You could look it up.
Casey Stengel used to say it (among other things), and all these years later, Brian Daboll pretty much said it, without saying it, after his first season as the head coach of the Giants came to what he called a “crash landing’’ conclusion with a dreadful 38-7 playoff loss to the Eagles.
What Daboll said the other day, in so many words: Just because we had some success this season does not ensure we will build off that success next season.
Daboll still seemed a bit shaken by how it ended. He has been this way before, but never as the man in charge. He was a part of 24 playoff victories as an assistant coach or as a coordinator, and eight times, he was on the losing end, experiencing the suddenness of playoff elimination. In his 21 years in the NFL, he has learned to take the most recent result and not give it too much credence, good or bad, because it often does not represent the breadth of the season.
“You give the coaches some time to evaluate the players,” Daboll said, “and then we’ll have time to evaluate the things that we’ve done, whether that’s scheme, personnel, decisions. You just take a step back.’’
That step back, and Daboll’s two decades in the NFL, should provide the perspective needed to assess what went right (plenty) and what went wrong (enough) to make his head coaching debut a resounding success. The Giants went 9-7-1 and made it to the playoffs for the first time since the 2016 season. They won a playoff game for the first time since the 2011 season. This was all accomplished with a roster that no talent evaluator in the league viewed as anything special. Joe Schoen, the first-year general manager, did not have much salary-cap space to work with, and his personnel moves were dictated by a narrow budget with cost at the center of every transaction made (and not made).
It will be different this time around. The Giants, as it currently stands, have the fourth-most salary cap space in the NFL with $54 million, according to Spotrac. Only the Bears, Falcons and Bengals have more. It is no coincidence that none of those four teams has a high-priced quarterback on the payroll. The Bengals have budding superstar Joe Burrow on his rookie contract, as do the Bears with Justin Fields. The Falcons got rid of Matt Ryan’s massive deal when they traded him to the Colts.
After four years with Daniel Jones on his rookie deal, the Giants now must ante up to pay him, and that will cut into their salary-cap space. Still, there will be room for Schoen to maneuver and add more sustainable talent than he did a year ago. What that guarantees is, well, not much.
Here is where Daboll implied “you could look it up’’ without actually turning that phrase. The natural inclination is to assume the Giants are at a jumping-off point and headed to bigger and better things under the direction of Daboll and Schoen. There are many indications this is the case. There is also history that suggests this season has nothing to do with what takes place in 2023.
Daboll knew the data. Of the 14 teams that made the playoffs in 2021, seven of them did not make the playoffs in 2022. That includes last year’s two No. 1 seeds, the Titans (12-5) in the AFC and Packers (13-4) in the NFC, both of whom finished with losing records this year (Titans 7-10, Packers 8-9). The Super Bowl champion Rams went from the penthouse to the outhouse — they finished 5-12 the season after they hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. The other teams that made the playoffs last year and missed out in this postseason cycle: Raiders, Patriots, Steelers and Cardinals.
None of this is lost on Daboll. He knows what it took to build his first Giants team, brick by brick, as it were, because coaches stress every detail and often go minute-by-minute with their efforts to put it all together. This starts when the offseason program kicks off in the spring — April 17 this year — and it is a long and arduous process to get back to where you once were.
“You know me — I take it day by day,’’ Daboll said. “I think it’s year by year. Every team is different. Just because you won one year doesn’t guarantee you anything the next year relative to what players you have, what players you don’t have.
“I think our goal will always be to just get better each day, try to put the best team we can together, work at it each day and not get too far ahead of ourselves.’’
Daboll understands all the heavy lifting that is to come. It is not as if he starts from scratch in Year 2, but it is not as if this is merely a continuation, either. This is why there was a somber mood as players cleaned out their lockers on Sunday. Daboll succeeded in building a close-knit team, and the players realized this team, as presently constituted, will not be revisited ever again.
Daboll’s next team meeting will not look the same. There are 18 players set to become unrestricted free agents. Even if Daniel Jones is back (that is almost a sure thing) and Saquon Barkley is back (likely, but less of a sure thing), the offense could look quite different: Offensive linemen Jon Feliciano and Nick Gates, receivers Darius Slayton, Richie James and Sterling Shepard and running back Matt Breida are free agents.
“When you ask the new guys to stand up, it will be dang near half the room,’’ Daboll said. “So what we’ve tried to build is our foundation — how we meet, how we practice, how we prepare, how we travel, our mindset going into games. You have guys that have been on the roster that are coming back and that can help facilitate that with the new players that are coming in because every year’s a new year. The team we had this year will be different next year, but that’s just the NFL.
“You’re glad you have some of the players that you’re going to have coming back, but certainly, you’re going to have a lot of new players, whether that’s draft picks, free agents, different guys. And everybody’s got to come together again and start building the team for the next season.’’
It is an all-consuming deal, this team building. It turned into an unexpected success in Year 1 for Daboll. Now he has to take a breath, regroup and try to do it all over again, this time improving on the product.
By the numbers
Raise your hand if you predicted this from the Giants in 2022 (we are going with the honor system here):
Richie James would lead Giants wide receivers in receptions with 57.
Dexter Lawrence — nine career sacks in three seasons — would lead the team with 7.5 sacks.
A Wink Martindale defense would finish the season with just six interceptions, tied with the Raiders for the fewest in the league.
The Giants would score 38 touchdowns on offense, and Daniel Jones would account for 22 of them (15 passing, seven rushing).
Sterling Shepard would have more receptions in three games (13) than Kenny Golladay would have in 12 games (six).
Isaiah Hodgins would be claimed off the Bills’ practice squad in early November, catch his first scoring pass in early December and finish tied with James for the team lead with four touchdown receptions.
Azeez Ojulari, after putting in an iron man rookie season during which played in all 17 games, would make it into only seven games in 2022 and average nearly one sack per game (he ended with 5.5).
Jones would run it 120 times and get sacked 44 times and lose just three fumbles all season.
Kayvon Thibodeaux would finish tied for fourth in sacks among NFL rookies with four — behind Aidan Hutchinson (9.5), James Houston (eight) and George Karlaftis (six). The big story here is Houston, a sixth-round draft pick from Florida and Jackson State, who did his damage in just seven games for the Lions.
Asked and answered
Here are two questions that have come up recently that we will attempt to answer as accurately as possible:
Why did Schoen come out and say so strongly that he wants to sign Jones? Doesn’t that hurt the Giants’ leverage when they enter into negotiations?
There are definitely times when comments made by a general manager or a head coach can compromise the team’s bargaining power. In this case, no harm, no foul. It is smart to be decisive and show confidence that Jones is the franchise quarterback. The position is too important to sound wishy-washy. Sure, Schoen did say he wants to build around Jones and he believes Jones can help the Giants win a Super Bowl. But Schoen did not go overboard or compare Jones to any other high-priced quarterback. And Daboll certainly has not driven up the price. Heck, Daboll described Jones as playing “good’’ after his sensational performance in the playoff victory over the Vikings. Daboll has often said Jones “did everything we asked him to do.’’ That is not exactly glowing praise that Jones’ agent can use to squeeze more money out of the Giants.
Did the way the Giants were routed in the playoff loss to the Eagles diminish what was accomplished this season?
It certainly did not enhance anything. It is totally understandable that fans felt massive disappointment watching that 38-7 beatdown by the Eagles. All the excitement and anticipation of a Saturday night playoff game was wiped away soon after kickoff because the Giants were never in the game. That this punishment was administered by the despised Eagles made the loss sting even more. As it turned out, the Giants went out at the appropriate time. They do not belong in the final four. They are not in that class yet. The season exceeded everyone’s expectations, and anyone who says otherwise has a short memory of what it was like around this team the past five years. The ending was ugly, but there is no denying hope and respectability returned to the franchise.