The glaring issue in the Giants' surprise undefeated start

The glaring issue in the Giants’ surprise undefeated start

Then there were six.

And the Giants are among them.

This teaser, back on Labor Day, likely would have elicited groans from fans braced for another season riding in the non-contender lane. To ask then what exclusive club most would have expected the Giants to be in two games into the season likely would have generated a resounding response: Teams looking for their first wins?

General manager Joe Schoen and coach Brian Daboll may have ushered in a feeling of competence and started building a promising vision for the future, but both also noted this is a situation in which process is going to trump production. This is going to take time, they warned.

But perhaps not as much as anyone expected.

The Giants are one of six teams with a perfect 2-0 record, joining some expected fast starters (Bills, Buccaneers, Chiefs) and some unexpected (Dolphins, Eagles). The Giants would love to be judged by the company they keep.

The situation brings to mind the words franchise patriarch Wellington Mara uttered on Jan. 14, 2001. His Giants were two-point underdogs that day, but routed the Vikings, 41-0, in the NFC Championship Game. With the Giants Stadium crowd still whipped into a frenzy for the post-game trophy presentation, Mara stepped to the microphone and delivered quite the oration:

“This team was referred to as the worst team ever to win the home-field advantage in the National Football League. And today, on our field of painted mud, we proved we’re the worst team ever to win the NFC championship. In two weeks, we’re going to try to become the worst team ever to win the Super Bowl.”

General manager Joe Schoen and coach Brian Daboll said this season would be judged more on process than production.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Well, it did not turn out that way. Two weeks later in Tampa in Super Bowl XXXV, the “worst team” theme hit a bit too close to home for the Giants after their 34-7 loss to the Ravens.

This season is not that one, of course. The Giants are, indeed, 2-0 for the first time in seven seasons, but no one should entertain the illusion they will be able to hang with the big boys as the leaves begin to fall. It is not unfair to declare they are the worst 2-0 team in the league.

That doesn’t mean this surprising start won’t have the potential value of helping Daboll set a firm foundation for the future. And though there is really nothing not to like about this group, the roster does not possess the quality needed to remain in rarefied air.

There may be no better illustration of that fact than in looking at the six undefeated teams’ passing games. Tom Brady, naturally, is part of the pack. So are young and gifted talents Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. Top-5 draft pick Tua Tagovailoa is finally getting in gear with the Dolphins, and leads the NFL with 739 passing yards. And Jalen Hurts in Philly is proving doubters wrong in his second year, evolving into a legitimate pass-run threat.

And there’s Daniel Jones.

The stats tell the rest of the story.

The Giants are averaging 20 points a game, pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the league (15th of 32). Their 318 net passing yards per game ranks 31st.

Yes, Jones made plays down the stretch in victories over the Titans in Nashville (21-20) and the Panthers in the Giants’ home opener (19-16). And he has three touchdown passes and one interception while clocking in with a passer rating of 99.4, eighth-best in the NFL. But he is 28th in ESPN’s QBR — an adjusted total quarterback rating that considers the strength of the opposing defenses faced by a quarterback.

  Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (8) passes under pressure in the third quarter.
Daniel Jones has the Giants off to a perfect start but some of his stats indicate his productivity is the result of playing inferior defenses.
bill kostrun

To be fair, Jones’ primary targets were Richie James, Sterling Shepard and David Sills, which is troubling. Even more worrisome is that two games in, Kadarius Toney and Kenny Golladay were non-factors. Toney played seven snaps in the opener. Golladay played two snaps in Week 2. The meritocracy Daboll espouses is a big part of the culture he is instilling, and there is nothing wrong with that. But extracting the most out of the best players is also a skill, and the rookie head coach needs to get more out of Toney and Golladay for the passing attack to rise from near the bottom of the pile.

Golladay has been in some sort of funk since training camp. He is being paid $13 million this season and counts for $21.2 million against the salary cap. It can go one of two ways for him: Either he snaps out of it and his playing time increases, or he slides into the ignominy of becoming a healthy scratch on game days.

It’s also possible something else might be at work here. Golladay, 28, might be physically limited after coming off a hip injury in 2020 with the Lions and dealing with several leg issues last season with the Giants.

Coming off of a disappointing rookie season, Toney sounds more mature and honed in when he is sitting at his locker. That is all well and good, but the Giants need him to look great on the field after spending a first-round pick on him a year ago.

Whatever the reasons, Daboll has yet to show any trust in Golladay and Toney because if he did they would be receiving the bulk of the snaps.

New York Giants' Kadarius Toney, right, runs with the ball during the first half an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, in East Rutherford, NJ
Kadarius Toney has been a non-factor in the Giants’ passing game, with two catches on three targets over the first two games.
PA

So far, the running game has picked up the slack. The Giants are fifth in the NFL in rushing at 170.5 yards per game (which bodes well for Saquon Barkley in his contract year). But with teams such as the Browns, Eagles, Lions and 49ers ahead of the Giants in team rushing, it suggests that the top running teams are not always the top teams.

Jones, of course, is also in his contract year, as this new regime did not pick up his fifth-year option. The marching orders for quarterbacks start with winning the game, and two games in, Jones is 2-0. His offensive line clearly is not impervious, but it is improved. Barkley is healthy and strong. Thus far, Jones has done more to win the games than to lose them. But the receivers need to pick it up, especially Toney. Moving forward, the pitch-and-catch aspect of the offense has to get better, by a whole lot.

Serving notice

In a strange quirk of the schedule, the Giants do not face the Eagles, a team in their own division, until Dec. 11 during Week 14. They then face their rival again four weeks later to close out the season.

Out of sight does not mean out of mind.

The Eagles put on a show Monday night in their 24-7 beatdown of the Vikings, and joined the Giants atop the NFC East. A case can be made that the Giants might be able to hang in the division race with the Cowboys losing quarterback Dak Prescott for a while and the Commanders seemingly stuck in mediocrity again.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) passes the ball against the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field.
Jalen Hurts’ development into a quarterback who can hurt a defense through the air as well as on the ground may alter the NFC East hierarchy.
USA TODAY Sports

The way Hurts played in Week 2, though, might be a warning shot that the Eagles are the team to beat. He completed 84 percent of his passes for 333 yards and a touchdown and ran for two more TDs. His legs and athletic ability were never in question in his first two NFL seasons. If his arm and decision-making are going to be big pluses in Year 3, the Eagles do not appear to have many holes.

“He’s put in so much work,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “[The game is] slow down. But it should — right? — at this point. He is further into his process, and we’re talking about getting better every day and he lives that. He’s one of our captains, one of our leaders, and he lives the theory of getting better every day. That’s why you’re seeing major improvements. It’s because of the type of person and the type of player he is.”

Asked and answered

Here are two questions that have come up recently that we will attempt to answer as accurately as possible:

It seems as if the defensive backfield is playing well. Has anyone surprised you back there?

We all suspected the safeties were solid, and perhaps much better than that. So far, Xavier McKinney and Julian Love have not disappointed. We also suspected the No. 2 cornerback and the slot corner might be areas of concern, and, two games in, that remains the case, though Darnay Holmes has shown signs he can handle the job as the nickel back — as long as he stops committing holding penalties late in games.

New York Giants cornerback Adoree' Jackson (22) breaks up a pass to Carolina Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore (2) and nearly intercepts it during the first half when the New York Giants played the Carolina Panthers Sunday, September 18, 2022 at Citi Feild in East Rutherford, NJ.
After a lackluster first season with the Giants, Adoree’ Jackson has been nearly impossible to pass against, allowing one catch in two games.
Robert Sabo

One player who has been excellent is one player who must be excellent: Adoree’ Jackson. He is CB1, but he entered the season surrounded by questions of whether he could fill that role. Well, he has not missed a snap in two games and his speed has flashed several times. What comes as a surprise is how aggressive Jackson has been, especially in his tackling in run support. He never was known for this when he played for the Titans or last year in his Giants debut. Perhaps this is the Wink Martindale effect. The new defensive coordinator demands physical play from everyone on the field, and Jackson has obliged. He gave up one catch against the Titans and none in four targets against the Panthers. Pretty damn good.

Will the defense look dramatically different when Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Oljuari return from injuries?

Thibodeaux (knee) has a chance to play Monday night against the Cowboys. It looks as if Ojulari (calf) is at least another week away. The Giants are anxious to get these two young outside linebackers on the field. Martindale has done a decent job getting pressure on the opposing quarterback, but he needs real edge rushers to win at the line of scrimmage and collapse the pocket more quickly than the Giants have been able to do the first two games.

Linebacker Jihad Ward #55 of the New York Giants yells during the first half against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Jihad Ward’s job spearheading the Giants’ run defense should be made a little easier when Kayvon Thibodeaux returns from injury.
Getty Images

At this point, there are only a few players who are every-snap or almost-every-snap players on defense: Love, McKinney, Jackson and defensive end Jihad Ward. The return of Thibodeaux should decrease Ward’s workload. Martindale loves Ward from their time together with the Ravens, and Ward is an excellent run defender who can set the edge. Thibodeaux’s return also should help cover for the absence of defensive lineman Leonard Williams (knee), who it appears will be out for at least a few weeks. Still, it’s important to remember Thibodeaux is a rookie and there will be a learning curve. Do not expect a sack parade from Day 1. But he also was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, and the Giants believe he can be a difference-maker as a pass rusher.

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