It’s only been nine years since the Giants last won a Super Bowl, which isn’t really that long when you think about it. They were a model of stability back then. They had been built into a perennial contender.
It’s amazing how they have fallen so far, so fast.
The Giants have become the polar opposite of what they were less than a decade ago. They are on their fifth head coach in six seasons, with their GM barely clinging to his job in just his third year. They have one winning season and one playoff berth in the last seven years and five seasons of double-digit losses in the last six. They are 12-36 – a .250 winning percentage – in the last three years alone.
So why did John Mara say last week, “I feel good about the direction we’re headed in right now?"
It’s because while this Giants team may be far from complete, it is loaded with young talent and plenty of potential. They believe in new head coach Joe Judge. They have faith in second-year quarterback Daniel Jones. And they think they see a light at the end of their long, depressingly dark tunnel.
Will any of that be enough to actually get them into the playoffs this year? With one more playoff team being added in each conference, it’s possible all it will take is a .500 record. It’s not crazy to think the Giants could turn out to at least be that mediocre.
So go ahead and have a little hope. But beyond that, here’s what has to happen for them to make that elusive playoff run:
Daniel Jones has to avoid the Sophomore Slump
If you don’t freak out about the fumbles, the 23-year-old Jones had a terrific rookie season. He earned well-deserved rave reviews from people around the NFL, and the confidence of his teammates. But that has to be only the first step for the Giants to have success. We’re out of the era where young quarterbacks could endure a rocky first few seasons before finding themselves. Nowadays, young quarterbacks are enjoying immediate success all over the league.
And the tools are there for Jones. He’s got a strong array of weapons, a great running back to take some pressure off, and a rebuilt offensive line in front of him. He doesn’t have to be Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson in Year 2, or even elite. But there can’t be any regression. If there’s a marked increase in turnovers, for example, or a big drop in his completion percentage, the Giants will spend the season overcompensating for him – and they’re just not good enough to do that.
A big-time pass rusher must emerge
The Giants weren’t able to find the “stud” pass rusher they crave either during free agency or the draft, so they opted for quantity over quality and potential over performance. They brought in Kyler Fackrell and brought back Markus Golden -- both of whom have recent double-digit sack seasons. They traded for Leonard Williams last season. They’re hoping for growth from linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines and defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence.
They seem to believe that’s enough for new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham to develop an effective pass rush-by-committee.
Maybe it is, but they will still need one guy to emerge as a game-wrecker, a player that offensive coordinators need to worry about. That’s especially important given the disastrous state of their secondary (see below). They need someone who is a threat for 12-15 sacks, and who can consistently draw double teams in his direction.
The Giants’ hope, internally, is that the 24-year-old Carter starts to emerge as that kind of player. Some think Williams has that potential, too, though it’s obviously been unrealized for his entire career so far.
It doesn’t matter whom. A pass rush-by-committee could make this defense respectable. A dominant pass rusher, though, could push them over that mediocre edge.
The offensive line needs to finally be “fixed”
It’s taken three years, but GM Dave Gettleman believes the Giants are “the closest we’ve ever been” to solving their offensive line issues. The addition of first-round pick Andrew Thomas at left tackle and veteran Cam Fleming at right tackle has certainly upgraded the talent. And they have high hopes for converted tackle Nick Gates at center.
They’re still counting on a lot, though. Gates is the biggest wild card, but even though Thomas was the No. 4 overall pick, it’s rarely smooth when a rookie is thrown in at left tackle. They’re also counting on a bounce-back season for guard Will Hernandez, who had a rocky second year. And they’re hoping chemistry develops -- always key for an offensive line -- even though they didn’t have a lot of on-field work this offseason and have yet to play together in a game.
The line did not look great in either Giants scrimmage, which might not be an indication of anything. Gettleman is probably right that the line is close to being fixed. It needs to be actually fixed, though, if the Giants offense is going to be good enough for them to make any kind of run.
Saquon Barkley has to play like an MVP candidate
This is the likeliest thing on this list to happen, and if the Giants are good enough to make a run at the postseason, it’s a safe bet Barkley will be in the MVP conversation. Barkley topped 1,300 rushing yards and 2,000 total yards as a rookie playing on a bad team behind an atrocious offensive line. And last year, he topped 1,000 rushing and 1,400 total yards in just 13 games (12, really), despite not being fully healthy for many of them.
So yeah, the expectations are high. But if he has an MVP-like season, it would mean everything else on offense is going right. It means the offensive line is consistently creating holes for him for the first time in his career. It means Jones keeps progressing and is working Barkley more into the passing game. And it means the Giants’ weapons – perhaps especially tight end Evan Engram – are healthy and working well enough that defenses can’t stack the line to stop Barkley on every down.
If that happens, he could exceed his rookie numbers. But even matching them will have fans chanting M-V-P (from home, of course).
The secondary can’t be a complete disaster
OK, right now it does look like a complete disaster – or possibly worse. Cornerback DeAndre Baker’s arrest (and subsequent release) was bad enough. Then, corner Sam Beal opted out. Then, rookie safety Xavier McKinney got hurt. The Giants did bring in Logan Ryan, who can play either position, and that helps. But mostly, the rest of the secondary, especially the cornerback corps is … well … yuck.
In fact, it’s so bad that here’s what Judge said on Sunday about his plan at cornerback opposite veteran James Bradberry: “We’ll see who performs the best. Whoever that hot hand is we may go with.”
Yeah, that’s not a good plan. But there really isn’t another option. They have high hopes for rookie Darnay Holmes, but he figures to be mostly the slot corner at the start. That leaves the other outside job to … second-year pro Corey Ballentine? Isaac Yiadom, whom they recently acquired from the Broncos? Honestly, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Giants bring in someone else before their Week 2 game.
The secondary clearly could be a huge problem, especially if the Giants can’t generate that pass rush-by-committee. They do have a couple of really good pieces in Bradberry and safety Jabrill Peppers. Ryan should help, too, and Holmes has a chance to emerge as a valuable player. They just have to hope that’s enough. Because if they can’t stop teams from throwing on them, the defense is going to cost teams a ton of games.
The bar is really low. The Giants have been in the bottom five of passing defenses in two of the last three years (and were in the bottom 10 the other season). But they can’t make the playoffs if their secondary isn’t at least just a little better than that.