Fresh off of the New York Giants’ biggest win in a half decade, head coach Brian Daboll tried to play it cool.
“I just don’t believe in riding roller coasters,” Daboll said Sunday night as he stepped to an interview podium inside FedExField.
Someone needs to tell Daboll that the NFL is in the roller coaster business, and that his Giants are one of its best rides this season. The Giants started this season 6-1—a record largely built on weird one-score wins—and more recently went on a 1-4-1 skid, with the lone win coming against the lowly Texans. But New York’s 20-12 win over Washington on Sunday night was arguably the franchise’s biggest win in years; it lifted the Giants to an 8-5-1 record, and gives them a nearly 90 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. Had they lost, they would have had roughly a 30 percent chance, the biggest swing in postseason probabilities of any game this season, according to Pro Football Focus. The win also assured the Giants will not have a losing record for the first time in five years.
There was a version of this Giants season that could have been a pseudo-disaster. Their top five receivers entering this season are not playing (whether due to injury or effectiveness), and the Giants were embarking on a long rebuild. It wasn’t hard to imagine this team being eliminated from the playoffs by December, trading Saquon Barkley at the trade deadline, and letting Daniel Jones leave this offseason. And yet the Giants’ surprising success means the team may have hit a tipping point on Sunday night. Not only have the Giants found their brain trust in Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen, but Jones seems more likely than ever to return as the team’s starting quarterback, and Saquon seems like a no-brainer to return on the franchise tag. The Giants aren’t just on the verge of securing a playoff spot, they have an identity forming around the core players on this team.
This weekend was a showcase for the up-and-down nature of sports —the nailbiter men’s World Cup final, the Vikings staging the largest comeback in NFL history, the Patriots melting down epically real time; it’s the type of ride the Giants have been taking their fans on all season. Of the current NFL playoff field, every team is either a returning playoff team or one that was picked to potentially compete for a playoff spot. Then there are the Giants, whose presence has been astonishing considering where this team was 11 months ago and the injuries they have endured along the way.
To understand why these Giants are such a surprise, we need to go back to Week 18 of last season, when a 97-year-old crown jewel NFL franchise hit rock bottom. With five minutes left in the first half in a meaningless game against Washington, backed up to their own 2-yard line, the Giants ran a quarterback sneak on second-and-11. It gained a measly 2 yards. On the ensuing third-and-9 at their own 4-yard line, the Giants ran a QB sneak again. The sequence was a white flag. The Giants had given up. They lost to Washington that day, 22-7, and the Giants had become the worst thing you could call an NFL team: noncompetitive.
“It wasn’t a great time,” Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas told me Sunday night about the end of last season. “This new staff, new regime, I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
Enter: Brian Daboll, a longtime NFL assistant coach who had most recently been the offensive coordinator and play caller in Buffalo, a team now looked to as a model for how to rebuild an offense. To appreciate what happened to the Giants Sunday night, we must consider the team that Daboll inherited when he was hired last January after Joe Judge was fired. Judge’s Giants finished the 2021 season 0-6. Their offense had been dead last in touchdowns in the previous two seasons combined, and in 2021 they endured a 40-plus possession stretch with just one touchdown. Impossibly, the Giants were outscored in the final two minutes of the first half of games in 2021 by a margin of 79-0. New York had not been over .500 in five seasons, and the Giants and Jets shared the worst record in the NFL over that stretch—and this is despite the Browns going winless and the Jaguars getting back-to-back no. 1 picks during that time. In their last 10 seasons, the Giants had lost a neat 100 games.
This season was supposed to be about Schoen, who also came from Buffalo, cleaning up former GM Dave Gettleman’s mess. A third of the Giants’ budget this year (about $60 million) is simply not a factor for this team, between dead money hits, injuries, and players like Kenny Golladay, who has been effectively exiled.
It makes the scene Sunday night all the more remarkable. Two weeks after tying this same Washington team and a week after getting blown out by the NFC East–leading Eagles, Daboll’s Giants built a lead against Washington and held it, surviving a goal-line stand in the game’s final minutes (with some help from questionable officiating). Now, a team that was just hoping to be relevant and competitive is most likely going to the postseason. Perhaps more important in a macro sense, Sunday night may have given Schoen and Daboll answers to the franchise’s biggest existential questions: What do they do with Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley’s contracts?
They need to keep both, and it’s financially possible to do so. The Giants could end up sticking the franchise tag on Barkley for about $12 million, and signing Jones to a moderate contract extension. (On paper, I imagine a deal could be four years and $120 million, but the Giants would likely guarantee only two of those years.) Daboll asks his players to be smart, tough, and dependable. Jones has always shown he was tough, but at times he has not always acted smart or dependable. This season, with better coaching but lesser receiving talent, he has been the exemplar of all three.
It’s not hard to envision team president John Mara signing off on such a deal for Jones. The franchise previously declined Jones’s fifth-year option, essentially making this season a prove-it year, but Mara has bluntly said multiple times that his team had essentially failed its former first-round pick, and done “everything possible to screw this kid up.” Under Daboll, it seems the team is finding all the little ways to help Jones succeed that eluded his predecessor, Judge, and Judge’s offensive coordinator, Jason Garrett, who now spends his time as a smiling mannequin on the NBC pregame set. While none of Jones’s numbers look gaudy, he is finding ways to score with skeleton crews around him.
Jones’s statline Sunday night was nondescript: 21 completions on 32 attempts for 160 passing yards. The Giants’ first two drives stunk. But on their third chance, they put together a drive that might as well be a metaphor for the season: Backed up to their own 3-yard line, Jones led an 18-play, 97-yard touchdown drive—including a fourth-and-9 conversion on a pass from Jones to WR Richie James—on a drive that ate more than 8.5 minutes of clock.
Jones managed crucial third down conversions to James, New York’s punt returner, who has been thrust into starting action. Isaiah Hodgins, a Bills practice squad player the Giants picked up because he knew the Giants offense after two seasons with Daboll in Buffalo, has become an essential part of the offense. The Giants claimed Hodgins—with four career catches to his name— off waivers on November 2 and he was starting for the team less than three weeks later. Daboll told him to come to New York because he knew Hodgins was smart and knew the playbook and would earn opportunities. Hodgins was practicing with the starters in his first practice with the team.
“Things escalated,” Hodgins said after Sunday’s win. “I got thrown right into the game plan.”
James and Hodges were the two leading receivers for the Giants on Sunday, with four catches each and 42 yards for James and 37 yards for Hodgins. That the Giants are winning with players like Hodgins while the likes of Golladay, the highest-paid player on the team, barely plays (Golladay ran just one route Sunday night, per TruMedia) shows the growth Jones has made and the impact Daboll has had on this team. The defense has similarly succeeded despite injuries. Defensive captain Xavier McKinney has missed a month after injuring his hand in an ATV accident over the bye week. In his place, safety Jason Pinnock, a Jets castoff the Giants picked up midseason, ended two separate Washington drives with a timely pass breakup and a blitz on Taylor Heinicke.
But it was Saquon Barkley who was the key to New York’s final drive, breaking off and spinning his way to three consecutive runs of 10-plus yards on first down to flip the field on Washington and get the Giants in field goal range. “I saw an explosive, downhill runner,” Daboll said. “And I was proud as heck of the kid.”
Daboll was likely responding to criticism that Barkley, whose production had dipped in recent weeks, spends too much time dancing rather than hitting the holes.
Committing to Jones and Barkely would come with risk. Extending Jones could hamstring the team if he turns out to have a harder ceiling. Perpetually leaving Barkley on one-year franchise tags could poison the culture in the locker room—while committing record-setting money to Barkley, with his injury history, could end poorly for the team’s salary cap. And the Giants will have to find real pass catchers and linebackers for next season as opposed to scouring practice squad rosters and the waiver wire like they’ve had to do this year. But these are good problems compared to the ones Daboll and Schoen faced when they arrived in New York.
This new Giants regime seems to thrive on tough decisions. Daboll’s fearlessness showed on that crucial fourth-and-9 against Washington, amid that 97-yard drive that might come to define this Giants season. Daboll passed on attempting a 52-yard field goal that kicker Graham Gano said was just out of his range—so Daboll called for Jones to pass, and Jones converted. Barkley capped the drive with a touchdown run to give New York a 14-3 halftime lead.
“We spend a lot of time on [those decisions],” Daboll said after the game. I see a lot of numbers and percentages and then there is a real conversation about players and matchups. You don’t take one thing and say this is what you do. You’ve gotta have a feel for the game, a feel for your opponent, a feel for the matchup, a feel for the weather.”
While Jones and Barkley’s futures are up in the air, so many core pieces of this team are in place. Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence has been a monster and is earning a contract extension. Ditto for safety Julian Love. Rookie pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux managed seven tackles on his first 23 snaps in the first half, including a stripsack of Heinicke that he picked up and returned for a touchdown that was essentially the difference in the game. Thibodeaux also stopped Heinicke at the 1-yard line on Washington’s final drive that was definitely the difference in the game. Before Sunday, Thibodeaux was asked if he liked prime time. He responded that “prime time likes me.”
“When you play football, you can’t think at the same time,” he said.
That might be true for watching football too. There is so much thinking we can do to try and explain how the Giants keep winning these games, and whether the team will bring back key players like Jones and Barkley. But the thinking detracts from the experience. Daboll may not like roller coasters, but for the Giants this year, the best advice is to sit back and enjoy the ride. Unlike past Giants teams, their fans no longer need barf bags.