Sometimes when it feels like the walls are closing in and the entire world seems to be overwhelmingly against you, it's difficult to remind yourself to take a deep breath and relax.
Through the first five weeks of the 2023 season, angst and anguish had followed the New York Giants' offensive line, a position group that has been a decade-long sore point in New York and had seemed to be worse than ever. The unit had been besieged by injuries, from All-Pro left tackle Andrew Thomas to rookie center John Michael Schmitz, and quarterback Daniel Jones was subsequently besieged by pressure from a porous and makeshift unit.
The O-Line gave up 30 sacks in the first five weeks and was drawing comparisons to some of the most porous offensive lines in NFL history. Fans in New York, many still traumatized by past offensive line flops, went off the deep end. The emotions of struggling players ranged from the ill-advised defiance of Evan Neal to the agony of Josh Ezeudu, who was left inconsolable after giving up a sack that knocked Jones out of Week 5's game and has since left him sidelined with a neck injury.
Then came a blast from the past with the signing of Justin Pugh, the Giants' first-round pick in 2013, in a move to stabilize the offensive line malaise. And he came with words that have seemingly broken the tension.
"First, you have to get comfortable," Pugh told CBS Sports. "Everyone's got to get in their Lovesac, relax a little bit, take a load off. And then we focus on the task at hand."
When Pugh introduced himself as "straight off the couch" in the Giants' Week 6 game against the Buffalo Bills, the phrase quickly went viral and highlighted the way Pugh had gone from rehabbing from a knee injury to starting at left guard -- and almost immediately moving to left tackle -- mere days after joining the Giants' practice squad. The ingenuity, combined with Pugh's own admirable performance, was quickly matched by marketing opportunities.
Pugh has since earned an endorsement deal with Lovesac, who has rebranded their existing BigOne sac as "The BigBlueOne." "Straight off the couch" T-Shirts have been produced, and both Lovesacs and T-Shirts are in the process of making their way around the Giants offensive line (including to Jalen Mayfield, Pugh's collaborator on the "straight off the couch" line). One BigBlueOne sac will even be auctioned off to benefit the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund, the charity of Pugh's legendary head coach from his first stint in New York.
"We're probably gonna be getting all the guys some Lovesacs, which will be great," Pugh said. "I don't even know if we have enough room at the facility for all the Lovesacs, because they are massive. We could fit a few offensive linemen on them. So we'll figure out a way to make that happen – It's a good problem to have."
The 33-year-old Pugh, the lone link to the Tom Coughlin era of Super Bowl-winning teams on the Giants' current 53-man roster, has instantly reassumed the same sort of vocal and demonstrative leadership role he had in his first stint with the team. This time, he has been tasked with helping a young offensive line -- playing without their best player in Thomas, who has been out since being injured in Week 1 -- find its way through what has been a difficult start to the 2023 season.
In some ways, the adversity of their start has been made worse by the Giants' long-standing offensive line malaise, which has created a burden of past O-Line sins on the current group that Pugh has made efforts to absolve them of.
"I've played in New York before, I know how stressful New York can be. So I just came in here, I said, 'Guys, there's no pressure on us whatsoever. Let's go out there, let's play free, let's do all these different things,'" Pugh said. "And we had some injuries, guys are coming back from injury. We've just done a good job of creating that camaraderie.
"It's not all on me – There's five guys that have to go out there and play offensive line. And that's the beauty of it. That's why I love it. If all four guys do their job and one doesn't, the whole offensive line looks bad. Five have to play as one. And that's the thing that we're learning. We have a young group. We're gonna continue to get better with that and continue to be more successful as the year goes on."
Pugh's message is one he's particularly trying to impart on second-year right tackle Evan Neal, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, who has had issues dealing with both not meeting expectations as a highly-touted lineman out of Alabama and the pressure of playing in New York. Fan frustration with Neal's play was made exponentially worse Seahawks and likened critics of his play to "sheep" and fast food workers., where he told fans to "boo louder" in a loss to the
Pugh has publicly empathized with Neal's plight, remembering how in his second season he broke down in his car and wallowed in self-doubt after allowing four sacks in a game prior to re-signing with the Giants. Now, Pugh has adopted a direct role in mentoring Neal, specifically when it comes to how to handle the arrows and slings of New York.
"He knows he shouldn't have said what he said to the fans, but there's this ecosystem that players don't always necessarily know," Pugh said. "When you play at Alabama or a place like that, you're used to always winning. Evan isn't used to losing games. He played at IMG Academy in high school – I don't think he's probably ever lost a game until he got to the NFL.
"And that's difficult, and obviously he's learning how to deal with that. He's still learning what it's all about to be a pro. And he's getting better and better every day. I'm giving him as much advice as I can on what it's like to play in this league.
"Everyone has to run their own race though, and Evan's doing that right now and learning through ups and downs and turmoil. He's got a question to face – the same question that I had to face all those years ago – whether you're gonna let this get you down and your career's gonna end that way, or you're gonna get up and fight and fight for your career and what you want. I think Evan's gonna choose to fight, and I've already seen him fighting. And he's gonna continue to get better this year, and we're looking forward to that."
Pugh, who was brought up and coached under the championship mentality of the Coughlin teams, has quickly become a legitimate and guiding voice on a Giants team that won the franchise's first playoff game since Super Bowl XLVI last year, but is still trying to prove they were more than just a flash in the pan after a 2-5 start to this season. And sure enough, Pugh's two starts have come with a change in the narrative -- specifically along the offensive line.
While things haven't been perfect -- Tyrod Taylor was sacked three times against the Bills and four times against the Washington Commanders -- the offensive line has stabilized and earned some credit in New York as the Giants played a close game in Buffalo before getting back in the win column against Washington. Talk of a turnaround for the Giants' offense has sprung up, particularly as the offensive line gains reinforcements -- namely in the return of Thomas and Schmitz to practice this week.
A straight line can be drawn between that point and Pugh's Sunday Night introduction: something that seems to have snapped the Giants out of the funk that followed them after a 40-0 home blowout to the Dallas Cowboys to start the year, and inspired a new attitude more closely resembling that which got them to the playoffs against all odds in 2022.
"It's crazy – when you win one game, things start to change," Pugh said. "The Giants have had some competitive games. I think everyone just goes back to the first game of the season, and that game snowballed and got away. Every team has games like that. And it's crazy that one game can just follow you for an entire season. And we've been shaking that the last two weeks.
"I'm excited about where we're going as the season progresses with the offensive line as well, but I'm also gonna remind the guys how quickly it'll turn on you as well. We have to continue to work, continue to communicate, continue to win games and just have a 1-0 mentality. And this week is the Jets, and we're looking forward to the challenge."