The new calendar year is almost two months old, and it has already been a year of change for the New York Giants. The most significant difference is that the team saw Eli Manning call it a career after 16 years as the face of the Giants' franchise.
But perhaps of more consequence for the future, the Giants also fired Pat Shurmur after just two years—a move that, after signing him to a five-year contract they didn’t want to make so soon, if at all.
The decision to move on from Shurmur also means that the Giants had to rebuild their coaching staff for the third time in four years, which disrupted any chance at continuity that team president John Mara has often spoken of desiring.
The Giants ultimately hired New England Patriots special teams coordinator and receivers coach Joe Judge to be their new head coach. Judge, 38, has not been a head coach at any level and has spent the vast majority of his coaching career as a special teams coach.
The decision to hire a first-time head coach with no particular emphasis on the offensive or defensive side of the ball is a bold one for the Giants.
It also puts a particular emphasis on getting their offensive, and defensive coordinator hires right, as those men will be responsible for building their respective sides of the ball.
The Giants ultimately hired former Dallas Cowboys' head coach Jason Garrett to be their new offensive coordinator and former Miami Dolphins' defensive coordinator Patrick Graham for the same role.
With the architects of the Giants' new offense and defense decided, we took a look at the past to gather some clues regarding what we should expect from those sides of the ball.
Garrett was linked to the Giants for a long time before he was named their new offensive coordinator.
He and the Giants were first connected on the rumor mill back before Thanksgiving, as the Cowboys' season-ending meltdown was just getting started. Garrett's name was once again frequently linked to the Giants after the firing of Pat Shurmur.
With that much smoke, it isn't much of a surprise that he was hired to run the Giants' offense once his contract with the Cowboys expired.
Judge’s decision to hire Garrett makes sense on so many levels. First, he’s a 10-year NFL head coach who can be a sounding board to Judge as he navigates his rookie season as an NFL head coach.
Second, Garrett is as familiar with the NFC East as anyone, and even though Washington and Dallas have new coaching staffs and personnel will change slightly, Garrett no doubt has volumes of information that will help Judge, who hails from the AFC East.
Considering Giants fans have seen Garrett's offense twice a year since 2007 when he was first hired as the Cowboys' offensive coordinator, we should be familiar with what constitutes “his” offense.
As a quick recap, Garrett's offense is built upon and heavily influenced by the “Air Coryell” offense pioneered by legendary coach Don Coryell of the Chargers.
The Air Coryell offense is designed around a vertical passing game, or in Coryell's own words, “I just decided, you can’t just go out and run the ball against better teams. You’ve got to mix it up. You’ve got to throw the damn ball if you’re going to beat better teams.”
Throwing deep to beat teams? That sound you hear is the nerds celebrating.
But the Air Coryell, and Garrett's offense with the Cowboys, are hardly college-influenced “Air Raid” offenses. They are much more similar to what the Giants ran under Tom Coughlin and Kevin Gilbride.
The Air Coryell typically features two big, tall, athletic receivers who are capable of attacking the defense deep and commanding double-coverage.
It also typically employs a power run game to create conflict for the defense.
From there, the remaining receiving options target the middle of the field as check-down options. Garrett added his twist by incorporating option routes into play design and allow the offense some ability to adjust to the defense after the snap.
The running game is built around power running, attacking between the tackles and trying to take advantage of light boxes forced by the vertical passing attack.
While Garrett's offense in Dallas didn't make nearly as much use of option routes as Gilbride's did in New York, the underlying philosophy is similar.
As far as blocking schemes go, the Cowboys have used both power base Man-Gap schemes as well as zone schemes, which focus more on athletic linemen.
Garrett has generally favored more complex man blocking schemes. At the same time, Bill Callahan introduced the zone schemes when Garrett was stripped of play-calling duties, and Callahan became the offensive coordinator in fact after the Cowboys struggled to run the ball in 2012.
Many of the man-gap principles were reintroduced when Callahan left the Cowboys.
If the past is the prologue to the present, that is what we should expect to see from the Giants, right?
Perhaps. But the better question is how (and hopefully not “if”) Garrett will adapt his philosophy to the Giants' personnel.
Because after being built over the last six seasons to run some variation of the West Coast Offense, their fit in an Air Coryell is awkward at best.
We'll start upfront with the offensive line.
The Giants have had issues with pass protection the last two years in a quick-strike offense designed to get the ball out quickly to receivers in space.
Vertical offenses demand more extended drops and longer-developing plays. While we certainly expect to see the Giants once again try and address the offensive line this off-season, we should also wonder if Garrett will adjust his play design and play calling to accommodate the blocking.
To help with this, the Giants hired Marc Colombo, Garrett’s offensive line coach in Dallas, to coach the Giants offensive line. Colombo is a former NFL tackle who took an already solid Cowboys offensive line and turned it into a powerhouse.
Don’t underestimate this connection as the offensive line coach and offensive coordinator must be on the same page, and apparently, you can’t get on any more of the same page as Garrett and Colombo
Then there's the receiving corps. Air Coryell offenses have always demanded receivers with rare athletic traits—that’s part of the reason why Bill Walsh designed the WCO as he did.
Walsh wanted to run a similar passing game as Coryell but didn't have the players. The Chargers under Norv Turner enjoyed Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd (both of whom were roughly 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds with 4.4-second 40-yard dashes and nearly 40-inch vertical leaps).
In Dallas, Garrett had Terrell Owens, Dez Bryant, and Amari Cooper, all of whom were both big-bodied and very athletic.
The Giants receivers couldn't be more different. Darius Slayton is a vertical threat but is only significant in comparison to Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate, both of whom are 5-foot 10.
Likewise, both Tate and Shepard have historically performed best at roughly 5-7 yards downfield.
Judge retained Shurmur’s receivers coach, Tyke Tolbert, to fill the same role on his staff.
Tolbert is an assistant coach who did make an impact on a receivers group that lost Odell Beckham Jr due to the trade, and his coaching is highly regarded across the league.
But even the best of coaching doesn’t magically turn good receivers into All-Pros, so Tolbert is going to need at least one or two more speedsters who can separate down the field to work with for this offense.
In the interim, one possible adaptation could be for Garrett to use tight end Evan Engram, who is both big and fast, as the other vertical threat. That would certainly play more to his strengths than the crossing routes Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur insisted on calling for him.
Engram and the tight ends will be coached by former Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens, himself a college quarterback.
Kitchens has experience coaching every position on offense except offensive line, so we can’t help but wonder if this hire lends itself to potential clues as to how the tight ends might be deployed in this offense.
But that need for a big, athletic receiver could also see the Giants draft one much earlier than many fans would likely prefer.
We tend to think the Giants will stay with Golden Tate for another year (cutting him would be too costly against the cap), Shepard and Slayton.
But we also wonder if perhaps the team will add insurance to that top-3 group given Shepard’s concussion history
And finally, there is the question of the quarterback position. We think Daniel Jones certainly has the arm strength to execute a vertical offense.
However, he has been in very simple offenses thus far in his career. Jones ran an offense built on run-pass option (RPO) and one-read concepts at Duke.
Indeed, Shurmur ran a very quarterback-friendly scheme last year in which, according to Pro Football Focus’ Quarterbacks Annual, Jones threw to his first read on over 70% of his pass attempts, keeping with what Jones was comfortable doing in college as he acclimated to the speed of the game.
Many of Shurmur's play calls involved calling man and zone beating concepts (one on each side of the field). Then the quarterback simply had to identify the coverage and read one or two receivers on the appropriate side of the field.
When reads were simple, Jones executed quickly, but throughout the season, we saw him get bogged down when asked to make full-field or deep progression reads.
Garrett's offense in Dallas put much more on the quarterback's mental plate. Tony Romo thrived in the offense because he was able to make full-field reads and get the ball out quickly.
Scott Linehan and Kellen Moore brought spread concepts to the Cowboys' offense, which helped ease the transition at quarterback to Dak Prescott, but we also saw Garrett reassert his preferred philosophy at times.
All that begs the question will the Giants demand a leap from Jones in the mental aspect of his game, or will Garrett tailor his offense to where Jones currently is in his development?
If the Giants stay true to what Judge said in his introductory press conference, we should see Garrett bend to the Giants' current roster.
However, he is used to running the offense he wants to run with his players, so whether he installs and calls “His” offense or adapts to the Giants' current reality will certainly bear watching.
The other offensive assistant we need to mention is Burton Burns, the running backs coach hired from Nick Saban’s Alabama staff.
If there has always been one flaw in Saquon Barkley’s game, it’s been his pass protection.
Now granted, last year, trying to pass protect on a bad ankle was a challenge, but going back to Barkley’s rookie season, his pass protection was the weak link in his game.
Burns, we think, will help fix that, just as we hope Burns will be able to have input into coordinating a running game that will hopefully see more designed runs to the outside.
The other thing we’re curious to see goes back to something Barkley said in one of his in-season press conferences.
He alluded to past coaches trying to change his running style, which we suspect has to do with coaches wanting him to be a bit more patient in taking what is there instead of continually seeking the homerun.
We have always admired Barkley’s desire to do as much as he can one every play, but we would also hope that he would recognize what’s there for the taking and what isn’t if for no other reason than to cut down on unnecessary wear and tear on his body.
Between the Giants' two new coordinators, there are many more questions with regards to defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and how he will call his side of the ball.
For starters, we can't even be sure what constitutes “his” defense. Graham only has a track record of one year as a defensive coordinator, and that year was spent under a defensive-minded head coach (Miami head coach Brian Flores).
While we have heard that Flores gave Graham the freedom to run the Dolphins' defense, we should still ask how much of what we saw from a game-planning, and scheming perspective was Graham and how much was Flores.
We should also acknowledge that the Dolphins' talent—or rather, lack thereof—contributed to what we saw from Miami's defense.
With that said, the Dolphins, over their last five games of the season, did play well on defense, winning three out of those five games, including an upset over the mighty Patriots.
And in one of their losses, the Dolphins came up short by one point.
The point we’re making is that while it’s very likely, Flores presented his overall philosophies and desires to Graham, we would be stunned if Graham wasn’t the one responsible for putting together the weekly game plans based on those philosophies and calling the plays.
If we are correct in our assumption—and we hope we are—then we feel a lot less squeamish about the unknowns that accompany Graham, the Giants defensive line coach under Ben McAdoo, in his new role with the Giants.
With all that being said, let’s look at Graham's history and what the Dolphins did last year to draw some conclusions about what we might see from the Giants' defense in 2020, starting with the multiple defensive fronts.
The term “multiple” has become a buzz word in the NFL nowadays. Every coach, whether they're on the offensive or defensive side of the ball, talks about how they will be “multiple.”
It has been used so often that it is solidly in the realm of cliché and is used with such variety that it almost doesn't have any meaning beyond checking a box in coach-speak bingo.
So what does it mean when Graham, in particular, says that his defense will be multiple?
Taking a look at his history offers a few clues.
Graham is a long-time coach for the New England Patriots, coaching linebackers and defensive linemen from 2011 to 2015.
And as noted, in 2016 and 2017, he coached the Giants' defensive line under then-Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and in 2018 he coached linebackers for the Green Bay Packers.
The Patriots and the Giants under Spagnuolo used a healthy mix of both three- and four-man defensive lines, and like pretty much every other defense in the NFL over the last decade, featured a high rate of nickel packages.
With a defensive line that has Dalvin Tomlinson, Dexter Lawrence II, and B.J. Hill—Leonard Williams is set to be a free agent as of this writing, and while the Giants want him back until it’s done, it’s hard to factor him into the equation—it would make sense for the Giants' defense to be based on three-man fronts.
Indeed, that was the basis for Miami's defense last year, so that seems particularly likely this will be how the Giants move forward.
However, we can't merely say the Giants will run a 3-4 defense and be done with it.
The big guys need rest, and we will certainly see quite a bit of 4-man fronts as a common nickel alignment. That will allow the Giants to use a rotation and keep any one of their top tackles from getting too many reps.
Miami also used some exotic fronts, such as “amoeba” or “radar” defenses, which saw just one down lineman while the rest of the front milled around to disguise the defense's intentions.
All of that certainly qualifies as “multiple,” but that isn't the only way in which the word might apply to Graham's defense.
There is also the presence of outside linebackers coach and “senior advisor” Bret Bielema to consider.
As a long-time defensive coach and former head coach (at the college level), we have to assume that he will have more than a little clout on the Giants' coaching staff.
Bielema has historically called defenses based on 3-4 concepts, which makes it even more likely that we'll see those alignments from the Giants in 2020.
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There is a tendency to picture an “old school” defense when talking about 3-4 fronts, with massive linemen up front controlling blockers while linebackers fly around to make plays.
That is the “two-gap” 3-4 defense, but that is not the way the vast majority of 3-4 defenses are called in the modern NFL.
Every defense acknowledges that to slow down, let alone stop, a modern offense, you need to be trying to disrupt behind the line of scrimmage.
That means attacking individual gaps with as many defenders as possible—a one-gap defense.
It's a scheme that was pioneered by Bum Philips (legendary father of the similarly brilliant defensive coordinator Wade Philips) and formed the basis of pretty much every modern 3-4 defense.
That doesn't mean 2-gap principles are entirely defunct, but the idea of controlling the line of scrimmage is secondary to disrupting the offense behind it.
That is where Bielema comes in.
The Patriots, 2019 Dolphins, and Bielema all favor “Bear” fronts in their defensive schemes.
The “Bear” front sees six defenders close to the line of scrimmage, usually three down lineman, two linebackers, and a box safety.
The linebackers generally line up at the 7- or 9-technique outside of the offensive tackles and serve as both edge rush and contain in the running game.
The defensive linemen typically run a “tite” set, with a 0-technique nose tackle head-up on the center and the two defensive ends at the three-techniques over the outside shoulder of the guard.
This is the second meaning of “multiple,” which could apply to the Giants in 2020.
The 0-technique is a classic 2-gap position and asks the nose tackle to defend both A-gaps to either side of the center.
The 3-techniques are 1-gap alignments, asking the defensive tackle to attack just the B-gap (the offensive guard) in front of him.
This is a “hybrid” defensive front that blends both 1- and 2-gap concepts to combat how modern offenses use spacing to put defenders in conflict.
This alignment effectively occupies all four interior gaps and would play to the Giants' strength at the defensive tackle position.
We’ve mentioned Bielema and his potential impact on the defense. We also need to mention Sean Spencer, hired as the Giants defensive line coach.
Spencer, who most recently worked at Penn State, brings a vast amount of experience in developing versatile defensive linemen who achieve balance in their ability to attack multiple gaps.
This might not sound like a big deal. Still, some position coaches tend to favor attacking specific
gaps, thereby creating players who are limited and which rely more heavily on a rotation in which the smart offenses can establish trends based on what personnel the defense has on the field.
The Giants hopefully won’t have this problem moving forward, but if in the past it looked like the opposing offenses knew what was coming and adjusted accordingly, this could be one of many reasons why.
Now let’s talk about the defensive secondary.
Each of Bielema's influences (the Giants and Patriots) has frequently used man coverage concepts under shells with a single-high defender.
Spagnuolo has always favored aggressive coverages to give him freedom when designing blitzes, and the Patriots have been aggressive in pursuing man coverage corners like Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib, and Stefon Gilmore.
Having players who can take receivers out of the game as well as disrupt the timing of an offense is a powerful tool for a defense.
We saw that from the Dolphins in 2019, with the team trading for Talib and frequently calling man coverage, mainly Cover 1.
Each of the Giants' young corners is generally considered to be better in man coverage than zone coverage, and playing a defense based on Cover 1 (man coverage with a single safety covering the deep zone) should play to their strengths.
The more interesting question is regarding how the Giants’ safeties will be utilized.
Graham has talked about wanting to make use of versatile skill sets—that desire is what motivated Minkah Fitzpatrick to request a trade as he wanted to be allowed to concentrate on the free safety position at which he excels, instead of playing a variety of roles in the defense.
While Julian Love is penciled in as the Giants' future free safety (we are not expecting Antoine Bethea to be retained by this team), the fact is Love played well closer to the line of scrimmage last year.
As a converted cornerback, that is more familiar to him than surveying the whole field as a deep safety, and it allows him to put his ability as both a cover player and run defender to use.
Making things more interesting, Jabrill Peppers has also excelled close to the line of scrimmage as a box safety or pseudo-linebacker.
We could well see the Giants play both players close to the line of scrimmage, adding speed to their defense close to the line of scrimmage while also giving them more options in disguising coverages and pressure packages.
If that is indeed what we see from the Giants in 2020, what follows is the question of who plays free safety?
That is no small question. The Giants have been searching for a long-term answer at the free safety position ever since Kenny Philips' knee swelled up on the plane flight back from Dallas in Week 2 of 2009.
While they've had good players on the back end of their defense—Will Hill and Stevie Brown come to mind—they have not been able to find a long-term answer for several reasons).
But that doesn't change the fact that the free safety position can be vitally important to the success of a defense, nor does that change the fact that a quality free safety capable of providing deep coverage is a necessity and one that we fully expect the Giants will be scouring both the free agency and draft markets with a fine-tooth comb.
The free safety facilitates the communication in the secondary and with the MIKE (middle) linebacker, and the free safety is responsible for making sure that the offense can't get behind the defense for an explosive play.
He is the player who provides the double team in the secondary, is the last line of defense, and often plays a necessary (but underrated) role in blitzes.
It is possible that the Giants' free safety in 2020 isn't on the roster right now. Still, we can only hope that whoever does line up in that role is better at the job than Curtis Riley (a converted cornerback who admittedly had to learn on the fly) and Bethea (whose speed took a significant nosedive after he came over from Arizona to reunite with Bettcher).
This is one question we'll just have to wait to find out the answer.
Now we get to the “big kahuna,” if you will, about the defense: pressure packages.
This is where it all comes together. Every defense wants to be able to field a good pass rush with just four rushers.
That is the ideal and the foundation of many great defenses over the years, but it is also easier said than done.
The Giants' pass rush will need to take a significant step forward if they want to be able to field a respectable four-man pass rush.
The Giants featured one of the lowest pressure rates of any team in the NFL when rushing four.
Their pressure rate approached respectability when blitzing (which they did about 30 percent of the time per Pro Football Reference), but their coverage let them down, and opposing quarterbacks performed better.
When the Giants blitzed in 2019, opposing passers barely saw a dip in completion percentage (65.7 percent when blitzing compared to 66.7 when not).
Opposing quarterbacks also threw for more yards per attempt, a higher passer rating, and a higher ANY/A (Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, a metric which takes into account sacks, interceptions, and touchdowns as well as yards and attempts as compared to non-blitz rushes.
The Dolphins might have had the fewest sacks in the NFL in 2019, but their blitzes were more effective.
Not only did they blitz more often (32 percent overall, 41 percent on 3rd downs, per Pro Football Focus), but their blitzes had the desired effect.
Opposing passers saw their completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating, and ANY/A all drop as compared to non-blitzing downs.
Part of this comes down to the Dolphins using a very high rate of man coverage (despite not having very good secondary players).
The other part is in how they designed their blitzes.
The Dolphins made use of stunts and twists along the defensive interior.
They didn't just do them to create confusion along the offensive line, but also to create opportunities for their blitzers.
The Dolphins favored attacking the A (either side of the center) and B-gaps (in between the guards and tackles) with blitzes from linebackers and secondary players.
As Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings has proven time and again, interior blitzes can be devastatingly effective when executed well.
The Dolphins favored using stunts and twists along the defensive line to force multiple offensive linemen to block single defenders.
While that usually means the defensive lineman won't get the pressure or sack, it does create an opportunity for his teammates.
But rather than simply have an inside linebacker run straight ahead, Graham frequently had outside linebackers or defensive backs slant inside and through the created void in the blocking.
That way, he is applying pressure from an unexpected source and an angle that would make it difficult for blockers to pick up.
This could be Peppers' primary role in the Giants' defense. They could ask him to work from a pseudo-linebacker position.
Peppers was the most-blitzed defensive back in the NFL when he played as a pseudo-linebacker for the Browns in 2018.
Having him blitz takes advantage of his explosiveness and speed to get to (and through) the gap before the offense can respond and pick up the blitz, and his range would give the defense the ability to disguise the source of the pressure better.
But let’s get back to the pass rushers. If we look back over history at some of the Giants best defenses, the one thing they all had in common was at least three consistent pass rushers capable of getting home to the quarterback.
In recent years, they’ve had maybe one guy capable of doing that, most recently Markus Golden, the first Giants linebacker to record double-digit sacks since the great Lawrence Taylor and the first Giants pass rusher to accomplish that feat since Jason Pierre-Paul in 2014.
Having multiple pass rushers on the field is a matter of simple math. It forces the offense to “pick its poison” as to whom it needs to devote extra resources to block.
If we look back at the Giants' 2016 defense when they had Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon (at least until Pierre-Paul suffered a season-ending sports hernia injury) the Giants had one of the most consistent pass rushes since their 2011 Super Bowl season when they had Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka and Osi Umenyiora.
But when a team has one lonely pass rusher and is sending a four-man rush against a five-man offensive line, then it becomes rather clear as to why a pass rush gets stymied before it has a chance to get started.
There is also a matter of having speed at the edges. Golden, for as reliable as he was, generated the majority of his sacks and pressures on plays in which he looped around from the edge to the inside on a stunt.
On the flip side, Lorenzo Carter, whom the Giants had hoped would take a big step forward in Year 2 but did not, was utilized as more of a 5-technique defender rather than a 9-tech (lined up wide outside of the tackle’s outside shoulder).
Not surprisingly, Carter was often stymied when rushing from the 5-tech position. But when lined up to rush from the 9-tech, that’s where all of his sacks came from.
When debating the Giants' most significant need, you can easily put pass rusher as 1A behind offensive tackle, in our opinion.
Hopefully, the Giants will be able to acquire the edge players to give them a pass rush to be respected. Not only will that make their blitzes more effective, but they wouldn't have to rely on them to generate pressure.
That being said, we should look for some creative pressure packages from the Giants' defense in 2020.
We’ve been talking about the Giants offense and defense in this article and what we anticipate based on history and the clues (personnel). Still, above all else, we are expecting, based on Judge’s proclamation at his introductory press conference, that the two sides of the ball will be well-coached and well-taught.
All too often, we saw confusion, breakdowns in communication, and just lousy football from the Giants in recent seasons.
We like that this coaching staff, which took Judge about a month to assemble, has a lot of teachers and that it has former NFL players—Colombo on the offensive line and Jerome Henderson for the defensive backs—to head the units that underachieved in the past.
And we can’t talk enough about Judge’s vow that his new coaching staff would scheme to the team's strengths and function as teachers as well as coaches.
That is the basis for how the best teams operate, and it would be a refreshing change of pace for the Giants.
There is undoubtedly talent on the roster to be taught and schemed around—we never once thought the 2019 roster was a four-win team—and the Giants should not have looked as bad as they have been these last three seasons.
We can use Garrett and Graham's track records to draw some predictions as to what the Giants could look like in 2020, but we will have to wait and see what form the offense and defense take.
We look forward to bringing you our observations when the off-season program begins—there will be an extra voluntary minicamp in April, where we will likely get a look.
And we’re also curious to see what kind of players the Giants add through free agency, all of which we’ll be reporting on in future issues.
We would hope that when it comes to roster building, Judge and general manager Dave Gettleman do not make the same mistake made with the previous coaching staff, which was to load up on guys from the coaches’ past histories.
We look forward to better days ahead for this team.
--Reporting by Chris Pflum and Patricia Traina
We will break down all the roster-building transactions with our annual “Who’s Coming, Who’s Going and Who’s Staying” issue. This issue will be available in late March.
Inside Football is an independent publication that is neither sponsored by, nor affiliated with, the New York Football Giants or the National Football League (NFL).