The New York Giants new braintrust of general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Pat Shurmur knew that to rehabilitate a team that went 3-13 last season their biggest challenge was to fix the divided, losing culture that permeated a team that was broken.
When the Giants hired Shurmur, giving him his second opportunity to be an NFL head coach, Gettleman said the two men “completey agree” on the importance of culture.
“Football is the ultimate team sport,” Gettleman said. “We have to put together a roster that is talented but who love the game of football and love to compete.”
Have they succeeded?
Signs are everywhere that, yes, the divisions and dissension that plagued the Giants during their historically bad 2017 season are gone.
- Eli Apple, after a tumultuous season, is a happy camper with a new and improved outlook. Shurmur has lauded him for “acting like a pro.”
- Janoris Jenkins, who had his own issues last season and is facing personal strife of his own, has been business-like — and solid — on the field.
- There are, quite often, players working after practice and trying to help each other. Players like Nate Solder, Connor Barwin, Kareem Martin, A.J,. Francis and William Gay have brought with them not only talent but the desire to help other players.
- Shurmur likes to talk about keeping the focus on football. It feels like football again around the Giants, with the focus o,, n the field instead of a myriad of other distractions.
Credit for that has to go to Gettleman and Shurmur.
“They have everything to do with it, and it has changed a lot,” said John Greco, an 11-year veteran who came to the Giants midway through last season. “Unfortunately for me I haven’t had a lot of success in wins and losses in my career, but I’ve always been around teams that never fell apart when things went bad. But last year there was a lot of that.
“I think that culture has changed.”
If the Giants were going to successfully change their culture, Shurmur and Gettleman had to reach superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Shurmur is Beckham’s third head coach and, while not close to the reason Tom Coughlin and Ben McAdoo lost those jobs, the way those two coaches handled Beckham did not help them.
Desperate for victories after too many losing seasons, Coughlin turned a blind eye in 2015 when Beckham had his run-in with Josh Norman of Carolina. McAdoo did the same last season when Beckham was penalized for his peeing celebration in Philadelphia.
Truth is, whatever you think of those incidents, when the head coach won’t stand up to his his star player and enforce standards or impose some type of discipline when necessary the rest of the roster notices. And the team framework erodes.
Shurmur began reaching out to Beckham and trying to build a relationship back in February, shortly after settling into the job. He even went to Los Angeles to see Beckham on his home turf.
The result? Beckham has been everything the Giants hoped for. Coming back from an injury and seeking a rich, long-term contract extension, he participated in offseason workouts and mandatory mini-camp. In training camp, despite still not having that deal and reports having circulated that he wouldn’t step on the field without a deal, Beckham has been a full participant in each practice during camp.
“Coach Shurmur’s great. When we first met out in L.A. we just sat down and talked football. To see his mentality and how he’s going to run the ship it’s been phenomenal to come in here every day,” Beckham said.
“He makes it fun for us. He’s just doing a great job.”
The contract Beckham wants appears within sight. The relationship forged by Shurmur with Beckham had a lot to do with it.
“This guy loves to play football,” Shurmur said of Beckham. “He trains extremely hard, he’s totally engaged in the meetings behind the scenes, the things that the world is not aware of, and he’s got a lot of passion for the game.”
When the Giants won Super Bowls in 2007 and 2011 there was, of course, talent on the rosters. There was also veteran leadership. In 2007, a star like Michael Strahan and veterans like Antonio Pierce, R.W. McQuarters and Sam Madison. In 2011, stars like Justin Tuck and Antrel Rolle, guys like Chris Snee and David Diehl, even a veteran like Deon Grant.
Those types of players have been missing for the past several years.
The Giants, in an effort to get younger and more athletic, moved on from veteran leaders like Tuck and Rolle, saw guys like Snee and Diehl retire. In building their roster, they virtually ignored the 30-and-over market.
They got younger, sure. They also left themselves with a leadership void. Without veteran players who had won, who had been there and done that, and who could guide some of their younger teammates.
Gettleman and Shurmur have changed that.
Veteran players like Gay (33), Greco (33), CBarwin (31), Jonathan Stewart (31) and Solder (30) have been added.
Solder has had an excellent influence on Ereck Flowers and second-round pick Will Hernandez. Third-round pick Lorenzo Carter is soaking up knowledge from Barwin. Stewart is a former first-round pick who can help Saquon Barkley and Wayne Gallman. Gay is a veteran who loves the game and has helped the cornerback room, filled with dissension a year ago, come together.
“You have to stop worrying about age,” Gettleman said in the spring in answer to a question about Manning. He might as well have been talking about his approach to building the entire roster.
One of those 30-somethings, Barwin, recently described what he thought it took to be a good teammate.
“You try do whatever you can to help a guy do better,” Barwin said.
It is perhaps a small example, but after Friday’s practice 12th-year long-snapper Zak DeOssie was on the field helping 25-year-old Jordan Williams try to master the art of long-snapping, which he has never done in a regular-season game.
“I think it’s good,” Shurmur said. “I think especially when older players are helping younger players, it shows me that they care and that’s the most important thing.”
Genuine and approachable
There is an old adage that you have to give respect to get respect. Spend time around Shurmur and you can see that is what he does.
That was veteran defensive tackle A.J. Francis, playing for his sixth NFL organization, on Shurmur.
Greco has been with Shurmur in three stops — when he was offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, then head coach of the Cleveland Browns before coming to the Giants.
“His personality is always the same. He’s a great guy, player’s coach. I don’t think there’s anything that’s changed as far as how he’s approaching his day-to-day head coaching duties, I see a ton of similarities.,” Greco said.
“Some coaches you’re afraid to talk to. They have this aura about them that makes them unapproachable. I don’t think that’s Pat at all. You can go up to him and joke around and give him a hard time, but at the same time you know when to separate that from work. I think that’s great to have.”
Giants tight end Rhett Ellison was with Shurmur in Minnesota.
“Shurmur, he is what you’re going to get, like that’s who he is,” Ellison said. “He doesn’t change around different people or in different positions, he is who he is. He’s real, he’s a great communicator and he’s a great teacher.”
Shurmur has shown that genuine personality not only to players, but to the media as well. The day players reported for training camp, he stopped by unsolicited to chat with reporters and welcome them to camp. He will let you know if he is tired of a particular question, but he gives respectful, thoughtful answers to each question. He will often extend press briefings, taking an extra question or two after the Giants’ PR staff tries to shut down briefings. He’s even opened up a little recently and drawn some laughs.
Friday, Shurmur spent about 15 or 20 minutes after his briefing talking with a group of young journalism students visiting for the day. Certainly, he had someplace else he would rather have been, but he gave them his full attention.
Gettleman, too, has shown his personality to reporters. He jokes with them. He uses their names. He talks to people, not at them. And, yes, there is a difference.
Players notice those kinds of things. Media, too.
“I’ve seen Mr. Gettleman, I’ve seen Pat talk to everyone on the team no matter who you are. They come in, they want to know how your day is doing, they want to know how you’re feeling,” Greco said. “I think that makes guys feel good, especially the younger players. They don’t feel like just a number and a name. They feel like part of a family.”
A pragmatic approach
Gettleman and Shurmur didn’t know each other before Shurmur was hired by the Giants. The marriage has, thus far, been a good one.
Gettleman said that Shurmur, an offensive coach, has a “pragmatic” approach much like many defensive-oriented head coaches he has been around.
“He’s got a great way about him,” Gettleman said. “What I’ve found is, defensive coaches, if you look at NFL history, the greatest head coaches – most of the greatest head coaches – have come from the defensive side of the ball. They tend to be very pragmatic. “Joe Schmo” goes down, “Sam Smith” goes in, these are our adjustments.
“I’ve got a head coach who has been on the offensive side of the ball his whole career with that pragmatic approach so, I’m in heaven, I’m in absolute heaven. He’s very pragmatic. I think he’s got a great way about him with the players. He keeps it simple. We’re playing football, it’s not rocket science. We’re playing football, put the ball down, let’s go, 11 guys, let’s go. I’m thrilled with Pat. I couldn’t be happier. He’s everything I thought he could be.”
“I do try to be realistic about things. How our game relates to the players. I don’t know if that’s part of being pragmatic,” Shurmur said. “Try to solve the problems as they come up with a plan in place. Decide what our plan is, work the players to try to get ‘em better and then when things change be willing to adjust.”
“I really do believe it’s about the players.”
That is a Shurmur quote from his first press conference after being hired.
“We used to have a thing we said in Philadelphia, and then certainly when we went to Minnesota that, ‘It’s not the plays, it’s the players.’ I think what’s important is we’re going to establish the right way to do things. We’re going to establish what we want as a New York Giants football team,” Shurmur said.
“I think what you do is you start initially with the locker room by developing relationships with those guys that love to play football, and you’re constantly talking to them about what it means to be a good pro.”
The Giants have not played a game yet. There is no guarantee that anything they have done will lead them back to the playoffs, or even to being better than they were a year ago. Still, it is abundantly clear that the Giants are in a better place.
Shurmur and Gettleman deserve credit for that.