Brian Daboll was smoking a cigar outside U.S. Bank Stadium Sunday evening, and he deserved one. Let’s be real. The brain trust of the 2022 Giants—Joe Schoen the GM and Daboll the coach—inherited a bad combination when they took the jobs last January. The Giants had the worst talent 1 to 53 and the worst cap situation, combined, of any team in the league. Oh, that cap. But the Giants had a quarterback with athleticism and some moxie, Daniel Jones, and they had a running back, Saquon Barkley, burning to show the world he was back, and a defense with some intriguing talent.
So the Giants made the playoffs. Now, winning a playoff game, on the road, against the NFC’s three seed, the 13-4 Vikings … Wouldn’t this be time to breathe a sigh and appreciate the feat of winning a playoff game in what was absolutely a bridge year for what Schoen and Daboll were building?
“No,” Daboll said. “Can’t do it.”
Sort of a Parcellsian answer.
He wasn’t positive yet, but Daboll thought there was a good chance the Giants would be playing top-seeded Philadelphia Saturday night in the divisional round. Not only was this not the time to preen, it was a time to start the short-week homework for Philly.
Daboll got on the bus to the airport. A minute or two later, he said: “You know what I’m doing right now? I’m watching our field-goal rush team against Minnesota’s field-goal protection. I’m watching the tape. No time for that other stuff.”
The Giants beat Minnesota 31-24 in the Wild Card game Sunday. Barkley churned for 109 total yards and two rushing touchdowns. Jones, in his best clutch games as a pro, threw for 301 yards, ran for a game-high 78, outplayed Kirk Cousins, and looked like he’d been playing games like this one forever. No sweat.
But what impressed me is what else the Giants had Sunday. Some teams have cap problems and push the issue into the future. The Giants were in cap hell last spring and it influenced every last decision they made with this team. The fact is, they started four veterans who, on average, were making $960,000 this year. The leader of that pack: wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins. What a story. The Bills drafted Hodgins, a 6-4 target from Oregon State, in the sixth round in 2020, and he’d mostly languished on the Buffalo bench and practice squad. Daboll and Schoen were with that Buffalo team when Hodgins came aboard. Daboll, then the Bills’ offensive coordinator, coached him.
On Nov. 3, the Giants saw Hodgins on the waiver wire. The brain trust thought: He could be our best wideout. The Giants put in a claim for him.
What a strange league. The Giants were the only team to claim Hodgins.
Turns out Buffalo was trying to move Hodgins from the active roster to the practice squad and had to expose him to waivers to do so. The Giants were awarded Hodgins, and he quickly moved into the rotation. He started five games in the regular season and a sixth Sunday in his first playoff game, in Minnesota. At 6-4, he was the kind of big receiver the Giants lacked. “Smart player, dependable guy, kept his head down,” Daboll said. “Caught a lot of contested balls at Oregon State. He worked. He knew what we were trying to do offensively inside and out. Joe [Schoen] brought him up. We thought he’d be a good fit because he knows all the terminology of our offense.”
Price tag for the cap-strapped Giants was good too: Hodgins would make just $705,000 in 2022. He’d be one of the lowest-paid players on the team.
The Giants were the land of opportunity, though, and Daniel Jones took to Hodgins right away. Since Dec. 1, he’s the most-targeted wideout on the team, with 33 targets, and another nine Sunday in Minnesota. His 14-yard TD catch from Jones Sunday gave the Giants a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter. New York never trailed after that.
Turns out Hodgins had the first 100-yard game of his life—eight catches, 105 yards. One of the lowest-paid guys on the field out-performed the likely Offensive Player of the Year, Justin Jefferson. One more catch, one more TD, 48 more receiving yards.
The Giants employed three other starters in Hodgins’ financial neighborhood—wideout Richie James, corner Fabian Moreau, linebacker Jaylon Smith—on short, prove-it deals, the only kind Schoen could offer roster marginalia. He signed others to low-paying Practice Squad jobs, telling those willing to work cheap it’s all the Giants had, and they’d be moved to the active roster on gameday when the opportunity permitted. And Daboll, offensive coordinator Mike Kafka and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale coached them hard.
The result: New York will go to Philadelphia with a bunch of players with boulders, not chips, on their shoulders. The Giants wanted them. No one else did. The Eagles will have more talent, to be sure. But desire could make this a game Saturday night at the Linc.