Valuing Contributions: Defining the MVP Award and Who Should Win it for 2016/17

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The front-runners for the 2016/17 MVP award. Credit: USA Today

The NFL has made a concerted effort to be relevant throughout the year, despite being, at its very longest, a 6-month proposition competitively. This has led to some genuinely fascinating parts of the NFL calendar like the start of free agency and the draft, but has also led to the somewhat burlesque elevation of events like the combine. The NFL awards are certainly a worthwhile and interesting part of this calendar coming as it does at the crux of the post-season, the night before the Superbowl. Sometimes these awards are near foregone conclusions, but this year, there is wide debate about an unusually broad field of contenders for the MVP award. Just as the NFL is building itself a cottage industry though, so are the many analysts and TV personalities who are paid to debate the game. What has become clear – partly by the variety of contenders for the MVP award – is that the understanding of what constitutes the MVP is unclear, and possibly even undefined.

MVP, to patronise for a second, stands for ‘Most Valuable Player’, and the problem seems to stem from people’s definitions of ‘Value’ in the game. Is it simply the best player, or is it something else? The confusion is obvious when you go through the popular runners and riders, and so I will go through them, argue who I think should win the award, and consequently, what the MVP is. These can be split in to three broad groups:

The Greatest

Tom Brady

Chicago Bears v New England Patriots

Credit: cheatsheet.com

I count myself as one of the many, shall we say, Patriots-skeptic fans of the game, but to me, it is near clear that he is the greatest QB of all time (just as Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time). This year is no different – his skills seem evergreen coming out of one of the greatest regular seasons of his career, topped by an all-time record 28-2 TD to INT ratio. He continues to be probably the best player in the league, but his detractors (in terms of winning the MVP) point to the fact that he missed 4 games as a reason for him not to be eligible for the award, but the issue is really what happened in his absence. Having missed the first 4 games through suspension, the Patriots went 3-1 with backup Jimmy Garrapolo winning the three games he played before Jacoby Brissett started behind centre in a losing effort. Without Brady, the Patriots and his backup rolled over opponents, pointing to the fact that the success of the team wasn’t reliant on him, regardless of his talent. Had the Patriots won not won a game or won only one or maybe two games, there would be absolutely no question about the rightful winner of the MVP.

Aaron Rodgers

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Credit: USA Today

As I write this, Aaron Rodgers is in red-hot form, leading a six-game winning streak for the Packers which he publicly called after Green Bay fell to 4-6 amid a collection of underwhelming performances with Rodgers himself looking limp at QB. Rodgers took the team on his back, finishing with 40 TDs and 7 INTs (none of which came during the 6-game winning streak), and a 104 passer rating. It is an incredible streak of performances which has made the Packers offense near unstoppable, and Green Bay one of the favourites to make the Superbowl. Rodgers seems to be playing on a level above everyone else at the position, making heart-breaking clutch plays after seemingly impossibly escaping pass-rushers, and the level of play during this hot streak has made Rodgers a popular candidate for MVP. As true, and as great as that is, the fact remains that through those first 10 games which necessitated the hot streak to make the post-season, Rodgers was part of a significant problem in Green Bay, and while the sheer quality of his play in the latter half of the season can’t be ignored or devalued, it is my view that the MVP must both be valuable throughout the season, but also mustn’t ever be a problem for the team as I believe Rodgers was. He lit a fire under himself and started an incredible run which may end with a Superbowl ring, but the MVP is based on the regular season, and his first 10 games of mediocre play undermines his case for the award.

Consistent Production

Dak Prescott

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Credit: USA Today

Rookie QBs picked in the 4th round don’t do what Dak has done this year. Barely anyone does. When Tony Romo went down with another back injury, most assumed that the Cowboys faced another losing year helmed by backup, sub-standard QBs; what the Cowboys got though was an exemplary season with a historic offense which had Dak as it’s central figure. Dak was no mere figurehead though – gaining incredible chemistry with the likes of Cole Beasley and Jason Witten while playing very clean ball having scored 23 touchdowns to 4 interceptions and matching Rodgers’ 104 passer rating. His other passing stats are someway behind contemporaries Rodgers and Ryan, but he shared a great deal of his touches with Ezekiel Elliott in a way those QBs didn’t with their running backs. Dak never single-handedly blew opponents away, but playing so well and leading arguably the most untouchable team in the league under such pressure, and with such a large shadow as Tony Romo being cast over him as a rookie, is an incredible feat.

The question with Dak, though, is how much he really elevated the Cowboy’s play. There’s no question he played very well and very clean, but how different would the Cowboys have been with a healthy Tony Romo? You can’t base anything on Romo’s one successful drive in week 17 against Philadelphia, but based on Romo’s past, it seems fair to assume that, at the very least, Romo wouldn’t be much less productive than Dak. Depending on the offensive style Dallas would employ with Romo under centre, there may have been more turnovers, but there may also have been more production. As good as Dak was, he scored 0 or 1 touchdown in over half of the regular season games he principally played in. While I would never claim that Dak was a placeholder, I think it is fair to question whether he added so much production to the offense as to merit an MVP award.

Matt Ryan

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Credit: Panic Button

‘Matty Ice’ is the first candidate on this list who I think demands serious consideration for the MVP award, and now that he has been named to the All Pro team, he may be the fovourite to win. It feels somewhat unfair to pair Ryan in the same category of consistency as Dak Prescott, simply because Ryan’s consistent production is much more searingly productive than Dak, or indeed, most quarterbacks in the league this year. Rodgers pipped him to the post in terms of touchdowns, but he was far ahead of the other candidates in terms of yards, led the league in terms of passer rating with a 117 mark, while recording the highest ever yards per attempt over the season for QBs with over 400 passes. The statistics are impressive, but more impressive is how relentless Atlanta have been this year with Ryan under centre. In previous years, they have burned hot for stretches, but fallen off under significant challenge; this is something that never happened in the current regular season, with the Falcons finishing the year a demolition of the Saints.

There are lies, damn lies, and statistics, and while I don’t think Ryan’s incredible numbers are deceiving, it is interesting to consider them in the context both of previous seasons and with the rest of the Falcons offense. While this is definitely Ryan’s best season, his production has always been very impressive to the point that him being even more impressive perhaps packs less of a punch. More importantly perhaps, the Falcons had a stellar and somewhat forgotten backfield  of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman who supplied a third of Atlanta touchdowns and around a quarter of Atlanta offense. This doesn’t denigrate Ryan’s fantastic season, but it does help explain why he may have been able to take his performances to the next level. Without their production, Matt Ryan and the Falcons may not have been able to be quite so dangerous. As suggested though, Ryan would be a worthy MVP, just not my choice in this competitive season.

‘Jenga Pieces’

I don’t have much time for Dave Dameshek and his irritating brand of dad comedy, but his podcast – when you eat around all that – does contain some insightful and interesting discussions and analysis, and one talking point he raises frequently is that of ‘jenga pieces’, i.e., players who are so crucial to their team’s success that them being removed causes the whole operation to crumble. It is this property that I have always understood MVP to measure – the inherent value a player has to their team’s overall success. It’s with this in mind that I have made my pick for MVP.

Derek Carr

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Credit: Oakland -247sports

Derek Carr isn’t quite my choice for MVP, but given my definition of the award, I think that Derek Carr’s heart-breaking injury in week 16 may have – strangely enough – made his case about as strongly as possible. Before his injury, Carr was settling the league alight at the helm of the red-hot Oakland Raiders. Ultimately, he didn’t match up to the other candidates in terms of dominance, and between their rushing attack and pass rush it was clear that Carr wasn’t the only powerful cog in Oakland, but Oakland’s fate after losing Carr has been very telling. Where Brady’s replacement, for example, picked up where Tom Terrific left off, Oakland seem to have collapsed, turning a team in control of the #2 seed and a viable threat to the Patriots in to a #5 seed who aren’t favoured to win more than one post-season game. In short, when Carr went down, the Raiders appear to have followed, and it is in that fact that Carr’s inherent value – be it in terms of skill, or even in terms of leadership and motivation – is very powerful.

Ezekiel Elliott

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Credit: ESPN.com

My choice, considering all of these great candidates, is a difficult one for me to concede as a Giants fan, but the Cowboys have picked up a possible all time talent in Elliott, and more than that, a piece that has been central not only to their success, but to their style of success.

There are some very immediate arguments against Elliott being especially singularly valuable, but I think they become weaker in the context of how the Cowboys offense has succeeded this year. The first is that his impact has been essentially shared with another candidate mentioned, Dak Prescott. Returning briefly to my argument against Dak though, as well and as clean as he played, the talent he replaced (when he last played a full season) was comparable in terms of many stats, and in most, compared unfavourably. It is only his security with the ball where Dak has the edge. That’s not insignificant, but it’s also something that points more to a game manager than a game winner. That’s not a knock – Dak has led the team incredibly well under a hell of a microscope in Dallas, but it just doesn’t make him MVP.

So if the improvement isn’t at QB, it has to be somewhere else, and judging by yards and points scored, it’s at running back. Last year, Darren McFadden had a nice season, running for 1,089 yards and three TDs. This year, Elliott blew that – and all other RBs – out of the water on his way to the rushing title, rushing for 1,631 and 15 TDs. Elliott was seriously endangering Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record before being rested in the final game and was able to prove himself as an adept receiver and pass-blocker which is also crucial to any pass offense. The comparison with McFadden also helps to combat the second fair complaint with Elliott winning – the all-decade offensive line blocking for him. Of course Zeke playing behind this line helps him, but any argument that his success is simply because of the line is fraudulent. What Darren McFadden proved, perhaps, was that any decent RB could run for 1,000 yards behind this line, but Ezekiel has done that and way more.

This is where I come to my point about the Dallas offensive system. In the past, their running game was important, but ultimately, their success was down to Tony Romo being explosive. This year, Dallas have been using Zeke to shorten the game, control the game, grind down opposition defences, and protect their own defense as much as possible from opposition offenses. The Cowboys were successful at this, having the second longest time of possession for the year. The Cowboys were used to going on long, crushing drives, with Zeke as the hammer driving them forward most of the time. Even in 3rd and long situations, Zeke was frequently capable of backbreaking long runs to keep moving the chains. That, mixed with his goal line production which saw the Dallas ground game contribute a much higher proportion of touchdowns this year. Zeke’s exceptional play supported the rest of the offense and the rest of the team to many of their wins this year, and without him, there would have been much more required from Dak which would have required him to push the boundaries a bit more and risk his reputation as a safe pair of hands. The Cowboys have blown out a few teams, but have also won a lot of close games over the course of the year, and the recipe for those wins is usually that of controlling the game, and that is what Zeke was central to this year and what has made him so valuable. The most valuable. Just about.

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A final point: if we agree that ‘value’ in the MVP race has this ‘jenga piece’ definition, is it worth creating a new, less vaguely-defined award for the Player of the Year? Personally, I think so as it would also clear up the definition of MVP and help celebrate more players and more contributions. If that were a category, I would give the award to another player I have to through gritted teeth – Tom Brady.

A False Economy: A British Fan’s View of the Rams’ Move to L.A.

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For St Louis Rams fans, the business of sport has robbed them of their team. Credit to wina.com

The prospect of an NFL team or possibly more than one NFL team moving the L.A. market has been perhaps the most intriguing story hanging over the NFL for the past year and beyond. Any team moving city provides a huge cultural change to the cities involved, but the story has had even more variables involved and potential impact because it has involved four cities: L.A., St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland. As it stands, St. Louis will be losing the Rams team back to L.A. as soon as the 2016-17 season. As impactful as it is though, it is a part of North American sports culture; but as the reach of the NFL grows world-wide, I have considered how it appears to the burgeoning market of British fans of the sport.

I have many friends who have bought in to the NFL as a concept and sport, and many others who dismiss it out of hand, and anecdotally, I think the split can be boiled down to few fundamental aspect of NFL culture meshing with British sports culture. For those who can accept and even see the benefits of the regular commercial breaks, the short season, and the ability for teams to move markets, they can access and enjoy magic of the sport; but there are many for whom those aspects of the sport are alien, and further, something to be scoffed at and allowing them to dismiss the sport at face value. In North America though, it appears that the moving of a sports franchise is a familiar though potentially unfortunate part of the accepted business of American football. This is something that will likely never change give the huge financial investments and incentives surrounding hosting and moving American football teams, and unfortunately, though I understand and accept the trend as part of NFL culture, it is an aspect of the game that will likely limit the growth of the game internationally.

Part of the reason this aspect of North American sports culture is so alien to potential British fans, I believe, is the sheer amount of soccer teams in the UK, and more specifically, the fact that practically every city, town, and village has at least one football team, be it a multi-million pound conglomerate, or a fan owned, volunteer ran village team. A local soccer team is practically a birth-right, and each team has the right to compete for any honour in the country. Even if it’s just in theory, and teams in the depths of the non-league levels won’t win major competitions, the fact remains that they have a shot at silverware, however unlikely. That is the magic of soccer and emblematic of its universality.

Perhaps that is why such a move has only happened once in soccer in Britain, and that was with the historic and successful team of Wimbledon FC. Founded in 1899, they were whisked from their fanbase in Wimbledon, London relatively suddenly in 2004, to be moved to the new modernist city of Milton Keynes which was devised in the late 1960s. I was young when this happened, but it is a very vivid memory to me because of how roundly unpopular it was, even to fans with no interest in the team originally. Wimbledon FC had had a strong recent history in the top flight of the English football league, even winning the FA Cup in 1988, and their dark blue and yellow jerseys were truly unique and somewhat iconic in the British game, so the idea of a team with that much history being transplanted to an American-style modern city seemed at odds with the spirit of the game and of the idea that the fans had a right to the team. In retrospect, it means that the people who now dwell in Milton Keynes have a team to be born in to and people from Wimbledon have the burgeoning AFC Wimbledon – a team which was founded to protect their former team’s legacy, almost like a protest team – to support. Nonetheless, eventhough Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes was now over ten years ago, the new ‘MK Dons’ are still viewed with a degree of villainy in the country.

Wimbledon

For St Louis Rams fans, the business of sport has robbed them of their team. Credit to wina.com

As with most things, though I understand the British sporting culture and have argued sincerely about the magic of every city, town, and village practically having a permanent team, there is a plus-side, of sorts, of the Los Angeles move specifically. While I strongly sympathise with the city of St. Louis, it is certainly great to see the return of the Rams to L.A., be it from the point of view of a fan who remembers them, or in my case, the point of view of someone aware of their history. My only experience to date of anything like this was the creation of the Houston Texans in 1999, and even then it was the creation of an expansion team rather than the moving of a franchise. The Texans were born when I was only 10 years old and when I was only just discovering the sport. As a British fan I found it strange but also somewhat thrilling to see the creation of a new team. I must admit that some of my uneasiness related to a team’s roots and history being shifted again are overcome by the thrill of seeing a team that is both old and new enter the league, especially when it’s a team with a successful, near-50 year history. Despite the misgivings around it, on its own, having the L.A. Rams back in the league is great.

While the Rams do feel like they should be in Los Angeles due to their history, it is certainly a little irking that the move is so clearly money and business-driven rather than being driven by demand. There is a reason that several teams have left the city before and it’s because the fan-base has historically been fickle, supporting them well enough in the good times but falling away during periods of struggle. The city is historically a basketball and to a slightly lesser extent, an ice hockey and baseball city with the Lakers, Clippers, Kings, and Dodgers. Those teams have a strong fan-base and it’s hard to tell whether the current L.A. Rams will pick up a fan-base.  Meanwhile, Rams owner Stan Kroenke has gone from championship corralling hero to turncoat villain, all to move to the glitz and potential financial jackpot of the L.A. television and media market. There is a larger point to be made elsewhere about the culture of venture capitalist owners demanding hundreds of millions of dollars from local government to take on the responsibility of their stadiums, but the fact that Kroenke left St Louis after seemingly ignoring a generous package from the city to stay because he didn’t feel the team was profitable enough there despite a resilient cohort of fans is what really leaves a shadow over this deal for many from both inside and especially outside of North America.

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For St Louis Rams fans, the business of sport has robbed them of their team. Credit to wina.com

As part of the announcement that the Rams would move to Los Angeles, there was the extra revelation that the San Diego Chargers could join the Rams in L.A. by the start of the 2017-18 season, and this is the part of the NFL’s agreement which is really troubling. Apart from having a friend from San Diego who supports the Chargers, I don’t know much about the team, but whatever the following or economic potential of the team currently in San Diego, I don’t see how them moving to L.A. as a little brother team to the Rams can help their prospects. While the Chargers played their inaugural season in Los Angeles, they have very little history there having been in San Diego ever since. When compared to the Rams, there is no competition with regards to their place in L.A. culture, and especially as the Rams will have a year’s head start, it’s hard to imagine many L.A. fans from a historically limited pool of fans, being moved to support the Chargers. Even if it’s true that they have a historic fan base in LA, it’s hard to imagine it’s enough to sustain a team. Even worse, with them due to share the stadium with the Rams if they move, the Rams and Chargers won’t have any natural geographical boundaries to delineate fan-bases either, so not only will each team – at least initially – be somewhat inter-changeable, but the two teams will be in direct competition. That will make, hopefully, for a natural rivalry on the field when the teams play each other, but also puts the potential for especially the Chargers to have a fan base on very uncertain ground. While the Rams move might upset a lot of people, the Chargers move could be very bad for the team and make for a very dormant spectacle from the team and for the league.

So, from a British point of view, the idea of moving a team to another city is pretty problematic, but one that will ultimately be accepted by those who already enjoy the sport. The case of the Rams is complicated as they have a longer history overall in Los Angeles anyway – a fact which makes an unsavoury move a little more palatable. Saying that, as the popularity of the sport has exploded in the UK over the last 15 years or so, most British-based Ram fans only know the team as the ‘Greatest Show On Turf’ from St. Louis, and it will be interesting to see how the demographics of LA/St Louis fans shift around. Will St Louis fans support the LA Rams or will they look to a new team? Will fans who remember the original Rams or maybe brand new fans take up the Rams? It remains to be seen. Unfortunately, there is one thing I am sure of: no matter how accepted this sort of phenomena is among UK fans, it is the sort of shenanigans that will create a natural ceiling to the popularity of the sport in Britain – a baffling aspect of the sport which will dissuade people who might otherwise be interested from getting in to the sport, seeing it less as a tactical, athletic battle, and more of a crass, fickle, capitalist showcase.

The 2015 NFL International Series and the Game’s Future in the UK

In 2015, the NFL’s International Series served up the most prestigious set of games it has offered to date including, the return of the nation’s adopted Jaguars team taking on the hotly tipped Buffalo Bills, the clash of top playmakers as the Chiefs hosted the Lions, and for the first time, a divisional game matching the Dolphins against the Jets. Injuries to the likes of Tyrod Taylor and Jamaal Charles altered these narratives somewhat, but that didn’t affect the success of a high-scoring, high octane series, including an all-time memorable victory from the Jaguars in a nail-biter – a game which may truly have been their homecoming.

The International Series has come in to its own in recent years, moving from a cautiously played curiosity to a game with the feel of a legitimate prime time game. London has now supported 14 games over seven years with near unmitigated success from the points of view both of the NFL and its expansion in the UK. While teams and fan-bases were certainly initially wary of taking part in the experimental series, it has now been running long enough that there is something of a peer-agreed approach to competing in the games. Fans will certainly still resent losing a traditional home game for the season, but for the fan base generally, the move to schedule the games for the early afternoon (or early morning in the US) provides them with an extra standalone game to watch live on the weeks of the International Series. Add to the mix the NFL’s experiment with streaming the game through Yahoo this year, a stream which drew 33 million viewers, extending the benefit to viewers around the world.

For British fans like me, the games continue to be a wonderful opportunity to watch meaningful NFL games on our doorstep, with every team being strongly represented among the fan-base. For a fan like me, not only the tube, but the train from Glasgow to London being filled with passengers sporting every NFL jersey in the rainbow is heart-warming, and while I’m sure the sport would have grown in the UK, there is no doubt that the International Series has helped to catalyse the growth of an increasingly visible and vocal NFL fan community. The momentum is definite, and an increasing engagement outside of the States seems inevitable from the NFL, especially given the new agreement with the Jaguars to play at least one game a season in London until 2020 and rumours that the International Series will extend to Mexico in coming years. The exact future of the NFL in the UK, though, is bright and mysterious.

Is a London Franchise Feasible

The most common chatter is about the possibility of London hosting a permanent team in the league, either replacing the International Series, or allowing it to expand to different countries. It is a common topic of discussion among British fans, something I was asked about by several American fans I spoke with at the recent Chiefs-Lions game, and is spoken about as if it is an inevitably. The questions surrounding the prospect though are serious and commonly occurring:

  • Can London sell tickets for 8 games a year with the current fan base?
  • Will fans migrate to the London team?
  • Will the time/geographical distance be an issue for scheduling?

With the first question, I think the answer is ultimately yes, under certain circumstances. While I think a prospective team would struggle to sell out Wembley with British fans eight times a year, there are factors that could mitigate these struggles. The most important change might be to change the stadium used by the team. The attendance at the Lions-Chiefs game was over 83, 000, an amount of seats that only the top Premier League teams would be able to fill frequently without issue. I think it would really benefit the team to use a stadium with a capacity of more like 50-60,000, and ultimately, I think the team would need to build its own stadium as existing football stadiums lack the character of an American Football stadium, which Wembley actually has). The identity of this team will be important, and a new stadium would be integral to this, as well having a more manageable capacity. It is important also to remember that the London team would represent a lot more than just London, and even more than Britain. The UK isn’t the only country where interest in American football is growing. At all of my experiences at the International Series, the fans have been a patchwork of a British, European, and international crowd, and especially Germany, where there had in fact been talk of hosting a game in the early days of the International project. The London team would draw regular fans from Britain certainly, and a fair number from Europe, away fans from the United States, and beyond.

With a smaller, purpose-built stadium, and the visible reaching out to a fan-base outside of Britain, a team in London could sustain a fan-base for its home games, at least; though the advantage of home teams in the US would be magnified greatly as much fewer fans would make the trip state-side to support their team.

The second question surrounds whether or not a fan-base would migrate to a London team; more specifically, whether fans would abandon their pre-existing team in favour of a London team. Unfortunately, I believe the short answer to that is no, for the majority. This is certainly the case for me, but also for every serious NFL fan I have spoken to or heard from in any way on the subject. British fans have very strong, emotional links to their teams based on nostalgia, habit, and loyalty. The most prominent candidate to move to London is the Jacksonville Jaguars, and presumably Jaguar fans would support the London team without much trouble, but apart from that, the fan-base would be based on targeting what neutral fans there are and future young fans. There is definite room for growth in a fan-base, but the reality is that initially, those who visit the games in the franchise’s early years will largely not be fans of the team (though they may root for them as a second team). The success of creating a successful franchise will largely be based on the success of fashioning a genuine, loyal fan-base as well as making the team a strong second-favourite for other fans.

Finally, the most technical problem: the scheduling. The first response to this is highlighting the truth that the distance between the West Coast and the East Coast is roughly only a little smaller than the distance between the East Coast and Britain. What that doesn’t take in to account though is the massive geographical and time differences between the West Coast of America and Britain, some eight hours. With this unchangeable problem in place, a normal NFL schedule would be impossible to utilise normally. A normal NFL schedule sees teams alternate home and away games on a regular basis, meaning that the London Team would be in a constant state of travel across large times and distances; of course this is the case for all teams, but for the London Team, they would always be travelling very large distances, sometimes longer than any other team, putting them at a definite disadvantage. So perhaps then the NFL could schedule more home games in a row than usual, and more away games in a row than usual (for example, 4 home games in a row, followed by 3 away games in a row). Again though, that causes issues of fairness as they would be playing under different circumstances than the other teams. For instance, if the team were on a run to the playoffs and had several consecutive home games, their competitors would rightly feel aggrieved at their advantage, and the opposite being true in the reverse scenario. If a suitable scheduling solution can be found, then the final significant issue surrounding a prospective London team is removed.

The Future of the International Series

Before anything is made official regarding a London franchise, it is interesting to see how the International Series progresses. We know the Jaguars will be strengthening their grip on the British and European fans with a guaranteed game at Wembley every year until at least 2020, but aside from that, not much is known. I would be surprised if the rumours about a Mexican game are unfounded, and there are certainly plenty of places that could host future games including Canada and Germany. The future therefore depends on whether there will be any upper limit of the acceptable amount of games to be played outside of the US.

If there is, the International Series may consist of three or four games each year, but split between, for example, London, Mexico City, Berlin, and Toronto. The problem with that though is that if a London franchise is in the NFL’s plans, having fewer games than now seems like a backwards step. So maybe there would be three London games and one in another country, alternating each year. Alternatively of course, there may not be an upper limit on the amount of games, instead having more like five or six games outside of the United States each year, with three being held in London. The more games outside of the US, however, the harder it is to so without affecting the schedule.

My feeling is that the only logical next progression for the series is to continue with three games in London each year with a fourth game being alternated to arenas around the world. That is a sustainable growth which would add a bit of variety to an already exotic prime time style game. Aside from that, having more divisional games abroad and perhaps mandating that the reigning Superbowl champions play abroad each year would be a way to evolve the International Series.

Problematic as the International Series can be, the growing pains that accompany its evolution carry with them a huge degree of potential innovation and expansion that, if fulfilled, will add some wonderful variety and intrigue to the game for international audiences.

NFL Roundup – Week 8, 2015

NFL Week 8 Headlines and Round-up

  • Kansas City Chiefs Continue a Resurgence, Thrash the Detroit Lions in London
  • Denver Broncos Outclass the Green Bay Packers in the ‘Battle of the Undefeateds’
  • Offensive Records Set as the New Orleans Saints Edge the New York Giants in Shootout

With only the Monday Night showdown between the Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers still to play, Week 8 of the NFL season has seen the fall of undefeated teams, numerous heart-breaking injuries, and offensive records crushed.

Miami 7 – 36 New England

The emotional, resurgent juggernaut of Dan Campbell’s Miami Dolphins was brought to an abrupt halt by the superior and still undefeated New England Patriots on Thursday night. The Patriots’ ability to make the most of what they have, create stars, and dominate, no matter the circumstances again proved too strong for their opponents this week. Completely shutting down Miami’s run game, the class the Patriots boast in Brady, Gronkowski, Edelman, and now Dion Lewis completely smothered the Dolphins who, for the two weeks previous, looked like a very dangerous team playing hard for their interim coach, demolishing both Tennessee and Houston consecutively. The strength of their opponents may have given the Dolphins a false sense of security though, and with the potentially season-ending Achilles injury to pro bowl Defensive End Cameron Wake, the resurgence of the Dolphins may be short lived. The Patriots, on the other hand, continue to look a step ahead of every other team in terms of game plans and quality, playing with a bespoke approach to every opponent they come across, and succeeding. In this form, talk of an undefeated season looks increasingly credible.

Detroit 10 – 45 Kansas City

The London game has gained a reputation as something of a ‘coach killer’, its latest victim being Joe Philbin of Miami following their devastating week 4 loss at Wembley. The Detroit Lions have already replaced their Offensive Coordinator this season, and after the team’s performance this week in London which saw them fall to 1 and 7 and dead last in the league, Lions Head Coach Jim Caldwell must be on a very hot seat. If anything, the ten points flatter Detroit who played without ambition and a spark, only managing to score a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. For Kansas City, you can only beat who you play, and Kansas City more than did that job. Starting with a well worked end-around to Charcandrick West and bookmarked by a standout game by Alex Smith, the Chiefs dominated the Lions in all facets of the game. Smith threw for two touchdowns and rushed for another, as well as rushing for 78 yards, highlighted by a 49 yard run the Lions D will be very embarrassed to have given up. In contrast, Matthew Stafford who was benched earlier in the season due to bad play, must have been close to the same fate this week after throwing two interceptions in close proximity and driving with very little success. The Lions are playing well below the potential Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate III and Ameer Abdullah should provide while the Chiefs, who looked to be struggling severely going in to Week 7, have now won 2 straight games.

Tampa Bay 23 – 20 Atlanta (OT)

In undoubtedly the upset of the week, Tampa Bay visited their division rivals in Atlanta and handed them only their second loss of the season in overtime. In an early flagship career victory for Jameis Winston, the rookie who had struggled with turnovers early in the season played an unremarkable but smart game, leading the team to a game winning field goal where just the week prior the Bucs had given up a similar lead, largely built on a strong running game. While Julio Jones returned to statistical form for Atlanta, the Falcons were disappointing in defeat, giving the ball up four times and allowing the Buccaneers to compete. The result was certainly disappointing, and their 6-2 record flatters them, but ultimately, the Falcons will remain happy with their standings, still very much in contention for a playoff place either as divisional winner or wild card.

San Diego 26 – 29 Baltimore

In this match-up of underachieving AFC teams, a suitably close match was decided by the sure foot of Ravens kicker Justin Tucker. Philip Rivers has the unenviable trait of putting up huge statistical numbers as a passer without necessarily consistently winning games, and this week fell in to that pattern as Rivers threw for 301 yards and 3 touchdowns, only to be let down by a defence which is among the worst in the league.  This was exploited by a Baltimore Offense which has been decidedly mediocre on 2015, with Joe Flacco recording 319 passing yards and a touchdown, as well as a rushing touchdown. Unfortunately though, this game could well be remembered for a very disturbing reason. What Offense Baltimore have had in the air has almost exclusively been the result of the tenacious, once-in-a-lifetime talent of Steve Smith Sr, and this game seemed to be little different as Smith gained 82 yards as a receiver before falling to a season-ending Achilles injury. Injuries are upsetting as they are, as was the season-ending one to the Chargers’ talismanic wide receiver Keenan Allen, but the season-ending injury to Steve Smith Sr is a real heart-breaker. The fiery, charismatic playmaker had indicated that this season would be his last, and this season could spell the end of a glorious career. Both teams now lie at 2 and 6 in divisions boasting undefeated teams and despite any explosive offensive displays in this game, both teams are almost certainly already out of playoff contention.

Minnesota 23 – 20 Chicago

A balanced performance in the air and on the ground saw the Minnesota Vikings snap a seven game losing streak at Soldier Field following a fourth quarter surge. The Chicago Bears had looked strong since the return of a seemingly motivated Jay Cutler at quarterback, and were on a two-game winning streak themselves going in to this game. The Bears, Cutler and wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey were productive but were ultimately overpowered by the elusive play of Teddy Bridgewater mixed with the 100+ yard game by Adrian Peterson which saw them improve to 5 and 2 and a three-game winning streak to make them a realistic playoff contender.

Arizona 34 – 20 Cleveland

A promising and explosive start by Cleveland was nullified by a second half collapse as Arizona scored 27 unanswered points to secure an away victory in Cleveland. This game was like a microcosm of McCown and the Browns’ season – some encouraging, eye-catching play, ultimately undermined by inconsistent play. McCown threw touchdowns to Gary Barnidge and Brian Hartline, but their offense dried up in the second half, with McCown giving the ball away twice while the well-oiled Arizona offense took the game over with a 100+ yard rushing game from Chris Johnson and 374 yard, 4 touchdown performance by Carson Palmer. Arizona look as dangerous offensively as they did last year before Palmer’s injury and have to be considered favourites for the NFC West crown while Cleveland, already 5 games behind the undefeated Bengals, have nonetheless made definite advances this year and are better than their 2 and 6 record suggests.

 

Tennessee 6 – 20 Houston

The Marcus Mariota-less Tennessee Titans travelled to Houston to take on another struggling team in the Texans. With Ryan Mallett out of the building, Brian Hoyer has been able to step up as QB1 without controversy, and though an unconvincing franchise prospect, Hoyer has the ability to shine and win games. He showed that against the Titans, passing for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns in a game where the Texans were never really troubled. The game was really won, however, in the trenches, with the Texans rushing and harassing backup quarterback Zach Mettenberger, sacking his 7 times; 2.2 for J.J. Watt and 3.5 for Whitney Mercilus (living up to his name). Under that sort of pressure, Mettenberger and the Titans could never really get anywhere as they fell to 1 and 6. Luckily for them they are in the worst division in football and find themselves still in contention for the divisional title. That is even more the case for the Texans, now 3 and 5 but second in the division. This loss proved to be the final straw for Head Coach Ken Wisenhunt though as he was fired after the game due to the poor performance of the Titans, and while he may feel aggrieved at that given that his rookie star quarterback Marcus Mariota is out injured, it is important to remember that the Titans struggled even with Mariota, as well as Wisenhunt’s his combined 3 and 20 record as head coach.

New York Giants 49 – 52 New Orleans

The term ‘shootout’ has never been more aptly used than in this insane offensive battle in New Orleans which saw both quarterbacks setting personal records, and collective records, combining for 13 passing touchdowns and over 100 combined points. Both defences had limited highlights, with sacks totalled for the Saints early on and two takeaways from the Giants witch the in-form Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie central to both. Those successes aside, this game was a defensive catastrophe with Eli making throws that had no right to be made, and Brees picking apart a depleted Giants secondary. Ironically in a game with only points from touchdowns, the Saints managed to just outstretch the Giants with a last-minute field goal to break Giant hearts. Given the kind of game it was, the result almost felt like a toss up, but the Giants ultimately cost themselves by allowing a long punt return compounded by a personal foul penalty which put the Saints and new kicker Kai Forbath just about in range to make the game-winning field goal. The loss saw the Giants fall back to .500 but retain their light grip on first place in the NFC East though depending on the final standings at the end of the season, it could be a loss that hurts them. The Saints went the other way, improving to .500, which is only good for third in the ultra-competitive NFC South.

Cincinnati 16 – 10 Pittsburgh

Ben Roethlisberger returned to the field in Pittsburgh in an ugly divisional encounter with the Cincinnati Bengals that ultimately saw the Bengals retain their perfect record and move to 7-0 for the first time in their history. This was an inconsistent game for both the returning Roethlisberger and for Andy Dalton, who has been gaining plaudits for over-performing his reputation all year, though his performance took a definite step back this week, throwing for 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. Roethlisberger would later apologise to Steelers fans though after throwing 3 interceptions, eventhough the play made on him by Shawn Williams was more earned by brilliance than poor play. That was the difference in the game though. Dalton played slightly better than Roethlisberger, the Bengals Defense slightly outplayed Pittsburgh’s, and it was just enough to maintain their clean record. The return of Big Ben improves the Pittsburgh offense overall, but he looked hobbled and rusty, and in a week full of upsetting injuries, the likely season-ending injury to Le’Veon Bell will hurt the Steelers especially as they haven’t been able to get all of their play-makers on the field at once, making playoff aspirations from 4 and 4 seem increasingly unlikely. Bengals fans may worry about ‘the real Andy Dalton’ showing himself this week, but it is a truthful cliché that championship teams win ugly even if their standard drops, and perhaps that was what we saw this week.

San Francisco 6 – 27 St. Louis

The NFC West is a reverse image of what it was just two years ago when San Francisco were a juggernaut ultimately competing for Superbowl 47. This year both the Seahawks and 49ers are struggling, Arizona and St. Louis are in the playoff driving seats, and Colin Kaepernick is being benched due to poor performance and a reported split in the 49er locker room. Kaepernick has looked to be regressing at the position, and has looked shaky and indecisive for most of the season. In this game he threw for just 162 yards and no touchdowns but also was guilty of terrible vision on an early play where wide receiver Torrey Smith was lined up completely uncovered, trying desperately to get the attention of his quarterback, only for Kaepernick to run a rush up the middle for a couple of yards anyway. Contrast this with the play of the Rams’ skill players, especially breakout rushing talent Todd Gurley and the explosive Tavon Austin, and it is clear that St. Louis simply played with too much quality for San Francisco to handle. Gurley rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown and Austin gained just shy of 100 receiving yards and touchdown while the 49ers could only manage field goals. T win improves St Louis’ lot and though they remain two games back of Arizona, they are still very strongly in contention for a playoff berth. Meanwhile, the 2 and 6 49ers are seemingly imploding. Kaepernick is to be replaced by the proven mediocrity of Blaine Gabbert, have unfortunately lost Reggie Bush to a torn ACL, and have traded away genuine receiving threat Vernon Davis to the Denver Broncos. In terms of ambition, the 49ers season is all but over, and attention will turn to rebuilding the historic franchise back in to a position where it can win though the question of who their quarterback of the future is to be will be a tough one to answer.

New York Jets 20 – 34 Oakland

The Jets and the Raiders are two teams who have struggled in recent years but have been showing significant signs of recovery in 2015. Oakland find themselves above in genuine playoff contention for the first time in years while the Jets were at 4 and 1 before losing a well-contested game to the Patriots last week. The Jets’ success this year has been based on excellent defense and a quietly explosive offense through Chris Ivory and Brandon Marshall, but what defined this game as well as the Jets’ loss was the quarterback play. Despite the special talents of Ivory and Marshall, they are held back by relative mediocrity at the quarterback position. Fitzpatrick started and was replaced by Geno Smith after Fitzpatrick injured his thumb. Smith, the initial choice for starter was injured in the preseason when IK Enemkpali assaulted him, came in to the game and performed acceptably, throwing for 265 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception. While the Jets seemingly have two quarterbacks who can carry a team while being susceptible to careless play, the Raiders currently have perhaps the most explosive and promising prospect behind Center in Derek Carr. After a laudable rookie season, Carr has become a dependable playmaker for the Raiders in 2015, perhaps put in sharpest focus in this game. Taking on a Defense which significantly troubled the Patriots, Carr threw for 333 yards and 4 touchdowns, despite the Jets and Darelle Revis practically shutting down any protection from Rookie of the Year candidate Amari Cooper, and showing a Brady-esque ability to successfully find lesser-name talents. That, mixed with the Raiders gaining nearly double the rushing production of the Jets and the Raiders elder statesman of Charles Woodson adding to his takeaway stats, was enough for the Raiders to gain their fourth game of the season without much trouble. Jets fans will be worried about the two game losing trend they are now on in a division with the still-perfect Patriots, but they are still likely to stay in contention through the season. The Raiders are in a very similar position, 4 and 3 in a division also featuring the still-perfect Broncos, and while they are in playoff contention, the most pleasing fans for Raiders fans is that they can be quietly confident of finally having a franchise quarterback after this game.

Seattle 13 – 12 Dallas

The return of Dez Bryant to the Dallas Offense couldn’t bring a much-needed spark to the team as he was blanketed by the coverage of Richard Sherman and the Cowboys could only manage four field goals against the Seahawks. 12 points were nearly enough to win the game, but Russell Wilson and his Offense finally managed to edge the Cowboys in what was truly a defense-heavy game with very little to highlight offensively. While both teams managed over 100 yards rushing, their ground and pound styles ultimately led to little on the scoreboard. As has so often been the case this season though, the Seattle quarterback managed to prove the difference , scoring the game’s only touchdown on a connection to Luke Willson and driving the team in to field goal range for the game winner in the dying minutes. Seattle returned to .500 after a slow start to the season but while they seemed to be on a surge in recent weeks, they will need to perform above this standard offensively to have any shot at the playoffs this year. Dallas’s fifth successive loss should see them out of contention, and they do have a difficult road to the playoffs , but the Giants’ loss in New Orleans went some way to keeping them in contention in the mediocre NFC East. In sadder news, Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette was added to the long list of players added to the IR list for the season after a scary-looking injury during a kickoff return saw him laying unconscious on the field and requiring surgery to stabilise ligaments in his neck.

Green Bay 10 – 29 Denver

Rumours of Peyton Manning’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated. In this battle of two undefeated teams, the game seemed to be two greats facing off at different phases of their careers with an in-prime, all-time great in Aaron Rodgers facing off against a diminishing great in Manning who has been propped up by an excellent Defense. The game didn’t match the build though as the Denver Broncos smothered Green Bay in all phases, shutting down Rodgers for the almost unbelievably small production of only 77 yards and no touchdowns and keeping the Packer rushing offense to only 69 yards. Though the Packers have looked to be slowing in recent weeks, they have never looked like being contained like this. For the Broncos, though Manning didn’t score any touchdowns himself, he threw for 340 yards, making some key long throws on the way which had seemed beyond his abilities so far in a season which has shown him throw painful interceptions on a regular basis until this week. On the ground, C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for 161 yards and three touchdowns while the headline-grabbing Broncos Defense frustrated the Packers with blanket coverage and constant quarterback pressure. Green Bay may no longer be perfect, but they lost to a near-perfect team in the Broncos, and lying at 6 and 1 with the quality of players they boast, remain in a very strong leading position in the NFC North. Denver move to 7 and 0 and are firmly in the driving seat in the AFC West. The sighting of an in-form Peyton Manning will be encouraging to the Broncos as they are perhaps the most complete team in the league when he is performing at his best, but it should be remembered that this performance came on the back of a Broncos bye week, and it remains to be seen if Manning specifically can continue this form week after week or whether the grind of the game will cause him to struggle again in the future.

 

 

Indianapolis 26 – 29 Carolina (OT)

In the heavy Carolina rain, a game that started off slow, tentative, and ugly, turned in to breathless race to victory which nearly saw the Colts secure a three-score comeback, only to be fought off by the Panthers who would remain perfect at 7 and 0. The first half was a mistake-riddled slog as players struggled to handle and progress the wet ball with Andrew Luck looking especially vulnerable and both teams losing the ball on slippery snaps. Under pressure, Luck was making terrible decisions and missing relatively easy throws, leading to three interceptions in the game for him. The weather made it hard for the Panthers to run away with the game until, seemingly, the fourth quarter where a Corey Brown touchdown seemed to seal the game with a 17 point lead. In complete contrast to the rest of the game though, Luck responded, leading his team to a game tying 17 unanswered points, and looked more like the player who made the Colts among the preseason favourites for Superbowl contention. Overtime provided both teams with opportunities to win the game. The Colts added a further three points to the board, forcing the Panthers to drive down-field and score three themselves. Top shelf tight end Greg Olsen proved his value yet again, making a one handed catch to continue the must-score Carolina drive before the Panthers Defense took the ball back after a tipped pass from Luck, allowing the Panthers to win with a final field goal in sudden death. This will be a painful loss for Indianapolis after their amazing effort to force overtime, but despite their fourth quarter surge, there is much for the Colts to be concerned about. Andrew Luck looked like a prime benching target in the first half of the game, and if that is representative of Luck for the rest of the year, they will be in trouble. Remarkably though, they find themselves somehow top of the AFC South, and if Luck can turn himself around and play more like he did in the fourth quarter, they will be favourites to reach the playoffs from the weak division. Carolina, despite their perfect record, are only a game and a half ahead of the Falcons in the contrastingly strong NFC South. Cam was by no means perfect, throwing an interception himself and showed a disregard for his own health, but he nevertheless looked a strong and determined leader as well as a match-up nightmare for defences who need to prepare for him to both throw and run on them. Cam and Olsen are enough to make their Offense dangerous, but that mixed with their star-studded Defense make them a very difficult team to overcome, and very strong prospect for the playoffs.

Looking Back and Forward: The New York Giants Year in Review, 2014-15

Giants Team Photo, 2014, credit: giants.com

Giants Team Photo, 2014, credit: giants.com

It’s been a while since my last post on the Neon Idols, and even longer since my last NFL post in which I – poorly – predicted areas of the draft. Nonetheless, as a Giants fan it’s been another disappointing season, and I felt it would be cathartic to break down the team’s successes, failures, and potential future. It was, a bit.

Successes

The usual – and understandable – first port of call when discussing the successes of the G-Men’s season has usually been the team’s 1st Round Draft pick, Odell Beckham Jr. The genetically gifted wide out has set the league alight with an acumen for route running and uncanny ability to make acrobatic, game-changing catches, and has broken both franchise and league rookie records, despite missing the first four games of the season. Beckham has the potential to be an All Pro, multi-time Pro Bowler and leading NFL wide-out at his current trajectory, and his presence on the field will continue to bolster the team’s success for as long as he is with the team.

"The Catch", credit: BBC

“The Catch”, credit: BBC

Beckham is not the sole beacon of light for the team going in to 2015. OBJ is simply the crown jewel in a collection of draftees and young players on the team who were given game time thanks to Big Blue’s slew of injuries this year. Rookie running back Andre Williams struggled at times when carrying the load of injured free agent acquisition Rashad Jennings, but also had a couple of real break out games with well over 100 yards rushing. Also on the offense, especially given the untimely and upsetting injury to Victor Cruz, made the emergence of receiving threats in the surprisingly dependable Preston Parker, flashy Tight End Larry Donnell, and often frustrating prospect Rueben Randle who seemed to finally play to his potential with a couple of monster games towards the end of the season. Indeed, Ben McAdoo’s Offense has taken hold generally as the season has gone on, improving by leaps statistically though still occasionally leaving points on the table. For a phase that team President John Mara said was broken at the end of the last season, it has improved a great deal and is cause for quiet confidence in the future.

Meanwhile, on the defensive side, injuries to the talismanic Jon Beason, increasingly stellar corner Prince Amukamara, and free agent acquisition at Safety, Walter Thurmond, among others, significantly weakened Perry Fewell’s defense. Thankfully, some young studs stepped up with impressive performances under difficult circumstances, with ballhawking Quintin Demps, Damontre Moore, Kerry Wynn, and especially excellent value fifth-round pick, Devon Kennard who added well to the team’s dynamic pass rush in the second half of the season. That, on top of the expected success of Jonathan Hankins at Defensive Tackle, means that, despite the troubles of the Defense this year, there is reason for hope in the future of the team.

Areas of Improvement

The Defense is the biggest and most immediate area of concern for the Giants. Injuries are a legitimate excuse for some of the woes on defense, but that does not take the spotlight off of it given the handicap it has been all season. Consistently giving up big plays, especially on 3rd down and being porous in crucial situations (Dallas’s game-winning drive in the second game against the Cowboys and the ease with which the Jaguars were allowed to come back later on being the most heart-breaking examples). To add to that, the Giants have struggled against the run and have been ground down in many games because of that. When the team is struggling against the run and giving up too many drive-saving plays is a devastating combo.

A contributing factor to the difficulty the team has had running the ball has been the ever-shifting O-Line, an issue the team has had for more than just this year. Will Beatty was on a trajectory to be released as soon as the move became cap-friendly, but this year has gone a long way to solidify his continued place at Left Tackle, while Justin Pugh built on his rookie year to solidify the Right Tackle spot. The interior line has struggled more though with rookie lineman Weston Richburg doing well at points but taking his time to adjust to the Left Guard position position as a natural Center. That, with well-paid Guard Geoff Schwartz getting injured and relying on John Jerry at the other slot caused extensive difficulties for the line, eventhough it grew stronger as a bond was allowed to form.

Special Teams has been another area of weakness for the G-Men, giving up several special teams touchdowns and not creating much in response. Save from a couple of successes with surprise onside kicks, the Giants have lost the special teams battle consistently and as a result, giving up field position and putting the struggling Defense in even harder predicaments.

Big Questions

Coaches
By the end of the loss to the Jaguars, I regretfully had the opinion that Tom Coughlin should probably be moved aside with dignity. However, after the relative push of the team and the obvious fire they played with despite having no shot at the playoffs, as well as the early connection Coughlin seems to have with Beckham, it became clear that it still wasn’t time for Coughlin to go. McAdoo’s job was secure by the end of the year, leaving Perry Fewell in the spotlight after his Defense were the biggest area of deficiency on the team. Though it seems Antrelle Rolle is keen to fight for Fewell as well as Coughlin, I am still of the opinion that a change may be required at this position if the right candidate becomes available. I also think Special Teams Coordinator Tom Quinn should be replaced given the shambles the special teams phase suffered this year.

Jason Pierre-Paul
I love JPP and own his jersey, but if you’d have asked me after around the first half of the season, I was starting to wonder whether it would be worth bringing him back. JPP finished with double-digit sacks, as well as consistently playing the run well, being a leader for the team, and being a passionate member of the Giants family. That said, I am troubled still by JPP’s future prospects. His late season flourish in the backfield is eerily reminiscent of Justin Tuck’s from last year and it would be more reassuring if he had done it consistently throughout the year, rather than mostly confined within five games. That aside, I am now convinced he should come back, but it needs to be for a reasonable price. The name will attract many suitors and I’m sure one will be willing to pay up to $10 million a year for him – if JPP wants that sort of money for four or five years, I would be worried about giving that to him. The talk as of now is that the Giants could franchise him for the year guaranteeing that sort of pay for the year. I’m not keen on that because it is still too much money in my opinion, but it could be a gamble that pays off, financially at least, forcing either JPP to prove his worth, or maybe guaranteeing a more realistic contract thereafter.

Pierre-Paul and Rolle will be two big cap questions for the Giants this year. Credit: nydailynews.com

Pierre-Paul and Rolle will be two big cap questions for the Giants this year. Credit: nydailynews.com

Antrel Rolle
Antrel is another of my favourite Giants players, and another huge off-season question for Big Blue. He has been the Giants most skilled, durable, and inspirational defensive player for a while now, being our lone Pro Bowler from last year. Rolle, however, has had something of a down year by his admittedly high standards, and is in some ways an even harder decision that JPP. Rolle is a huge part of the team’s identity, but if this season is the start of a slide in performance as he gets older, giving him a significant contract could be a mistake. That said, for the same reasons, Antrel may not attract the same attention he would have a year ago, so it is more likely the Giants can keep him for a reasonable price, especially because Rolle seems emotionally attached to the team.

Victor Cruz
Cruz’s injury against the Eagles sucked the life out of the game, and, briefly, of the franchise. Seeing Vic go down was heart-crushing as he is one of the great success stories of the franchise’s recent history. Odell Beckham’s emergence satiated this sense of loss with his incredible play, but as we look ahead to the future of the receiving corps. The big question surrounding Cruz is whether he can return to field at full speed or close to full speed. If he can, he can possibly look to a big comeback year opposite OBJ. If not, the future is less certain.

Rueben Randle
Rueben Randle is also in the spotlight, but for different reasons. Randle is a young receiver who has disappointed staff and the fans with an apparently lethargic approach to the position. Randle was benched a couple of times apparently for reasons of dedication and he really didn’t seem to rise to the opportunity in terms of receptions once Cruz went down. However, Randle really seemed to switch on in the last few games, using his height and strength to turn in dominating performances in his last few games. So the question surrounding Randle going in to next year is what Randle we will get next year. Randle can’t afford another season of hit and miss play if he wants to stay a Giant, but if he can play like the monster of the last two games more consistently, he could be part of a monster receiving corps starring Beckham Jr and Cruz, making the Giants passing offense amongst the most dangerous in the league.

Jon Beason
Last year, Beason was credited with a big part of the team’s face-saving resurgence which earned him a contract this past off-season. Unfortunately, some of the injuries which lowered his trade value have come to haunt him this season, and he has struggled to stay on the field for any amount of time. In the mean time, Jameel McLain stepped in to the middle linebacker slot and did an admirable job as a natural leader in a way which perhaps made the loss of Beason less noticeable and therefore makes his role in the team a big question. If he can prove himself fit, he will be a cap-friendly leader for the team alongside McLain, but if there are any questions, he may struggle to stay on the roster.

PThis is a difficult question mainly because Thurmond got injured so early in to his Giants tenure. Before his injury, he was solid without being spectacular. He still has the rub of the Seattle defense he came from, but at this time, I am not terribly anxious for Thurmond to stay in blue. I imagine he will be available for a good price after a year on the shelf, and I would be excited by his role in our secondary and the depth he would provide, but I believe the decision on Thurmond will be based on the team’s other free agency targets; if cap room is needed, Walter maybe allowed to walk.

Off Season Priorities
It is difficult to say precisely at what phases of the off-season that these moves will have to be made because it depends on the state of the free agency market, which in turn forms the team’s draft board, but between those two phases and the resigning of Giants talent, there are areas that Big Blue needs to bolster or improve on.

The biggest area of interest is the Offensive line. I think Beatty, Richburg and Pugh are guaranteed places, but the whole interior line is fluid going forward. We know Richburg has a spot, but will it be at Guard or his more natural Center. Ideally, Richburg would secure Center and leave the two Guard spots up for grabs, but that depends on what happens with J.D. Walton, who largely did a fine job on the center. So, through competition, free agency, and the high end picks of the draft, the O line has to be secured to anchor the team.

The Defensive trench is also another area of priority. Hankins is a lock, but aside from that, it is an area with a few questions. Cullen Jenkins has done a great job, but is rising in age while Mathias Kiwanuka is another player who is definitely slowing down. Especially if we assume JPP stays, pass rush should be solid with the impressive play as Robert Ayers and Damontre Moore, but the starter at Left End will be up for grabs, and the line will need bolstering generally through the off-season.

The Linebacker corps is in motion currently, though Kennard and McLain seem deserving of starting spots. The question will be whether Beason will start, and if not him, then who, be it Pasinger or unrestricted free agent Jacquian Williams, or a new recruit. However it turns out though, a bit more depth would certainly be welcome, especially if Beason can’t play.

Finally, especially with Rolle’s future up in the air, the safety spot is one that will require attention during the off-season. Even if Rolle stays, questions remain whether Thurmond, Brown or Demps can start consistently. If a talented safety is available during the off-season, it could be a wise addition to the team either as a starter, or as a depth addition for a secondary which seems plagued by injury throughout the last few years.

Overview

I have written with a surprising amount of positivity for a team which finished with a 6 & 10 record, but that record deserves to bring with it much criticism, especially after somehow not bettering the 7 & 9 record from the similarly shambolic 2013-14 season and indeed, taking a backwards step in the W column. While I have echoed the support of the Giants staff for the coaching staff, another losing season in 2015-16 will necessitate change – it’s a cliché but this next season really is must win. Nonetheless, I feel that there is room for positivity in the Big Blue Nation. If we can replicate the positives and potential from this past season and translate it to next, with fewer injury problems and more consistency of personnel and performance, the Giants could be an offensive juggernaut with at least a solid defence. The NFC East will be as competitive as ever though. The Cowboys have built for a solid future and will retain most of their playmakers, and likewise with the Eagles, though they will need to solve their QB question; even Washington, especially with a healthy RGIII will be poised to improve. With the right personnel decisions and a bit of fortune though, there is no reason why New York shouldn’t improve and be competing for a playoff birth.