I had talked about the Giants a bit on the podcast this week and then came across this piece on the Giants by Bart Hubbuchof the NYPost and I thought it made an interesting topic to discuss here as well since this is clearly a team with big decisions to make.
It’s easy to find excuses for the 3-8 record the Giants currently have. The team does enough at times to make them think that they are just a few breaks away from turning their season around and being a playoff competitor. It is very easy to look back at the seasons results and say the Giants could have beaten Arizona, San Francisco, and Dallas (possibly twice). Change the results of those games and 3-8 quickly turns to 6-5 or 7-4 in the blink of an eye.
They never had their expected started receivers really healthy at the same time. David Wilson was forced into retirement in the summer. Their starting running back, Rashad Jennings, got hurt just as the team really settled into an offensive groove. The team lost two key members of the secondary- Prince Amukamara and Walter Thurmond to season ending injuries. One of their big free agent acquisitions, Geoff Schwartz, missed almost of all the season due to injury. Their other prime free agent acquisition, Dominique Rodgers Cromartie, has nursed nagging injuries all year. Jon Beason, their starting middle linebacker in 2013, was injured in camp and was ineffective trying to play through the pain. It’s very easy to sit back and say this season was derailed before it even began.
But the Giants also have to consider reality. When you go back to the Giants first “era” under head coach Tom Coughlin you have a team that won 11 games in 2005, 8 games in 2006, 10 games in 2007, and 12 games in 2008. Included in that stretch were two division titles, four playoff appearances, and, of course, the Super Bowl championship in 2007.
Since that time the Giants have made the playoffs just once and only once finished the season with at least 10 wins. Now the one playoff season was a huge success in 2011, culminating in another Super Bowl win, but the fact is the Giants have not improved at all since then. Since winning the Super Bowl in 2011, they have won 9 games in 2012, 7 games in 2013 and are on pace for a 4 or 5 win season in 2014.
Here is what the record of the Giants looks like since Coughlin took over the team in 2004.
This pattern is the real problem facing the Giants. You look at those first years and it’s a team building towards something. They were a team that showed, over the long term, improvement. Their best team was probably not the one that won the Super Bowl, but it was a period of growth. Since then they have been stagnant over the regular season and now look to be in freefall.
Blinders in the NFL can lead to the downfall of an organization. The Giants at times seem so focused on 2011 that they don’t seem to realize that that season was an eternity ago in the NFL. Whatever fixes the Giants have tried to get back there have not worked. You can not fall back on excuses for 2012, 2013, and 2014. At some point you have to realize that chasing what worked then is probably not going to improve the team either now or in the future.
The Giants are not alone in this struggle in the NFL. The Jets for years chased a handful of successful seasons until they realized they had to just rip the team apart and begin again. New Orleans should be asking themselves the same questions that the Giants should be asking now. Philadelphia’s been down this road and so have countless other teams in the NFL.
The Giants are in one of the worst situations a team can find themselves in. They have the two time Super Bowl winning coach and quarterback, but neither of late has looked to be anywhere near that level anymore. Both are essentially going to enter lame duck periods with the organization and the decisions with those two will likely shape the direction the franchise goes in. The decision on the QB is the one that shapes the roster of the team going forward and no matter what the decisions will be criticized.
I’ve been an Eli Manning fan and I think he often gets criticized harshly because of where he was drafted and why he was drafted there. But Manning is not the kind of player who is going to put a below average team on his back and carry them to greatness. What the Giants need to ask is whether he can still play a very important role on a decent team and how long he can play that role for. Let’s look at the options ahead:
A Free Agent Frenzy
The Giants are not a team that seems to be an N’damukong Suh away from a deep playoff run. They need a new left tackle. They need a better running game. They need better pass rushers and more consistent play from the secondary. Even Victor Cruz has to be a major question mark after finishing the last two years on IR. Fixing the team for 2015 seems to be a difficult task, one that could cost tens of millions of dollars in free agency and end up blowing the Giants up for the next 4 years if things go poorly. But if the Giants don’t believe in the viability of Manning to grow with a younger team and need to keep him, this is the path they must take.
The Giants salary cap position isn’t bad going into 2015, but I don’t think you would call it great either. My estimates have the Giants going into next season with a ballpark number of $24 million in cap room, assuming a $144 million cap, which roughly means $18 million in cap to spend. They can create more space by releasing players like Beason and Mathias Kiwanuka, but they also have Jason Pierre-Paul and Antrel Rolle coming up as free agents.
With all the holes the Giants have on the roster it really requires an extension of Manning to make it feasible. And once you extend Manning can you really let a player like Pierre-Paul walk? Probably not, even though JPP will likely clog the Giants cap for years to come and never bring them value at whatever cost his extension comes in at. You look at free agency and see Suh, maybe a DeMarco Murray, Julius Thomas, and so on. You have to reach for the stars and hope they all align because if they don’t you become the Oakland Raiders of a few years ago.
And at what cost can you extend Manning? With the QB position being such a premier pay position, a two time Super Bowl winner is going to cost a great deal if he ever hits free agency. A team like the Rams or even the Giants stadium partners would jump all over him. Manning is not going to sign some Andy Dalton incentive laden, $16 million a year contract. He is going to want big money and should be content to wait until his draft cohort of Ben Roethlisberger and Phillip Rivers get theirs to give him a minimum acceptable level.
Because you have to make the numbers work with the salary cap this is going to likely lead to a very player friendly deal. If Manning continues to be an interception machine or the team plays poorly he is going be a cap killer under this plan and likely be a sticking point when it comes to bringing any new coaches on in the future.
End The Manning Era
Some might say that this is the time to trade Manning away because of all these factors, and I can understand that line of thinking, but it would rely on the team having the ability to draft a quarterback in the first round. Otherwise what benefit would they have? They just drafted a terrific wide receiver whose talents will be lost playing with a journeyman level quarterback. They will then be stuck with a bunch of failed free agents they signed this year and some additional draft picks while Ryan Nassib plays QB in what will be a lost 2015. When you charge the prices the Giants charge for tickets it is very hard to sell that to your fanbase, unless you get an absolute haul in a trade. If the Giants are willing to go this path it means Manning and Coughlin will both be gone, but GM Jerry Reese could remain long term if he was given the green light to do this.
Stay the Course
The third option is to just play it out next year. Bring back the coach and the QB, but don’t touch the contracts. This is probably the most likely scenario for the team given the Giants recent history. Under this scenario you probably bring back Rolle but let JPP walk in free agency, because he is too risky long term. The team will pinpoint one or two free agents and keep their fingers crossed that the injury excuse works and the rest of the team is healthy and productive in 2015.
The most likely outcome is that the team continues to struggle, but the Giants can get whatever additional confirmation that they need that they should blow the team up in 2016. Since they didn’t extend Manning they can hit the exit switch and move on to their next era of football. Manning becomes a free agent and the Giants can release the players signed in 2014 with little cap implications. Those signed next year you are stuck with, but that should not be a major negative moving forward.
This ties Manning, Coughlin, and Reese together for one more season, with all three going if it fails. A new GM would likely use the franchise tag on Manning, despite the cost, in an effort to trade Manning and get something back in return in 2016 rather than having him walk for nothing. So they don’t really lose the trade benefit completely if they do this.
Build Young Around Manning
This is the scenario where the Giants realize that the free agent fixes haven’t worked for them for years and need to change their approach by building through the draft and looking for a long term solution. The Giants have to believe, under this scenario, that Manning has a long career ahead of him and can be viable three and four years down the line as a group of youngsters hit their prime.
Manning would also be extended in this case, but under very different terms than the extension talked about in the free agent plan. The GM doesn’t care about the cap in the present since free agency isn’t a priority and can design a frontloaded contract where the Giants take the brunt of the salary cap hits on a massive contract early so that they have cap flexibility two-three years down the line when they are ready to make the moves to supplement the youth they bring in.
That doesn’t completely nullify 2015 as they can try to get by with the players they recently signed, but would likely avoid bringing back Pierre-Paul and Rolle. In fact they would essentially disregard free agency entirely in 2015 outside a few players here and there that can sign shorter term deals. The type of contract that Manning would sign would likely still leave the emergency exit door open in the future if the draft picks fail and/or Manning fails, so it is not a cap or roster killer.
This plan likely means the end of Coughlin unless they think he does have another 3 or 4 years in him, but keeps the other two in place no matter what.
So what path would you take if you were a Giants fan or in charge of running the team? It’s a big decision. I definitely would not extend Manning at this point and I don’t believe a free agent splash is going to amount to anything either. I’d probably lean towards staying the course, not because I believe that it will work, I just think it’s the best option for the team as constituted.
I’m pretty certain I’m not keeping Manning long term, but Ill keep the window slightly ajar in case something radical changes next season. I won’t damage the long term health of the team moving forward with that plan as I would others and I’ll make certain my team as a pulse at QB in 2015, because I know if I go to the alterative on my team I’m just throwing the season away, possibly for no good reason.
It’s almost a no-win scenario for the Giants. If they do nothing in the offseason they are going to get killed for throwing in the towel on a team that some think are a few pieces away. If they go crazy in free agency people will kill them for overspending on a team that is closer to the Buccaneers than the Broncos.
It’s probably the type of situation where the only way to make a majority of people pleased with the direction is to hire a new GM who will have a honeymoon period to remold the roster. I would not expect a new GM next season so Id anticipate the Giants having many months of listening to second guessing the decision making process and hoping that the regular season proves them right for doing whatever they decide to do.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.