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Giants of the NFL’s Disabled List

Tom Coughlin hasn’t guided his team to a winning record since 2012, and unless he develops some magical healing powers over his oft-injured roster, he may be headed to a similar finish in 2015 and to one of the NFL’s notorious forced retirements.

This is the Giants’ year, right? Tom Coughlin is surely hoping that the biorhythms of football have his team ready for its third Super Bowl title in nine seasons. The Giants won the Super Bowl in the fourth year of his reign with the team, you see, and four years later, they unexpectedly won another. And now, four years after that triumph, we’re about to enter Coughlin’s 12th year at the helm, so we’re due for another run from Eli and the boys to a legacy-sealing, Hall of Fame–confirming championship. Might as well just take the rest of the preview off.

You can probably poke a couple of holes in that logic. The baseline for this year’s Giants isn’t winning a title, but if they don’t make the playoffs or show some signs of improvement, it may also be Coughlin’s last run with Big Blue. After avoiding a losing record for eight consecutive years, Coughlin’s Giants have now posted 7-9 and 6-10 records over the past two seasons. A third consecutive losing season could be fatal; more than 60 percent of coaches who posted losing records in three consecutive seasons have been fired during the subsequent offseason, and while the Giants haven’t been too far from competing, they’re also a veteran team in the hands of a quarterback who is likely entering the final years of his career. As ownership wonders whether they should make Eli Manning the highest-paid player in football, they’ll simultaneously have to wonder if the best thing for their future might also involve getting him a new head coach.

It’s never a good sign when a team moves on from a pair of long-serving coordinators under a head coach; those moves can often be the foreshocks before the earthquake, especially if they don’t work. Over the past two offseasons, both of Coughlin’s coordinators have left town. After a dismal 2013 season that saw the Giants finish 31st in offensive DVOA, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride “retired,” a term that should remind you of the time Bruce Arians did the same thing. And last year, after the Giants fell 18 spots to 24th in defensive DVOA, the team “parted ways” with one-time head-coaching candidate Perry Fewell and replaced him with one-time head coach Steve Spagnuolo.

You can tell that the Giants want to let those longtime servants leave with their head held high, given that neither was publicly fired. (If the team did decide to fire Coughlin, it’s all but guaranteed it would be announced as a retirement.) You can also tell that there’s a sense of unease with how things are going. It’s unclear whether Coughlin or ownership made the final decisions about the firings, but there have been major issues with this team on both sides of the football in recent years.

It hasn’t been pretty. The Giants had not experienced a five-game losing streak since Coughlin’s first season in 2004 before breaking off six- and seven-game losing streaks in 2013 and 2014, respectively. They have three victories over teams with winning records over that time frame, and two of them came against teams that started or played their third-string quarterback for most of the game.1 They are 4-0 against Washington and 9-19 against the rest of the league.


1.

In 2013, when injuries forced the Packers to start Scott Tolzien, and an early Michael Vick injury required the Eagles to use Matt Barkley.

The most worrisome part of the whole problem is that I’m not sure Coughlin can do anything about his team’s fatal flaw. He has grown and evolved as a coach during his lengthy run in New York, but there’s a job skill he isn’t about to pick up overnight at age 68: doctor.2


2.

The Giants also changed team physicians this offseason, but it was a transition from longtime chief Russell Warren to Scott Rodeo, who has been serving on staff for 15 years.

Philadelphia Eagles v New York GiantsAl Bello/Getty Images

Medical Tom

You may think your favorite team suffers its fair share of injuries. Giants fans can say that with some quantitative confidence. The newly released Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 notes that the Giants led the league in Adjusted Games Lost3 for the second consecutive season. They’ve managed to do this without losing Manning, who has yet to miss a start because of injury in his professional career, but the Giants have otherwise been decimated by injuries up and down the roster.


3.

To be up front, a statistic I developed during my time at Football Outsiders.

To put things in perspective, let’s plot out the ideal 22 starters the Giants would have put onto the field given the players on their roster after the draft in 2013 and 2014, and see how they fared health-wise. I’m not even going to include safety Will Hill, who was suspended for four games in 2013 and released after receiving a six-game suspension in June 2014. Let’s start with the 2013 depth chart:

Those 22 players combined to miss 107 games, roughly the equivalent of wiping six and a half starters off the roster for the entire season before Week 1. You can note that the receiving corps stayed relatively healthy, a fate that would sadly not remain the same in 2014. Let’s run through that depth chart:

Slightly healthier in 2014, I suppose, but the Giants still managed to top the 100 mark by making it to 103 games missed. They lost two starters to retirement in training camp thanks to injuries, with Chris Snee felled by hip and elbow injuries and David Wilson forced to retire because of spinal stenosis. And this is without including expected rotational contributors like Walter Thurmond, Trumaine McBride, Jerrel Jernigan, and Robert Ayers, who would combine to add another 42 missed games to the total.

As much as I would love to tell you the Giants are going to be healthier in 2015, I can’t really say that, given that they’re already dealing with long-term injuries to starters before the halfway point of the preseason. Will Beatty is out until November at the earliest with a torn pectoral muscle, while starting safety candidate Mykkele Thompson suffered a season-ending torn Achilles last week. Geoff Schwartz hasn’t been able to practice with an ankle problem, and the most notable injury still remains undiagnosed, as the Giants have not seen Jason Pierre-Paul’s hand since the star end blew off at least one finger in a fireworks accident this July.

This isn’t necessarily news. I wrote about the Giants’ injury woes in the context of general manager Jerry Reese’s recent drafts in October 2013. And that even undersells how much Reese’s draft picks have struggled to stay healthy, given that the article came before Wilson retired and both Jernigan and Prince Amukamara suffered serious injuries. Odell Beckham, a 2014 first-rounder, missed all of his rookie preseason and the first four games of the regular season with a torn hamstring, although it obviously didn’t affect him very much once he made it onto the field.

New York Giants v St. Louis RamsMichael Thomas/Getty Images

Roster 911

Whether it’s injuries, poor decisions, or a combination of the two, Reese’s drafts have left the cupboard threadbare. The Giants roster is almost entirely made up of free agents and players on rookie deals. Virtually none of Reese’s draft picks from 2007 to 2011 — contributors who would be on their second contracts — remain on the roster. Just four of Reese’s 38 draft picks from that time frame are still on the books: Beatty, Pierre-Paul, Amukamara, and long-snapper Zak DeOssie. It’s only fair to include Cruz, a 2010 undrafted free agent, as well as 2011 undrafted free agents Henry Hynoski and Mark Herzlich. That’s still a total of just seven players. The Packers, who the Giants beat during each of their Super Bowl runs, can boast 13 such players on their roster.

The core of players Reese has locked up on rookie deals isn’t especially inspiring, either. The 2012 draft was understandably hurt by the career-ending concerns surrounding Wilson’s spine, but the only starter on the team from that draft is Rueben Randle, who may be the team’s third wideout this year if Cruz is as healthy as he says publicly. The 2013 draft delivered promising defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins in the second round, but first-rounder Justin Pugh has been a disappointment, while nobody else has clawed out a starting role. Hankins is the only player from those two drafts who profiles as an above-average NFL regular.

I know what you’re about to say as I get to the 2014 draft, and it might be the reason Reese still has his job. It would have been basically impossible for the Giants to fire Reese after he nabbed Beckham with the 12th pick in the first round, and obviously, I have nothing but kind words to say about the ODB selection. It speaks to just how random the drafting process can be; Reese had one of the most immediately influential drafts in recent memory during his first year at the helm, with the likes of Aaron Ross and Kevin Boss playing meaningful roles during their 2007 championship season.

He’s been very erratic ever since before landing one of the best draft picks of the decade (at least so far) in 2014. You have to give him credit for Beckham, and it’s unclear whether the injury concerns come from player selection or player development, but the broader body of work suggests that there’s something broken with the Giants’ process in terms of drafting and developing in-house talent.

Struggling to deliver cheap, competent talent through the draft, Reese has been forced to fill out his roster with mid-tier free agents over the past couple of seasons. Those moves didn’t work out especially well last year; while Ayers delivered value as a rotation end, many of the other veteran additions — Schwartz, Thurmond, Rashad Jennings, and J.D. Walton — either failed to stay healthy or play particularly well. A similar deal for O’Brien Schofield disappeared after he failed his physical. Reese also re-signed trade acquisition Jon Beason after the former Carolina star’s first healthy stretch in three years, only for Beason to get injured again shortly after signing his extension.

This year, it was mostly more of the same. Good teams find backups and special-teams contributors like Dwayne Harris, J.T. Thomas, and Jonathan Casillas late in the draft, nab them as rookie free agents, or acquire them as veterans on contracts with no guarantees. Each of the three got meaningful money, and it’s hard to really see who the Giants were bidding against to grab them. Reese wasn’t able to bring in star Patriots safety Devin McCourty and otherwise left his gaping hole at the position unfilled before trading up to draft (already-injured) Landon Collins, who will have to start from day one. The aforementioned Thompson injury led the Giants to retread Brandon Meriweather, who has been one of the worst safeties in football over the past several seasons. Thankfully, he’s come in for the veteran’s minimum of $870,000.

New York Giants v Cincinnati BengalsJoe Robbins/Getty Images

The Eli Issue

Regardless of what happens with the rest of the roster, Reese has a decision to make on his franchise quarterback. It’s seemed clear that the Giants were waiting for the other quarterbacks from the Class of 2004 to get their third extensions before working on a deal for Manning, and with both Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers picking up new deals in recent months, it’s now Manning’s turn.

Those deals didn’t make things easier for the Giants. Even if you think Manning is the worst quarterback of the three, which is fair to say if Roethlisberger continues to stay healthy, the reality is that Manning has played well enough to credibly ask for a comparable deal to those other two. Given that Roethlisberger got $65 million over the next three years of his deal and Rivers managed to up that figure to $68 million five months later, you better believe Manning’s going to try to end up with a three-year number in the $70 million range as part of a four- or five-year deal. That’s why the chatter appeared about Manning wanting to become the highest-paid player in football, a report his agent likely leaked even if Manning disavows any knowledge of such a claim.

In a vacuum, it’s absurd for Eli to become the highest-paid player in football. Even the 2014 version of Eli that returned to form wouldn’t be worth that kind of money relative to what other quarterbacks on the market are making. As I wrote about when Tony Romo signed his extension in Dallas, though, NFL contract negotiations aren’t about performance. They’re about leverage.

And realistically, right now, Eli Manning has all the leverage. The Giants don’t really have any other option as Manning enters the final year of his deal. They’ve already eaten up cap space by waiting this long to enter serious negotiations; Manning had the league’s largest cap hit in 2013 ($20.9 million, more than $3 million ahead of second-ranked Matthew Stafford) and its third-largest hit in 2014 ($20.4 million) before falling all the way to fifth ($19.8 million) this season. If they can’t come to an extension with Manning, they could franchise him for 2016, but that would be a raise to $23.7 million. The following year, that figure would rise to $28.4 million, getting Manning over $52 million in a two-year span. At those rates, it would be more financially prudent to just give him a deal with $69 million spread over its first three seasons.

The alternative would be letting him go for free, which creates all kinds of other problems. The Giants have no path to their quarterback of the future; the other passers on the roster are 2013 fourth-rounder Ryan Nassib and journeyman Ricky Stanzi, neither of whom has shown any sign of being ready to take the reins. To have a high enough draft pick to take a young quarterback, the Giants will have to have a dismal season in 2016, a move that could very well get Reese fired and cause Coughlin to either retire or be forcefully retired. It’s hard to imagine that Coughlin, who would then be 70, would want to coach his way through a total rebuild. And the Giants would basically be wasting a year or two of Beckham’s rookie contract; the money they would be saving on a quarterback would essentially be about to go to Beckham anyway.

Re-signing Manning is the best option available to the Giants, but it’s also hardly a guarantee of success on its own. It wouldn’t be a surprise if 2014 was better than any year Manning will put up from here on out, and it was only good for a 6-10 season. There’s scant statistical evidence suggesting the Giants are primed to take a huge step forward and claim the title in a difficult NFC East. About the best thing you can do is point to their offensive DVOA splits and mention that they were eighth in the league during the second half of the season, which roughly coincides with Odell Beckham turning into a werewolf.

Even if you count on Manning and Beckham playing at a high level, it’s easy to see this team struggling to patch up its holes elsewhere. The defense is an enormous question mark at just about every position, especially if Pierre-Paul isn’t around to serve as a primary pass-rusher. The health concerns surrounding the team seem unlikely to subside, even if it doesn’t necessarily produce the league’s most-injured squad for the third year in a row. The offensive line, a weakness now for several seasons, is already riddled with injuries. If they’re going to be healthier in 2015, they haven’t exhibited many signs of that in the preseason.

And if they don’t play at a high level, it’s going to bring further attention to Coughlin’s future. The Giants, firm believers in the idea that a coach should never enter the final year of his contract, have given Coughlin a one-year extension to keep his tenure going in New York. If the Giants stay under .500 for the third consecutive season and Beckham gets injured, it’s tough to imagine Coughlin getting another extension to that deal. It might not be his fault — it could be injuries, Reese’s drafting, the team’s cap constraints, or likely a combination of the three — but Tom Coughlin may still end up being the one who takes the fall.