The New York Football Injured Giants
This wasn’t supposed to happen so quickly to the New York Giants. It was only 21 months ago that the Giants were celebrating under confetti in Indianapolis, Super Bowl champions for the second time in five seasons. For all their flaws, Big Blue’s two title runs raised legitimate questions about whether the Eli Manning peak stretch could reasonably be considered a dynasty.
And now, less than two years later, they’re the worst team in football that isn’t actively trying to lose. The Giants have been outscored by exactly 20 points per game this season, which is tied for the 11th-worst figure through five games since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. They’re the first Giants team to start 0-5 since the 1987 team, which was also coming off recent success; that 0-5 run came directly after the 1986 team went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl. Those Giants finished 6-9 in the strike-shortened 1987 campaign, but quickly returned to their lofty heights: they went 35-13 over the next three years before winning the Super Bowl again in 1990. I’m not as confident these Giants will be able to turn things around so quickly.
Obviously, injuries have left this Giants season in tatters. Long-term injuries to Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul have left them shells of their former selves, while this season has already seen three starters — fullback Henry Hynoski, safety Stevie Brown, and key guard Chris Snee — hit injured reserve. When they line up against the Bears tonight, the Giants will probably start the likes of Brandon Jacobs, Will Hill, Jim Cordle, Bear Pascoe, and Trumaine McBride, replacement-level talents who are stuck playing meaningful roles because the players in front of them are either hurt or entirely ineffective.
Where are those injuries coming from? General manager Jerry Reese was rightly hailed for his role in building the Super Bowl–winning team from 2007, a squad that saw a number of rookies from the 2007 draft — Reese’s first at the helm after taking the reins from Ernie Accorsi — play meaningful reps during an unexpected championship run. That draft eventually failed to deliver on its promise, and the only player left on the active roster from that haul is fourth-round pick Zak DeOssie, New York’s long snapper. While Reese has found several talented players during his time at the helm in New York, there has been a staggering pattern with the players he has selected: They can’t stay healthy. Every NFL player drafted by a franchise struggles with injuries at one point or another during his tenure in the league, and there’s no easy way to quantify these injury issues, but when running through the picks Reese had made since taking over, it’s clear to see how injuries have sapped whatever potential this team had to compete.
Ross was a starter on both Super Bowl–winning Giants teams, but that masks a tumultuous, disappointing career; he never developed beyond the borderline starter he was in 2007, balked at moving to safety, and was nearly given away before injuries forced him back into the lineup in 2011, at which point teams picked on him across from Corey Webster. He signed with the Jaguars after that year, but was released after one season and gave an embarrassing quote about his failure there serving as a “nice paid vacation to Florida.” Signed as a reserve in 2012 and pressed back into action by injuries this year, he was torched before going on IR. DeOssie has made two Pro Bowls and is one of the league’s most notable long snappers.
Many of the other talents in this class had their careers marred by injuries. Smith made it to the Pro Bowl in 2009 after catching 107 passes in a similar role to the one that Victor Cruz occupies today, but a debilitating knee injury meant he would catch only 73 more passes as a pro before retiring this past offseason. Boss’s big catches during that postseason never translated into big numbers as a starter, as he peaked with a 42-567-5 line in 2009; he was released one year into a long-term deal with the Raiders, suffered a number of concussions last year, and appears to be retired. Knee injuries prevented Alford from ever becoming even a viable rotation tackle, and while Johnson started 35 games at safety for the Giants through his first three seasons in the league, a herniated disc in his back cost him his job and eventually pushed him out of the league after suiting up just twice more. And Koets was briefly a starting center for the team before tearing his ACL, an injury from which he never returned. After the first Super Bowl, this looked like it could possibly be one of the best drafts in league history, producing six starters on a Super Bowl–caliber team. Instead, Bradshaw has been the only above-average player from the group with any sort of professional longevity, and even he went on injured reserve with a neck injury this week.
This might, honestly, be the most-injured set of knees for one draft class in NFL history. Phillips showed promise during his rookie season, but a series of knee issues dating back to an arthritic condition found during his second year sapped his ability. He failed to make the Eagles out of camp this year and appears to be done before turning 27. Thomas was an above-average starter for two years and earned a long-term contract extension, but after tearing his ACL in college, Thomas proceeded to tear his ACL before the 2011 and 2012 seasons. He has made it back to become just the second player in league history to play after three ACL tears (joining Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis), but as much as it pains me to say this about one of my favorite players, Thomas has been a disaster on the field this year. The Giants limited him to one defensive snap last week in order to play Hill at nickelback while starting journeyman McBride — who was cut by the Jaguars last year and spent the season out of football — ahead of Thomas at corner.
Manningham was the most successful player from this draft class for the Giants, producing one of the most famous catches in team history against the Patriots to help win the second Super Bowl of the Coughlin-Manning Era, but the team let him move on after the season to San Francisco, where he tore his ACL and hasn’t played since. Goff briefly started for the team, but like Thomas, Goff tore his ACL before both the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The only player from this draft who suited up for an NFL down and didn’t suffer a notable knee injury is Kehl, who has bounced around as a backup linebacker and special teams player.
This draft yielded two long-term starters for the Giants who were effective at points, but they’ve both struggled to live up to expectations because of injuries. Nicks is a monster talent and a legitimate top wide receiver when healthy, but he has never played a full season as a pro. While Nicks has only missed nine games across his five years in the league, he has spent long stretches of time at far less than 100 percent. Beatty was drafted as the long-term replacement for David Diehl at left tackle, but he didn’t win the job for himself until 2012, his only healthy season as a full-time starter. He missed significant time during his apprenticeship with a detached retina and a broken foot, but he showed enough during 2012 to earn a five-year, $37.5 million deal from Reese this offseason. The deal reminded me of Doug Free’s contract — also earned after one year — and he has looked brutal at times as the starting left tackle this year.
To have three other second- and third-round picks basically leave the league having made little impact is extremely disappointing. In a phrase I am rapidly sick of typing, Sintim suffered multiple knee injuries during his first three years in the league, including a twice-torn ACL and a torn patellar tendon, leading to his release and eventual retirement after one start in a Giants uniform. Sintim was taken one pick before Connor Barwin, four before Max Unger, and eight before LeSean McCoy. Beckum tore his ACL in the Super Bowl, made it back the following year for four games as a reserve, and wasn’t retained after the 2012 campaign. Barden suffered a broken leg and had an ankle injury, but he made it back to play a starring role as an injury replacement in the blowout victory over the Panthers last season. Barden was released this offseason and hasn’t caught on elsewhere. Brown also made his name in that game. After suffering a ruptured Achilles and bouncing around a few camps, Brown eventually caught back on with the Giants and made himself known with 113 yards in that win over Carolina. Brown fractured his fibula that season and then fractured his leg during preseason, placing him on short-term injured reserve for the time being. The other guys never made it to the NFL.
Reese found a genuine star in the first round with JPP, who broke out with an All-Pro campaign in his second season, picking up 16.5 sacks as the best player on the (admittedly overrated) defense en route to the Super Bowl. While his sack totals dropped off to a mere 6.5 takedowns last year, the difference in his level of play wasn’t as severe as those two figures might indicate. After undergoing back surgery during the offseason, Pierre-Paul has been invisible on the field for most of the 2013 season; Week 5 was the first time he really had an impact on the game. Joseph is a very talented interior lineman, and he was the first Reese draft pick I was going to mention who hadn’t struggled with notable injury issues as a pro … until he missed last week’s game against the Eagles with a lower leg injury. He’s listed as questionable for the game tonight.
Amazingly, the rest of this draft is already out of football. Jones’s absence came under tragic circumstances; he suffered serious injuries in an auto accident weeks after being drafted and nearly lost his leg in the process. An undaunted Jones put in months of work to make his way back onto the football field, but his comeback never made it past the practice field; he’s now retired and pitching in the Cincinnati Reds organization. Dillard was released after one year. Petrus started three games and was abysmal before being cut. Tracy barely made it off the practice squad, and Dodge, um … he might actually be buried underneath Coughlin’s doghouse after the infamous DeSean Jackson punt return. (I am obligated to note that Eagles linebacker Omar Gaither blocks three men on that play by knocking linebacker Gerris Wilkinson into Dillard, who takes out Deon Grant from behind. One of the most valuable blocks I’ve ever seen and all anyone ever talks about on this play is Jackson and Matt freaking Dodge.)
We’re rapidly getting to the point where it’s a fool’s errand to analyze whether a pick was a good one because these guys have only had two seasons in the league, but consider how this draft looks right now. Amukamara missed most of his rookie season with a fractured foot (the same metatarsal injury that Beatty suffered the previous year, actually), but came back to play some down the stretch and is currently the only cornerback on the team who doesn’t inspire fits of terror in Giants fans. Austin missed his first season with a torn pectoral muscle, made it into seven games his sophomore year, and was then cut after two seasons. Jernigan is a pure speed play with just six catches through his first two-plus seasons with the team. Brewer’s first notable playing time came as an injury fill-in this year. Williams is a occasional starter amid the league’s worst set of linebackers, and Scott was actually released last week before being re-signed on Monday; he’ll split carries with Jacobs tonight.
It’s too early to talk about these guys, but let me just point this out: Wilson, Hosley, and Robinson are all listed as “Out” on the injury report for tonight’s game with the Bears. They’re already struggling with injuries. Kuhn, who the Giants drafted at age 26, tore his ACL last year and hasn’t been back on the field yet. Randle has shown some promise as a backup receiver and, somehow, has managed to stay on the field so far as a pro.
It’s still too early to bother with the 2013 class, but it will be interesting to monitor offensive lineman Justin Pugh, who is the first player from this Reese draft to get significant playing time.
Undrafted Free Agents
Reese has had success bringing undrafted free agents into the organization during his time as general manager, with the obvious standout being star wide receiver Victor Cruz. He has been able to avoid injury since entering the starting lineup during the 2011 season, but Cruz did miss virtually all of his rookie season with a hamstring injury. (To be fair, there’s at least some possibility the Giants stuck him on injured reserve to basically redshirt him while using his roster spot for another player.) Linebackers Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger, both acquired after the 2011 draft, have also stayed relatively healthy, albeit while delivering subpar returns.
Otherwise, the notable rookie free agents the Giants signed have struggled with the same injury woes. Cornerback Bruce Johnson was a rotational player during his rookie year in 2009, but he underwent knee surgery in 2010 and missed most of the season before suffering a ruptured Achilles before the 2011 campaign. Tight end Jake Ballard became a starter on the 2011 Super Bowl team, only to suffer a catastrophic knee injury during the championship game. The Giants released him and he spent 2012 with the Patriots, but despite their need for a tight end heading into this season, the Patriots cut Ballard during camp. Both Johnson and Ballard are out of football. And Hynoski made it through his first two seasons with the team, but suffered a sprained MCL in camp and then fractured his shoulder against the Panthers in Week 4, ending his season.
It seems pretty clear that something is rotten here. No team should have this many players taken in the top half of drafts either out of the league or playing at far less than their level of ability because of injuries. It’s just difficult to parse out what that problem is, exactly. Is it that Reese is somehow identifying and selecting players who are particularly prone to injuries? Is Coughlin overworking his players in a way that’s more likely to put young players on the shelf? Can it be just randomness, that a sample size of about 30 players who might have had meaningful careers with the team just happens to have more injuries than anybody would have expected? I honestly don’t know the answer.
And because of that, I’m not really sure what to suggest the Giants should do. It seems unfairly aggressive to fire Coughlin and/or Reese after the season this soon after winning a Super Bowl, although I suspect that Coughlin might retire (or be asked to retire) if the team continues to play this poorly. If you ignore the injuries, I think Reese is a pretty good general manager; I’m not crazy about some of his contracts, but he’s doing something right if he’s won two Super Bowl rings. It’s clear the Giants need to reevaluate things in light of this rash of injuries, because there is a missing half-decade of players that is holding them down at the bottom of the NFC East right now.