It's Now Sunny in New York, But It’s Always Tough in Philadelphia
I remember sitting on a couch at the Giants’ practice facility at the beginning of training camp, asking Tom Coughlin what would possess a 67-year-old coach to start over on offense, especially after running the same base offense for the last 28 seasons of pro and college football. Coughlin had never met Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo (pictured above, with Eli Manning) until he interviewed him for the Giants’ offensive coordinator job in January, but he hired McAdoo to install such a makeover.
Imagine putting your faith in a man you don’t know very well, a man who is three decades younger and who runs a West Coast offense that you’ve never used before. You’re a two-time Super Bowl winner, for crying out loud, and you still have your two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. This was either the last NFL act of a desperate man, or the calculated move of a smart coach not afraid of a jarring change.
“I looked at our team,” Coughlin said in late July, “and I just felt like what I needed to do from a leadership standpoint was stimulate our veteran players.
“Stimulate Eli. Create some energy, some renewed vigor, some enthusiasm for the unknown. Eli had played in this system for 10 years. We won two Super Bowls with it. For me, I have to force myself, just like all the players, to learn a new system. It is stimulating. It does create a little bit of pressure. But now I think there’s some energy that maybe we haven’t had.”
Coughlin looked like the nutty professor in the Giants’ first two games. Average score: Foes 30, New York 14.
Going into Week 6, Coughlin looks like a combination of Paul Brown and Bill Walsh. Average score of the Giants’ past three games: New York 35, Foes 17.
The real change for the Giants, who play at Philadelphia on Sunday night and have a real chance to exit the weekend tied for the lead in the NFC East, involves three major elements:
- Eli Manning is reborn in McAdoo’s offense. Manning played at his 2013 level in the first two weeks of the new season—he led the NFL with 27 picks last year, and completed just 57.5% of his throws—but some of that can be explained by the defenses he faced. Opening on the road in Detroit was a deathtrap for a new offense, and then Arizona’s tricky defensive coordinator Todd Bowles created myriad problems for a unit still trying to get in sync. But during the Giants’ three-game winning streak, Manning has been 12% more accurate than his career average—can you believe he completed 70% of his throws against Houston, Washington and Atlanta? Manning has accepted throwing the ball short and letting his receivers, backs and tight ends make plays after the catch. Via Pro Football Focus, check out his release times: He averaged 2.65 seconds after the snap in 2013, but that’s plummeted to 2.26 this fall. Which leads us to …
- The offensive line has been one of the best in football. Again via PFF, the Giants’ offensive line allowed Manning to get hit or significantly pressured on 40.3% of his drop-backs last season—sixth-worst in the NFL. This year that number is down to 21.3%, the lowest rate in the league. General manager Jerry Reese and Coughlin overhauled the interior line before the season. Rookie left guard Weston Richburg (above average), center J.D. Walton (average), and right guard John Jerry (average) have helped a very solid tackle combination of Will Beatty on the left and Justin Pugh on the right. That’s not even including free-agent find Geoff Schwartz, who should be ready to return from short-term IR (dislocated big toe) after Week 8. The left side has been magnificent over the past three games, though it will be tested by Trent Cole on Sunday night.
- GM Jerry Reese’s 2014 draft breathed life into a stale offense. Wideout Odell Beckham Jr., the first-round pick, debuted last week and scored a touchdown; he’s a good opposite-side alternative to Victor Cruz, who needs one. Richburg, a second-round pick, has been excellent for three weeks at guard. With a knee injury forcing starting running back Rashad Jennings to be out on Sunday, fourth-round running back Andre Williams, a bruiser, will need to be at his most physical against the stout interior of the Eagles’ defensive front. The Giants also have a virtual rookie star at tight end in Larry Donnell, who played sparingly last year. You can see how well Reese restocked a flagging offense.
“We knew it would take a little time,” Manning said from East Rutherford on Thursday afternoon, “but now it’s all working well together. The protection has been really good, we’re running the ball well, we’re staying out of third-and-longs, and I’m trying to do what Ben [McAdoo] has stressed with me from the start: ‘Find completions. Don’t press.’ Like, on third-and-11, if the rush is heavy, find the first open guy, even if he’s in the flat. Let him make the play. Don’t force it downfield. That’s when you get in trouble.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship. Beatty is now performing far better at left tackle, in part because he has to hold his block a half-second less than he did last season. Manning doesn’t have to wait for receivers to get open downfield, mostly because McAdoo wants him to find Cruz, Beckham, Donnell and Reuben Randle quicker and let them make plays. Manning’s completion percentage is significantly up and his interceptions down because the passes are shorter and more likely to be completed.
“What I like about this offense is there are a lot of answers, and we can make plays quicker,” Manning said. “That frustrates the defensive line. Will is really playing well, plus I’m getting rid of the ball.
“The completion percentage, really, is a combination of things. I’m making the right reads, I’m doing what Ben shows us will work, I have a good idea where I’m going with the ball every play, and I’ve been able to get into a good rhythm the last three weeks. In quick-passing attacks, timing is important, and I feel like we’re getting good timing down with the receivers.”
I asked Manning about the upcoming test in Philadelphia, especially with so many young guys who’ve never heard the kind of intensity (that’s putting it nicely) from a crowd that hates the Giants so much. “It’s always tough in Philadelphia and it’s always loud,” said Manning. “But it’s football. We need to play smart and play well from the start so we don’t get behind. Hopefully we can keep the crowd in check.”
It’s quite possible that we’ll see a three-way tie for first in the NFC East by the end of Sunday. The 4-1 Cowboys are at Seattle, and both the Eagles and Giants would be 4-2 if New York goes down the turnpike and gets a win (Philadelphia has been ravaged by injuries to its offensive line and managed just two touchdowns in its last 22 possessions).
Manning has won two of his last three at Lincoln Financial Field, but it will be a new on-the-road experience with McAdoo calling the plays. This is going to be a fun rivalry game between two teams that usually take it down to the wire: six of the last nine meetings have been decided by 10 points or fewer, and that’s the kind of game I see happening on Sunday.
About Last Night
Indianapolis 33, Houston 28
The Texans lost, and the big-picture story is the Colts winning their four straight (10 in a row in the feeble AFC South) and improving to 4-2 while averaging 34.5 points in those victories. But the star of the game was Houston’s J.J. Watt, the best defensive player in football—and maybe the best player in football. In an absolute tour de force performance that ranks among the best in his three-plus-year career, Watt had seven tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss, a fumble returned 45 yards for a touchdown that got the Texans back in the game, two more significant pressures, and three passes deflected. Said his victorious victim, Andrew Luck, on NFL Network as the clock struck midnight in the east: “Lot of respect for the way he plays football. We were going to try and double him as much as we could. He obviously disrupted a bunch of our plays and made some big ones.” In six games, Watt has three touchdowns (via a catch as a tight end, a pick-six and last night’s scoop-and-score). If there is justice, J.J. Watt will be a legitimate MVP candidate if he continues at this pace, because you simply cannot play any position in the game better than he’s playing on the defensive line.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Devin Hester, returner/wide receiver, Atlanta (No. 17)
After eight stellar years in Chicago, Hester signed a three-year, $9 million deal with the Falcons in the offseason—and, conveniently, the schedule has Chicago traveling to Atlanta on Sunday afternoon. Hester said this week that the Bears didn’t offer him a new contract, and he implied that no longer being wanted in Chicago stung quite a bit. So far he’s been everything the Falcons hoped he’d be. He’s the league’s lone player through five weeks with touchdowns as a receiver (a 36-yard TD from Matt Ryan), a rusher (on a 20-yard sweep), and a returner (a 62-yard punt return against Tampa Bay). “The coaches do a great job of finding plays that fit me and getting me in space,” Hester said this week. He’d be disappointed if he doesn’t find himself in open space on Sunday.
Sound Bite of the Week
“We’ve got football players. That’s what we've got. Guys who can stand in front of the mirror, look at themselves in the mirror, and say, ‘I’m a foot-ball-player.’ That's a heck of a feeling—if you've ever done that.”
—Jim Harbaugh, 49ers coach
Regular Old Quote of the Week
“I think the play of Hoyer is kind of settling that discussion.”
— Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, whose Steelers will play the Browns this Sunday, on the quarterback duel between Cleveland starter Brian Hoyer and very famous backup Johnny Manziel that fizzled over the last couple of weeks.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1) Peyton Manning to give the Jets a shellacking. Mismatch of the weekend is Manning versus Geno Smith, assuming that at 1 o’clock Sunday afternoon Smith is at MetLife Stadium on Route 3 in New Jersey instead of the Clifton Commons movie complex on Route 3 in New Jersey.
2) Funny headline of the weekend: “Brett Favre glad Peyton Manning is close to breaking his TD record.” Uh, I sort of doubt that’s accurate. A truer headline would be: “Brett Favre says he’s glad Peyton Manning is close to breaking his TD record.”
3) Something’s got to give in Seattle. Dallas running back DeMarco Murray is on pace for a 2,144-yard rushing season, which would be a record. Seattle surrenders 2.6 yards per rush, stingiest in the league. This Sunday afternoon showdown of one-loss teams has this fun subplot.
4) The Bills begin a new era with a big game. In Orchard Park, the Bills will welcome new owners Terry and Kim Pegula, who also own the Sabres. (The Sabres, who play Saturday night in Chicago, will be out in force at Ralph Wilson Stadium to support their owner—and, I assume, to have a couple of Molsons in the parking lot before the game.) After a looooong ovation for the Pegulas, who will be feted for keeping the team in western New York, there’s this little matter of the Bills trying to beat the tale-of-two-teams Patriots and Tom Brady. Who, by the way, has put up 130 points his last four trips to Orchard Park.
5) A Green Bay reunion. Miami coach Joe Philbin, a former Packers coordinator under Mike McCarthy, faces McCarthy in the South Florida steam. At some point I’m sure he’ll think, You know, I’d be a pretty good coach, too, if I had Aaron Rodgers.
6) Matt Prater’s new beginning. I don’t think the best kicker in football starting anew with another team—Detroit, at Minnesota, on Sunday—is getting enough attention. Bad kicking cost the Lions a win last Sunday, which is why they're 3-2 instead of 4-1.
7) Me trying to not vomit after watching the NFL Mobile/Verizon J.J. Watt groovy dancing commercial 73 more times Sunday and Monday. I can’t take it anymore. Please make it stop.
8) Tony Sparano’s debut in the Black Hole. San Diego has outscored opponents 54-0 over the last six-plus quarters, so you might think this is going to be a terrible, awful ballgame. I believe it’s going to be a very close game to the end. Sparano, the Raiders’ interim head coach, will find a way to keep Oakland in it. I don’t know how exactly, but that’s what he does.
9) A great matchup, for a change, in Cleveland. The Steelers have won 19 of the last 21 against the Browns, and Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden has a bum hip and is iffy for this one—which could mean the Steelers, the only team that has four receivers with at least 20 catches thus far, could romp. But I’ve got a feeling Brian Hoyer will keep this one close.
10) Another star-crossed Monday-nighter for the Rams. Last year, in the middle of the baseball playoffs, with the Cardinals still in them, the Rams hosted the Seahawks without Sam Bradford and lost. This year, in the middle of the baseball playoffs, with the Cards still in them, the Rams will host San Francisco without Sam Bradford. I mean, I’m just saying.