Giants Running Backs: A Year in Review

It has been an interesting year for the Giants running backs, to say the least. Lots of controversy, flip-flopping starters and plenty of highs and lows. While I don’t think Jacobs and Bradshaw can be considered elite backs at this point in their careers, most teams would consider it a good problem to have two talented backs battling for the starting role. In some ways, the Giants mishandled the their backs by not making the best of the situation.

I look specifically at Kevin Gilbride, who has absolutely no creativity in his play calling. The Giants have had multiple talented backs for several years now, and not once has he found a way to incorporate more than one back into a play. As one example, many teams have found a great deal of success with the wildcat formation, so why wouldn’t a team like the Giants, who have enough talent to confuse any defense, utilize their weapons to their fullest potential? This inability to take full advantage of the personnel in this position has helped all three backs underachieve this season.

Brandon Jacobs

Although he spent most of the season as the second back, I will start with Jacobs. He threw a serious temper tantrum when he lost his starting role, and his helmet ended up in the lap of a fan. But I will give him credit where credit is due. Many players who feel slighted and disrespected aren’t smart enough to keep their mouths shut and put the team first. Some get to the point where a team is afraid to keep them around for more than a year because they start acting up once they get comfortable (T.O.). Fortunately for Jacobs, he shut his mouth and publicly put his team first in order to keep his job for at least the season, and avoided, at least for the time being, jobs on rotating terrible teams, again a la T.O.

Whether he really did put his team first mentally is tough to say, but his on field performance seemed to indicate that he had changed his tune. Remember the whole north/south vs. east/west debate between him and Coughlin? Jacobs wants to be a complete runner, which I can respect, but any athlete knows they need to first play to their strengths. In Jacobs’ case, this means running guys over. Once he started playing the kind of game the Giants needed, he ended up having a decent season as a backup.

These numbers were not overly spectacular, but he tied his 2006 season for the second most touchdowns in a season, dwarfed his previous longest rushing gain of 44 in 2008, and had a career-best 5.6 yards per carry. But one of the most important things Jacobs brought to the team was, in my opinion, his enthusiasm and emotional displays on the field.

Years ago Jeremy Shockey was considered a lightning rod for the offense, so long as he was involved in his preferred manner, as in making catches. Jacobs brings a similar energy when he is on the field, though as a running back he has more opportunity to wear his emotions on his sleeve. Despite everything I am a Jacobs fan, though I have my doubts he will be back next year. In my perfect world, however, Gilbride would be the one sent packing, and the Giants would start using their two backs in a more creative and exciting manner. Can you imagine the momentum this team would feel if Jacobs rip off a huge run off a wildcat snap to him, after he faked a handoff to Bradshaw and went the distance?

Ahmad Bradshaw

Despite my affinity for Jacobs, I am also a Bradshaw fan and was both unsurprised and supportive of his move to the starting role. I was a big Tiki Barber fan when he was a player, and Bradhsaw reminds me of him. They are both small in stature but have a strong work ethic. They also are chronic fumblers, though Tiki learned how to overcome this problem.

I buy into the argument that the game has changed and defenses are becoming much better at stripping the ball, but there are plenty of backs who are considered elite partly because they have an answer for these defenses. According to Ed Valentine in Big Blue Review:

Bradshaw has now fumbled 12 times in three years, once every 42 carries. Just for reference, I chose a few top-flight backs at random. Maurice Jones-Drew of Jacksonville fumbles once every 114 carries. LaDainian Tomlinson has fumbled 31 times in more than 3,000 career carries, once every 99.9 carries. Michael Turner of the Atlanta Falcons has 11 fumbles in 1,116 career carries, once every 101 carries. So, Bradshaw is fumbling more than twice as much as some other elite backs.

For my part, I would be willing to give Bradshaw another year to prove he can be a consistent starter for this team. I think he has the right work ethic to motivate him to fix his fumbling problem, and he is young enough to have a lot of good years in the NFL. I especially love his second efforts when he hits the wall of players, and his 1,235 total yards are a direct result of his never give up attitude. Unfortunately I would watch these efforts and find myself yelling at him to go down out of fear that he would lose the ball.

A team simply cannot hang their hat on a guy who fumbles the ball as often as Bradshaw has this season. Bradshaw is a free agent, so I will definitely be keeping an eye on this situation. Whether or not he will be a Giant next season, I think Bradshaw has a bright future ahead of him.

DJ Ware

I don’t think anyone knows much about Ware and his capabilities. It’s tough to stand out when you are third string behind guys like Jacobs and Bradshaw. But then again Derrick Ward received a lot of attention when he was with the Giants in this role. That fact alone leads me to believe Ware will not receive a shot at the starting role anytime soon with this team, barring injuries of course. As you can see by his stats, he did not have much opportunity to prove himself with the offense:

I will say, however, that he was the best option as the kick returner on special teams. He averaged 20.6 yards on 21 returns, and left me even more angry with the coaching in this area, who let Reynaud continue to run directly into the first opponent to get anywhere near him on every return until he was injured. This was his greatest contribution to the team this season, but unless Domenik Hixon does not return next season to resume his role as kick returner, I don’t know that there will be a place for Ware beyond the third string back position.

Overall, the Giants running backs had a good season and helped the team in several big wins. But they seemed to run out of steam toward the end of the season, and although they were not alone in this mindset, it could have made a world of difference if this unit had been able to step up. I think there is quite a bit to build on if the right coaching changes are made. These backs are part of a team that is on the brink of greatness, and we as fans have to hope that Jerry Reese, Tom Coughlin and the rest of the Giants leadership have what it takes to make the tough decisions to bring this team back to the Super Bowl.

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  • Andrew Ilnicki

    fantastic breakdown. I will say if Bradshaw is retained, if he can tame his ball control issues, and Eli starts hitting him out of the backfield more consistently — the Giants are going to be unstoppable. They need to work on their check downs this offseason to their RBs. And FBs and TEs for that matter.

    • Russ Wolfe

      I agree with everything you said especially the bit about Kevin Gilbride! he is, in my opinion the problem. he has about 5 play he calls and thats it. nothing creative. nothing to make the other team scratch their heads. nothing. He is the coach that has to be removed from the staff

      • Andrew Ilnicki

        I won’t say that he is 100% the issue… I’ve seen progress in the past 3 years in the system. But there is a difference between calling a designed screen pass and Eli deciding to take the check down instead of forcing to throw way downfield for an INT.

        Here’s the way I see it — Eli usually goes to the huddle with more than one play called, he is able to make last second adjustments and often does with play calling. But this past year ELI had Bradshaw wide open for a 5 yard check down all year and decided to take his shot 10-12 yards downfield instead. Playoff teams don’t do that…. they move the ball with short passes and don’t take the risk of the corner undercutting the route or getting a tipped ball for an INT. Drew Brees showed incredible restraint in that Atlanta game by doing just what I’m talking about, settling for the quick read and checkdown game and minimizing mistakes.

        Where I agree that Gilbride is the problem is when Gilbride calls the screen pass — FINALLY — but it’s usually on 3rd and 15 instead of second and long…. there inlies the problem. THAT is where it’s predictable. Not only is that 3rd and 15 predicted, it’s the second and long where the RB is tackled in the backfield because everyone knows its coming. The Giants 99% of the time run on second and long and everyone KNOWS IT.

        That’s why first down is so important to stay deceptive, and that’s why mixing it up on second down is so crucial if you dont execute on first down — once you get conservative and predictable you’ll have a punt forced on you. See the second half of the Eagles game and Redskins game for references.

        Staying deceptive and mixing it up has always been my issue — Gilbride has come along but needs to go further in 2011 with this team.

        For example, I would like the Giants to shake things up and call the screen on second and long next year, not run the ball like everyone and their mother, brother, and newborn child knows they are going to do… let alone the opposing defense. That’s what the Packers do with their personnel, that’s what the Eagles do, that’s what anyone who is commited to stretching out the defense will do.

        Gilbride has come a long way, he needs to come a bit more though in his system.

  • Woody R

    To the comment about the predictability of our running game, it is partially true. However, the situation that prompts this predictability is BJ being in the backfield. When he’s in, there are are fewer offensive options because he can’t catch the ball. Therefore, when you see him in the backfield, you might as well stack the box and/or blitz. Also, despite his size, he’s a mediocre blocker at best. BJ is a great back if you have a topshelf O-line that can just pound the rock no matter what, but we don’t have that.

    • Andrew Ilnicki

      Insofar as it’s not 2008 anymore and the line is not as good as it once was for 60 minutes — great point.

      However, by the end of the season defenses figured out that no matter who was in the backfield, the Giants have certain tendencies — we’ve seen it for years no matter who was in there. Bradshaw only gives them a certain amount of flexibility because the fact is they still use their RBs TEs and FBs in the most traditional and fundamental ways.

      The only caveat to that is when Bradshaw slides down to the wideout position and they have several different play calls from that point on. Its an oldie but a goodie and usually if the receiver does their job it’s a first down. You can really only run that play 2 or 3 times a game though. We need more.

      How about in the first Eagles game, Jacobs getting into a route and Eli hit him for 27 yards or something to that distance — he was completely behind the defense and they didnt expect it. Led to a goal line opportunity. Chicago uses it too much perhaps — but look at what Forte has done for them and that dynamic playmaking ability out of the backfield.

      We probably agree that Bradshaw is the more versatile back, and you have a point that Jacobs perhaps limits what you can do offensively when hes back there. But by my observation the Giants have a good two back system as is — they just need to work on upping the catching out of the backfield, and Eli working on his reads to get them quicker and him taking the check down first in tight games, not last.

      He’ll stay in rythem better, they’ll move the ball more, his INTs will decrease, the Giants will keep drives alive more (especially in the second half) and it will open up the middle of the field more if those LBs have to be drawn down to cover the underneath routes consistently. Then Eli can have more success in the crosses, curls and slants on the seams that he obviously loves to throw. Combined with the flags to the outside and 3 healthy receivers…. that Giants offense will look consistently powerful next year.