Twelve months ago, New York Giants fans were riding high as major media outlets pegged them as a team with realistic Super Bowl chances.
That’s not exactly how 2017 played out.
A five-game slide to start the year shot that idea out of the sky. A 1-8 record by mid-November spelled disaster. But the nadir of a woeful 3-13 campaign came when head coach Ben McAdoo signed his own pink slip with the ill-conceived idea to bench two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Eli Manning in favor of Jets castoff Geno Smith on Dec. 3. The next morning, McAdoo was gone. The whole episode ranks among the most dysfunctional events in the franchise’s storied history.
As far as most fans are concerned, last year was a fluke. Manning was reinstalled as the starter a week later, and he’s the unquestioned leader as Big Blue prepares for its Week 1 matchup against the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars at MetLife Stadium.
Nobody is talking championships just yet, but the team appears to have righted the ship. If that’s true, and the Giants can return to the postseason after a one-year hiatus, they’ll have to find the right answers to the following three questions.
Is this passing attack elite?
Few, if any, credible observers believed the problem with the 2017 Giants was Manning. His offensive line was a punching bag seemingly all year. His job got a lot harder after receiver Odell Beckham Jr., the Giants’ most talented player on either side of the ball, fractured his left ankle in Week 5, ending his season.
No, the 37-year-old Manning no longer belongs among the top passers in football. But with Beckham back — and now making more money than any wideout in the game — alongside capable receiver Sterling Shepard and emergent tight end Evan Engram, the Giants look threatening again. Even the offensive line received a makeover, adding former New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder to keep Manning upright the way he used to for Tom Brady.
Add in the mix a certain highly-touted rookie — more on him in a moment — and this could be the G-Men’s most diverse offensive arsenal in years.
Can Saquon carry the load?
The new regime of general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Pat Shurmur opted to pass on Sam Darnold and use the No. 2 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft on running back Saquon Barkley. That allowed their fellow stadium tenants, the Jets, to swoop in and draft the quarterback. Selecting the Penn State rusher over a top passing prospect sent two clear messages: Manning isn’t going anywhere just yet, and Barkley will have a major role in the team’s future.
Since Tiki Barber’s 2006 retirement, which came at the height of his career, the Giants have employed a backfield-by-committee approach. Their only player to carry the ball more than 230 times the last 11 seasons was Ahmad Bradshaw in 2010.
Don’t be surprised if the Giants would love to give him nearly 300 carries this year. As great as their passing game’s potential appears to be, Gettleman believes in winning in the trenches. Solder, and rookie guard Will Hernandez, were brought in over the offseason to solidify the blockers ahead of Barkley, perhaps more for their abilities in opening lanes for the rookie runner.
Will the defense hold its ground?
A major spending spree ahead of the 2016 season transformed the Giants’ defense, but last year’s disaster set the unit back once again. They ranked next-to-last in passing defense, routinely getting torched despite the presence of Pro Bowl-caliber talent in both the secondary and up front.
Some personnel changes were necessary, of course. Longtime veteran Jason Pierre-Paul was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was let go. But the biggest switch came along with new defensive coordinator James Bettcher, who installed a 3-4 defense that moved edge rusher Olivier Vernon from the front four to linebacker.
Only time will tell if the new scheme fits the current personnel, which includes 2016 All-Pro safety Landon Collins and one-time Pro Bowl cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Growing pains could mean the difference between postseason contention and another top-10 draft slot.