Bill Parcells’ old axiom that “you are what your record says you are” is a nice bit of football folklore but it can often be misleading.
There are plenty of average teams who sputter their way to a winning record, only to be found out in the postseason. Conversely, there are good ones who fall away due to injuries, bad luck, or being stuck in an unusually competitive division with a tough schedule.
You can dig deep through the NFL’s ever-widening band of advanced metrics to find out which teams are the strongest on a per-play basis or over the whole season.
Take the Giants. Seven weeks into the year, the Giants are 6-1. They are one of the feelgood stories of the season: Saquon Bakley is healthy and back to his best; Daniel Jones has cut down on the dopey errors; Wink Martindale, the team’s defensive coordinator, is on a revenge tour after being let go by the Baltimore Ravens at the end of last season; and Brian Daboll, the new head coach, is dancing in the locker room and smoking stogies with fans.
In just seven short weeks, the Giants have turned one of the bleakest preseason situations – unsure about their quarterback, saddled with a bad cap sheet, and lacking talent on both sides of the ball – into one of the NFL’s best records. If you were to cast a ballot today for the coach of the year, it wouldn’t even be a contest. Daboll is the runaway favorite.
They keep winning, but are the Giants any good?
By DVOA, a measure of down-to-down efficiency, the Giants are the worst 6-1 team since the 1982 Washington franchise. All of their victories have been in one-score games, something that would typically be a warning sign of a team whose luck could change. But there’s something missing in the weekly refrain that the Giants are the “worst x-win team since [insert team]” … they keep on winning! Rattle through the so-called ‘bad’ teams who wound up with a 6-1 record and you’ll find a couple of Super Bowl sides and a string of division winners. That 1982 Washington team? They won the whole thing! There are bad teams who stack wins on the board early in the season, but there aren’t many bad teams who post six wins in their first seven games.
Sure, the Giants have gotten fat on an OK-ish schedule. They lost to the Cooper Rush-piloted Cowboys and would have fallen to the Jaguars in Week 6 if Christian Kirk were a few inches taller. Consistently winning one-score games is typically about luck rather than skill, but are we sure that’s true with the Giants?
It’s not about the wins themselves but how Daboll and his staff have been able to drag the team over the line in close contests. The defining trait of Daboll-ism, if such a thing exists, is his adaptability. From New England to Alabama to Buffalo, he ditched any sense of an offensive doctrine in favor of what worked: job to job, season to season, week to week and drive to drive.
It’s been the same in New Jersey. Daboll has built an offense around two things: Get the ball to Barkley as quickly and as often as possible; where possible, hide Daniel Jones. He’s embraced Jones as a runner, and helped cut down on some of the bone-headed turnovers that have so far defined the quarterback’s career. He’s done so by crafting easy layups that Jones has been happy to take. With each passing week, Daboll is adding some new fresh wrinkles. This is a coach who once spent 800 days plotting his revenge on the Kansas City Chiefs, carefully concealing the Bills’ true offense in the shadows to open the 2021 season so that he could unload the real thing on Chiefs at Arrowhead.
Right now, the Giants offense boils down to finding out the one thing that works and running it until the opponent proves they can stop it. They match that on the other side of the ball. Martindale is at the vanguard of all things modern defense. But what he’s doing this season is without precedent. Martindale has never met a down, distance or situation where he did not want to blitz. But the NFL is not a blitzing league. Typically, the team who generate the best pass rush with just four defenders have the top defense in the league.
Teams across the league spend a fortune in contracts and draft capital trying to find the kind of game-changer who can help generate that style of pass-rush – adding Von Miller tipped the scales for the Rams a year ago and helped propel the team to a Super Bowl title.
Not Martindale. The high priest of blitzology cares not for what is ‘right’ or ‘smart’. He will blitz. Pause to consider his next step … and blitz again.
Sending extra defenders is old hat for good quarterbacks. Beating the blitz is often what separates the average from the good in the pros. Defenses can sprinkle in pressures here and there, they can dominate individual matchups by sending heat, but it’s hard for any group to be stable week-to-week when they’re built on sending five, six, seven defenders to muster some pressure. It’s usually bad defenses that send a lot of fire because they are covering up for a talent deficit upfront. The Detroit Lions are currently the owners of the second-highest blitz rate in the league – and they also just so happen to be fielding a historically porous unit. The Lions rank last in the league in EPA/play, the best single measure of defensive success. They cannot generate pressure, so they blitz; they blitz, and so they’re light in pass coverage, so they get lit up. It’s a tricky cycle to break.
Breaking the formula: Martindale and the Giants. New York blitz at a whopping 40% clip, almost double the league average. Somehow, the defense is holding up, despite having a group of unknowns left to fend for themselves in the defensive backfield.
It’s becoming the credo for the 2022 Giants: It shouldn’t work – and yet, it does.
Is it sustainable? In a normal season, unlikely. But this isn’t a normal season, and the Giants aren’t playing in a normal conference.
The unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles are scarily deep and the clear favorites to win the NFC. But scan around the conference and who, exactly, should rank ahead of Daboll and the Machine? The 5-1 Minnesota Vikings are an average-to-good side who are average-to-good at everything. That alone may be enough to elevate them to the second spot in the conference. After that, you’re left relying on the health of Dak Prescott and his receiving corps in Dallas. Or betting on Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers to lead resurgent offenses over the second half of the season – and both groups look close to broken. The San Francisco 49ers still have a Jimmy Garoppolo problem. While the Los Angeles Rams have an everything-but-our-defensive-line problem.
Unit by unit, you can make a case for those sides being stronger than the Giants, but none of them have put in as many cohesive performances. The Giants may only win by one score. And that, the geeks tell us, is not predictive of future success. But they are winning. And they’re doing so not by fluke, but because their coaching staff is out-thinking opponents on the fly, their players are executing, and their stars are delivering when star players need to deliver. With their remaining schedule, an 11-win season is not unreasonable.
By the non-traditional measurements, the Giants might not be good. But they’re certainly dangerous; the kind of team who can beat anyone on a given week. And to be there just nine months removed from the stench of the Joe Judge era is remarkable.