ESM EXCLUSIVE: Former NFL RB Stephen Davis comments on the modern state of football

Former NFL running back and three-time Pro Bowler Stephen Davis sat down with ESM to talk about the past, present, and future of football.

(This interview was made possible through Pickswise.com)

Stephen Davis knows a thing or two about making the New York Giants feel a little downtrodden.

Formerly of the Washington Football Team, Davis often made the most of a yearly pair with Big Blue, the most recent edition of which wraps up on Sunday afternoon (1 p.m. ET, Fox). The Giants particularly felt the wrath of Davis during his formal introduction to the mainstream football fan in 1999. A fourth-round pick out of Auburn in 1996, Davis’ first years were spent sharing carries in a fullback’s role with veteran Terry Allen. Granted a chance to shine, upon Allen’s transfer to New England, Davis exploded for 1,405 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, headlining Washington’s 10-6 season and NFC East title. That trek started with Davis tallying three first quarter touchdowns in a 50-21 win over the Giants in Week 2 at Giants Stadium before following it up with a then-career-best 183 yards in the rematch nine weeks later. The 858 yards he gained over 15 matchups with New York (8-6-1) were his second-best tally against any opponent except Arizona (1,089 yards in 17 games).

Retired from on-field activities since 2008, Davis comes in peace when it comes to the Giants, offering advice as to how his former rivals could snap their streak of ineptitude that continues to show itself in the form of a 1-7 record in 2020.

“Any time you have a team that’s not doing so well, you have to get back to the basics: be consistent, be physical, be a team instead of individuals,” Davis said in an exclusive conversation with ESM. “Everybody thinks it’s easy, and it’s not easy at all. You have to be a team, you have to have that team chemistry. You have to have everybody on the same page, and the players have to buy into it.”

To demonstrate his points, Davis brought up the example of Dutch Fork High School, where his son Stephen Jr. spent his gridiron career as a linebacker and free safety before moving on to North Carolina A&T. The team had struggled in football since its 1992 founding, but later bought into a system established by the arrival of a new head coach in 2010. Two years later, they were state champions.

“All the kids bought into it. They’re not the best athletes. You look at them, you’d go ‘he played football?’. But all the kids bought into (the coach’s system),” Davis explained. “It’s amazing, it’s human nature. When kids buy into something and adults buy into something and everybody’s buying into the system, it’ll work.”

Those are wise words from a locker room leader, one that paved the way for success in both Washington and Carolina. After his time in the nation’s capital came to an end, Davis moved on to a Carolina Panthers team two years removed from a 1-15 record. Davis united with head coach and former Giants defensive coordinator John Fox to create a culture change amongst youngsters and veterans alike, earning an 11-5 ledger and a Super Bowl berth for the first in franchise history. The rusher did his part with a career-high 1,444 rushing yards.

It’s an incident during the 2001 season in Washington, however, that stands out as a moment of team cohesion, a moment where a unified rally led to something special on the field. That season’s endeavor saw the team start off 0-5, the stretch capped off with an infamous Monday night showing against an equally winless squad from Dallas.

“We were trying to find our footing, we were trying to do everything we could to possibly win a game,” Davis recalled. “We might’ve been in the lead, something bad would happen, then we’d lose the game. But we started 0-5, then went 5-0. Missed the playoffs by one game. The difference was getting in here. We were resisting what (head coach Marty Schottenheimer) was trying to do. It took one of our team leaders to come and say ‘we can’t keep doing this, we can’t keep doing what we’re doing’. Then everybody started buying in and it turned around.”

Washington finished that season 8-8, but Schottenheimer was fired in favor of college football legend Steve Spurrier during the offseason. A sloppy 7-9 regression followed, giving Davis a lesson in consistency and how important faith in a head coach is in what became his final season in burgundy.

“You’ve got to always try, whenever you can, to buy into what the coach is doing.”

Even as one of the first prominent names of the 21st century NFL, Davis’ dominance feels almost dated with the NFL becoming more of a passing league. Teams have been discouraged from drafting running backs high and offering them maximum long-term deals, though these trends are slowly becoming nixed with the emergence of names like Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey. Davis commented on the role of the modern running back in his statements to ESM, expressing admiration at the fact that rushers need to possess skills beyond the 40-yard-dash in order to warrant big contract consideration.

“They’ve got to be able to catch the ball in space. They’ve got to be able to protect the quarterback…and, clearly, run the ball,” Davis said. “It’s a lot different (today). Every (position) goes through its phases. When I was playing, it was more run-oriented. Now, you have a lot of teams that like to pass a lot. But I think it’ll get back to (rushing) once everyone figures out that offense. A defensive coach is going to figure that out, everybody’s going to go back to the old ways. It happens all the time.”

Davis feels that today’s game features “more finnesse” and also noted the increase in physicality.

“You’ve got everything more spread out, teams running with four or five wide receivers. Different sets and everything, a lot of zones with the running back and the quarterback. Back when I played, everybody was in a 4-by-5-yard box…elbows and (rear ends),” he said with a laugh. “You had to fight, you had to grind. We fought. I ran against a lot of eight or nine-man fronts.”

The game of proessional football has also changed in the fact that the NFL has opted to partake in affairs beyond their fields, namely acknowledging the nation’s ongoing reckoning with systemic racism and injustice. Davis’ former compatriots in Washington have been a major part of the movement, eschewing the controversial nickname of Redskins after over eight decades of use.

Davis had no strong opinion on the moniker, but acknowledged that “everybody feels certain ways on certain things”.

“The Redskins has been a name for a very long time. Getting used to that now, it’s hard, but you’ve got to deal with it,” he said. “Anytime when someone feels like they’re being racially profiled, you’ve got to correct, you’ve got to do something to correct. I think they’re doing a great job.”

Davis also praised players speaking for speaking out on causes that are important to them, saying that their words created a unique form of unity across the league. Combining that with the on-field innovations seen on Sundays, Davis sees a postivie outlook ahead for the game as a whole, pointing out developments on the medical and social levels as well.

“It’s great what they’re doing it. It’s not only going to help our future, but it’s going to help our younger generation that’s not even born yet,” Davis analyzed. “Have them understand the importance of teamwork. Teamwork is what you teach the guys on the football field, basketball, baseball field…you have to teach everyone how to work together to get to a common goal.”

“Football is great now. But we want to be greater in the future.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Giants: Daniel Jones is not the problem

New York Giants, Daniel Jones

The New York Giants, once again, suffered a heart-breaking loss last night. The Giants fought valiantly on the road against Philadelphia but came up short to fall to 1-6 on the season. Meanwhile, the Eagles rise to the top of the division as the Giants fall off to the bottom.

The Giants were leading by 11 points last night with under five minutes left to play. The team had a quick meltdown that saw them blow their lead and lose the game 22-21.

It is easy to point fingers and play the blame game after losses like this. Often times, the quarterback gets the bulk of the blame when NFL teams lose close games. But for the Giants, the quarterback is not to blame this week. Daniel Jones is not the problem with the Giants. In fact, after last night, he looks like the solution.

Expanding the Offense

Daniel Jones is providing the Giants’ offense with a versatility that they have never had out of the quarterback position. New York spent the better part of the last twenty years scheming an offense around an immobile quarterback that could only make plays while standing in a clean pocket.

While Daniel Jones does his best work from a clean pocket, he can make plays happen elsewhere. The young quarterback has sneakily elite athleticism. Jones put his athletic ability on full display last night, ripping off an 80-yard run that put the Giants in scoring position.

That was the longest run by a quarterback in New York Giants history. That run was also longer than any rushing attempt by Saquon Barkley since 2018. Jones’s ability to make plays with his legs is special and allows the Giants to expand their offense and open up the playbook. Jones’s running ability should be treated as a real threat from now on and there should be far more designed quarterback-runs called on gamedays.

Coming Up In The Clutch

When the New York Giants needed their quarterback to mak a play last night, Daniel Jones delivered. Unofortunately, the same cannot be said for Jones’s teammates, which is ultimately why the Giants lost this game.

This season, we have seen Daniel Jones make the same mistake on multiple occasions. We have seen him put together long, 14+ play drives to get his team down in the red zone before throwing a heart-breaking interception. This happened in Week One against Pittsburgh, in Week Four against the Rams, and even in the Week Six win against Washington.

In Week Seven, the Giants put together one of those long drives to get in the red zone. This time, Daniel delivered, connecting  with Sterling Shepard on a touchdown pass to finish off a 15-play, 75-yard drivee.

So Daniel Jones passed one test; he proved he can put together long scoring drives. Check. But Jones was faced with a much more difficult and important test later in this game.

In the fourth quarter with a one possession lead with just over two minutes left in the game, the Giants are driving. Their running game is on point but stalls out. The Giants’ offense finds itself in a third and six, must-convert situation. Daniel Jones has to step up and make a play. Daniel Jones delivers with a perfect pass to Evan Engram down the left sideline.

Dropped. Evan Engram dropped it and the Giants had to punt the football. Philadelphia responds with a scoring drive and the Giants fall to 1-6.

This play changed the narrative of the entire game. If Evan Engram catches this football, fans are not talking about the upcoming “fire sale” at the trade deadline. Instead, fans would be talking about how their young, second-year quarterback marched into the belly of the beast and took down the Giants’ biggest division rival with one clutch play after another to thrust the Giants to the top of the NFC East.

Thursday night’s game should have been Daniel Jones’s coming of age. Not the reminder of the Giants’ impending doom. But if fans extract Daniel Jones’s performance from this game and analyze just the way their quarterback played, they might feel a lot more confident in the direction the team is heading. Daniel Jones had a breakout performance last night that will be forgotten due to the ineptitude of the rest of the New York Giants’ roster. The quarterback position is the lone bright spot, despite the contradictory narrative. Daniel Jones is not the problem. In fact, he just might be the solution.

How the Dallas Cowboys Landed in the NFC East

51 years ago today that the NFL-AFL merger took form when the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers of the 16-team NFL agreed to join the AFL to form the 13-team American Football Conference. It was also the same day in which the new NFL agreed on a playoff format that introduced some crazy concept of a wild-card entrant from each conference.

The following 1970 season, the two leagues would operate under the NFL shield and its commissioner, Pete Rozelle. The league would be divided into two 13-team conferences with three divisions isn each conference.

How the league would allocate the teams into which divisions was a crapshoot. In the new NFC, There was an abundance of east coast teams and not enough in the western time zones. Five proposed breakdowns were devised, and legend has it, written on a pieces of paper and put into a flower vase. Rozelle’s secretary reached into the vase and randomly chose the breakdown that would be the framework of the modern NFC as we know it.

Going in, there were several constants. The New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins were in the NFC East in each of the five proposals as were the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers in the Central and the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers in the West. The other six teams were all over the map in the other four proposals.

Four of the five proposals had the Minnesota Vikings in the East and the Dallas Cowboys in either the Central or the West.

So, when you question how the NFL stuck the Dallas Cowboys in the East, it was a random thing – a one in five shot. The proposal that was picked ended them up in the East along with the St. Louis Cardinals.

In the first decade after the merger, the Cowboys won the division seven times and Cardinals won it twice. The Redskins broke up the party in 1972 with George Allen’s Over-the-Hill gang made their Super Bowl run, losing to Don Shula’s perfect Miami Dolphins.

Between 1970 and 1980, the Cowboys beat the Giants 18 of 22 games.

Dallas has won the NFC East 23 times since Rozelle’s secretary made that fateful draw. Hence the hatred from the other four teams. What would have happened if she picked one of the other four pieces of paper?

One had the NFC as a four team set (NYG, WAS, PHI, MIN). The other three had combinations of Minnesota with Atlanta, St. Louis and Detroit – three teams that were nowhere near the juggernaut that Tom Landry’s Cowboys were in the 70s or Jimmy Johnson’s teams of the 90s would become.

For the record, the Eagles won their first NFC East title in 1980 under head coach Dick Vermeil. They have gone on to win the division 10 more times.

The Giants were the only team in the East without a division title until they finally broke through in 1986. They have eight total division titles as do the Redskins.

The Cardinals stayed in the division even after they moved from St. Louis to Phoenix in 1988. They were finally moved to the NFC West in 2002 when the NFL expanded to 32 teams with four divisions of four teams in each conference. They only won the East those two years (1974-75) in the 70s.

 

New York Giants: Seventh-Easiest Schedule Could Lead To Promising 2020

New York Giants, Joe Judge

Heading into the 2019 NFL season, the New York Giants were blessed with one of the easiest schedules in the league. According to CBS, New York had the 27th hardest schedule in the NFL last season, (or fifth easiest). In 2020, the Giants once again have one of the easiest strength of schedules in the NFL.

According to Sports Illustrated, the Giants have the seventh-easiest strength of schedule in 2020. Their 2020 opponents have a combined record of 123-132-1 (.482). While we do not yet know what the Giants’ exact schedule will be this season, we do know who their opponents will be for home and away games. The Giants’ list of 2020 opponents gives them many winnable matchups and a legitimate chance to compete in Joe Judge’s first year as head coach.

Who are the Giants’ 2020 Opponents?

Home:

The Giants will host these opponents in MetLife stadium in 2020: Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins.

The Giants will only host two playoff teams in 2020. The San Francisco 49ers were one of the best teams in the league, making it all the way to the Super Bowl and earning a 13-3 regular-season record. The other playoff team that the Giants will host is the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles, who narrowly made the playoffs with a 9-7 record and only scraped in because of their lousy division.

Outside of those two teams, there is not a ton of serious competition for the Giants at home in 2020. Granted, the Giants went 4-12 in 2019, so every team is competitive to the Gmen. However, the Cardinals, Buccaneers, Browns, and Steelers all missed the playoffs in 2019. The Giants should consider themselves lucky. They should not be too severely outmatched in any of their games in New Jersey.

Away:

The Giants will face these opponents on the road in 2020: Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins.

The Giants will benefit from playing in one of the NFL’s weaker divisions. The Eagles won the NFC East in 2020 with a mediocre record of 9-7. The divisional opponents’ overall record was 20-28. If they have a better roster and coaching staff in place next season, the Giants should be able to compete for their division’s title.

The Giants will travel to play two of the best teams from 2019 next season. The Baltimore Ravens had the best record in the league last year at 14-2 and the Seattle Seahawks were a strong playoff team with an 11-5 record. The rest of the Giants’ road opponents, the Bears, Bengals, and Rams, missed the playoffs in 2019. The Bengals even finished with the worst record in the NFL. This slate of opponents sets the Giants up to be road warriors in 2020.

Haskins-Jones Rivalry Highlights Giants-Skins Battle for NFC Cellar

The New York Giants could draft Dwayne Haskins with the 6th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

If you don’t think the front offices of the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins will be on the edge of their seats during this Sunday’s game between the two teams, think again. This game may be a bottom-of-the-slate game to most, but to two of the oldest franchises in the NFL, it has a ton of meaning.

The winner is actually a loser in this game. If the Giants win, they clinch third place in the NFC East and in the process will likely have played themselves out of a chance to select Ohio State edge rusher in next April’s NFL Draft. They also will draw a third-place schedule rather than the last-place one they’ve enjoyed (lol) these past two seasons.

Washington would love nothing more than to win this game as it will reaffirm owner Dan Snyder’s decision to put the football in rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins’ hands, which was a bone of contention he had with former head coach Jay Gruden. Snyder fired Gruden after an 0-5 start this season and replaced him with assistant Bill Callahan but it is widely suspected that it was Gruden’s handling of Haskins that got him fired.

But if the Redskins lose, it won’t be the worst thing in the world. They’d end up with the second overall pick and would live to stick it to the Giants by selecting Young themselves.

Giants’ rookie quarterback Daniel Jones and Haskins will be facing each other for the the second time, but this game will be the first time they will do so as starters. In Week 4, the Giants defeated the Redskins, 24-3. Jones started for the Giants and completed 21 of 33 passes for 225 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.

Haskins received starter Case Keenum in that game and was naturally not ready. He went 9-of-17 for 107 yards but tossed three interceptions, one of them a pick-six to Jabrill Peppers.

Haskins didn’t get his first start until Week 9 but has started every game since. He lost his first two starts then won the next two. His last two starts were both winnable games against Green Bay and Philadelphia in which he showed increasing poise and confidence.

This week, he’ll face Jones – a player he’ll eternally be connected with – and the Giants, who are as beatable as an NFL team can be these days. Haskins will undoubtedly love to show the Giants’ brass that they should have taken him with the 6th overall selection last April instead of Jones. He’d also like to clear the air in his own building as it was rumored that the reason why the Giants took Jones so high was that they felt the Redskins wanted Jones, too, and would have selected him with the 15th pick, acing out the Giants – who also had the 17th pick.

The Giants surely would love to see Jones get the better the play on Sunday. They pushed all of their chips into the middle of the table on Jones and need to hit on that pick if the current regime is to remain intact. One game this early int he process should not determine that, but the Giants’ brass needs some kind of sign that they are headed in the right direction.

Jones coming out an laying an egg in Washington and getting outdueled by Haskins could cause John Mara to decide to flip the switch on his floundering organization.

New York Giants: An Extra Bad Year To Be Extra Bad

New York Giants, Pat Shurmur

The New York Giants, once again, are eliminated from playoff contention. The Giants are 2-10, and no matter how many games they win between now and the end of the year, their season is over. This will be the third year in a row that the Giants finish with ten or more losses and without a spot in the playoffs.

This year, though, the Giants are extra bad. Unfortunately, their division is, too. The NFC East is once again the NFC Least. If the Giants were even an average team this season, they would be in playoff contention. 2019 was a really bad year for the Giants to be really bad.

The NFC Least

The NFC East has a combined record of 16-33. Not a single team in the division has a winning record. The Dallas Cowboys are currently leading the division with a 6-7 record after a bad loss to the Chicago Bears on Thursday night. The Philadelphia Eagles are 5-7, one game behind, and their next matchup is against one of the worst teams in the NFL (the Giants).

If only the Giants had been average and had been able to win a few of the easy games on their schedule this season. They are eliminated from the playoffs with a 2-10 record and only have three more losses than the team winning their division. Even the Washington Redskins, who are 3-9, have yet to be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

The New York Giants were .500 in September. After Week 4, New York was 2-2. It has been all downhill from that point on. The Giants squandered their playoff chances and are now on an 8-game losing streak. For the first time in franchise history, the Giants failed to win a game in the months of October and November.

The Giants are historically bad this year. If only they had chosen any other year to be this bad. Of course, it had to be this year: the year their division is historically bad, too. This should serve as a wake-up call to the New York Giants. They need to make significant changes in the future.