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The Secret to the Giants’ 5-1 Record? Chaos.

No one expected New York to have this kind of start to the season—especially those running the team. But Brian Daboll is showing he knows how to fit a system to his players’ strengths and maximize his chances for success.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The quickest way to win in the NFL is to be better than the other team. Get a good quarterback, put him behind a good offensive line (one that is better than the opposing defensive line, of course), let him throw to good receivers (who put the opposing cornerbacks to shame, naturally) and hand off to good running backs (to whom opposing linebackers could not hope to hold a candle), and you’ll probably score some points. Then trot your defense onto the field, taking care to ensure that all 11 players are better than the ones the opposing offense deploys, and you’ll probably win the game.

This, of course, is impossible. We call teams with just a few stars “superteams”—think the 2021 Rams—because no roster can hold enough players to be better than the opposing teams in all matchups at all times. But with enough stars deployed in the correct way, winning edges can be developed. Get a few stars at premium positions (like quarterback or edge rusher or wide receiver), run a system that constantly puts them in positions to win their matchups, and hammer your advantage for as long as you can. That is the next quickest way to win football games. The Eagles have ridden that formula to a 6-0 record thanks to Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, and Darius Slay. The Bills are 5-1 with Josh Allen, Von Miller, and Stefon Diggs. The Chiefs are 4-2 and have Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Chris Jones. You get the idea.

The New York Giants do not fall into this category. I know this because it is difficult to name 10 starters on the Giants roster. Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, Andrew Thomas, Dexter Lawrence, Kayvon Thibodeaux, is Kadarius Toney playing? Sterling Shep—no, wait, he’s hurt. Who was that one Georgia kid they took a few years ago? (Azeez Ojulari.) Is Cordale Flott a real name? (Yes.)

Yet the Giants are 5-1—they’re winning games, and they are doing it with a bad roster. Not just a bad roster: a roster that the Giants’ brass accepted and anticipated would be bad! First-year general manager Joe Schoen said during the preseason that the team is “still trying to put the pieces together” and that he didn’t want to “set expectations.” After releasing expensive veterans like Blake Martinez, James Bradberry, and Logan Ryan to give the Giants a healthier cap outlook, Schoen said: “We were not really able to be active this year at all. … I think going into next year, free agency, we’ll definitely have a lot more flexibility than we had this year.”

Rather than compete this year, the Giants aimed to build a war chest for future offseasons. This followed the blueprint that Schoen saw develop firsthand in Buffalo, when he was the assistant general manager under Brandon Beane during the Bills’ 2018 rebuild. Buffalo took on huge amounts of dead cap by cutting the heavy contracts of aging veterans that wouldn’t fit the future vision of the rebuilt team—the team that (in just two years) would play in a conference championship game.

But for the future Bills to be good, the present Bills had to be bad. And boy, were they bad. They started Nathan Peterman for a bit, and basically all he did was throw interceptions. Rookie Josh Allen took over as a starter, looked like a total mess, and also led the team in rushing; the leading receivers were Zay Jones and Robert Foster. They went 6-10.

That’s where the blueprint was supposed to lead the Giants: to about six wins. They’ve almost matched that win total through six games this season.

So into what category do the Giants fall? How is a team with a bad roster winning football games? The simple answer is that they are well-coached.

This feels extremely obvious. If it’s not the roster that’s winning games, then it is almost undoubtedly the coaching staff—the other unit of the team that can affect the outcome of a game while it’s going on. But good game-day coaching comes in different flavors, and the shakier the roster is, the harder good coaching can be to understand. It is not hard to see how Sean McVay is a good coach: He had a bad quarterback in Jared Goff and elevated him within a quality offense that went to a Super Bowl; then he acquired Matthew Stafford, changed the offense to fit Stafford’s skills, and won a Super Bowl. Outside observers can point to his system and say: “See how this wrinkle makes that work? See the cleverness here and the ingenuity there? This is where the goodness lies. Sean McVay is a good head coach.”

This goes back to the more common method of winning football games previously detailed: getting star players, and then maximizing them with scheme. New York’s coaches have previously been identified as good for this exact reason. Head coach Brian Daboll was with Schoen for that rebuild in Buffalo. He ran an offense for Allen that maximized his quarterback’s arm strength and running ability. The Bills spread the field out and acquired quality pass-catchers at every turn: Diggs, Gabriel Davis, Emmanuel Sanders, Dawson Knox. The field was stretched so wide and so long, opposing defenses couldn’t cover all the ground. Good coaching.

Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka did much of the same when he was the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator in Kansas City. Mahomes, Kelce, Tyreek Hill. Spread ’n’ shred.

But the Daboll-Kafka Giants could not play this way. They tried at first—against the Titans in Week 1, the Giants played 11 personnel on over 80 percent of their snaps, the third-highest number in the league. Then, that number started to drop.

Giants snap count by week

Week 11 personnel 12 personnel 13 personnel 21 personnel Plays32% splitByName
Week 11 personnel 12 personnel 13 personnel 21 personnel Plays32% splitByName
W1 82.8% 8.6% 0.0% 0.0% 0.00% SplitBy
W2 72.9% 12.9% 4.3% 2.9% 0.00% SplitBy
W3 71.6% 25.4% 0.0% 1.5% 0.00% SplitBy
W4 32.8% 34.4% 23.0% 6.6% 1.60% SplitBy
W5 45.8% 28.8% 15.3% 6.8% 0.00% SplitBy
W6 51.6% 11.3% 8.1% 8.1% 0.00% SplitBy

Sterling Shepard was lost to a knee injury late in Week 3, which helped push the Giants down an experimental path—but they were already on it. They got more tight ends on the field, condensing their formations …

… lowering their shotgun rates …

… and calling more runs.

These offensive trends are unrecognizable relative to the offenses from which Daboll and Kafka came. But that’s what good coaching is: fitting the system around the players. The Giants’ leading receivers by snap count are David Sills and Richie James. James, Sills, and Jones cannot sustain the sort of passing offenses that Daboll and Kafka previously featured.

But not even good coaching—fitting the scheme around the players—is enough to win five football games with this roster. There are good coaches fitting their scheme around their players all across the league, and they’ve got two or three wins. The Giants’ coaching efforts are going a step further.

All of those personnel groupings up there? They’re fairly common. These ones aren’t.

Giants Very Weird Personnel

Week 02 Personnel (No RBs, 2 TEs) 20 Personnel (2 RBs, 0 TEs) 22 Personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs) 31 Personnel (3 RBs, 1 TE) 32 Personnel (3 RBs, 2 TEs)
Week 02 Personnel (No RBs, 2 TEs) 20 Personnel (2 RBs, 0 TEs) 22 Personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs) 31 Personnel (3 RBs, 1 TE) 32 Personnel (3 RBs, 2 TEs)
1 0.0% 5.2% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
2 2.9% 0.0% 0.0% 1.4% 0.0%
3 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
4 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 3.3% 0.0%
5 0.0% 0.0% 1.7% 0.0% 0.0%
6 0.0% 0.0% 1.6% 0.0% 1.6%

The Giants are getting into some funky formations with some funky personnel. They had to run the wildcat with Saquon Barkley because of quarterback injuries against the Bears, and now they’re just running it as a regular package. They’re hitting wheel routes off of play-action with three backs in the backfield. They’re throwing the football off of reverses. They’re weird.

That weirdness fosters the great equalizer of professional sports: chaos. When the Giants line up on any given Sunday, they aren’t as good as the opponent they’re facing, so they try to cheese their way around the margins. They run stuff you haven’t seen, stuff you couldn’t have prepared for. Some of these gadget plays might go horribly, but guess what—if Jones just dropped back and ran any ol’ play that every team has seen before, there would be a pretty good chance of that play going horribly, too. When the gadget plays work? They create explosive gains, fourth-down conversions, and touchdowns the Giants otherwise wouldn’t have achieved. By creating chaos, the Giants are inviting more random rolls of the die and flips of the coin than the average NFL game has; all they have to do is get lucky and win a few coin flips, and suddenly they’re winning football games.

That’s why efficiency metrics—metrics that don’t look at wins and losses, but rather how well teams play the game—don’t really like the Giants. On offense, they’re 13th by DVOA, eighth by expected points added per play, 20th by points per play, and 22nd by yards per play; on defense, they’re 30th by DVOA, 22nd by EPA per play, 13th by points allowed per play, and 23rd by yards allowed per play. On paper, this is not an effective team. But chaos is tough to capture on paper.

This is not bad news for Giants fans! Well—unless you’re hoping they’ll go 16-1. Then it’s bad news, because that is not going to happen. Eventually, the coin flips will stop falling in their favor. The turnovers they generated against the Ravens (who, despite gaining nearly twice as many yards per play in the game than New York had, were leading by only three) won’t always occur, because Lamar Jackson won’t always fumble the snap, pick it up, and then throw a scramble-drill interception off of it. The Bears won’t always turn three red zone trips into just three field goal attempts. The go-ahead two-point conversion against the Titans will sometimes fail, and even if it succeeds, the Titans won’t always miss the would-be game-winning 47-yard kick as time expires. The luck will run dry.

But it’s good news because it proves that the coaching in New York is quality. The Giants need luck to win games, so they are playing a style of football to create it. On defense, the Giants lead the league in blitz percentage—high risk, but high reward for a defense that otherwise lacks the talent to generate a high reward on its own. This is a look they gave the Ravens’ option running game on third down. Do you know what this is? I don’t know what this is!

The Giants’ coaching staff is doing exactly what they’re supposed to do: play the hand they’re dealt to the best of their ability, and in doing so, cultivate the positive momentum and internal belief that hasn’t existed in New York’s building in quite some time. That’s important. So is what comes next.

What comes next is evolving. In this upcoming offseason and the next, the Giants are going to have to leave the chaos world and pursue a more sustainable model for winning games—one that doesn’t rely on coin flips and exotic schemes, but on star players and reliable schemes to maximize them.

That transition can be awkward. It requires shedding an approach that—while unstable—has won football games. The Giants are a heavy-personnel, under-center, run-first team right now; their best offensive player is Saquon Barkley, so that makes sense. But it’s hard to win with the running game in the NFL. Daboll and Kafka were brought in for their passing game designs. And Barkley is a free agent after this season. As one of the league’s most talented backs, he’ll demand a hefty chunk of that war chest Schoen is compiling. Do the Giants want to spend it on him, when they intend to move away from run heaviness in the first place?

Barkley isn’t the only free agent. Jones’s fifth-year option was denied, so he’ll hit free agency next year as well. Here’s the opportunity to get better at quarterback, bring in a passer who can sustain the type of aggressive, downfield passing attack that wins Super Bowls. But will the receivers be ready? Will the Giants have enough money to pay for good receivers if they also pay Barkley?

And the defense. Wink Martindale was available to coach the Giants because he was fired by the Ravens, and he was fired by the Ravens after doing exactly what he’s doing with the Giants right now: blitzing and playing man coverage. It worked in Baltimore for a while, but eventually grew stale when the star talent—Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, Odafe Oweh—couldn’t stave off a bad run of chaos-invited luck. Martindale’s chaos works well for these young, upstart Giants, as it raises their ceiling—but chaos also lowers your floor, and when the Giants defense is loaded with Schoen-acquired stars, that chaos will no longer be necessary; that lowered floor will be an unwanted risk.

The Giants are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing: loading up on money, developing young players, and finding a way to win in the meantime. But just because they’re on schedule for their rebuild and ahead of schedule in the win column doesn’t mean the next steps no longer require careful consideration and deftness—in fact, they require more so now. Moving on from Jones will be harder to justify and explain after his best season—if not to the fan base overall, then to the locker room with whom he won games and competed his tail off. Managing contract talks with Barkley without ruining future cap years will require tough work with Barkley’s agent. Oh, and make sure you hit on all your picks next season and get good quick—if you come in under 5-1 after the first six games, it may feel like you’ve taken a step back. The long and stable rebuild is still the agenda in New York—even if that 5-1 record tempts everyone from pulling their eyes off of the prize.