What the Giants are still figuring out after two strange wins

Staff report


Are the Giants winning because they are not afraid to lose?

This might be too deep of a thought for the Monday after the second game of the season and could be the basis for first lecture in the class entitled “Overthinking 101.” But there might be something to this.

Sure, we all knew the early schedule offered an opportunity for the Giants to get off to a decent start. Their first four games, prior to leaving the country for a meeting with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in London, were against the Titans in Nashville and then three consecutive home games, facing the Panthers, Cowboys (on “Monday Night Football”) and Bears. Going 2-2 after four games was not out of the question. Getting to 3-1 was the glass-half-full serving.

Well, the Giants are 2-0 and a fast start is already secured. They have scored only four touchdowns in two games and converted only 29 percent (8 of 28) of their third downs.  Their total first half output: Six points. They trailed 13-0 at halftime in the opener and won 21-20. They trailed 13-6 in the third quarter against the Panthers on Sunday and won 19-16. Their margin for error is razor thin.

Brian Daboll on the sideline during the Giants’ win over the Panthers.
Robert Sabo

It is too soon to stamp this as anything other than two inelegant wins but it is not too early to notice the way new head coach Brian Daboll is building his first Giants team. He is determined to get as many players involved as possible. He is pressuring the team to prepare the right way while refusing to harp on the final result. He said he was absolutely at peace with going for the two-point conversion and the win in Nashville even if it failed.  A week later, the Giants on offense were hearing boos during the home opener at MetLife Stadium. Daboll anticipated this and beforehand told his players to use the negative noise to toughen up.

“He told us if we hear boos that equals focus for us,” left tackle Andrew Thomas said.

Daboll knows this is not the roster that will lead the Giants to big things in what he hopes is a prolonged stay as the man in charge. He likes his first team but understands the limitations. He is setting up the program to reflect his priorities and beliefs. He knows about the losing aura swirling around the franchise he stepped into. Through two games, he has coached to win, rather than not to lose. There is a difference.

“The guys we have on our team aren’t afraid of failure,” safety Xavier McKinney said.  “We’ve been at the bottom, we’ve experienced all that so we’re not worried about messing up. Sometimes we hear the boos and stuff but we’re not too much worried about it. We know we’re gonna have a breakthrough at some point.”

Is 2-0 a breakthrough?

“I don’t know, I guess,” McKinney said. “We’re 2-0, we got to keep working. I’ve learned in this league things can go south really fast.’’

 More that came out of the Giants Week 2 victory:

— Kudos to offensive coordinator Mike Kafka and Daboll for orchestrating a 2-0 record without much of a passing attack. Daniel Jones threw for 188 yards in the upset of the Titans and 176 yards against the Panthers. He has three touchdown passes and one interception. This is not a formula for sustained success and the wide receiver situation is baffling and disturbing. Kadarius Toney played only seven snaps in Game 1 and Kenny Golladay played only two snaps in Game 2. Daboll is going strictly on a merit system based on who he believes can help that particular week. If Toney and Golladay are not in the top group of targets, something is wrong, considering their talent and pedigree. Golladay was a borderline Pro Bowl player with the Lions and Toney was the No. 20 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Daboll and Kafka are going with Sterling Shepard, Richie James and David Sills ahead of them — and also rookie Wan’Dale Robinson before he hurt his knee in Nashville. It certainly sends a message to the rest of the team that playing time will not be dictated by salary (Golladay) or draft status (Toney). Daboll is building something and apparently will not cut any corners here. Still, it is imperative the offense at some point includes Golladay (who most likely will be gone in 2023) and especially Toney. In 28 snaps (only 38 percent of the 73 plays the Giants had on offense) Toney was targeted three times. He caught two passes (one was more of a handoff with Toney in motion) for no yards — he lost 2 yards on one catch and gained 2 yards on another. All we keep hearing about is how dynamic Toney is with the ball. We saw signs of that last season in games against the Saints and Cowboys. When will we see it this season?

Kadarius Toney after a catch for the Giants.
Kadarius Toney after a catch for the Giants.

— The rotation at left guard continues, but it was not the shared experience we saw in Week 1. Ben Bredeson played 56 of the 73 offensive snaps (eight series) and rookie Josh Ezeudu played 17 snaps (four series). The coaching staff is determined to develop Ezeudu and it seems as if they want him to earn his way into a starting job. He is not ready for that yet, though.

— Saquon Barkley will not win back-to-back NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after gaining that award with his 164-yard outburst to knock off the Titans. Barkley in Week 2 carried the ball 21 times and finished with 72 rushing yards and his three receptions netted only 16 yards. He was far from inconsequential, though. The Panthers were loaded up on defense to deal with Barkley and stopped him cold (five rushing attempts for 3 yards) in the first half. There were no highlight moments in the second half but Barkley did pick up 69 yards and allow the attack to balance out. His 16-yard run sparked the only touchdown drive of the day, his 15-yard burst up the middle got the Giants out from deep in their own territory to spark a field-goal drive and his runs of 10 and 8 yards got the game-winning field-goal drive moving.  

— Now you see him, now you don’t. Inside linebacker Austin Calitro played 44 of the 65 snaps on defense in the opener but was used for five snaps against the Panthers. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale filled the field with defensive backs (sometimes six at one time), putting safeties McKinney and Julian Love closer to the line of scrimmage and keeping rookie Dane Belton as the sole deep back in a center-field role. In Belton’s NFL debut (he missed the opener recovering from a broken collarbone), he did not let the ball get over his head and showed why the Giants from Day 1 in the spring were so high on the fourth-round pick from Iowa. Belton played 79 percent of the snaps. He did not look good taking a bad angle and whiffing on Christian McCaffrey’s 49-yard run but he was bailed out by cornerback Fabian Moreau, who chased down McCaffrey to prevent a 75-yard touchdown run.

Daniel Jones escapes the pocket during the Giants' Week 2 win over the Panthers.
Daniel Jones escapes the pocket during the Giants’ Week 2 win over the Panthers.
Robert Sabo

— How about Gary Brightwell? The second-year running back carved out a place for himself on the roster based on his work on special teams. He had one rushing attempt as a rookie last season. He had one rushing attempt against the Panthers and it came in the fourth quarter on the drive that produced the winning points. On third-and-1 from the Giants’ 44-yard line, all eyes were on Barkley as the logical ball-carrier to try to pick up the first down. Brightwell was the up-back in a fullback role and it came as a surprise when Jones took the snap and put the ball in Brightwell’s midsection. Brightwell does everything aggressively and he hit the hole hard and ended up with a 14-yard gain. Score one for Kafka.

— Jihad Ward was not an every-down player when he played previously for Martindale with the Ravens. Through two games, Martindale cannot do without Ward. He played 57 of 65 snaps in Game 1 and 53 of 58 snaps in Game 2. Perhaps this workload decreases once the Giants get back Azeez Oljulari (probably still another week away) and rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux (more likely to play next Monday night against the Cowboys).

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