Joe Schoen knew help was needed. He knew his personnel staff had identified players capable of providing that help. He wanted to give head coach Brian Daboll better options. He knew the Giants required an injection of talent in certain areas.
But Schoen could not make the moves he wanted to make.
The first-year general manager understood what was required, but did not do it. Man, oh man, was that tough on him, especially when the Giants did not win in a four-week stretch and it looked as if the playoff berth they worked so hard to attain might be slipping away.
“There were times in-season where there were maybe some veteran players that we wanted to sign that would’ve helped us,’’ Schoen said, “but we just weren’t able to do it. That part stings throughout the season because we could’ve helped the roster, but just didn’t have the flexibility.’’
A GM without financial flexibility is like a coach without capable players. Both know what it is like to feel helpless to improve the situation and solve the problems that are cropping up.
Schoen did not stand pat. He filled in during the season with low-priced additions: receiver Isaiah Hodgins; cornerbacks Fabian Moreau and Nick McCloud; safety Tony Jefferson; and linebackers Jaylon Smith, Landon Collins and Jarrad Davis.
The Eagles, in the second half of the season, wanted to strengthen their run defense and signed Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh. Either of those two proven veterans would have helped the Giants, a team more needy in the run-stopping department than the Eagles. But the Giants had no cap space to add that sort of quality from the outside.
That was then. This is now for Schoen. This past Sunday, the Giants were ousted from the playoffs in that 38-7 beatdown by the Eagles. It was also the exact one-year anniversary of Schoen’s hiring after five seasons as the Bills’ assistant general manager. Schoen knew what he was stepping into. Jobs like his do not open up if there is a wealth of talent on the roster, coaching stability and loads of available salary cap space.
It is telling that the most notable transaction Schoen made last offseason was the release of cornerback James Bradberry, a move Schoen knew weakened the roster even as it provided salary cap relief to conduct his business on an extremely limited budget. The Giants were over the cap when Schoen took over, and he needed to clear around $40 million just to allow for the basics — such as signing low-level free agents and having money in reserve to eventually sign the draft picks.
It all worked out. The Giants went 9-7-1 in the regular season, won a playoff game and should be nearly $54 million under the salary cap as the free-agent period opens up, unless Schoen keeps quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley off the open market with new deals before March 15.
“Yeah, to have financial flexibility, nine draft picks, to be able to devise a plan where you have a little bit more flexibility and resources, I’m definitely excited about that,’’ Schoen said.
Even as the Giants, shockingly, surged out of the gate, Schoen was not blinded by the light of success. He knew his team was receiving excellent coaching and winning a bunch of close games — all six wins in the 6-1 start were by one-score margins. It was tempting to view the roster as better than he initially thought it to be, but Schoen never took the plunge.
“I think there were a lot of good football players on our team,’’ Schoen said. “I think there were a lot of good teammates. Maybe we weren’t the most talented, but we did have a good team. Guys cared about each other. The culture was good, and the process we had in place — I think the dividends showed on Sundays.’’
Credit Schoen for bringing in players who bought in. The reason why Daboll is one of three finalists for the Associated Press Coach of the Year award — along with Doug Pederson of the Jaguars and Kyle Shanahan of the 49ers — is that the Giants played above their means. Daboll and coordinators Wink Martindale and Mike Kafka did more with less.
The task in Year No. 2 is to do more with more. A scrappy roster gets you only so far.
Schoen needs to figure out who he wants to keep before he sets his sights on who he wants to add. He is a big believer in the value of knowing the person before investing money, which is why he is wary of building through free agency.
“Ideally to me, the known commodities that are good football players that you know, that’s going to be our priority first,’’ Schoen said. “And then we’ll look outside the building, if we need to, to supplement the roster.’’
That bodes well for safety Julian Love, a team captain in 2022, a solid, versatile player with off-the-chart off-the-field intangibles.
“Julian knows how we feel about him,’’ Schoen said. “We’ll see where he fits in. And if we can get something done, that’ll be good.’’
Year No. 1 is in the books for Schoen. At this time next year, he does not want to be saying of the Giants: “Maybe we weren’t the most talented.’’