Way back in training camp, Ben McAdoo made the proclamation.
“We’re not going to be afraid to play young players,” he said.
And as the season progressed, he stuck with that philosophy. When rookie safety Andrew Adams made the silliest penalty of the season against Washington. When rookie receiver Roger Lewis Jr. dropped passes. When first-round pick Eli Apple played so poorly against the Eagles that he was benched in the second half.
He said rookies are like the stock market. There will be ups and downs, but if you stick with it you’ll eventually make money.
It’s time to cash in the dividends.
As the Giants head into Sunday’s wild-card playoff game in Green Bay, they have an inordinate number of rookies playing key roles for a team that won the second-most games in the NFC. Three of them start on defense (Adams, Apple and defensive end Romeo Okwara), two of them are projected to start on offense (wide receiver Sterling Shepard and running back Paul Perkins), and a number of others such as Lewis and tight end Jerell Adams are making regular contributions.
“That’s big for us,” McAdoo said this week. “We talked about it early in the season. We had some young guys get opportunities on special teams early and then on offense and defense as the season went on. We have to cash in this time of year.”
It’s a formula that is somewhat familiar to Giants fans. The past two Super Bowl runs have been helped along on the back end by the emergence of rookies. In 2007 it was Kevin Boss, Steve Smith and Ahmad Bradshaw who provided the late lift. In 2011 there wasn’t as much every-down impact but Jacquian Williams, Tyler Sash, Spencer Paysinger and Henry Hynoski all made important special-teams contributions in the playoffs.
“I think to cultivate young talent it’s important to get them reps,” said veteran linebacker Mark Herzlich, who was a rookie on the 2011 team (though he was injured for the playoff run that year). “A lot of times you get reps in situations that aren’t really important but it’s been the case this year, due to injuries or numbers or due to their talent, a lot of rookies have gotten a lot of reps. They’ve shined in big moments. That’s going to be very important going into these weeks where it doesn’t matter how many years are behind your name on the roster. You’re doing a job on the field and you have to do it on a championship level.”
So what’s it like to be a rookie on a team rolling through the playoffs?
“I don’t remember,” said Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie, a rookie in 2007. “Ignorance is bliss, I think. I don’t remember as much as 2011. It’s a whirlwind and you’re just along for the ride. It was all new to me.”
Herzlich had similar thoughts.
“I guess the pride comes after,” he said. “You’re watching the older guys perform unbelievably and you want to keep up with them. You see the extra effort when it comes to playoff time. That’s something that as rookies you notice and you try to emulate as well.”
It also provides rookies with a front-row seat to some of the most memorable moments in team history.
“I was standing there and I’ll never forget,” DeOssie said of the Giants’ visit to Lambeau Field for the NFC title game in January 2008. “I remember Coach [Tom Coughlin] trying to make up his mind whether to kick [an overtime field goal] and Lawrence [Tynes] was already halfway out there to the 50. I don’t want to say it took the decision out of his hands, but he certainly made it a lot easier for him.”
This year, even more than those previous ones, it seems the rookies have been integrated in the team’s success from the start. Most teams expect their top draft picks to make starts. The Giants have relied on their undrafted free agents to play crucial roles. There have been 49 starts this season by eight different Giants rookies.
“I think Coach McAdoo put us all in the best situations,” Lewis, who had one start at receiver, said of the way the first-year players were utilized this season. “Everything we’re running and doing, we’ve been through it multiple times. It’s a blessing for all of us rookies. We put in the work when we got here, and those long, hot summer days are finally paying off with us being in the playoffs.”
“Experience is definitely key,” said starter Okwara, an undrafted rookie who has helped replace an injured Jason Pierre-Paul. “We’re very fortunate to be rookies and be in the playoffs.”
Like their predecessors, they are along for the ride. Unlike their predecessors, they’re doing some of the driving. It’s why they have been able, for the most part, to shed their labels.
“There are no more rookies,” said Adams, who has started 13 straight games at safety. “Having games under your belt, that definitely helps. Being able to play in the regular season helps that experience level so you’re not just thrown into the fire in the playoffs. It’s time to be at your best when the best is required.”