The New York Giants were built to run. Their problem in recent seasons — or, more accurately, one of their many problems — was that their rushing ability never matched the roster-construction dreams of their former general manager, Dave Gettleman. The executive arrived fresh off a tenure leading the Carolina Panthers from 2013 to 2017, a time when the Panthers had a stronger running identity than any team in the league.1 Gettleman wanted the Giants to bang around in a similar fashion, and he showed it in how he drafted. In his first draft, he spent the No. 2 overall pick on Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, cutting against an anti-tailback conventional wisdom. In the second round, Gettleman took UTEP guard Will Hernandez, whom Gettleman saw as the ideal road grader to open lanes for Barkley. The next year, Gettleman used the No. 6 overall pick on Duke quarterback Daniel Jones. Jones was not strictly speaking a running QB, but with sack yardage filtered out, he had carried for a 5.7-yard average on 321 attempts in three seasons. And in 2020, to both protect Jones and run-block for him and Barkley, the Giants spent two of their first three picks on offensive tackles.
Barkley had produced big numbers as a rookie and solid ones the next season before an injured, ineffective few years sidetracked him. Jones developed slowly enough that, before this season, the Giants declined the fifth-year option on his contract. In their first three seasons with Jones and Barkley together in the backfield, the Giants got nothing special from their rushing attack: From 2019 through 2021, they averaged 0.01 expected points added per rush, 20th in the NFL. Their 4.4 yards per carry placed them 15th, their 42.7 percent success rate 25th. Jones didn’t put up gaudy passing totals, either, and so the Giants ran out of avenues to a good offense. In those three seasons, the Giants ranked 31st in the NFL in EPA per play (-0.05) and 27th in yards per play (4.98). Gettleman’s Giants never won more than six games. He retired shortly after the 2021 season, and a day later, the franchise fired Joe Judge, one of his two failed head-coach hires.
But it’s funny how life works, and the 2022 Giants — under a new GM (Joe Schoen) and new head coach (Brian Daboll) — have gone a long way toward realizing Gettleman’s vision. Barkley played in 16 games after injuries limited him to 15 the previous two years combined, and while he didn’t get back to his rookie numbers (5.8 yards per touch and over 2,000 scrimmage yards), he gave the Giants much more than he did in 2020 or ‘21. Meanwhile, Jones basically doubled his rushing attempts over any of his previous seasons, while also ranking among the league’s most efficient quarterbacks overall. The Giants jumped to fifth in the league at 4.8 yards per carry, helping them get to ninth in EPA per play (0.05) and improve their scoring output from 18.0 points per game in Jones’s first three seasons to 21.5, the difference between being 30th in the NFL and 15th. And on Sunday, they beat the Minnesota Vikings in the wild-card round of the playoffs 31-24, in 2022 Giants-y fashion. Barkley and Jones carried 22 times for 134 yards, excluding kneel-downs. Jones also threw for 8.6 yards per attempt, his seventh-best figure as a pro. When Jones clears 8.0 yards per throw in his career, the Giants are 9-0.
The running game has finally come full circle to resemble something like what the Giants’ old leadership dreamed up nearly five years ago. And it’s all happened because Barkley and Jones have made such strides, and fit each other so well.
For starters, Barkley finally appears healthy. The only game he missed this season was in Week 18, when the Giants had already secured a playoff spot. Anyone watching him can tell he has more pep in his step than he did during his limited appearances in 2020 and 2021. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Barkley reached a maximum speed of 21.3 mph in play, after getting as high as 21.9 as a rookie but never higher than 20.7 in the two prior seasons.
It isn’t just modern medicine, though. Barkley has adjusted his running style too. In each of his first four seasons, Barkley spent between 2.9 and 3.1 seconds behind the line of scrimmage on his average carry, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. That made him one of the league’s more patient backs as he searched for holes. (The league average for running backs during Barkley’s career is 2.8 seconds spent behind the line.) Out of 57 qualifying tailbacks from 2018 to 2021, Barkley spent the seventh-most time per carry in the backfield. But he was much less deliberate this year. Out of 41 qualifying backs in 2022, Barkley spent the sixth-least time in the backfield, at 2.7 seconds.
He doesn’t reach the same speeds he once did, but in this way, a decisive Barkley now moves more quickly on his way downfield. Barkley averaged 2.72 yards before contact this season, a night-and-day difference from 1.96 in 2021 and more in line with his numbers from his strong years in 2018 and 2019. His own explosiveness and aggression may have made the difference, because the Giants offensive line has not been much help. Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 30th in the league, noting that it is essentially comprised of star left tackle Andrew Thomas and, uh, everyone else. In 2021, the Giants were 14th in ESPN’s run block win rate, but this year, as Barkley improved, the line tumbled to 26th.
Part of that contradiction — Barkley returning to form as his offensive line falters — comes down to his quarterback. Jones has always had ball-carrying chops, but the Giants did not lean fully into that part of his game in his first three years, when he never exceeded 65 carries. This year, he ran 120 times. About half (53, according to ESPN) were scrambles, with the rest being designed runs. Jones has averaged 7.6 yards on the scrambles and 5.9 yards overall. But it’s his utility as a designed runner that might do the most for Barkley. The Giants ran 81 option carries, seventh-most in the NFL, and it’s easy to see how that schematic decision benefited both quarterback and tailback. The Giants’ offensive line may be crummy, but math is math — and on a read concept, the Giants can leave an unblocked defender who might choose to worry about Jones. That gives Barkley a blocking advantage when Jones gives him the ball:
Conversely, the threat of a Barkley run often gives Jones free rein to carry the ball off-tackle for chunk gains. Option runs of this variety are a college football staple, but most NFL teams do not like using their quarterbacks as ball carriers to the same extent as college programs. Jones is an exception, and the Giants now have him running the ball roughly as often as he did at Duke. And when Jones does take off, rather than handing the ball to Barkley or another back, he gives defenses a good reminder of why they need to account for him in the first place:
The Giants remain a work in progress. Jones, for all his recent improvement, still has never reached 7.0 yards per throw over a full season and looked on the way out of New York as recently as a few months ago. Everything positive that one could say about the Giants rushing offense could be countered with something negative about the team’s rush defense, which finished 31st in yards allowed per attempt. Meanwhile, against the pass, New York’s defense intercepted just six throws all year, tying for last place. The lack of picks has contributed to the offense having the 25th-best starting field position in the league, at its own 27-yard line. (At least Jones and Barkley have had plenty of grass in front of them as they’ve honed their rushing repertoires.)
The team’s still-serious flaws are why it is a 7.5-point underdog against the Philadelphia Eagles in Saturday’s divisional-round meeting. But the Giants moving on again wouldn’t require magic, nor would the franchise remaining relevant in the NFC East over the next few years. A team doesn’t need supernatural intervention when it has a solid foundation. The Giants finally do — just a few years later than their old management planned.
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