Saturday, December 03, 2005

Some Thoughts on the Giants

In my posting about our Week 7 loss against Dallas – a game that Big Blue came into on the heels of a 44-point, 456 yard explosion against the Rams the previous game – I referred to the G-Men as “The offensive juggernaut masquerading as the New York Football Giants,” a reference to our surprising offensive prowess at that point in the season. Up until the Dallas game, all of our games had featured excellent offensive performances, with the Rams game being the high-water mark. According to FootballOutsiders’s DVOA ratings, which rank all teams according to situation and opponent, taking account of the league averages, the Giants ranked 4th in the NFL at that point in total offense with a DVOA of 32.1%.

(Important Digression [Read Carefully]: I strongly recommend that all thinking football fans take the time to read FootballOutsiders’ fleshed-out explanation of DVOA. But in this space, to make a long story short, the basic principle of DVOA – which stands for Defensive-Adjusted Value Over Average -- holds that all football stats should take into account situation and opponent, and therefore, looking at such primitive measures such as Yards is insufficient. For instance, a 2-yard run that yields a first down against a tough defense like the Bears is a more successful play than a 2-yard run on 3rd and 4 against a bad defense like the Texans. Without going into all the crazy math, DVOA breaks down each play of the NFL season in terms of “success points,” so that the 1-yard first down against the Bears is worth more than the 2-yard run against the Texans. DVOA, while imperfect and still the subject of constant tinkering, is the best statistical measurement there is right now. The number itself [in the above case, that 32.1% percent], stands for the percentage of success above league average. This doesn’t correspond to yards or points; it is on its own scale. But to give you a sense of what the numbers mean, 30 means excellent, 0 means league average, and -30 means terrible. For defense, on the other hand, the more negative the number, the better [for intuitive reasons], so -30 is excellent, 0 is league average, and 30 is terrible. But do check out the full explanation. It also should be noted that that DVOA has a stronger correlation to a team’s record than yards, which is not surprising because it is designed to account for situation. And as a predictor, it has a higher correlative value than games won when it comes to predicting future wins. In other words, a 10-6 team with a DVOA of 30% is more likely to be better the next year than a 12-4 team with a DVOA of 20%.)

Anyway, going into that Dallas game, our offense was flying high with its 31.2% DVOA. If there was an area of concern about this team, it was our defense, which came into that game with a below-average DVOA of 5.3 (remember, for defense, the more negative the better). The Dallas game was a humbling one for our offense: Matched against the first above average defense that we had seen, we were only able to put up 13 points. Since then, our offense has been pretty good, but certainly not as high-powered as it looked during the first four games, and our offensive DVOA stands at a more down-to-earth 9.6%, good for 9th in the league, still not too shabby.

Our defense, however, has improved by leaps and bounds since the early going. Where the first four games made you think that the Giants were on the verge of relinquishing their Big Blue tradition of strong defense, they have turned it around since then, especially on the strength of three dominant defensive performances against the Redskins, 49ers, and Vikings, and then a couple more strong performances against the Eagles and this past week against the Seahawks. At this point, it is the defense that has emerged as our stronger side, boasting a 5th ranked DVOA of -12.8.

So what has changed? First, on offense, Eli Manning has fallen off from the blazing pace that he set for himself those first few games. After the Rams game, his Quarterback rating stood at 97.8, but since then, it has slipped to 81.1. To make sense of these numbers, consider that if his rating were still 97.8 right now, he would be the 3rd ranked QB in the league; his 81.1 rating places him at 18th. Again, this is not bad, but perhaps Giants fans were getting a little ahead of themselves when they were placing him in Peyton’s category two months ago. His season still has been extremely encouraging, especially considering his 2004 rating of 55.4, but perhaps we should be giving it another year or so before getting ourselves on the waiting lists for hotels in Canton.

Another thing that has slowed our offense has been penalties, a season-long problem that became painfully apparent last week against Seattle. On the year, the Giants have set themselves back a total of 796 yards, good (or, actually, bad) for fourth most in the league. It should be noted that this has also been a huge problem on defense, where we have given opponents 823 yards, second most in the league.

Still, our offense is very good, a legitimate top third offense, and among NFC playoff contenders, only the Seahawks and (surprisingly) the Falcons have higher offensive DVOAs. With Tiki Barber maintaining his excellence – he is second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage – and Amani Toomer re-incorporated into an offense that already boasts two good receivers in Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress, the Giants are a dangerous bunch.


But it is the defense that has been nothing short of spectacular of late. At the beginning of the year, it seemed that we would be extremely vulnerable against the pass, but our pass defense has improved dramatically, and now has a very respectable DVOA of -6.8%, 14th in the league. Although the nearly season-long loss of Will Peterson has left us without our only good cover-corner, we have been able to offset our secondary problems with an outstanding pass-rush. A particular asset has been Osi Umenyiora, who in his third year in the league, has blossomed into a star opposite the still-stellar Michael Strahan, ranking 3rd in the NFL with 10 sacks. As far as the defensive backs are concerned, Will Allen has notably stepped up his game, and while Curtis Deloach and Corey Webster have struggled, the pass-defense hasn’t hurt us as much as we originally feared.


But the strength of our defense has been our ability to stop the run, where we rank 3rd in the league with a DVOA of -21.5%. Besides for week 3 against the superlative LaDainian Tomlinson, and week 7 against Denver’s potent ground attack, we have been consistently successful at bottling up the opposition’s running games. This bodes well for us looking forward at the NFC playoff picture, where only Carolina -- and to a lesser degree Seattle -- have significantly above average passing games, making the ability to stop the run critically important.

The defensive front seven has been outstanding all around. Our defensive tackle rotation of William Joseph (Out for this week’s game), Kendrick Clancy, Fred Robbins, and Kenderick Allen has been a pleasant surprise. At linebacker, free-agent acquisition Antonio Pierce has improved as the year has gone on, and is now playing the best middle linebacker that Giants fans have seen in quite some time. Nick Greisen (Questionable for Sunday’s game), long buried on the bench, has made the most of his opportunity and has proven himself to be an asset as a starter. Our defense has also done an outstanding job generating turnovers, ranking 3rs in the NFL with 27 takeaways so far. This, too, can be largely attributed to our excellent pass rush.

Unfortunately, because we have lost three games by a total of nine points in heartbreaking, last-second field goal fashion, our record stands at 7-4, good but not great. According to FootballOutsiders, our “expected record” at this point is 8-3, based on our DVOA and schedule. Our schedule is tough these last few weeks – Dallas, @Philadelphia, Kansas City, @Washington, @Oakland – but according to DVOA, we are better than all of those teams; if we are serious about being a Super Bowl contender, we should be able to win four of these games. The big one, of course, is tomorrow against Dallas, a game that will place the winner in the driver’s seat for the division crown. It should be cold and overcast, real “Giant weather,” in the words of Bill Parcells. These are the games that you look forward all year to, and the Meadowlands should be a rockin’.

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