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The 5-1 Giants aren’t a fluke, and they aren’t going away

Quarterback Daniel Jones, head coach Brian Daboll and running back Saquon Barkley have keyed the Giants' renaissance. (Kin Cheung/AP)

There is reason to believe the New York Giants are playoff-bound, despite their roster limitations and despite Coach Brian Daboll and General Manager Joe Schoen just arriving in January.

What they lack in talent they make up for with preparation, creativity and astute in-game management, and the Giants are playing with a passion and self-belief that can’t be quantified. Their 5-1 record may have included some elements of luck, but fluky it is not. This smooth and steady operation has shown an ability to adjust throughout games and topple superior (on paper) opponents, erasing a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday a week after shocking the Green Bay Packers in London despite a 10-point halftime deficit. Plenty of difficult division games are ahead — with the NFC East no longer a doormat — but ample evidence suggests the Giants won’t just fade away.

“Daboll is the coach of the year so far,” said one general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to comment on other teams. “They play really hard for him. They don’t beat themselves. They don’t ever seem to think they’re out of it.

“Look at what he’s doing with [running back Saquon] Barkley. He lines up everywhere. They get him matchups to win in the running game and the passing game. [Quarterback] Daniel Jones is playing winning football. They’re doing great s--- with him. That’s a really good football team.”

Another longtime NFL personnel executive — who has watched considerable Giants game film and who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of workplace restrictions — called the Giants “a playoff team. Very well-coached. And they’re going to get healthier. They got [defensive lineman] Leonard Williams back, and he’s playing great. They’re going to get [edge rusher] Azeez Ojulari back. [Linebacker] Jaylon Smith is starting to make some plays for them. You watch the film, and they are a legit team.”

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Unlike many (if not most) novice head coaches, Daboll isn’t fixated on re-proving what a great offensive play-caller he is. Those duties reside with offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, a former NFL quarterback who studied under Andy Reid in Kansas City (and who himself will be a head coach by 2024, at the latest). Daboll can focus on the litany of macro-level decisions that go into overseeing an NFL contest — every Giants game has been decided by eight points or fewer — while veteran coordinator Wink Martindale runs the defense. It’s a complete reversal from the failed Joe Judge era, and the players are clearly responding to the superior instruction and preparation they are receiving, as well as the schematic tweaks and week-to-week adjustments.

It may be suboptimal that the Giants have trailed in every game, but they are 3-1 in games in which they’ve fallen behind by a touchdown or more. Few teams are making better use of halftime. New York is third in the NFL in second-half scoring margin (plus-38) and first in average second-half time of possession at 17 minutes 40 seconds, bludgeoning opponents with Barkley, who looks better than ever after multiple surgeries. The Giants are second in second-half offensive expected points added, per TruMedia, and 11th in second-half defensive EPA.

“That’s coaching,” the GM remarked when discussing those stats.

Few non-quarterbacks in the league are impacting games to the degree Barkley is. He leads the NFL in touches with 140 (12 more than any other player) and scrimmage yards with 771 (52 more than anyone else). He is also one of the league’s most-targeted running backs in the passing game (26). Daboll and Kafka are deploying him in multiple ways; he has had seven snaps at wide receiver and six at tight end and has lined up 12 times in the slot.

The Giants have been decimated by injuries at wide receiver, yet they overcome. Barkley somehow has nearly 100 touches more than any teammate, with Jones (as a ballcarrier) second with 47 carries. After that it’s wide receiver Richie James and running back Matt Breida, both with 21 touches. In a year when wideouts are being paid like quarterbacks and downfield passing is all the rage, Barkley and Jones (as a ballcarrier) account for 1,007 of New York’s 2,010 scrimmage yards — and no one else on the roster has even 200 combined rushing/receiving yards with a third of the season complete.

Another injury to Barkley would obviously be crushing. And more pieces must emerge on offense. But don’t discount Jones’s development under this staff. Longtime former NFL coach, advance scout and personnel executive Bobby DePaul — who broke into the NFL on Joe Gibbs’s legendary staff — has watched the Giants closely on film and is a believer. “You can win a lot of football games with Daniel Jones,” he said. “The comp for me is Ryan Tannehill.”

Tannehill, of course, became a consistent playoff QB once he got to Tennessee and received competent coaching. Jones seems well on that path.

The Bears are shopping a star

The Chicago Bears are a mess again, and they are in a rebuild even if they don’t want to admit it, although pawning off Khalil Mack should have been evidence enough. Now, after the Bears told teams through the offseason that they didn’t want to part with Robert Quinn, their other veteran pass rusher, multiple NFL executives (speaking on the condition of anonymity because they are not permitted to discuss players on other rosters) told me Quinn is indeed being shopped around with the trade deadline a few weeks away.

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“They want to move him, but they are going to have to eat some of that contract to do it,” one GM said.

Quinn, 32, has just two quarterback hits this season, is probably playing more snaps than he should and carries a $12.8 million salary. He has wanted out since the Bears began purging their defense in the offseason.

Notes from around the league

I noted about a month ago that Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey was likely to be traded by the deadline. I’d put it at a near certainty at this point. With his injury history, the Panthers should do it as soon as possible, with the deadline in two weeks. He’s fourth in the NFL in scrimmage yards behind Barkley, Tyreek Hill and Nick Chubb. … Will the Houston Texans trade star left tackle Laremy Tunsil? That’s what some GMs are wondering after the sudden firing of top executive Jack Easterby this week surprised many around the NFL. GM Nick Caserio is playing the long game, so expect a few transactions. …

The Los Angeles Chargers have some injuries (because they always do), but the limited scope and breadth of their passing scheme, despite the brilliance of quarterback Justin Herbert, continues to confound rival executives and scouts. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi refuses to air it out; Herbert is 29th in the NFL in air yards per attempt among qualified passers. “I can’t figure it out,” said one evaluator, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he cannot comment publicly on NFL teams. “Does he realize Herbert is his quarterback?” Lombardi wasn’t the top choice for that job, from what I’ve heard, and given the Chargers’ issues on defense, you can’t help but wonder if they let Herbert cut loose sometime soon. …

One rising star and future head coaching candidate not nearly enough people are talking about: Philadelphia Eagles defensive passing game coordinator/secondary coach Dennard Wilson. Wilson, 40, is an Upper Marlboro native, a former Maryland standout and a one-time Washington practice squad safety who cut his coaching teeth at DeMatha, his alma mater, in 2004. At least a few smart GMs are on him, and while the Eagles love him, they figure they are going to lose him at some point.