The 2016 New York Giants, 15 games into their season, are still trying to find themselves. But that is not a surprise. Nor is it a criticism.
A young starting lineup, remade under a 39-year-old coach who had never been a head coach at any level before this season, was realistically expected to flex its playoff muscles next season, not in 2016.
The Giants, despite Thursday night’s exasperating stumble in Philadelphia, remain ahead of schedule. That, however, does not obscure their flaws.
That is what Giants fans are going to have to accept. It is an unpredictably good, if imperfect, team that is forced to rely on players untested in the crucible of late-season pivotal games. Which is another way of saying it’s not all Eli Manning’s fault, even if TV network cameras mostly focus on the quarterback because that is the natural, personality-driven storyline.
The Giants are still very likely to make the playoffs. If the Atlanta Falcons, the Detroit Lions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Green Bay Packers lose this weekend, the Giants are in the post-season. The Giants are also in the playoffs if they win their final regular-season game, on
Jan. 1, at Washington.
Moving forward, the Giants should still be an entertaining playoff team. But there will be strange, unexplainable things happening from time to time. Such as the Giants on Thursday gaining 470 yards but scoring only 19 points.
It is what happens when rookies are starting all over the field on both sides of the line of scrimmage. That being said, Thursday’s 24-19 defeat in Philadelphia should open Giants fans’ eyes to a few truths about their 2016 team.
The Giants’ defense is one of the league’s best, but only when healthy. And the unit is increasingly becoming less than full strength because of injuries.
The absence of the team’s best cornerback, Janoris Jenkins, exposed how vital Jenkins’ work on the opposition’s top receiver is to the function of a remodeled defensive unit. Jenkins was rested Thursday with a badly bruised back.
Without him, the Giants’ tackling in the secondary suffered and other players, like Eli Apple, were thrust into the role of cornerback stud. Apple, who gave up what proved to be the game-winning, 40-yard touchdown Thursday, is having a fine rookie season, but he is not at Jenkins’ Pro Bowl level.
And the Giants were already missing their best defender, Jason Pierre-Paul. Even one sack from Pierre-Paul, or a timely tackle by Pierre-Paul of Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, whose scrambling bedeviled the Giants, could have been a significant play and led to a Giants victory.
It’s also time to recognize that the Giants are not a good road team. They are 3-4 in away games, including a neutral-site victory over the Los Angeles Rams in London.
Against better teams — Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Minnesota — the Giants have struggled even to be competitive on the road. As a lowly ranked potential wild-card team, the Giants will have to correct that to have any chance in the postseason, should they make it.
Meanwhile, the offense, in many ways, looked much improved Thursday, rushing for 114 yards. Two Giants running backs, the rookie Paul Perkins and the veteran Rashad Jennings, combined to average 4.7 yards per carry, which is a big step up from most games this year.
The passing game had its usual fits and starts, although there was much more good than bad. Eight Giants had receptions. Of course, three of Manning’s passes were intercepted. It was not his best game, and his first interception, thrown into obvious double coverage, was inexcusable. Like many Manning interceptions lately, it was returned for a touchdown, which put Philadelphia ahead, 14-0. At this stage of his career, it seems as if every Manning interception becomes a crushing turnaround.
But it’s important to remember that Manning is rarely settled in the pocket this season. He is not playing behind the wall of premier offensive linemen exemplified by guard Chris Snee during the Giants’ most recent championship seasons.
The protection from his offensive line this year, epitomized by the besieged left tackle Ereck Flowers, is suspect on 15 to 20 pass plays a game. Thursday, Manning was often on the move, and hit frequently, including as he threw deep downfield on his final pass of the game near the Eagles’ goal line.
That pass was intercepted as well. But his intended receiver, tight end Will Tye, was also culpable for the turnover, failing to make any effort to prevent the Eagles’ Terrence Brooks from making the interception.
Tye is a second-year player who Thursday was making only his 16th NFL start. That’s roughly one season. But the thing to remember is that the Giants remain a work in progress, and progress is exactly what they have been making.
It is easy to recall the Giants’ 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl seasons and think the 2016 Giants are going to ride a similar magic carpet ride from wild card to their fans’ wildest dreams.
It is not entirely out of the question — although the Giants need to get in the playoffs first. But such a fantastic run is going to take a healthy lineup, some unusually accelerated maturity from a few essential rookies and a bit of road luck.
One other thing for Giants fans demoralized or infuriated by Manning’s jagged performance Thursday: Do not give up or turn your back on the face of the team since 2004. While wide receiver Victor Cruz had eight catches Thursday, the only player from the last Giants Super Bowl team still making substantial contributions every week this year has been Manning.
The many young players on the 2016 Giants, the veritable keys to whatever the Giants accomplish this year and next year, view Manning as their savior every week. Manning is the only one who can help them find themselves and perhaps pull off a few more surprises this season.
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