By now, everyone knows that the Giants did not exercise the second-year option on running back Jonathan Stewart’s contract, a move that quite frankly was not surprising.
The move had to be made as unfortunately in the NFL, we’re in an era where carrying luxury players just because is just not smart business, not when you’re trying to rebuild a franchise.
But a case can be made that carrying Stewart for a year—yes even at his price tag—was one that will benefit the Giants in the long-term.
Revisiting the signing: Why the Giants made the move
One of the areas the Giants were looking to address last off-season was their short yardage woes.
Although Stewart hasn’t played in a 16-game season since 2011 and had clearly lost snaps to the younger, more dynamic Christian McCaffrey in 2017, Stewart still had value as a short-yardage back.
In 2017, Stewart had faced the most stacked boxes out of all the running backs in the NFL (51.01% of his carries), yet still managed to average 3.4 yards per carry that year and was instrumental in the Panthers converting 70.3 percent of their goal-to-go attempts.
The Giants, meanwhile, had their struggles not just with short yardage but with goal-to-go. According to league stats, New York converted 55 percent of their goal-to-go attempts, well below the league average of 70.2 percent.
Simply put, the Giants, not knowing if Saquon Barkley would actually be there when they went on the clock, were looking to boost their running game with a guy who over his career had proven himself capable of converting on short yardage. That guy was Stewart.
Production aside—and certainly that part was a gamble which didn’t work out for the Giants, though to be fair, who’s to say that Stewart might have continued to struggle all season had he not landed on IR after Week 3?—the one thing that did work out was the leadership aspect.
How Stewart helped the locker room
There is a belief among some Giants fans that Saquon Barkley was just so polished that he didn’t need Stewart or anyone else in his ear.
Giants running backs coach Craig Johnson told of a different scenario during one of his late-season press briefings.
I think Jonathan Stewart is a great role model. He’s been kind of where Saquon’s attempting to go. ... If you were in my meeting room yesterday, they were dissecting a run from practice the other day, and Saquon said, ‘I saw this,’ and Stew told him, ‘Yes, but you need to think about this.’ It was really a great moment, which is the way I believe it should be if you can have a veteran who’s been there talking to a younger player who’s willing to listen and ask a lot of questions.
Besides providing a different perspective on how to view plays, Stewart also shared wisdom with others about his longevity in the NFL, especially given that he plays a position that usually has a much shorter shelf life.
But his greatest contribution in the locker room that largely went unnoticed is that he helped promote unity which had deteriorated the year before.
In 2017 during the media access, you rarely saw guys in the locker room during their down time, engaging with one another in some way, shape or form.
More often than not, you saw guys in their lockers with their headphones in their ears, listening to music as they shut out the world around them.
Often, you saw guys who had their faces in their smart phones looking at pictures, texting friends and/or family outside of the building.
And if you didn’t know any better, you’d swear there was a lot of disconnect in the Giants locker room among teammates, even though when it came time to go on the record, the guys spoke about being brothers and being there for one another.
With Gettleman and head coach Pat Shurmur having turned over the 2017 roster by roughly 60 percent, Stewart was someone who made sure that the team came together on and off the field by promoting cohesiveness in the locker room at times when players could have done their own thing.
The first glimpse into the intangible value Stewart brought to the locker room came with receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who, along would Stewart, would lie on his belly on the locker room floor engaging in conversation while sometimes sharing an activity such as looking at pictures, going over the playbook or swapping silly jokes.
That practice soon spread to the other side of the locker room where unlike the previous season, you’d have defensive players who might have previously kept to themselves now clustering together, again during their personal downtime when they could have gone outside to make phone calls or ducked away some place to grab a quick nap, to engage in a group activity.
The point here is that if you’re going to go to battle with each other on Sunday, it certainly can’t hurt if you’re tight with the guys inside the locker room, and you get to know them on a personal level in scenarios outside of football beyond what the coach might arrange for you.
This is a practice the offensive line from 2007-2010 believed in and it’s no wonder that those guys reached a point where they could read each other’s minds.
If nothing else, that behind-the-scenes push toward true camaraderie was probably one of Stewart’s biggest contribution to a team that was desperately trying to grow away from the 3-13 misfits of a year ago.
And as an added bonus, Barkley and several others in that locker room now have themselves a friend/mentor for life—a guy who was voted into a Pro Bowl and who also went to a Super Bowl and who, regardless if his playing career is over, still offers a wealth of value in terms of advice all for the price of a phone call.
Couldn’t the Giants have gotten that for less money?
Probably. Other than the Detroit Lions, who reportedly hosted him for a visit, I don’t recall there being a league-wide push by teams to land Stewart’s services after the Panthers moved on from him.
And contrary to belief, as a 10-year veteran, Stewart would have still come away with a nice little chunk of change had he accepted the veteran minimum (which last year would have been around $1.01 million) while at the same time helping his new team’s cap by taking such a deal which would have only counted the same as a second-year player.
There’s no stuffing the toothpaste back into the tube on the move, though the Giants did have the foresight to ensure that they had a low-cost out of the contract if they decided to move on.
That’s exactly what they did, including an option for $500,000 which when spread out over the life of the two-year deal, came to $250,000 per year. And it’s that $250,000 that will hit the Giants 2019 cap as dead money, which isn’t that much of a hit.
Was Stewart a wasted signing?
If you’re looking solely at production, then yes, it is hard to argue against the opinion that Gettleman grossly misjudged exactly what Stewart had left.
If you look at the entire picture, Stewart’s brief time with the Giants, even though it was costly in terms of cap dollars, will hopefully continue to pay off dividends as the young players he mentored will hopefully continue to apply those lessons to future generations.