Thoughts Ahead of the Giants Week 12 Game at Chicago
Is it me, or did the bye week fly by in the blink of an eye?
No matter as we’re back to business as the Giants, 2-8, and the holders of a six-game losing streak, look to snap that string of misfortune this week against the Chicago Bears.
It’s been another frustrating year for the Giants fan base, who, for the third year in a row, don’t have any meaningful football to look forward to at a time of year when the playoff race starts to take shape.
So as I’ve been doing before every Giants game this season, here are some random thoughts about the team’s past, present, and future.
1. With six weeks to go, I’ve started to think ahead to the off-season and how I’d approach it if I were general manager Dave Gettleman (you’ll have to wait though until after the season for my proposed plan).
One thing I will share is my uncertainty as to what to do with tight end Evan Engram. The Giants will need to decide by May 3, 2020 whether to pick up Engram’s option year (2021) in his rookie contract, and while I don’t’ know how much they’re looking at cap-wise, usually you’re talking a large chunk of change that puts a hefty dent in the salary cap space.
I still think Engram is a good player who hasn’t always been utilized to take advantage of his skill set. I don’t understand why he’s asked to block defensive ends when that’s not a strength, nor do I know why he’s not moved around more in the formation to create more mismatches.
But I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about his injury history. Engram has yet to play in a 16-game season, coming close as a rookie when he participated in 15 games.
As the 23rd overall pick in his draft class, Engram, if his option year is exercised, would receive a salary equal to the average of the third-through 25 highest-paid players at his position as of the fourth-year of his contract. If the option is picked up, it becomes guaranteed for injury only; if the player is on the 53-man roster in his option year, the salary becomes fully guaranteed for skill, cap, and injury.
Per Inside Edge, Engram has just 21 receptions on 38 targets (55.3 reception percentage) since week 4 of 2019, the second-lowest of 34 qualified tight ends and well below the 68% league average.
Yes, there have been some injuries, but that’s still limited production considering after the Giants traded Odell Beckham Jr in the off-season, the hope was that Engram would have a breakout season as a potential contributor of Beckham’s production.
If I had to make the decision, I don’t think I could justify tying up that kind of money on a guy who has yet to deliver a 16-game season.
2. A few weeks ago, a secondary, yet important story emerged when, during the part of practice open to the media, the Giants had stopped playing any music during warmups and individual drills.
The decision, made by head coach Pat Shurmur, was done to ensure the players weren’t distracted by their favorite beats and were hearing the coaching staff’s instructions.
In the team’s weekly “Coach’s Corner” column, Shurmur offered a little more insight behind his decision.
“I felt like it was the right thing to do to keep the music off, especially during the individual periods and the group periods, so that we can coach the players and they can hear me and us better. Now we still use music, or we use crowd noise for the offense when we’re on the road. But the reason we don’t do it is so that we, as coaches, our voices can be heard and they can be coached immediately. I think it’s the unintended consequence of not having music. As time has gone on, it’s become a trendy thing to have music at practice. But for us and for our football team, I think the right thing to do is to keep the practice field a little quieter so that they can hear our coaching points.”
I’ve said this before and will repeat it. While I believe Shurmur had all good intentions of trying to create a productive and rewarding atmosphere for his team by having music, and bringing in games and plush chairs into the locker room, in retrospect, he wasn’t doing this team any favors.
It’s one thing if your locker room is a veteran group who has been around and has a clue how to prepare and play like professionals.
But when you’re extending the college atmosphere to a relatively young group of players--some of whom have struggled to grasp all the little nuances necessary to be a pro-- that’s probably not the wisest decision.
3. The more I think about cornerback DeAndre Baker’s struggles this year, the more confused I become. While I believe Baker needs to realize that what he did in college is no longer good enough to remain in the NFL, I also can’t help but wonder if a lot would be fixed if defensive coordinator James Bettcher simplified the coverage.
To my thinking, when you have a relatively young defensive backfield, and you’re asking them to play a lot of loose zones as the Giants have done this year, you increase the risk of there being a communication breakdown when it comes to passing guys off. Sure enough, that’s what we’ve seen this year, which begs the question of why Bettcher doesn’t go back to the basics with this young defense.
Granted, there is a degree of studying and knowing your assignments, and while I would like to believe Baker studies, there have been plays where he’s looked completely lost.
But from the outside looking in, it’s always looked as though Bettcher has this defense on Step 4 when many of the young players haven’t yet mastered Step 1.
4. Remember years ago how running back Tiki Barber had a fumbling problem that used to drive the coaches and fans mad? Barber fixed that problem by carrying the football with him everywhere he went, high and tight until he got to the point where if a random teammate or staff member tried to knock it from his grasp, Barber had such a secure hold on it, there was no chance of that ball coming out.
Maybe the same sort of exercise might behoove quarterback Daniel Jones. After seeing Jones scramble with the ball dangling in one hand, would it hurt to have him walk around the facility with the ball and then having a random staff member or teammate try throughout the day to knock the ball out of his hand?
Jones was asked about that possibility this week, saying, “I haven’t done that, and I’m not sure I will.”
But seriously, would the basic concept of the element of surprise and alertness behind the exercise hurt at this point?
5. There won’t be any Giants competing for rookie of the Year honors, but if the team held such a competition based on its class of rookies, the hands-down winner for the honors would be receiver Darius Slayton.
Slayton, who in his earliest practices with the team couldn’t’ catch a cold, has come a long, long way. The fifth-round pick overcame the dropsies and injuries to show some intriguing potential as a deep threat.
Although he’s still climbing up the team leader boards in receptions and receiving yards—his 27 receptions are fourth on the team while his 394 yards are third on the team, behind Engram (467) and Golden Tate (417)—Slayton, according to Inside Edge, has averaged a touchdown every 4.8 receptions (five touchdowns on 24 receptions) since Week 4 of 2019 – the second-best rate of 67 qualified receivers.
Want more evidence to support Slayton’s candidacy for Giants’ Rookie of the Year honors? His five touchdowns also lead the team in both rushing and receiving by a large margin, and he has a team-best 121.7 rating when targeted (minimum pass targets 30).
Not bad for a fifth-rounder who at the very beginning didn’t look as though he’d amount to a hill of beans.
6. Pat Shurmur’s insistence that he has seen progress in the play on the field despite the 2-8 record got me wondering what criteria he’s using to describe progress.
I obviously can’t speak for him, but I’m wondering if he means that he’s seen enough budding plays by the franchise’s foundation to build on moving forward.
For example, Daniel Jones can be very good at times, but of course, one of the things holding him back is the ball security issue.
And on defense, Markus Golden and Dexter Lawrence have been the two best and most consistent players, guys who have established themselves as part of the solution moving forward, as did Ryan Connelly before his injury.
Others could be part of the solution moving forward. What will be interesting is if the Giants have enough of a core group of players in place.
I’ve often compared what the Giants have done to a garden in which Dave Gettleman ripped up the existing garden filled with underachievers and big contracts and re-planted new seeds, which are just now beginning to sprout.
While there are some promising blooms in the Giants’ garden, we still don’t know yet if some weeds somehow infiltrated the soil, and we probably won’t know for sure until 2020.
7. Players aside, if there’s one thing about Shurmur’s statement about the progress made, it’s been the perceived lack of growth as a play-caller.
Maybe it has something to do with having a rookie quarterback under center, but why haven’t we seen more trip plays to create mismatches?
Why do we continue to see Saquon Barkley—who, no matter what anyone says, is still hampered by that ankle injury—being sent up the middle? Why don’t we see more of tight end Evan Engram being moved around the formation?
We saw all these looks frequently in the spring and summer, yet they all seemed to disappear once the season began, and it’s been mind-boggling.
Yes, there have been injuries to deal with, but every team has injuries, and that shouldn’t be an excuse, not when coaches are always preaching “next man up.”
8. I’ve had some questions lately about whether the Giants and Eli Manning might agree to a “ceremonial” final start in front of the home crowd on December 29 against the Eagles, and the more I think about it, the less I see it happening.
Manning has always been about upholding the integrity of the game, meaning you play to win, not for sentimental reasons.
And if you remember, back in 2017 when then-head coach Ben McAdoo decided to go with Geno Smith but offered Manning a chance to keep his consecutive games started streak alive, Manning declined that offer based on principle.
While it would be an excellent sendoff to see Manning between the white lines in a Giants jersey one final time, barring an injury to Daniel Jones, my gut feeling is the next time the home crowd sees Manning throw a pass, it will be when he’s inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor.
9. Initially, I believed that if the Giants didn’t show some progress by the end of the year (as in getting better instead of going backward, as they seem to be doing) I thought maybe head coach Pat Shurmur would be retained to continue working with Daniel Jones, on the condition that changes are made on his coaching staff.
Having thought about it some more, I’m not so sure that will be the case. If Shurmur survives but is told, for example, to fire James Bettcher and to give up play-calling, the onus now shifts to Shurmur for 2020 to start winning. And if he doesn’t, the chances of his dismissal after that season improve.
So if you’re a seasoned coordinator, wouldn’t you think twice about joining a coaching staff that could end up out the door if the team doesn’t turn it around one year after you signed on to help save the sinking ship?
I could be wrong here, but my guess is a lot of promising coordinators would indeed stay away (unless someone was able to get assurance that he’d be next in line if Shurmur did keep losing). And that to me is the newest and ugliest (to date) of the vicious cycles this Giants franchise has found itself in during this long dry spell.
10. Speaking of coaching, I think it’s fair to argue that since the Giants hired Shurmur, his assistant staff isn’t exactly a world-beater. Now part of that is obviously on Shurmur, but I also think part of that is due to the Giants not being able to hire him until much later in the coaching carousel process.
Shurmur, recall, was named the Giants head coach on January 22, 2018, the delay a result of him being tied up with the Vikings in the playoffs.
As a result of the late date, Shurmur couldn’t put his coaching staff together until after he was formally hired, which meant that he probably missed out on the chance to hire other more qualified assistants to help ensure his tenure got off on the right foot.
Now I’m not saying that every single member of Shurmur’s staff has been a poor choice. But in looking at some of the other decisions Shurmur has made, and I’d be lying if I said they weren’t eyebrow raisers.
For example, Shurmur had never before worked with Mike Shula, now the team’s offensive coordinator, or James Bettcher, the team’s defensive coordinator.
I realize there are exceptions to the rule--Tom Coughlin never worked with Steve Spagnuolo before hiring him in 2007 as a first-time defensive coordinator, and Spags delivered the goods (though he also had talent on that defense, including then-future Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan).
But I just found it odd that when walking into an obvious rebuilding situation, Shurmur seemed to take some gambles with his coaching staff on guys in crucial spots. Again this could be due to him being unable to get who he initially wanted, but still, you can’t help but wonder just how much the coaching has played a part in this team’s struggles under Shurmur.