Requiem for Brandon Jacobs, an ex-Giant who seemed even bigger than he really was

Brandon Jacobs. (nfl.com)
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Another illustration of the disposability of N.F.L. players and the short memories of its fans and mythmakers: It wasn’t too long ago that Brandon Jacobs was the popular embodiment of Giants Football. The team was a throwback to an era of bruising, honest offenses, and so was he.

Of course that’s changed now. Eli Manning just threw for the sixth-highest total of yards in a single season in N.F.L. history, not counting the game-winning Super Bowl drive he authored. And Jacobs, having been cut earlier this offseason, is now officially gone. Yesterday, he signed a one-year contract with the 49ers, who are taking a flyer on an aging player who has performed poorly in two of the last three seasons.

But it’s worth looking back at Jacobs’ Giants career, which has coincided with—and to a lesser degree, contributed to—a stretch in the franchise’s history successful beyond anyone’s imagination.

Jacobs’ first year was 2005, Eli Manning’s first full season as a starter and Tom Coughlin’s second year as a coach. It was an exciting, auspicious year: The Giants went 11-5 and outscored their opponents by 108 points, far surpassing the regular-season accomplishments of the recent Super Bowl-winning teams (this year’s Giants were actually outscored by their opponents). That season kicked off a run of seven years during which, at one point or another in each of those seasons, Giants fans felt their team was capable of winning the championship.

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The sense that the Giants were building something during that season was palpable. Coughlin, the new coach, was a disciple of Bill Parcells, the last coach to bring a Super Bowl title to the franchise. Manning was also in place, representing the first respectable stab at a long-term quarterback the Giants had made since Phil Simms.

And then there was this freak rookie running back, this 6-foot-4, 260-pound guy. He looked nothing like other running backs, including and especially the Giants incumbent, Tiki Barber, who Jacobs had approximately seven inches and 60 pounds on.

The idea of Jacobs alone was appealing for a fan base that was around 15 years removed from the tough-guy identity of the Bill Parcells-Lawrence Taylor era, then and forever the Big Blue blueprint for success: Power over finesse, running through tacklers and not around them.

During his first two seasons, Jacobs’ role was strictly complementary. In 2005 and 2006, Barber was compiling the two best seasons a Giants running back ever has. Barber would get the Giants’ offense close, then Jacobs would cash the register as the goal-line running back. The fans loved it.

When Barber retired after the 2006 season (to pursue a career in television journalism that has since crashed and burned spectacularly), Jacobs was given the starting job. He was once a novelty, a hood ornament, but he was now an integral part of the team. And over the next two seasons, he didn’t disappoint.

Of course, the Giants won the first of their improbable recent Super Bowls in 2007, with Jacobs averaging a robust 5 yards a carry, third among running backs that year with 200 or more carries. But it was 2008 that really showcased the best version of both the Giants and Jacobs.

The Giants were the best team in the league for most of that season, as if validating a Super Bowl title many had dismissed as a fluke. Their 12-4 record was the best in the Coughlin-Manning era. No facet of the team was more dominant than the running game, which led the league in both yards and rushing yardage. And while the offensive line was rightly credited at the time—it became a popular against-the-grain point among pundits that the Giants offensive line should be the league’s M.V.P.—Jacobs was the front man. He averaged 5 yards per carry again, and punched in 15 touchdowns.

When people thought of the Giants in 2008, they thought of Jacobs accelerating through a huge hole and galloping into the open field, a 260-pound man moving at an impressive top speed, and not slowing down from the flailing, half-hearted arm tackles of defensive backs.

But as seductive as that runaway truck image of Jacobs was—a man that size moving that fast—it was illusory. Because in the N.F.L., run-blocking is seldom as dominant as the Giants’ was in 2008, and the holes are seldom as big. Those gaping creases couldn’t stay open forever.

Once they tightened the next year, as the Giants offensive line regressed back to the mean, Jacobs’ weaknesses—the interrelated qualities of having a high center of gravity, lack of an initial burst through quickly closing holes, and poor maneuverability in confined spaces—were exposed.

In 2009, Jacobs’ yards per carry average slipped from 5 to 3.7. His DVOA metric—an advanced stat developed by FootballOutsiders.com that re-calibrates every play by game-situation and context—was 39th in the league among running backs. And it wasn’t all the Giants’ offensive-line play: Ahmad Bradshaw, Jacobs’ fellow running back, averaged 4.8 yards per carry and had the 13th best DVOA in the league.

For people watching closely, it became apparent that in the absence of a dominant offensive line, Jacobs was an average runner or worse. The Giants’ offensive-line play picked up the next year, in 2010, and Jacobs was good. Then it slipped last year, and Jacobs was bad again.

That poor 2009 season spawned the ill-supported meme that Jacobs was “tiptoeing” at the line of scrimmage rather than running assertively. For Jacobs to rediscover his early-career form, went this train of thought, he simply needed to get back to running hard.

But by pinning Jacobs’ struggles on his mindset rather than his physiology, this missed the point. Jacobs didn’t go from running hard in 2008 to running tentatively in 2009 because he became softer. He did so because instead of seeing before him an inviting hole, he saw a swarm of bodies, and had no room to get his long strides going to accumulate a head of steam.

Contrast Jacobs to Bradshaw, who, at 5-9, practically bounces in half-squats through the scrum until he hits daylight. While many pundits couldn’t resist the temptation to put Jacobs and Bradshaw into “thunder and lightning,” big man and small man, inside and outside boxes, the reality was simply that Jacobs was the better outside runner and Bradshaw was the better inside runner.

There was also a notion that Jacobs “softened up,” or “wore down” opposing defenses, which would tire of tackling such a big man as the game ground on. But there’s no difference between how big and small runners progress over the course of a game, as empirical research shows. Defenses get worn down by being on the field for longer, when they have to contend with both fatigue and blockers who outweigh even Jacobs by 50 pounds. The better runner, not the bigger runner, will do a better job of tiring defenders out.

But this idea, that Jacobs wore people out, explains one of his most celebrated moments: The first play from scrimmage in the 2007 N.F.C. Championship game, when Jacobs found himself in a one-on-one situation with Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, who he outweighs by 60 pounds. Instead of making a move to evade Woodson, Jacobs plowed into him, driving both himself and Woodson into the ground.

A play that could have gone for big yardage resulted in a mere 5-yard gain. But Jacobs’ fans, and hidebound fetishizers of football as an attritional battle of wills rather than a race to accumulate yards and points—say that the value of the act went beyond the yardage, because Jacobs had “sent a message” to the Packers.

This leads to yet another Jacobs fallacy: That tackling him was “hard.” This stems from a misunderstanding of how the word “hard” is used. If tackling Jacobs was hard in the sense that losing a relative is hard because both are unpleasant things to endure, then yes, the conventional wisdom is true. But if “hard” is taken to mean “difficult to accomplish,” then it really doesn’t hold up. Defensive backs like Charles Woodson who were willing to take a kick to the facemask and wind up on their backs were generally able to get Jacobs to the ground.

Whatever his strengths and weaknesses were, it has been obvious for some time that Jacobs’ best days are long in the past. The Giants rightly cut him to avoid paying an onerous contract, and now he’s moving on. The hagiographers of this era of Giants football will remember him fondly: To be sure, he had some great moments. But more important than what he actually did was what the symbolic significance he carried for a fan base that wanted to see him the way they wanted to see their team.