Back in February, New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, who just a few short weeks earlier had hired former Green Bay assistant coach Ben McAdoo as his new offensive coordinator, was asked about the direction of the new Giants offense.
With a new offensive philosophy, the Giants are hoping for better results on the ground. Over the last five seasons, New York’s running game hasn‘t exactly been a strength of the team.
In fact, you’d have to go back to the 2008 season, a year when they finished 12-4, their best regular-season win-loss record in Coughlin’s tenure as head coach, to really point to when the run game was a team strength.
That season, the Giants finished with the league’s No. 1 rushing attack (157.4 yards per game) and two 1,000-yard rushers (Brandon Jacobs: 1,089 yard; Derrick Ward: 1,025 yards).
Here’s a look at what the Giants have done since then:
While the Giants proved in 2011 that a team doesn‘t necessarily have to have a strong rushing attack to win a Super Bowl, that means teams are relying more on their passing game.
As a result, the more a team passes, the more quarterbacks are at risk for injury.
Just look at what happened to the Giants last year in their regular-season finale. Quarterback Eli Manning, the team’s iron man, suffered a serious high ankle sprain about midway through the game after getting the Giants up 10-6 at the half and completing 10 of 24 passes for 152 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Fortunately for the Giants, Washington wasn‘t much better that afternoon, which helped backup quarterback Curtis Painter, who was limited to just eight pass attempts (completing two for 11 yards), get them through the rest of the game.
Can you imagine what might have been had the Giants had another game to play the following week? Manning, who was seen on crutches in the postgame interview area, almost definitely wouldn’t have been able to play.
The point is that while Manning runs the offense, if something should ever happen to him, having a solid running game can be a team’s best friend.
Enter Rashad Jennings
Before signing with the New York Giants this year as a free agent, running back Rashad Jennings was originally drafted in the seventh round in 2009 by the Jacksonville Jaguars, for whom he played three seasons before moving to the Oakland Raiders in 2013.
He’s amassed 1,677 yards on 387 rushing attempts (4.3 average) with 13 rushing touchdowns in 53 games during his career.
Jennings has also twice faced the Giants in his career, running 27 times for 141 yards and one touchdown, including 88 yards on 20 carries and two receptions for 19 yards last season.
ESPN’s Dan Graziano wrote that Jennings’ 2013 performance made an impression on New York’s front office—one that it clearly didn‘t forget when it was prioritizing its free-agent targets after the season.
When it comes to production, it’s easy to understand why Jennings was so appealing to the Giants and why he could potentially be the glue that holds this offense together in 2014.
Let’s look at what Jennings did last year with the Raiders.
Jennings, who was the 21st-best running back in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), ran 163 times for 733 yards last season (4.5 average), accounting for 36.5 percent of the Raiders’ rushing offense and 13.7 percent of the team’s net yards.
If you add in his 36 receptions for 292 yards, that brings his all-purpose yardage total to 1,025, or a team-leading 19.1 percent of the net yards gained on offense in 2013.
According to NumberFire.com, Jennings’ potential 2014 production has been calculated to be 813.06 rushing yards and 4.93 rushing touchdowns and 48 receptions for 382 yards and one touchdown.
Put it all together and that’s 1,195.06 projected all-purpose yards, which isn‘t too shabby.
The Hidden Value
J.J. Zachariason of NumerFire.com, in an analysis written shortly after the Giants signed Jennings to a reported four-year contract worth $10 million ($2.5 million per year average, per Spotrac), establishes an argument demonstrating why Jennings has been largely underrated.
It started in 2009, where the Jaguars runner saw 39 carries as more of a relief back for the 300-plus attempt runner, Maurice Jones-Drew. That year, Jennings was solid when called upon, ranking 29th of 83 30-plus attempt running backs in Rushing (Net Expected Points) per rush.
He saw more opportunity the next season, running the ball 84 times, an increase of 45 attempts from his rookie campaign. But he was better in Year 2, accumulating 17.33 Rushing Net Expected Points for the Jags, a number that ranked sixth among all running backs. Because of his low volume, Jennings actually ranked third in the NFL among 50-plus attempt runners in Rushing NEP on a per attempt basis.
Zachariason concluded that Jennings finished with the eighth-highest rushing NEP total and the sixth best among rushers who had 150 or more carries.
Overcoming the Down Side
If Jennings is such a promising running back, why has he flown under the radar?
The answer is his injury history.
After missing one game in his rookie season (he was a healthy scratch), Jennings missed two games due to a shoulder injury in 2010.
He then missed the entire 2011 season with a knee injury, an injury that appeared to affect him as well in 2012, as did a concussion.
The Jaguars, perhaps frustrated by Jennings’ inability to stay healthy, gave up on him after the 2012 season, and he then joined the Raiders.
However, playing in a 16-game season continued to elude Jennings, who missed a game last year due to a concussion.
Jennings, who has a rather strict regimen regarding his diet and fitness program—as profiled by CSN Bay Area’s Fallon Smith (see video) and written about by Sports Illustrated’s Sarah Toland—is hoping that the changes he’s made will increase his durability and enable him to make it through a full NFL season for the first time in his career.
Can Jennings Be the Offense’s Glue?
What makes it hard to single out one player as being the “glue” for the Giants is that we don’t really have historical stats to forecast what percentage of the offensive plays will be pass and what percentage will be runs since this is McAdoo‘s first season as an NFL offensive coordinator.
For a possible clue, we can look at what the Packers have done over the last two seasons regarding their run-pass distribution, which breaks down to 1,128 passes and 892 runs, per data compiled from NFL Game Statistics and Information Service (login required).
While a healthy Jennings appears to have what it takes to carry the offense on his back should disaster strike at the other positions, even if he makes it through a 16-game season and lives up to his projected numbers, that doesn‘t mean the Giants are headed for the postseason.
In 2013, only two of the NFL’s top five rushers—LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles and Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs—saw their teams go to the postseason (neither made it past the first round, by the way).
Meanwhile, the rest of the top five rushers and their respective teams—Adrian Peterson‘s Minnesota Vikings, Matt Forte‘s Chicago Bears and DeMarco Murray‘s Dallas Cowboys—failed to finish above .500 in the regular season, combining for a 21-26 record.
Letting It All Unfold
Although the Giants accomplished quite a bit during the spring concerning the installation of their new offense, the system figures to undergo tweaks along the way as the coaching staff learns about the talent it has.
So far, Jennings has made a strong impression on McAdoo, who told reporters at the end of the team’s minicamp that he has “a tremendous amount of respect” for the 29-year-old.
“He came in, he shows up and he’s ready to work every day. I think he has a nice skill set for the position,” McAdoo said.
“I think he’s a young man who is very focused in the way that he goes about his business and I look forward to seeing him grow this year.”
Jennings isn‘t overly concerned with individual numbers. He told reporters back in April that his goal is to become a “complete back” who never has to come off the field.
“First down, second down, third down, fourth-and-short, goal line, pass protection… just molding and perfecting my craft of becoming a complete back is something that I’m going to continue to strive for as long as I’m in the NFL,” he said.
Just like what you would expect from the offense’s potential “glue.”
Patricia Traina is the senior editor for NFL news on BleacherReport.com