Braking Down The News

The New York Giants’ Perfect Start Is Unexpected. So Is Their Play-Calling.

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The New York Giants are one of just six undefeated teams left in the NFL, perched atop the NFC East alongside the 2-0 Philadelphia Eagles. Yet despite being unblemished through the season’s first two weeks, their record seems, well, a bit fraudulent. 

One big red flag: The Giants’ point differential is a paltry plus-4 points, the lowest by far among the undefeated teams. To put that in context, the Miami Dolphins stormed back to win against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 2 in one of the most improbable comebacks in NFL history, and the Fins still ended up winning by 4 points. Yet somehow the Giants have managed to eke out two victories by the same amount.

The history of 2-0 teams with such low point differentials is not especially impressive. Before the 2022 Giants, 20 teams since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger have started a season with a 2-0 record and a total point differential of plus-5 or worse. On average, those teams lost more games than they won over the rest of the season, with a negative point differential:

Starting 2-0 with thin margins usually doesn’t work out

Future record and points-per-game differential for NFL teams that started 2-0 with a differential of +2.5 or less since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger

SeasonTeamWLPPG Diff.WLWPctPPG Diff.
2012PHI20+1.0212.143-11.9
2005WSH20+1.586.571+4.5
2019SEA20+1.595.643+0.3
1988SF20+2.086.571+5.1
2003CAR20+2.095.643+1.2
2004JAX20+2.077.500-1.6
2007DEN20+2.059.357-6.6
2007SF20+2.0311.214-10.6
2013CHI20+2.068.429-2.6
2016NYG20+2.095.643+1.6
2018DEN20+2.0410.286-1.7
2022NYG20+2.0????????
1971CHI20+2.548.333-8.0
1991CHI20+2.595.643+1.8
1999NE20+2.568.429+0.7
2000NYJ20+2.577.500-0.4
2002CHI20+2.5212.143-7.4
2003WSH20+2.5311.214-6.4
2008CAR20+2.5104.714+5.7
2013NE20+2.5104.714+7.2
2020TEN20+2.595.643+3.4
Avg.20+2.16.57.4.467-1.3

Source: ESPN

The Giants can certainly buck that trend — in fact, there’s one big reason to think they might have an important edge on the opposition. But there are plenty of other reasons why the G-Men are more likely than not to follow in the footsteps of the more unsuccessful 2-0 teams on the list above.

Just look at the team’s offensive strengths and weaknesses. Instead of winning with passing, as most of the other successful teams do, the Giants are the only team among the undefeated with negative expected points added (EPA) on dropbacks (-5.4). Quarterback Daniel Jones has been downright terrible in the early going, amassing a QBR of 30.2, good (bad?) for 28th in the league among qualifying passers. Winning with that kind of play from under center is rare in the NFL. Three winless teams this season have more passing EPA than the Giants do, including the Tennessee Titans, a team they defeated.1

With its passing offense in shambles, it’s no surprise that New York is winning by the narrowest of margins. And since they aren’t content to win the conventional, sustainable way, instead the Giants have had to rely on the running game (8th in the NFL by EPA) and a large helping of fumble luck2 to pick up Ws. That’s not exactly the best formula if the goal is avoiding the fate of the other teams who collapsed after starting 2-0.

But there is one area where New York has been legitimately beating the competition early this season: the mind game of playcalling. Take, for example, the team’s improbable end-of-game drive in Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans, which culminated in a touchdown and a game-winning 2-point conversion. New York basically played the opposites game throughout — the Giants ran the ball when they were expected to pass, and passed the ball when they were expected to run, defying expectations all the way down the field. To top things off, head coach Brian Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka called a trick pass play with receiver Kadarius Toney that turned into a scramble, and even went for it on fourth down a few plays later, something New York did on rare occasions last season.

The Giants’ Wk. 1 game-winning drive defied expectations

Play-by-play of the New York Giants’ game-winning drive with the probability of a pass on each play (XPASS)

TimePlay Descriptiondownto gotypexpass
5:27S.Barkley up the middle to NYG 31 for 4 yards.110run75%
5:01 D.Jones pass short right to R.James to NYG 38 for 7 yards.26pass80%
4:31 D.Jones pass short left to S.Barkley to NYG 41 for 3 yards.110pass76%
4:00Barkley up the middle to TEN 26 for 33 yards. Fumbles, ball out of bounds at TEN 11.27run85%
3:27 K.Toney scrambles left end to TEN 22 for 4 yards.110run69%
2:48M.Breida up the middle to TEN 19 for 3 yards.26run76%
2:05D.Jones left tackle to TEN 17 for 2 yards.33run91%
2:00D.Jones scrambles left end, pushed out at TEN 15 for 2 yards.41run38%
1:54S.Barkley left guard to TEN 10 for 5 yards.110run76%
1:23S.Barkley up the middle to TEN 3 for 7 yards.25run84%
1:16S.Barkley up the middle to TEN 1 for 2 yards.13run54%
1:09D.Jones pass short right to C.Myarick for 1 yard, TOUCHDOWN.21pass31%
TWO-POINT CONVERSION ATTEMPT. D.Jones pass to S.Barkley is complete. ATTEMPT SUCCEEDS.NA0passNA

Source: nflfastr

Down 7 points and on their own 27-yard line with just under five-and-a-half minutes remaining — a situation where 74 percent of previous teams have passed — New York ran it up the gut for 4 yards (a play with negative EPA). Then, after two fairly predictable pass calls, the Giants began a streak of eight straight running plays (both called runs and scrambles), only one of which came in a situation where the defense might have expected it. And New York wasn’t tipping its hand, either: Seven of the eight runs came out of three-wide receiver sets that helped sell the threat of a pass and spread the defense out. 

The first run of the streak was the longest, and the luckiest. After a pre-snap motion that brought all three wide receivers to the right side of the field, the center and the left guard pulled to the left and opened up a large hole for Saquon Barkley to gallop through. Barkley ran 33 yards, all the way to the Tennessee 26, before defensive back Kristian Fulton punched the ball out of his arms and out of bounds. The drive nearly stalled after that, with three straight runs — all of which came with a pass probability no lower than 69 percent — leading to a 4th-and-1 keeper by Jones for 2 yards. Daboll and Kafka then called three more runs, picking up another first down along the way.

Finally, after marching down most of the field on the ground, the Giants faced 2nd-and-1 at the 1-yard line, a place where teams run the ball in similar situations 69 percent of the time. So naturally, the team had Jones fake the handoff to Barkley and run a short bootleg to his right before passing to fullback Chris Myarick for the score. The game-winning 2-point conversion was more schematic trickery: a shovel pass up the middle to Barkley a la Andy Reid.

Through a masterful series of play calls, Daboll and Kafka overcame their quarterback’s limitations and dug deep into their bag of tricks to keep the ball in Barkley’s hands. During the streak of eight straight runs, the offense averaged over a half a point in EPA per play. (The NFL average for run plays this season is -0.06.) It was a remarkable display of rushing efficiency when the Giants needed it most.

Daboll pushed every deceptive edge available to him during that Week 1 drive, and it paid off big. And maybe he can keep that trend rolling all year long. Sure, New York’s poor passing offense, if it continues, will come back to haunt the G-Men eventually, and their good fumble luck will eventually run out. But Daboll and Kafka have already shown that unpredictable playcalling can help accumulate enough small edges to overcome the Giants’ biggest obstacle this year — their own quarterback. Solve that, and the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense next Monday seems like a straightforward problem by comparison.

Neil Paine contributed research.

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