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Special Report

Sent: 01-10-19

E-GIANTS
Dave Klein was the Giants' beat writer for The Star-Ledger from 1961 to 1995.
He is the author of 26 books and he is one of only three sportswriters to have covered all the Super Bowls. Dave has allowed TEAM GIANTS to reprint some of his articles.

SCOTT LANDSTROM LISTS REASONS
FOR GIANT FANS TO BE OPTIMISTIC FOR '19

(If you are looking for some solace as we go through the long, long non-football season associated with nob-playoff teams, perhaps Scott Landstrom's current think-piece will offer some comfort. He finds several reasons for optimism, and fans should enjoy following his logic.)

By Dave Klein
Well, Giants Nation, it is now the time when the Shakespearean "slings and arrows" stop being exchanged by all but the final eight teams left in the NFL tournament, and we are left to evaluate the year that was for the other 24 teams, including your New York Giants -- and the division in which they play, sarcastically called the "NFC Least" in a few publications earlier this year.

Well, how is this paltry division looking now that both the Division Champion Cowboys and the wild card Eagles beat their first-round opponents to graduate to the Divisional round of the playoffs? Another way to put this is: there is only one division in the NFC and one division in the AFC with two teams left in their conference's "Final Four": the known powerhouse AFC West (Chiefs and Chargers still alive), and surprise, surprise, the NFC East. Nothing "least" about having two of the four Conference semifinalists, eh?

Oh, and one other aspect of this strikes me. While the Giants' 5-11 record is surely nothing to be proud of, amazingly, when New York faced top competition on their schedule, with a few exceptions they tended to give their opponents all they could handle, and sometimes more than that.

The basic facts are that out of 16 games on their schedule, the Giants had eight games against 2018 Playoff teams. Given such a poor record, one might intuit that New York would have gotten "smoked" in the great majority of these games, but that just wasn't the case, in general:

Here is a brief summary of their games against eventual 2018 Playoffs teams, rating each game for how competitive it was:

Week No. 2 at Dallas: While it was only a seven-point loss, it truly wasn't as close as the score, as the Giants trailed 20-3 with 5:45 left in the game, then scored the last 10 points in a game that was truthfully all but over, barring a miracle. Competitiveness level: Poor - until too late in the game.

Week No. 3 at Houston: Playing against a team that would win nine in a row following this game, and finish 12-4 on the season, in their home stadium no less, the Giants established a 14-point lead at half time and were never seriously threatened. Competitiveness level: Outstanding - beating a 12-win division winner on their field.

Week No. 4 New Orleans: Playing the currently No. 1 power-ranking team in the NFL, the Giants got smoked at home 33-18. Competitiveness level: Poor ... but against the best team in the NFL (current power ranking).

Week No. 6 Philadelphia: Another clunker home loss against the defending champions, 34-13. Competitiveness level: Very Poor but against the defending Super Bowl Champion.

Week No. 12 at Philadelphia: An extremely competitive game that saw as bad a cluster of missed calls as I can recall in a decade. Five HORRIBLE calls, four of them against New York (later called out by TV analyst and former Head Official Mike Perriera) in a game they truthfully won on the field. Competitiveness level: Outstanding - and just a shame the officials dictated that winner and loser change places.

Week No. 13 Chicago: Playing against an eventual 12-4 team that would win the NFC North, the Giants became the ONLY team in the Bears' last 10 games to defeat them, 30-27. Competitiveness level: Outstanding again, against as rugged a defense as there is in the league.

Week No. 16 at Indianapolis: The Giants took on a hot, desperate team in the Colts that ended up going 9-1 over their final 10 games and lost a heartbreaker by one point when Eli Manning threw foolishly into triple coverage at the end of the game when all New York needed was 25 more yards to get dead-eye kicker Aldrick Rosas in range to take the victory.

Also, the Giants only 'defensive holding' call of the entire day HAPPENED to occur (and it was a legit call) on the play Olivier Vernon strip-sacked Andrew Luck and the Giants recovered. One of those years. Competitiveness level: Outstanding, against a really molten hot team in their stadium.

Week No. 17 Dallas: This was a supremely competitive game that saw five lead changes and was only won on a miracle fourth-and-15 play with 1:19 left in the game - a 40-yard pass to a diving Cole Beasley that was originally ruled out of the end zone as the Giants celebrated the win. Except it was replayed, reversed, and Dallas, now trailing 35-34, went for the two-point conversion and made it. One of those years. Give Dak Prescott 40 snaps on fourth-and15 to throw a 40-yard pass to the back of the end zone, he might complete three but this was one of those three.

Oh, and the Giants got the ball back on their own 48-yard line with 1:12 left due to a Dallas penalty and a great kickoff return by Cody Latimer, and only needed about 15 yards to get Rosas in range for the winning FG, and Eli (who had played wonderfully up to this point) promptly threw four straight incompletions. Game over. Competitiveness level: Outstanding -- should have won the game.

Add those up, and you have two non-competitive efforts (New Orleans, Philadelphia), one marginally competitive game (at Dallas), and FIVE truly competitive games where the Giants stood "toe to toe" with some of the very best teams in the league, three of them against teams on 9-1 streaks (Houston, Chicago, Indianapolis) where the Giants either beat them outright (Texans, Bears) or had every right to beat them, absent one horribly timed defensive holding call, and then one mindless pass at the end of the game (Indianapolis).

More importantly, the last four games in a row that the Giants played playoff teams ALL resulted in outstanding competitiveness, surely a positive harbinger for next season.

Say what you will about the abysmal 5-11 record, but given the effort level head coach Pat Shurmur was able to induce, even after any chance of the playoffs was gone, was so admirable, and the team played top teams so well, as a rule, that I can promise you no playoff eligible team would have looked forward to playing New York in week No. 17, due to the track record above.

Yet another element of this team's resurgence from 10 "decisive losses" (arbitrarily defined as by eight points or more) in 2017 to only three in 2018 is how many seven-point or less defeats they had. They led the NFL with EIGHT such games, and of those eight, FIVE were within three points or less.

So, with all due credit to ESPN columnist Jordan Ranaan for digging these facts up, one can see below a table of all teams in the past 12 years who had either eight or nine losses by 7.0 points or more the previous season, and how they fared the very next year. FYI, there have been 10 such teams since 2006, and every one of them won more games than the "many close losses" season, eight out of those 10 improving by a huge margin (four games or more). See the table below:

YEAR TEAMLOSSES BY 7 OR FEWERWIN INCREASE FOLLOWING SEASON
2013Texans 9+4
2011Vikings 9+7
2016Jaguars 8+7
2016Chargers 8+4
2015Chargers 8+1
2015Giants 8+5
2014Bucs 8+4
2012Lions 8+5
2010Cowboys 8+2
2006 Lions 8+4

Average win increase following 8 or 9 seven-point losses previous season: 4.3

Think about that for a moment. That would put the Giants, on average, at 9.3 wins next year, simply looking for that last fractional win to get to 10 victories, and a likely playoff spot. Not a sure thing, to be certain, but I think the data speaks for itself - both how well the Giants played against playoff teams down the stretch (their last four such games), AND how many close losses they had.

Now, lest I leave you on too positive a note, let me address the following "personnel" factor that needs addressing going into next season. In the 3-4 defense that James Bettcher has installed for New York, the linebackers and the defensive ends sort of mix together in an unpredictable fashion. Make no mistake - "unpredictability" is good if the opponent does not know where the pass rush is coming from.

But the fact of the matter is, when the Giants traded away Jason Pierre-Paul for a third-round draft choice to Tampa Bay, it left them with only ONE legitimate "star" player (Olivier Vernon) in the combined group of linebackers and "edge defenders" on their team. And to be clear, the "bill" for YEARS of totally ignoring the linebacker position under Jerry Reese, in particular, has come due for the Giants.

Watching the playoffs last weekend and seeing the havoc being wrought by elite, athletic linebackers like Khalil Mack of the Bears, Terrell Suggs of the Ravens, Bobby Wagner of Seattle (the highest rated LB this season in PFF), as well as the amazing "kid patrol" duo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch of Dallas (not to even mention Sean Lee, who has been the best player on the Cowboy defense for years), it made me green with envy that no Giants' linebacker finished in the top 40 at LB, and only Vernon placed in the top 40 for "edge defenders"

What if I told you, looking at the NFC East, if we merge the two groups (LB and ED), and arbitrarily say that a season performance score of 70.0 or more represents a talented player, that there are 11 players that make the grade. By team, they are:

Team and Player PFF Season ScorePositional Rank
Dallas: 3  
ED: DeMarcus Lawrence
89.2
7th
LB: Leighton Vander Esch
87.5
4th
LB: Jaylon Smith
85.9
5th
   
Philadelphia: 4
 
 
ED Chris Long
73.6
28th
LB Jordan Hicks
76.4
12th
ED Brandon Graham
88.9
8th
ED: Michael Bennett
75.1
25th
   
Washington: 3
 
 
ED Ryan Kerrigan
75.9
21st
LB Zach Brown
89.2
3rd
ED Preston Smith
76.9
19th
   
New York: 1
 
 
ED Olivier Vernon
86.3
14th

So, this is a "smoking gun" in my mind as to why the pass rush was generally so poor, and why the fourth quarter defense led the NFL in points allowed in that quarter. In fairness, I love some of the signs shown by athletic rookie Lorenzo Carter - and he has potential to climb into this talented group above in the near future - but his 65.8 season grade just doesn't quite get him there in this past season.

Certainly these two positions need to be a focus in the free agent period, and into the NFL draft. Since the three competitors have either quadruple (Philadelphia) the 70+ grade players at these two positions, or only triple our number (Dallas and Washington), it is clear that the combination of linebacker and edge rushers HAS to be a priority going into next season.

Comments or questions are encouraged, and can be sent to: egiantswest@gmail.com

Check out Dave's website at E-GIANTS where you can subscribe to his newsletters which run much more frequently than what is available here.
- Team Giants

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