When the Giants talk about their improvements in the second half of the season, the offensive line inevitably comes into the discussion. That was the group that, after a shaky start, came together both in terms of blocking for Saquon Barkley and protecting Eli Manning.
“I think what we want to be offensively was better showcased from the bye week on,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “Part of that was we solidified the offensive line, which allowed Eli to do more of what Eli can do better, and helped our runner… I think [Manning] was better able to showcase what he could do once we solidified the offensive line. I think that’s a fair assessment.”
So why didn’t they do it sooner?
The Giants began the season with Ereck Flowers and Patrick Omameh on the right side of that group, and by the end of the season not only had both been benched but both were expunged from the team. Cut. Dismissed. Flowers started two games, both losses; Omameh started six, five of them losses. Considering how much better the offense and the team functioned without them, might an earlier trigger on the decisions to move on from them have salvaged the entire season?
“Of course hindsight is 20/20 and everyone will say, ‘Hey, if we had just done that earlier…’” said veteran guard John Greco, who initially replaced Omameh as starter at right guard and played backup center most of the season. “But I think the way the year was played, that was really the only way you could have done it.”
Veteran linebacker Connor Barwin didn’t have an opinion on the timing of the changes and how they adversely affected the entire team, but he did see a significant difference in that group once the changes were made. Remember, Barwin arrived with the Giants openly mocking their offensive line play in recent years as a beneficiary of their blocking while playing for the Eagles and the Rams.
“Obviously as just an observer they found a group in the second half of the year and having a little consistency among those five goes a long way,” Barwin said. “You don’t need a bunch of Pro Bowlers on an offensive line. You need a unit more than any other group or position and it looked like they came together the second half of the year.”
Greco did say that there was “one piece” that should have been changed earlier that might have made a difference. He did not say which, but it was likely Flowers. The Giants started the season with the former first-round pick at right tackle, which seemed to be reinforcing some kind of message from the new front office and coaching staff that everyone in the organization was being given a clean slate. Instead, it sent a different vibe — that the best players won’t necessarily be playing — and while Flowers may have been given a fresh start, the Giants’ start to the season was spoiled.
As for Omameh, he was signed as a free agent and given a three-year, $15-million contract in the offseason. That was a bad signing by general manager Dave Gettleman. But at least he and the Giants didn’t let their ego force them to keep him when it became clear that they’d made a mistake.
“Everything was done before the season to try to win,” Greco said. “You try to go through a season and you saw it wasn’t working out the way it was supposed to. You get to the point where they’re like, ‘Do we continue and see what happens? Or do we make the tough choices?’ They made some tough choices and it worked out. That’s a great thing.”
Not all of the changes were in the Giants’ control. They grabbed Jamon Brown off waivers from the Rams in late October. Actually, they were lucky enough to be 1-7 at the time and near the top of the waiver wire or else he would have been claimed by another team ahead of the Giants. Ironically, in that sense, losing early may have actually helped solidify the group.
Now they move forward. Nate Solder and Will Hernandez seem locked in on the left side. Spencer Pulley and Jon Halapio, should he be healthy enough after a nasty ankle fracture, could compete for the starting center job in training camp. The Giants should want to bring back free agent Jamon Brown at right guard. They could probably upgrade at right tackle where Chad Wheeler started the final 14 games, but Wheeler showed he can be a productive player and possibly a valuable and experienced backup in 2019.
“Obviously you hope it’s the same guys,” said Greco, whose own future is in the air as he faces free agency and, at age 33, a conversation with his family about possible retirement. “I’m not naïve, they’re going to add pieces and make it better where they can, and that’s fine. But I do think the guys who are here now, we can win with them.”
They proved that over the past two months. Had they been given four, this season might have had a different outcome.