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Fixing the Giants: How much change does ownership have an appetite for?

The Giants are broken and changes are coming, but will the Giants be willing to go far enough to fix this mess?

Los Angeles Rams v New York Giants Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The New York Giants have made the playoffs once since winning the 2011 Super Bowl. They have had two winning seasons in that time, only one in the last nine years. They have suffered through five straight double-digit loss seasons during which they are 22-57, a .278 winning percentage. This ties them with the New York Jets for the worst record in the NFL during that time span. Worse, they have lost double-digit games in seven of eight seasons, interrupted only by going 11-5 in 2016.

Since dumping Tom Coughlin after the 2015 season, they have had three head coaches — four if you count Steve Spagnuolo’s interim tenure. The Giants had never fired a general manager until parting ways with Jerry Reese in 2017. Soon, they will be replacing his replacement.

The Giants are broken. They are football’s Humpty Dumpty. A proud franchise, one with four titles during the Super Bowl era, an original NFL franchise that has long considered itself a model organization that others should aspire to be. The Giants are lying in pieces at the bottom of a wall they fell off years ago. They seem to have no idea how to put themselves back together and start scaling the wall to becoming a relevant NFL team once again.

Let’s try to help.

In a three-part series we’re going to call ‘Fixing the Giants,’ we are going to examine the front office, the coaching staff and, finally, the roster. We will take a top-down approach and begin with ownership and the front office.

Ownership/Front office

The Giants are the only franchise in the NFL with dual-family ownership. The Tisch family purchased 50 percent of the franchise back in 1991. That carries with it a challenge not faced by any other organization in the NFL — the need for virtually every decision about the direction of the franchise to include some type of compromise. There is no single voice as final arbiter of every major decision.

John Mara and Steve Tisch are not the brokers of the original deal between the families. Their fathers, Wellington Mara and Robert Tisch, were. Both died in 2005, leaving their sons at the heads of their respective sides of the table. So, it is an arranged marriage.

The Mara family is often thought of as the “owners” of the franchise. Since 1925, the Giants have been the Mara family business. John Mara is the one who is in East Rutherford, N.J. nearly every day. He regularly attends practice. He is in the owner’s box for every game.

Steve Tisch is a film producer. He is not around the team or the building in East Rutherford a whole lot. His level of involvement in the day-to-day operations of the franchise is a mystery.

Mara and Tisch are vastly different people with vastly different life experiences. The franchise means vastly different things to each. Yet, when it comes to major decisions like hiring and firing general managers or coaches they have to reach an agreement.

It is fair to wonder if that need for compromise is why the Giants often seem to take half-measures — removing Tom Coughlin in 2015 while keeping Jerry Reese, keeping Dave Gettleman in 2020 while firing Pat Shurmur, keeping Eli Manning in both of those instances, perhaps keeping Joe Judge this time around while finding a new GM.

The Mara family is the one that sees tending to the Giants as a day-to-day job. Some believe that the Maras are perhaps a little too close, or a little too involved, in that day-to-day football operation.

In an in-depth two-part series for his subscriber-only site, golongtd.com, Tyler Dunne spoke with some former scouts and front office employees. One accused the Giants of having a “protected class” of front office workers. Another accused the Giants of running a “shadow scouting department” with John Mara, senior vice president of player personnel Chris Mara and co-director of player personnel Tim McDonnell, John Mara’s nephew. Senior personnel executive Kyle O’Brien was not mentioned as part of the “shadow” group, but O’Brien is the son of a former team doctor.

From Dunne’s reporting:

“And it’s not just a scout,” this source says. “You’re talking about ownership doing this. Ownership masquerading as a personnel department. Making decisions and going against what you want to do. Years and years of this, the fruition of this is why they are where they are. That’s the thing with the Giants. It’s not as if you’re hiring regular people and saying, ‘Hey, let’s earn your job and work your way up.’ They’re family.”

Here is what a former Giants scout told NJ Advance Media:

“John is not like his Dad,” a former longtime Giants scout told NJ Advance Media, speaking on the condition of anonymity to allow him to speak freely. “Where Wellington would listen, he wouldn’t dictate. I think John dictates. Wellington was never like that. I think these guys [John and Chris Mara] have been involved literally their whole life, so they have their own answers for everything. They’ve done things the ‘Giant Way’ for so long. It might not be a bad idea to bring somebody in.”

How true are those charges? I do not know. I always believe that while the opinions of former employees who may not have left jobs of their own accord are valuable and insightful, they should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.

The optics, though, are what they are. It would likely be a mistake to completely discount them after a decade of failure.

The franchise has arrived at yet another crossroads. It is assumed that they will soon be replacing Dave Gettleman as GM after a failed four-year tenure.

Will the Giants be willing to hire someone from outside, get out of the way, allow that person to fully evaluate the organization from top to bottom and make whatever changes he deems necessary?

There are already reports that the organization has decided that Joe Judge will return despite coaching a team that is 10-21 in his two seasons and appears to be going backwards, and that Daniel Jones will return as quarterback.

Scouting Academy Director Dan Hatman told me on a recent ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast that those constraints can be tough for GM candidates, who usually only get one chance at that job, to swallow.

“This person who knows head coach and quarterback are the critical pieces, the thing my entire legacy and tenure is going to be based on and you’re going to tell me who those things are going to be? I suspect they are fundamentally changing the pool of candidate who will be interested in that,” Hatman said. “People who have options probably are not going to sign up for that.

“You’re either gonna have to desperately want to work with Joe Judge … You’re going to have to want that condition, or you’re going to have to have little to no options for where else you can do this work.”

Thinking about how Gettleman got the job in the first place is instructive in light of Hatman’s comment.

First of all, he was a known quantity to Mara and Tisch after more than a decade of working in pro personnel for the Giants before becoming Carolina Panthers GM. Secondly, let’s be honest. Gettleman had no options. No one else was going to give him a second chance as a GM. It was take the Giants’ job with the condition that Eli Manning was going to be the quarterback, or don’t work.

Hatman, who has experience working in the scouting departments of the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, has long been a proponent of bringing in a GM and head coach together, tying them at the hip and telling them that if the time comes that one has to go, then both will go.

“If you don’t do it at the same time the person that’s there is in a superior position to the person that’s coming in because they survived the battle,” Hatman said. “If the new GM wants to be in the power position they need to work on getting that head coach out so they can bring their own in. You’re just setting up in-fighting.

“If Mara and Tisch called me and said, “What would you say?”, I’d say you look Joe Judge in the eye and say I don’t know if it’s fair, I don’t know if we’re necessarily nailing who you are and what you’re capable of but we’re going to bring in a pair of people that want to work together to build this, we’re gonna give them no prerequisites, we’re not going to tell them they have to keep Daniel Jones, we’re not going to tell them they have to keep Joe Judge. We’re not going to tell them they have to do anything. We’re going to hire two people we think can run a ship and we’re gonna let ‘em go run the ship.”

Will ownership be willing to do that? Even Judge operated for a season-and-a-half with Jason Garrett as offensive coordinator, something many believe came at Mara’s insistence.

In his Football Morning in America column this week, Peter King wrote this:

“I know John Mara, and I think he understands the depths of the issues. I don’t think he will fire Joe Judge, but obviously Mara will replace GM Dave Gettleman, and I will be very surprised if Mara doesn’t go outside the organization to do so. The Giants have a long way to go, which you know, and the only way to start the process is to have zero sacred cows.”

The Giants are known for their loyalty, a trait particularly associated to the Mara family. Hatman believes it is a double-edged sword.

“The thing that gets hard with a team as loyal as the Giants, which should be fantastic in a support mechanism — man, having loyal ownership that believes in you and wants you to succeed is one of those things you aspire to in an owner. I still believe there will be people who will really want to work for the Giants because they know when I get there if they believe in me, they’re going to believe in me. They’re going to give me every opportunity to prove myself. I do think that’s a strong suit,” Hatman said.

“If you’re going to go out and do a search and you’re going to set these prerequisites in a search of yes you can come in but you have to keep this person, you have to keep this person, you can’t change this and you can’t change that, which is the sense I get from some of their decision-making … That person (the new GM) is gonna be told you’re going to at least give this quarterback and this head coach at least another year before you’re allowed to do anything. If you’re giving those mandates to the decision-makers, they’re operating under constraints from the beginning.”

In Hatman’s view, that doesn’t have a great chance of succeeding.

“I feel like every time they go into this they’re loyal to the point of, well, I’m not going to change everything, I’m just going to change this one thing but then the new thing that comes into this one chair we’re gonna force them to deal with all of these pre-existing conditions, but yet expect this new piece to revolutionize things … I’m not sure I’m following the logic on how that’s going to increase efficiency.”

The Giants have three choices when it comes to filling what will almost certainly soon be a vacant GM chair:

  • Play the loyalty card and give the job to Kevin Abrams, who has been the team’s assistant GM for more than two decades. If they do that, it is hard to see how much about how the franchise operates — or who occupies those front office spots — changes.
  • Hire someone — like Tennessee Titans director of player personnel Monti Ossenfort — with connections to Judge and the Patriot Way. That might be looked as at a half-measure, doubling down on the head coach the organization desperately wants to succeed, perhaps giving him more say in personnel decisions, and yet still adding someone to the top of the organizational chart who does not have ties to the Giants.
  • Casting the widest possible net and hiring the person they believe to be the most qualified candidate, regardless of any previous ties to Judge or the Giants.

Which way will the Giants go? Former Minnesota Vikings GM and Tennessee Titans president Jeff Diamond believes the Giants need to cast that wide net.

“Someone like (Bill) Belichick would say sentimentality is not going to get you very far in this league,” Diamond said. “You’ve gotta make changes, and you’ve gotta be willing to, and I’m sure John understands and knows that there’s a lot of pressure now to make the right choice with his next GM. This is a very important hire, there’s no doubt about that.”

Diamond also believes ties to Judge are “not a factor.”

“I think you’re looking for the best person out there that you think can step up and do a great job and do the kind of things that John Schneider has done out in Seattle, that (Brett) Veach has done in Kansas City, those kind of guys,” Diamond said. “I think you’ve gotta find the right kind of GM that’s gonna make it work. It’s going to be a challenge, no doubt.”

What the Giants do will tell us a great deal about how honest they are being with themselves regarding how broken the organization is and the depths to which they have fallen.