EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - There was a two-game stretch early in the 2013 season when the Giants' offensive line was so bad, Eli Manning was lucky to escape in one piece. He was hit and rushed and flushed from the pocket so often in those games that Tom Coughlin later said that calling plays had become "like throwing a dart at a board."
There were no holes for the running backs. No blocking for the quarterback. And with Manning on his heels, on his back, or on the run for eight straight quarters, the Giants lost back-to-back games in Carolina and Kansas City by a combined score of 69-7.
As bad as it's looked in this preseason, this Giants' offensive line hasn't reached those depths just yet, and there's no indication they ever will. But that stretch - which featured then-rookie Justin Pugh at right tackle - is a reminder how much damage an offensive line can do when it's struggling.
Because it doesn't matter that the Giants have a quarterback like Eli Manning or a ton of explosive weapons. If the offensive line isn't working, nothing else will.
"Definitely," said Giants left guard Justin Pugh. "That's something obviously we've got to get better at. You've got to make sure you're protecting the quarterback. The No. 1 thing we've got to do is keep 10 upright. We know he's going to make us look good."
So far this summer, they haven't. And that's really been the major issue in a preseason in which the Giants have somehow managed just 556 total yards of offense in three games. Sure, there are other reasons for that. Manning and Odell Beckham didn't play in the opener and have been on the field for about three of the 12 quarters. There is precious little game-planning for preseason games, and surely Ben McAdoo hasn't unveiled any of his offensive tricks.
But when a team is averaging 185.3 yards per game - dead last in the league and 40 fewer yards than the second-to-last, quarterback-challenged Cleveland Browns - it's not just bad, it's inexplicably bad. With a Pro Bowl quarterback even some of the time, a stable of young receivers, and most of the returning starters from an offense that ranked eighth in the NFL last season, the Giants should be able to average, say, 250 yards in their sleep.
Instead they'd have to completely double their offensive output to come close to the 372 yards per game they averaged in the regular season last year.
So why so bad? Watch the line - and yes, the tight ends who can't block and the running backs who miss their blitz pickups. Any holes seem to close on running backs before they get to the line of scrimmage. And Manning, in just those three quarters, has taken far too many hits and has been forced to make most of his 24 throws on the run, on his back foot, or far earlier than he was hoping.
When McAdoo got on his conference call the day after the Giants' 21-20 win over the Jets - a game in which the starting offense produced no points and just 61 yards in just over a half of football - he said in his opening statement "I'm expecting a lot of questions about the offensive line." But he also said "It's more than just the offensive line" and, optimistically "Everything is correctable."
Pugh is convinced of that, too.
"Actually, we watched the film and we were real close on a lot of things," Pugh said. "Obviously you don't see that. You see that we didn't run the ball really well. But we were close on a lot of things. Watching the film, I know we're a lot closer than it may look."
Pugh may be right. And some parts of the offensive line will automatically look better with a little game-planning (they were clearly unprepared for some of the crazy defensive fronts and blitzes brought by the Jets). And things should improve with the return of Pugh, who has missed the last two games with a bruised shoulder but practiced on Monday and insisted he will be ready for Opening Day.
Some things, though, remain an issue. They knew going into the season that the right side of their offensive line was a problem, particularly at right tackle where they spent a long time trying to find an upgrade over Marshall Newhouse. Young left tackle Ereck Flowers, in his second season and presumably healthy, has struggled more than expected. And the depth is non-existent. As bad as the first-team line has been, the reserves have been far worse. Second-year pro Bobby Hart, who is considered the best of the sorry second-string lot, was manhandled on Saturday night in his start against the Jets.
Throw in tight ends who are far better receivers than blockers, and injuries to two good blockers in tight end Will Johnson (stinger) and fullback Nikita Whitlock (mid-foot sprain) … well, it's not an encouraging situation.
Still, there's hope for this line that has far more talent on it than the sorry 2013 unit. And there is always hope that time can make things better. After all, back in the summer of 2004, the Giants' offensive line was famously labelled the worst in football (by Joe Theismann, though many others agreed). Yet three of the players on that line - David Diehl, Chris Snee and Shaun O'Hara - formed the core of the great line that helped the Giants win a Super Bowl just three years later.
These Giants don't have three years to wait, though. Manning is 35. McAdoo got his job in large part because of the success of his offense. And the entire organization is fed up after three straight losing seasons and no playoff berths since 2011. They believe their $200 million investment has shored up their defense. They believe they have more than enough offensive weapons to thrive.
But that's only if the line can open the holes for the running backs and give Manning enough time to make the offense hum. Clearly neither of those things happened much in the first three preseason games.
"Ever since I've been here our preseasons haven't been spectacular," Pugh said. "But if you look at what we did last year I'm confident in the guys that we have. That's something I'm going to keep reiterating."
He has just 13 days left until the opener in Dallas to keep reiterating his faith in his linemates. After that, if the Giants want to compete for their first playoff berth since 2011, the line will have to start backing up his words.