12:26 pm Oct. 1, 2012
It’s always dangerous to start calling for changes after gut-punch losses like last night’s 19-17 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, during which 100 percent of Giants fans watching on television were 100 percent sure that Lawrence Tynes had split the uprights with his second-chance field goal attempt.
But does anyone else wonder why the Giants are keeping their most electrifying player stashed on the bench, only to be dusted off for kickoff returns, while they give Ahmad Bradshaw the majority of running back carries?
David Wilson touched the ball just once on offense last night. Once again, he did so on a gimmicky play designed to catch the defense off guard and get him into space. Once again, he screwed up, this time dropping a shovel pass. Once again, he was promptly stowed back on the bench, as if he were being punished.
This has become a pattern: In Week 1, he fumbled against Dallas and short-circuited a promising drive, thus marking an abrupt end to the mini-lovefest between Giants fans and Wilson that had grown from his encouraging play during preseason. Against Tampa Bay, he dropped a wide-open pass that could have turned into a big play. This maybe or maybe didn’t have something to do with the fact that he wasn’t even considered for a greater role after Bradshaw missed a game-and-a-half with injury. (Andre Brown’s emergence was obviously the more important factor.)
On kickoffs, Wilson was the Giants’ most effective weapon last night with an average of 36.2 yards per return (the N.F.L. average this year is around 25 yards), although as NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth pointed out, he was running through some wide holes. But on offense, his one-shot-per-game usage pattern seems to be making him tight and depriving him the chance to relax into his talent.
Mistakes aside, the bigger reason why Wilson isn’t playing more has to do with his struggles in pass protection, we gather. As one trope goes, the N.F.L. is a passing league. As another trope goes, the Giants are Eli Manning’s team. Taken together, this means the importance of a back’s running ability is less than the importance of his ability to protect Manning.
It’s a risk-averse mindset, designed to avoid the ultimate worst-case scenario of an Eli Manning injury. But because it keeps talent on the bench, it limits the Giants offensively. That was fine last year when Manning was performing miracles left and right. But last night showed that this can’t be the Giants’ go-to strategy going forward. Particularly given the difficult N.F.C. East in which the talent disparities are minimal, sitting on an obvious talent like Wilson is a luxury the Giants can’t afford.
THERE WAS ANOTHER BACK SEVERAL YEARS ago who didn’t flourish fully in his physical peak years because of coaches’ misgivings about him as a pass blocker. His name was Ahmad Bradshaw.
For each his first three years, Bradshaw averaged more yards per carry than incumbent starter Brandon Jacobs, though Jacobs clung to the starting job. This was most pronounced in 2009, Bradshaw’s third year, when he averaged 4.8 yards per carry compared to a diminished Jacobs’ 3.7.
But when it comes to running backs, the Giants reject Branch Rickey’s old adage that it’s better to get rid of a player a year too early than a year too late. Jacobs received close to 50 percent more carries than Bradshaw that year, one of many reasons the Giants’ season went into tailspin after a promising start.
In 2012, Bradshaw’s role in all this has been reversed: Having bided his own time while watching an older player ahead of him prove he’s not as good as he once was, he’s now the older player being given every chance to hold onto his job.
It's not that Bradshaw is no longer an effective player. He’s still a very good receiver (3 catches for 38 yards last night), and is able to run with good vision after the catch. And while pass blocking was once a vulnerability for him, it’s now a strength. (This is a credit to Bradshaw, but also evidence that it’s something players can learn with time.)
But after the emergence of Brown, it sure looks like Bradshaw is the second-best runner on the team at best, and that an optimal version of the Giants is one in which they get more out of their running game than he seems capable of providing.
Clearly, Bradshaw isn’t what he once was. His production has slid from 4.5 yards per carry as a first-time starter in 2010 to 3.9 last year to 3.8 this year, a figure helped along by a season-long 33-yard-run during the waning minutes of the first Dallas game that crossed up the defense. Subtract that 33-yard run, and Bradshaw’s average is around 3 yards, an identical figure to last night, when he managed 39 yards on 13 carries.
Evidence of Bradshaw’s decline is also apparent just by watching. He’s always had a stop-and-go style, with his effectiveness residing in that short burst when he decides where he wants to go and then beats a defender to the spot. But his chronic foot troubles have robbed him of his spring, and his reduced speed has caused something of a crisis in style: His style hinges on short-area explosiveness and acceleration that he once had in abundance but no longer does.
Last week, the Giants’ signaled an openness to reducing Bradshaw’s role and giving Brown more carries when they announced Bradshaw was the starter but with the proviso that they would ride the hot hand. Then they went out and gave Bradshaw 13 carries to Brown’s five, making him the focal point of a rushing attack that got outrushed by the Eagles', 191 yards to 57.
That’s not good enough. And as last night proved, asking Eli Manning to make up the difference is asking too much.
More by this author:
- Gary Cohen, the anti-Michael Kay, also broadcasts during his time off
- Blue blood: The harsh logic behind the cutting of Bradshaw, Canty and Boley