It took Ben McAdoo far too long, but he finally made the sensible decision to hand over his play-calling sheet to offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. And right out of the gate, Sullivan did a terrific job with a badly depleted offense missing one of the NFL's most dynamic players.
Honestly, squeezing even 16 points and 266 yards out of this flawed offense, minus Odell Beckham, Jr., against one of the NFL's best defenses was miraculous -- as miraculous as the Giants' unexpected, 23-10 win in Denver. It was enough to convince McAdoo that he should stick with this plan for the forseeable future.
And he should.
But before anyone crowns Sullivan as an offensive genius, let's not get carried away.
Because as much credit as he deserves for getting production out of that offensive mess, the reality is that his play calls were not some magic formula. Really, the two most dramatic differences between McAdoo's 22 games as the head coach/play-caller and Sullivan's one game reading off the oversized play sheet were that: 1. The Giants had a big, early lead, and 2. The rushing attack finally worked.
That's not at all to take any credit away from the game Sullivan called. He's a terrific coach and he did a great job finding ways to feature rookie tight end Evan Engram, perhaps the only dynamic weapon left in his passing attack. He also ran a balanced offense and stuck with the running game -- one of the most frequent criticisms of the Giants when McAdoo calls the game.
But there are reasons those things happened. There are reasons things worked for Sullivan and not McAdoo. And it's not all about the calls:
For example, Engram (five catches for 82 yards) was of course featured in the offense -- because there was no Beckham, Brandon Marshall or Sterling Shepard. The Giants, who have famously run almost exclusively out of three-receiver sets for most of McAdoo's tenure, suddenly were running mostly out of two tight-end sets -- in large part because only one of their active receivers in the game was on the roster the week before, so they had no choice.
Yes, a good argument could be made that McAdoo should have run more out of two tight end sets in the past -- as he has a little this season. But last year the Giants didn't have two good tight ends. The three-receiver set was always their best bet to move the ball.
And yes, Sullivan stuck with the running game in ways that McAdoo rarely did. With Orleans Darkwa at running back and a new-look offensive line, the Giants had one of their most efficient rushing attacks in a long time. Darkwa had the Giants' first 100-yard game of the season (117). The Giants totaled 148 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry in the first half alone.
No wonder Sullivan stuck with the run. Compare that to a 2.5 yards per carry average under McAdoo in the first four games of the season and it's understandable why he usually didn't. Add in a big lead for Sullivan -- 17-3 at the half, thanks in part to a pick-6 by cornerback Janoris Jenkins, while the Giants trailed in every other game at halftime -- and that allowed Sullivan to call 11 runs on his 13 fourth-quarter plays.
McAdoo has only called 25 runs on 92 fourth-quarter plays this season -- because the Giants couldn't run the ball for most of those games, and because his team was always playing from behind.
That's the difference.
Why was it different? Did Sullivan just call better run plays -- plays that McAdoo was ignoring? Maybe. But actually there was evidence McAdoo was trying to be more balanced recently -- like last week against the Chargers, with Darkwa in for the injured and ineffective Paul Perkins and running behind a juggled offensive line.
In a close game, the Giants ran 14 times and passed 19 in the first half, which made sense since they had a lead and were averaging 7.1 yards per carry. Then Darkwa tweaked his calf (he had only two carries the rest of the way) and rookie Wayne Gallman struggled, and McAdoo again began to lean on a passing attack that had Beckham at the time again.
Would McAdoo have been more run-heavy in his calls if Darkwa was full strength and the Giants' lead was bigger? Probably, but we'll never know. Still, it seems much more likely that the reason for the Giants' success Sunday night -- statistically mild success -- were the personnel changes.
Darkwa has long seemed like a more powerful, aggressive runner than Perkins, with better burst to the line and through even the smallest holes. And there's no doubt the Giants' rushing attack has improved with Justin Pugh at right tackle and D.J. Fluker at right guard -- a combination the Giants should stick with the rest of the season.
It's also possible that by taking a step back from play-calling, McAdoo was able to finally see that. He may have also been able to grasp the bigger picture of the flow of the game, which could be a reason the Giants stuck to the rushing attack, too. But it's not like Sullivan's play calls were an instant solution to all their problems. Even most of the players didn't notice a difference until they were told about it after the game.
More likely this was all a perfect storm. The Giants' defense played its best game of the season and even had three turnovers and a touchdown of their own.
Meanwhile, the Giants offense was forced into a conservative approach by all their injury issues, they hit on a good offensive line combination (finally) and got a big performance from Darkwa, who should have been their featured back all along. They were also not plagued by the missed blocks, blown assignments and dropped passes that they often were when McAdoo was calling the plays -- errors that more often than not made his calls look like the wrong ones.
McAdoo had his flaws as a play-caller, no doubt -- especially when he was doubling as the head coach. He stubbornly stuck to his three-receiver sets. He ignored the fullback. He rotated his running backs, rather than attempting to ride a hot hand. And at times he was painfully slow to adjust his plan. He lost track of the clock and game situations sometimes, too.
Maybe now that Sullivan has replaced him, the offense will get better over time. But for one game, there just isn't enough evidence to conclude the play caller made a huge difference. Sullivan did a great job with very little to work with. But his players and the game situation had a lot to do with that, too.