The Giants have used a time-tested formula to win football games during most of their 8½ decades of NFL competition. A punishing defense that was the team's dominant unit and a strong rushing attack were the staples of their success. The blueprint helped them win championships in 1927, ‘34, ‘38, ‘56, ‘86, ‘90 and 2007.
This season, the script has been modified. The offense has out-performed the defense, continuing a trend that has been in place for most of the last decade (in the 10 seasons from 2001-10, the offense was higher in the final rankings seven times; it did not happen at all from 1975-2000). But that attack is powered not by a punishing ground game, but by an exciting and prolific aerial attack.
With more than three-quarters of the season complete, the results have been mixed. But the bottom line is that the Giants are 7-6 and control their own destiny in the NFC East title race, a pursuit that will continue Sunday in MetLife Stadium against the Washington Redskins.
Coach Tom Coughlin has long preached the virtues of a stifling defense and a balanced offense and, frankly, he's seldom had either up to this point in the season. Through 13 games the Giants are ranked 30th in the NFL in defense, allowing 391.6 yards a game.
But the offense is ranked seventh with an average of 389.8 yards a game. What's unusual is the breakdown. The Giants are uncharacteristically 32nd and last in both rushing yards per game (85.8) and yards-per-carry (3.3) just three years after leading the NFL in both categories (157.4 yards game and 5.0 per carry in 2008). In six of Coughlin's first seven years as head coach, the rushing attack ranked higher than the passing game (the exception was 2009).
This season, as the run game has sputtered, the Giants have turned to the forward pass. They are ranked fourth in the NFL with 304.1 yards per game. The Giants are 66 yards shy of the franchise record for net passing yards in a season, Eli Manning has already thrown for a team-record 4,105 yards and they have two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season for the first time in history (Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks).
All of which leads to the question…have the Giants become a passing team?
"I don't look at it that way," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "All I look at is, how are we moving the ball best that game? What are you doing defensively? Where should we be able to move it? Sometimes, where you should be able to move it you still can't do it, then you have to go back to something else. But whatever's getting it done. I don't really care. I've said it before. Tom's always talking about, ‘Perfect balance,' and I usually just say, ‘Hey, whatever's working.' And it usually plays itself out, just like it does with the receivers and running backs, eventually it all equals out. So if you're throwing the ball well, it should open up opportunities to run. And that's what we hope will happen. And when it does, when you have those opportunities, you hope you're going to be effective doing it."
The Giants ran the ball better the last two weeks, totaling 100 and 110 yards on the ground against Green Bay and Dallas – just their second back-to-back 100-yard games of the season. Of course, they also passed for 347 and 400 yards and now have three consecutive games with well over 300 passing yards.
That's in keeping with Gilbride's "whatever's working" mantra. But it hasn't stopped Coughlin from seeking the balance he craves.
"We rushed the ball 31 times the other night and we did have a lot of snaps (a season-high 78 offensive plays)," said the head coach. "In a normal game, that would have provided (balance). The Redskins had 34 runs and 33 passes (in their loss to New England). We did have a lot more passes, but we did have the ball more. We are always going to talk about balance and be in a situation attempting to get that. I think the last five minutes of the game (having to overcome a 12-point deficit) demanded that we approach it a different way."
"The last couple of weeks we ran the ball really well, so hopefully we can continue to do that," Manning said. "I think that is when we are at our best. When we have a good balance of play action, you can run the ball. Teams can't just sit there and play the pass. It's opened up. That's the reason we have had success throwing the ball the last couple of weeks, because we had teams that come in with one mindset saying they might be able to play more coverage and we prevented them from doing that. And when they played coverage, we have run the ball well."
Manning then channeled his inner Gilbride.
"I think we are going to do whatever is working," he said. "I think we don't go in with one mindset saying we are going to have to run it this much or have to throw it this much. Whatever seems to be working is what we are going to do."
Despite the quest for balance and the commitment to stay with what is successful on a given day, it is undeniable the Giants have had more success passing the ball than running it this season. And for some who have long been a part of or observed this team, it's unusual.
"As a guy who's been here for nine years, I think it's the first time it's ever been like this," offensive lineman David Diehl said. "We've been very successful passing the ball. Sometimes, teams are loading up eight in the box to stop the run. Or Brandon (Jacobs) has been hurt or Ahmad (Bradshaw) has been hurt and the one consistent thing has been Eli throwing the ball and being on the same page as his receivers. Up front as an offensive line, just making sure for us, we know if we keep Eli's feet clean, he's going to be able to go out there and pick apart things, based on what he's watched in film in preparation and the quarterback he is. It's hard to sit here and say numbers don't lie, but it looks like that's the way we've been successful this season."
"We run the ball, still," Nicks said. "We throw the ball. We may have been leaning more toward the pass, because that's what we've been doing well at, but the running game is picking back up with Bradshaw back, and I think we can be pretty balanced down the stretch. But at the same time, we do what we gotta do to win the game."
Most often this year, that has meant passing the ball, particularly those five times the Giants had to rally from a fourth-quarter deficit to win a game. The offense has been so productive putting the ball in the air, even running backs who prefer to have it in their hands can't complain.
"As long as we are winning," Jacobs said. "Victor made plays, Hakeem made plays, Mario (Manningham) made plays and (Jake) Ballard. It doesn't really bother me. As long as we are winning and we can contribute the best we can, that's all I want to do."
The running game can still be a big factor as the Giants push toward a postseason berth. Each of their final three games will be played in MetLife Stadium, which at this time of year will be cold, probably windy and perhaps inclement (though it's expected to be sunny Sunday for the Redskins game). Late-season conditions in this part of the country often dictate that running the football is the safest and most productive way to move it. That hasn't been true this season, but the Giants have yet to play a bad-weather game.
Gilbride was asked a question this week that would have seemed outrageous for many Giants teams: "Do you still need the running game with this kind of passing attack?" Yes we do, he said, particularly at this time and in this place.
"I think where it becomes difficult, there's no question, you can't avoid it, is just the weather," Gilbride said. "The weather becomes a factor up here. It's not the cold very much and it's not even the rain as much as the wind can really be a troublesome factor. That's what really concerns me more than anything else. Obviously, the old days in Houston, we had great success, we were in the playoffs every year and we did very well in the playoffs offensively. And we weren't running the ball. We were much more of a passing team. I've certainly been on teams in the past – in Jacksonville we went to the AFC Championship doing that.
"But here is different than there. You're indoors (in Houston). You're down south. It can be a factor here, weather-wise. That's where you would like to be able to run the ball, but regardless of that, you always would like to have the ability to force people to play honestly. To do that, you have to be able to run the ball a little bit. I think the fact that we did it a little bit better (against) Green Bay, did it even a little bit better last game is a good sign. We're headed in the right direction. We're not where we want to be, but we're headed in the right direction and I think that just makes us more difficult to defend."
We'll learn if that's true starting Sunday against the Redskins.
*Five Giants players have been declared out of the game: center David Baas (neck), defensive end Osi Umenyiora (ankle/knee), tight end Travis Beckum (chest), safety Derrick Martin (back) and linebacker Mark Herzlich (ankle).
Defensive end Justin Tuck (toe) practiced for the first time this week on a limited basis and is questionable.
*The Giants leads the regular season series, 91-62-4, but lost the season opener in Washington, 28-14.