Ten thoughts following the Giants 31-21 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T stadium in Dallas, Texas.
1. The Cowboys are good….- Naturally I reserve the right to change my mind but the eye test proves it. The Cowboys are playing sound, power football and have the playmakers on the outside to make you pay if you overcompensate in the box (nice sexual reference I know). The offensive line is basically the best unit going in all of football- better than the Legion of Boom Seattle secondary. They are winning individual battles at the point of attack and helping to win games for the Cowboys. The defense, as a result, doesn’t need to play as much and allows them to be fresh. Remember, this is a unit that lost its two best players and still sits as the 22nd best team defense based on total yards surrendered, giving up the 15th most yards per game, 18th most pass yards, 21st most rush yards, and tied with Green Bay for 16th most points given up. So how does a team that has a +1 turnover differential get such acclaim? Because Rod Marinelli has tied scheme with the pieces given and formed a unit that likely will have to continue playing great football for not so long stretches of the game. This is a team that had the ball for more than 31 minutes in the game they lost in San Francisco, then had it for more than 41 minutes in Tennessee, almost 35 minutes against the Saints, 36 minutes in OT against Houston, nearly 38 minutes in Seattle, and 33 minutes against the Giants. The only time they LOST the time of possession game was against the Rams, where they had to pass their way to victory after going down 21-0 midway through the second quarter. This is a team that makes no bones about its offensive identity: they will run the football with a physically imposing running back who has finally managed to stay healthy and the minute they think you’re cheating at the line of scrimmage they will throw the football to a physically imposing wide receiver who’s on the short list for dominant wide receivers in the sport.
Do I trust the defense in the second half of the season when the weather turns cold? Just looking at their next month, they go against Washington on Monday night, Arizona at home, and then travel to Jacksonville before they hit their bye. They could enter their bye 8-2 if we are to assume that they lose to Arizona and even then you can’t assume anything. Then the schedule gets a bit more daunting. Sunday night against the Giants, then a quick turnaround against the Eagles on Thanksgiving day, followed a week later by a game at the who knows where mentally they will be Chicago Bears, ten days later at the Eagles for what could be pole position in the division, home for the Colts and then close out the season against the Washington Redskins. who may have Robert Griffin back healthy with what looks like a slate of solid weapons. If one were an optimist, and say the Cowboys run the table till the bye, let’s say they split the Eagles games, sweep the other two divisional opponents, and lose to the Bears and Colts, we’re still talking a 12-4 regular season. Here’s where the Tony Romo, Jason Garrett era has always hit a hard thud, there will be one or two losses that could slip into that dreamy scenario that could ultimately undo them, but this iteration of the Cowboys seems markedly different than the play for the division on the final day of the season Cowboys teams that always stopped short.
Based on the records as it stands, the Eagles face a tougher stretch. The Eagles have Dallas twice, but also have yet to play Seattle and they draw Green Bay by virtue of winning the division last year. Let’s assume they beat Arizona at home which is no easy feat, and then beat Houston and Carolina. Let’s say they split one of the two against the Cowboys and split one of two against the Green Bay and Seattle teams and then win out. That’s a 13-3 record for the Eagles. I trust the Eagles defense more than I do trust the Cowboys defense and those two divisional games between the two will be huge especially the December 14th showdown at Philadelphia. Should be an interesting 2 months to see this drama play out in Big D and Broad Street.
2. …this loss means the end for the Giants? Technically no one is officially knocked out but look at the two schedules and the if everything plays out as it should scenarios for the two teams- Dallas, would wind up 12-4 or 13-3 and Philly would go 13-3. The best record the Giants could get now is 12-4 and thats by running the table Jim Fassel style. That means beating Indy and San Fran at home and then beating Seattle AT Seattle and then also beating Dallas and Philly once which would make things interesting again. They end the regular season in Philly. But to get there, they would have to get through that tough stretch completely unscathed and there’s no evidence that the Giants even make it out of that stretch 1-2. Remember, these two games were as must-win as must-win can be this early in the season and they failed both times. If you think the wild card will be there for the taking consider that one of the two spots will be taken by the Dallas/Philly group and the other spot will likely come from the NFC West who have the defending champions, the Niners, the Cardinals and a suddenly dangerous Rams team. Good luck trying to slip in through the wild card. Crazier things have happened and Giants fans can attest to that. It will be difficult to envision the Giants going any better than 10-6 and barely missing the playoffs. Of course, as the season goes on, you have the out of nowhere injuries to significant players. The Cowboys don’t have the kind of depth on defense that can afford any type of major injury. The Eagles are a sound team but if LeSean McCoy doesn’t start performing better and the offensive line continues to have the kind of injuries they already have had (they are playing without Evan Mathis and Jason Kelce), the season could turn and the Eagles could start to suffer. But I still like the Eagles and Cowboys thanks to their schedules to make it out with double digit wins more so than the Giants.
3. Is it time to put an end to the fairy tale that was Larry Donnell? No. Physically he’s still a match up nightmare. Mentally one has to wonder if the young kid can put the two costly turnovers late in the fourth that ultimately cost the Giants Sunday’s game. We won’t have the answer to that for a few weeks, but the Giants have capable players up and down the roster offensively to start making a difference and the “next man up” philosophy will be put to the test if he doesn’t take care of the football better. One thing we’ve learned about Coach Coughlin is that he HATES players with fumbling issues and isn’t a coach that takes kindly to mental mistakes. It bears watching how Coughlin handles this in terms of the depth chart. Daniel Fells continues to be steady and reach the end zone, but I know coming into the season The Giants are heading into the bye and perhaps time off will heal the wound of Donnell’s fumble but Coughlin will remind the young TE that a 3 TD performance in Washington does NOT a career make. The play in question wound up being a 14 point swing when Donnell fumbled at the New York 27. The Cowboys scored 4 plays later with a 1 yard TD run by DeMarco Murray.
4. Eli Manning continues to be mistake free….- But the Giants keep losing. Eli’s career record when throwing for at least 2 TD’s and zero interceptions is 21-6 (.777 win pct). Coincidentally three of the six losses were to the Cowboys. When the Giants handed the offense to Ben McAdoo one of his chief responsibilities was to reduce the amount of interceptions thrown by Eli. He’s already done a fantastic job. Eli has thrown 5 interceptions in 7 games. Compare that to 2013 when he had thrown his 5th interception by the fourth quarter of game number two. The biggest question surrounding Eli has always been about his erratic play but there’s no doubt that the early returns on this new offense have been good. Eli has limited his mistakes and some of that is due to the fact that he is no longer forcing the issue when being under pressure. He’s making sure to throw those god-awful short throws at the knees of his running back rather than throw it and hope for the best. Think about the effect that has on an offensive line that everyone agrees has not improved as much as the Giants brass would have liked. The offensive line is projected to give up 10 fewer sacks this year than last and that’s with an eight sack performance at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles on their register. While the benefits may not be seen now, mistake free football is what helped win two Super Bowls. This can only lead to better things.
5. Andre Williams isn’t there yet.- And that’s ok. The rookie was thrust into a role after a few highlights of him lowering the boom on some unsuspecting cornerback. But you’re now seeing why he wasn’t projected as high on team’s draft boards. He’s not as quick or shifty as the superstar running backs in the league. He’s a pound it out in between the tackles 4 yards at a time the hard way kind of guy. Those guys age quick. Its the guys that can avoid the hits that last in the league and Williams hasn’t learned that trick yet. Jennings, another big back, did a great job when he was healthy of showing burst once he hit the hole. Williams runs into the hole and finds very little room to operate because he didn’t read the hole correctly. That will come with time and repetition. The Giants brought in former Jet Alex Green and former Cowboy Felix Jones for workouts but that’s more as a contingency. They believe Jennings will be healthy enough to play after the bye. But it does bear watching how reverting back to a part time role could make Williams more productive or if it has a negative impact on his development. If he is in fact the future feature back, these few games may be the best thing for his development.
6. The defensive line is going back into its shell- The Giants went up against two above average (Philly) to really good (Cowboys) offensive lines and failed both times to generate any consistent rush. Yes, their performance in Dallas was significantly better than it was in Philadelphia where it seemed like the Giants weren’t in the same league as the Eagles, but again a breakdown in fundamentals led to critical scores for the Cowboys. Terrance Williams’ touchdown catch saw Tony Romo break to his left once he realized that JPP had taken an inside route to get the sack and he had acreage to run or stop, set himself and throw a touchdown strike to Terrance Williams. It was similar to watching the Giants break contain against Shady McCoy. The way to stop shifty players is to force them to try and go straight when they really want to run left or right. Shady and Tony Romo are adept enough to wait for you as the defender to make the first move and give away where you’re going to try and get them so that they can instinctively make a counter-move. The importance of being patient and allowing the player to fall into the hands of the defense are vital and the Giants failed both times. During 2011, JPP had a knack for making the sure tackle and being excellent in run support because he was able to hold the point of attack on running plays and force the runner to either go way outside or shift back inside which led to short or no gain. That’s the kind of performance we need. Coach Nunn has promised to unleash DaMontre Moore and shift Kiawunuka to the inside on certain passing downs to generate a pass rush but he said it with the nugget that he doesn’t think DaMontre Moore is necessarily ready to make that leap. The Giants, more so than others, can be hamstrung by what they see in practice. They recognize talent but if the talent doesn’t perform from Monday-Saturday they won’t trust it Sunday. I’m not going to second guess them because their method has worked. But sometimes you have to take chances that don’t have anything to do with your hand being forced due to injury.
7. Who deserves more credit? Tony Romo or Demarco Murray- Its a popular question but I offer this response: the offensive line. That offensive line has changed everything for the Cowboys and I beg someone to say that the offensive line’s performance hasn’t been what has spurred the Cowboys resurgence this year. As I wrote earlier, their affect on how long the defense has to stay out there, or their ability to wear opposing defenses out can’t be felt until the third and fourth quarter. It reminds me of the offensive line the Giants had in late 2007 and throughout most of 2008. The rushing stats for the Giants were unbelievable because the offensive line dominated the point of attack and forced the issue and moved buildings out of the way for the runners to run through. Giving Tony Romo, an already talented quarterback, a running game and an offensive line that can pass protect well is creating the illusion that the Cowboys have an extra receiver on passing situations and a big TE blocking on running situations: it looks unfair.
8. Why didn’t the Giants just keep passing it last Sunday?- That’s a very good question and one that I think has more to do with how the game was being played and how close the game was until five minutes left. Yes, the Giants were having success passing the football. Eli played another fantastic, mistake free game. But the fact is Tom Coughlin has always preached balance and he won’t change the identity of his team to suit the narrative of ONE game. Remember, the Giants were trailing the Cowboys by 7 with 5:28 left in the game so there was no reason to panic and deviate from the game plan. There is some merit to the thinking that perhaps the Giants should’ve gone pass heavy to set up the run and flip the script. In the fourth quarter the Giants went pass heavy calling 12 pass plays to 4 run plays. Technically the Giants did go pass heavy but two fumbles by Larry Donnell extinguished any chance of the Giants being able to score. It will be interesting how the play calling changes if Rashard Jennings does not return after the bye. Will the Giants rely heavily on the pass game?
9. Hey Rook, you’re a veteran now- That’s the headline that screamed this week as Victor Cruz’s injury now forces Odell Beckham to come into his own as a veteran. I’m one of those guys who views injuries like this as opportunities for players who have the skill to put their talent on full display and I believe that Beckham will do just that. I’m a fan of his route running, and his ability to get down the field and create mismatches. Judging by “Drafting Giants” the NFL Films production that aired as a miniseries on the NFL Network, the Giants thought the world of him and love his pedigree; both his parents were professional athletes. I did find it surprising that the Giants would be vocal about expanding his role in the offense. There’s a difference in the tone that the Giants speak about him than say a Damontre Moore, a second year defensive end that the Giants feel similarly enthused about. While Moore physically is able to dominate at the line of scrimmage, there are concepts he still is having problems with. Beckham, who’s early injury put doubt into people’s heads about his toughness, sprung from his first game and immediately made an impact. Whether its his budding connection with Eli which seems to be almost instinctive, or its his other skills that were on display from the day the Giants and other teams scouted him, it just looks like the added responsibility won’t be too much for the rookie receiver to handle. An Adrien Robinson who has been the tight end of the future while the Giants keep inviting one year tryouts for tight ends has found it difficult to make it on the field on Sundays, and almost found himself completely out after Larry Donnell’s breakout performance the first few weeks. The Giants aren’t sending mixed signals. Some players progress a lot quicker than others. Its just a nature of the game and the point of the game is to win. The best players make the plays on Sundays and the best players play on Sundays. For rookies, that means growing up quicker than maybe the traditional process says. But I don’t think Beckham minds.
10. Looking ahead- Well a bye couldn’t have come at a better time. It feels like a coming to God moment for the Giants. I thought they had to, at the very least, split the series against the Eagles and Cowboys. Now, the focus comes to Indianapolis who has been playing excellently recently and that offense led by Andrew Luck and old friend Ahmad Bradshaw. The Giants last played the Colts when they had a young buck called Peyton Manning as their quarterback. This version of the Colt QB is just as dangerous if not more thanks to his physique. If you thought Tony Romo was tough to bring down, I promise you Luck will be tougher. Sacking Luck will require multiple Giants converging at the QB and even then, he has the arm and upper body strength to get the football out. If the Giants don’t get pressure on Luck it will be a long day. One player to keep an eye on: Dwayne Allen. He missed virtually all of last season following a hip injury that put him on the IR. His ability to block and be an able member of the passing game was a huge loss for the Colts but the Colts are a resilient bunch. It forced certain players to play a more pronounced role. With Allen back, a lot of players can now take their rightful place in the offense. The Colts won’t expect Colby Fleener to block. He can play the Dallas Clark role by lining up outside of the down linemen. Allen’s presence is huge in this offense and the reason they have rolled off the kind of numbers they have. Interestingly enough, the Colts last year played the kind of murderer’s row of schedules the Giants will. Starting in week 3 the Colts played the 49ers in San Fran, the Seahawks at home, the Chargers in San Diego and the Broncos in Indy in five weeks and went 3-1 in those games. So the lesson here is that it can be done. The mistake free Eli needs to play those games. If not, the Giants may not stand a chance and a bad 0-2 stretch can stretch into a nightmarish midseason which will give way to a pointless end of season string of games. The Giants are now forced to win nearly all of the next few games against the Colts (at home), Seahawks (in Seattle), Niners (at home) and Cowboys (at home) to even survive and keep up with the Cowboys and Eagles. Let’s remember, they have to win all of their division games thanks to losing to the Eagles and Cowboys in consecutive weeks. This will be an interesting after the bye stretch.