Big Blue United

Eli Manning isn’t the Giants’ biggest problem

Photo Credit: Associated to SB Nation Source

Read Full Article: Eli Manning isn’t the Giants’ biggest problem

By Bill Connelly - SB Nation -

Manning isn’t really the Giants’ problem. Hell, their biggest problem isn’t even on offense.

Even by their own lofty standards, 2018 has been a particularly drama-heavy season for the Giants thus far. The issues themselves are in no way new, but this vintage has had some unique notes to it.

  • Odell Beckham, Jr. is unhappy. Certainly not the first time, but 2018’s version includes a midseason interview in which he called his quarterback a statue and said his coaches are getting out-schemed.
  • Everyone’s yelling about Eli Manning being toast. After producing a QBR of 60 or higher in seven of eight seasons from 2008-15, Manning appears to be on his way to a third straight year at 55 or lower. He was briefly benched last year, and the Giants haven’t gotten around to drafting his replacement yet. But this time around, it’s happening despite getting Beckham back from injury, drafting one of the best receiving running backs in the league, and hiring an offense-friendly head coach. Oh, and Lil Wayne is involved. Naturally.
  • The Giants have gotten off to a slow start. They’re 1-4 thus far. They were 0-5 last year, 2-3 in 2016, 0-2 in 2015 and 2014, and 0-6 in 2013. This is well-trodden territory. But this year’s losses have been particularly painful — three have come by one possession, and on Sunday they erased an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit against the Panthers, only to lose via Graham Gano’s 63-yard field goal at the buzzer.

So this year has managed to be both the same and different. Fun trick.

The Giants clearly aren’t far from being good — they’re a Gano bomb and a tipped pick-six against Jacksonville away from being a far more respectable 3-2, after all. But the familiarity of the issues can make everything seem unfixable. So let’s walk through some of the primary points of discussion and see if a few advanced stats can help us figure out exactly what’s wrong with the Giants and exactly how it can be fixed.

“I don’t feel like I’m being given the opportunity to be the very best that I can, to bring that every single day — and that’s really all I want to do, to bring that every single day.” — Odell Beckham, Jr.

Thanks to a fresh, new contract extension, Beckham is making money that reflects his status as one of the league’s elite receivers. According to Spotrac, he is, along with Kansas City’s Sammy Watkins, Cleveland’s Jarvis Landry, and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, one of only four receivers making more than $18,000,000 this year. He’s one of only 11 making $12,000,000 or more.

Among the $12,000,000 men, he is second in targets (behind Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown), tied for first in catches (with Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins), and third in yards (behind Hopkins and Atlanta’s Julio Jones). You could say he has gotten the same opportunities as most of his peers to “bring that every single day.”

Of course, those rankings looked quite a bit different before this past Sunday.

The day his ESPN interview went public, he had his best game of the year: 14 targets, eight catches, 131 yards, his first receiving touchdown of the year, and, of course, his 57-yard frozen rope of a touchdown pass to Saquon Barkley.

One of Beckham’s more interesting complaints in the interview was about scheme. “I feel like in the past five years they found a way to run a Cover 2, keep everything in front, and that’s how they play me,” he said. “I feel like I’m being out-schemed.”

Against Carolina, his usage changed quite a bit.

After being used primarily close to the line of scrimmage — according to data from Sports Info Solutions, his average depth of target was just 6.2 yards in Week 3 and 6.3 in Week 4 — Beckham was used in a far more diverse and aggressive way in Week 5 (average depth of target: 12.7 yards).

Again according to Sports Info Solutions, Beckham ran more slant routes (he’s averaging 11.4 yards per target on those this year), quick routes, and post routes than normal on Sunday. He was also sent needlessly deep less frequently: go/fly routes had accounted for 22 percent of his routes run, but that figure was only 17 percent against Carolina.

And for the first time all year, he was actually targeted on a go route — it resulted in a 33-yard touchdown.

No matter how mad head coach Pat Shurmur may have been upon hearing about the Beckham interview — and no matter what Shurmur told Fox’s Pam Oliver during the game (that he wasn’t trying to “appease” anybody) …

Beckham’s complaints pretty clearly did the trick.

He was targeted on three of Manning’s first four passes in the first half and six of his first seven in the second half. He also returned three punts (muffing one) — he had only fielded one since 2016.

This reminded me of when I’m playing Football Manager, and one of my more well-paid players complains to the media because he’s mad about being left out of the lineup for a while. I respond with something vague, like “He will get his chance,” and then I immediately start him for the next five matches because I had completely forgotten about him until he complained. But I digress.

However it came about, Beckham had a big game, and the Giants almost beat a pretty good team. One of their problems might have just solved itself. Just keep it up.

“Can [Manning] still throw it, yeah, but it’s been pretty safe and it’s been, you know, cool catching shallow and trying to take it to the house. But I’m, you know, I want to go over the top of somebody.” — OBJ

New York Giants v Houston Texans
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Compare two charts.


AirYards.com

That, per Josh Hermsmeyer’s AirYards.com, is Manning’s 2016-17 completion rate (green line) on passes of a certain depth, compared to the league average (orange line). You’ll notice that he was at or below average most of the way.

Here’s the same data for 2018:


AirYards.com

Manning has almost no way-way-downfield data points (which was one of Beckham’s complaints), and he’s throwing shorter than ever, but he’s also been well above average on shorter throws. His completion rate is actually above his expected completion rate (the mathematical baseline based on the passes he’s throwing) for the first time in the last decade.

Again, via AirYards.com:

Manning’s gorgeous go-route pass to Beckham on Sunday reminded us that he can still throw the long ball sometimes.

If we are to believe that the shorter passing is more because of Shurmur’s system than Manning’s capabilities — in Shurmur’s system in Minnesota, Case Keenum’s expected completion rate last year was 67.4 percent, and his average depth of target (aDOT) was 7.6, just a little higher than Manning’s — then it’s hard to say Manning is the specifically the issue, even if he’s not an elite QB.

It’s even harder to say that when you look at the Giants’ efficiency numbers broken out by run and pass.


When you aren’t staying on schedule, you aren’t giving your playmakers proper opportunities to make plays, and you’re begging for your QB’s sack and interception rates to go up. The Giants have been both bad at avoiding third-and-longs (53 percent of third downs require seven or more yards to go, 25th in the NFL) and bad at converting them (15 percent success rate, 26th).

That said, their passing numbers have been about average; they’re 20th in passing marginal efficiency and 16th in passing DVOA. That’s nothing great, but it’s not horrible.

The run game, however, has been horrible — 32nd in rushing marginal efficiency and 25th in rushing DVOA. But when you select a running back with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, you feel the need to use him.


Saquon Barkley still isn’t an efficient running back

“Due to some combination of iffy line play and Barkley’s own playmaker instincts — which would sometimes lead to him sacrificing a three-yard gain to attempt something greater — Barkley was not an incredibly efficient back at Penn State.”‘No running back in the NFL Draft is a sure thing, not even Saquon Barkley’

To say the least, negative plays have been an issue for New York this year.

Against the Carolina Panthers the Giants had six negative runs in 15 attempts, four offensive penalties and a sack. That’s 11 negative plays in 60 potential snaps.

For the season, the Giants now have 60 negative plays in 339 potential snaps — 17.6 percent.

Here’s the breakdown:

Sacks — 16

Negative runs — 20

Negative passes — 4

Offensive penalties — 20

It’s hard to generate consistent offense, and score enough points, when one of every 5.7 plays goes backwards.

Because of the obvious, positive relationship between passing downs and sack rates (more of one usually means more of the other), it’s easy to see how negative plays can create more negative plays.

On Sunday, despite Beckham’s big day and a solid day from Manning (22 of 36 for 326 yards, and two scores, granted with two picks), the Giants enjoyed just a 41 percent success rate — 46 percent through the air and 27 percent on the ground. Top pick Saquon Barkley had 48 yards in 15 carries, a pretty paltry 3.2-yard average that gets even worse when you realize that 30 yards came on one run.

A lot of this is on the line, of course. It was bad last year, and attempted upgrades — signing free agent left tackle Nate Solder, drafting guard Will Hernandez, moving struggling LT Ereck Flowers to RT — have had a marginal effect at best. (That they just waived Flowers, a former top-10 pick, probably tells you quite a bit there.)

Plus, while he grew more efficient over time at Penn State, Barkley was a boom-or-bust back for much of his college career. It was entirely to be expected for him to begin his career rushing inefficiently, and he has contributed to plenty of the rushing issues. He certainly learned how to run behind a sketchy offensive line in college, but that doesn’t mean he’ll automatically be good at it.

Barkley is averaging 14.2 carries per game; his 71 carries are ninth-most in the NFL at the moment. When you can’t run block, you maybe shouldn’t be running that much, especially if your QB’s short passing can function as a run game substitute on passing downs. And especially when your running back is such a good pass catcher. Barkley has caught 31 of 39 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns.

In the increasingly pass-happy NFL, you probably shouldn’t use the second pick in the draft on a running back, no matter how physically impressive he is. But if we view that choice as a sunk cost — the wrong call, but hey, there’s nothing you can do about it now — Barkley can still be an immense asset.

For starters, he is indeed crazy-explosive. He has rushes of 68, 30, 28, 24, and 20 yards thus far, and receptions of 57, 21, 18, and 18. He’s responsible for nearly one-third of the Giants’ big plays by himself. And despite the short passing, the Giants’ big-play rates are just fine.

Barkley has also been an asset in the red zone, where the Giants are among the league’s best at turning opportunities into points.


The run game’s inefficiency, thanks to both Barkley’s tendencies and the line’s issues, has been a major reason for the Giants’ inconsistency. But he’s also contributed considerably to their strengths. That’s a bit of a paradox that you have to hope gets smoothed out as Barkley gets more reps and the line generates more continuity and consistency (or adds better players in the offseason).

All this talk about the offense, however, is a bit of misdirection. When you’ve got Beckham, you’d like to think you can produce better than average numbers, but average is still better than bad.

And the defense is bad.


The Giants can’t defend the run on standard downs to knock opponents off schedule, and they can’t pressure the passer or defend the pass well enough on passing downs to avoid big plays. They are 24th in Defense DVOA, just as they were last year, worse than their No. 16 mark on offense.

As exciting as Barkley is, you could pretty easily make the case that, if they weren’t going to try to draft Manning’s successor at QB with the No. 2 pick, they maybe should have gone after an ace pass rusher (Bradley Chubb, the No. 5 pick, has recorded 1.5 sacks and nine QB hits — top-15 in the league, despite getting fewer pass-rush opportunities than all but one player in the top 15).

Really, our priorities are all out of whack here. With what they’ve invested on the offensive side of the ball, the Giants should probably expect a better than average offense, and they don’t have that yet. But until the defense actually catches up to the offense, the offense really isn’t the problem at all.