This was a team coming off five consecutive double-digit loss seasons. At 22-59, the Giants were tied with the New York Jets for the worst record in football over that five-year span. They had gone through three head coaches in six years. They appeared to have a broken front office with the Mara family accused of exercising too much control over football decisions.
They were starting over — finally — with first-time decision-makers at head coach and GM from outside their organizational comfort zone. Those decision-makers were handed a highly-drafted quarterback no one was sure they could go forward with. They had a roster filled with holes and a disastrous salary cap situation that left them with little money to try and fix it.
It looked like the beginning of a long-term building process.
The new GM, Joe Schoen, expressed his distaste for rebuilding, but made no grand promises for 2022.
“I want to make it the best I can,” Schoen said at the Scouting Combine. “I don’t want to go out and get my head beat in, ever. I want to have a competitive team and do what’s best for the franchise in the future.
“I’d like to build the roster the best we can so we can be competitive this year.”
The new head coach, Brian Daboll, said in the spring that the Giants would just “try to win each day.”
Let’s just say Schoen and Daboll could not be accused of over-promising.
So, how did this happen? How did Schoen and Daboll get the Giants to 9-7-1 and into the playoffs in Year 1?
“It takes everybody in the building to do their job well. It’s probably the greatest team sport to be part of, coaching or playing or being part of the football team,” Daboll said. “I have a lot of good people that are with me, whether that’s coaches, front office, scouting, most importantly the players, the administration staff – everybody that is responsible to do their job well. So, I’m just one part of the puzzle. I try to do my job the best I can but count on a lot of other people doing their job well. And that’s again, like I said, a testament to them and starting with the players.”
Schoen revamped the front office. He brought in smart people like Brandon Brown (assistant GM), Chris Rossetti (director or pro scouting) and former Miami Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey (assistant director of player personnel).
From the beginning, Schoen has made difficult, cap-clearing decisions like moving on from James Bradberry while using every means available to add low-cost, useful veterans who could at least help in the short term.
Injuries have made the overall draft class difficult to assess, but the Giants hope Kayvon Thibodeaux, Evan Neal and injured wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson are foundational pieces.
Daboll promised only that he would be “authentic” and that under his direction the Giants were “just going to try to do things the right way.”
Daboll said what all new coaches say — that the game is about the players and that the job of the coaching staff was to let players do what they do best.
“The schemes are going to be what the players are best at,” is how Daboll put it at his introductory press conference.
We have seen far too many times over the years, though, that for many coaches and coaching staffs that is simple lip service. They either don’t know how to truly identify and use those things that players really do well, or simply aren’t willing to bend their schemes to fit those talents.
Daboll and the quality, experienced NFL coaching staff he built have brought those words to life.
Reflecting on the journey to this point, Daboll on Monday told a great story about building both his relationship with quarterback Daniel Jones — and the Giants’ offense — that illustrates the point.
“I spent a lot of time with Daniel to try to get to know him and him to know me,” Daboll said. “He’d come over to the house, and I just remember at the end of training camp, we’re sitting there. And I’m outside by the pool smoking a cigar, and the whole table has about three years’ worth of different playbooks as we’re going through training camp. I’m saying, ‘Tell me if you like any of these.’ You’re making sure that ‘You know what, this guy cares about what I think. He cares how I see the game.’ I think that’s important for a quarterback.”
It has been important across the roster. The Giants have a completely different set of wide receivers than anyone thought they would have when the season started, and yet with this unheralded group are throwing the ball more efficiently than they have all season. They have used a plethora of tight ends and offensive linemen, all the while getting enough production and shifting their blocking schemes as the season has progressed.
On defense, Wink Martindale has been as advertised. He brings a “pressure breaks pipes” philosophy and blitzes more than any defensive coordinator in the NFL. Where Martindale and his defensive assistants deserve credit is for getting effective enough play out of a constantly evolving group of players in the secondary, at linebacker and even on the edge. Oh, and ‘Kudos’ to defensive line coach Andre Patterson for getting the best play of his career from Dexter Lawrence.
Nothing has been as important as the work the Giants have done with Jones.
Jones’ first three seasons with the Giants were a disaster. There were glimpses of raw ability, but Jones never came close to justifying the No. 6 overall pick Dave Gettleman used on him in 2019.
Saquon Barkley was almost always injured. The offensive line was perennially putrid. There never seemed to be anyone reliable for Jones to throw the ball to. There were two head coaches and three play-callers, and for the last couple of seasons the plan seemed to involve trying to prevent Jones from screwing up rather than allowing him a real opportunity to make plays.
Remember what co-owner John Mara said after hiring Schoen to be the GM?
“We do feel that Daniel can play. We’ve done everything possible to screw this kid up since he’s been here. We keep changing coaches. Keep changing offensive coordinators. Keep changing offensive line coaches,” Mara said. “I take a lot of responsibility for that. Let’s bring in the right group of coaches now and give him some continuity and try to rebuild the offensive line and then be able to make it an intelligent evaluation of whether he can be the franchise quarterback or not.”
Part of that was Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka building an offense that worked for Jones. Not for Josh Allen. Not for Patrick Mahomes. Not to fit their ideas of what offense should look like. Simply to give Jones and the offense the best chance to succeed.
They also hit Jones with a heavy dose of tough love. They did not coddle him or apologize for him. They challenged him. The most public evidence of that came in Week 1, Daboll screaming at Jones on the sideline after an awful end zone interception against the Tennessee Titans.
It went far beyond that, however. Daboll tested Jones’ mettle by intentionally making things hard on him day after day.
in the subscription-only site GoLongTD.com, Tyler Dunne writes about how Daboll structured training camp to make Jones’ life miserable:
Start at the position that will decide the fate of any team until the end of time. Into this 2022 season, the new regime stuck with Daniel Jones on a one-year trial basis. They declined his fifth-year option for 2023, but believed Jones was talented enough to be the starter in Year 1 of a rebuild. Veteran Tyrod Taylor was added for insurance. The Giants were obviously choosing to punt this franchise-defining decision down the road, a fiscally smart maneuver considering fired GM Dave Gettleman left the roster in financial ruins. There was no need to anoint anyone. Not yet. But Daboll also knew this: He needed to test Jones’ mental toughness.
So, when training camp began, he devised a plan. As one source close to the coach explained, Daboll purposely structured practice for Jones to fail and Taylor to succeed.
“He wanted Daniel Jones to deal with the adversity,” this source explained. “He wanted to see how he dealt with it on a daily basis. And he passed it with flying colors. So, I know he loves Daniel Jones.
“He loves Daniel Jones. He loves him.”
Practices are always scripted. Daboll would tell defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale which plays he’d be running when Jones was in the game, this source explains, and had Martindale call defensive plays that’d intentionally work. And when Taylor entered? Exact opposite. Plays were scripted on both sides to set him up for success.
Jones did not flinch. Daboll was thrilled.
Until reading Dunne’s work, I did not know that part of the Daboll-Jones training camp story. Having attended many of the training camp practices, though, I can attest that most days were set up to give the defense an advantage. The Giants spent many practices working long-yardage or third-down situations and Daboll mostly allowed Martindale to be Martindale, blitzing to his heart’s content.
The result? There were a lot of days during training camp where Jones and the offense looked overmatched. Because they were. On purpose.
Day after miserable offensive day, we would ask Daboll if he was concerned about the lack of offensive success. He continually emphasized process over results, saying that the latter really only mattered once the games started.
I asked Daboll this week to reflect back on how testing Jones, and the rest of the roster, in that way laid the groundwork for the success the Giants have enjoyed. He gave a lengthy answer that, I think, reveals a lot about how he thinks.
“Part of that training camp and OTAs is to test guys, not just physically but also mentally. So, I’d say that again – does winning help early on? Sure, it helps. I don’t think anyone would say it doesn’t. But I do think the type of players, the type of people, that we have, they’ve been fantastic to work with. They’ve got a great mindset. They exhibit a lot of characteristics that we covet in terms of being smart, tough, dependable. And they just try to get better each day,” Daboll said. “And I appreciate working with them and the things that they’ve tried to do. And again, it’s an up-and-down league. So, trying to give them a level of consistency, I think, is really important from a coaching staff because, again, this league can get you quick.
“So, I try to be the same coach, the same person, after a win as you are with a loss. And focus on the process, if you will, because I can live with results if we’re doing things the right way: we’re on time, we’re taking care of our bodies, we’re detailed in meetings, we practice our tails off. If we go out there and don’t get the results we want Sunday, I can live with that. I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit, but I certainly can live with it based on what they’re doing and what we’re asking them to do and how they’re doing it.”
Jones has responded with his best season. There were ‘Daniel Jones’ and ‘MVP’ chants as he exited Sunday’s 38-10 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. There is now a belief in many quarters that Jones has earned the right to remain as Giants quarterback for at least the next couple of seasons. And that he will be well-paid to do that.
“He’s [Daboll] meant a lot. I’ve learned a lot from him. A lot of football,” Jones said. “I’ve grown a lot as a player. I appreciate his support and giving me the chance to go out there and play. He’s helped me a lot, he’s helped all of us a lot. Definitely grateful for him.”
Daboll has also consistently shown confidence in his players. Nothing resonated more than his Week 1 decision to go for two points while trailing 20-19 vs. the Tennessee Titans, which resulted in a 21-20 season-opening victory.
“I don’t think he gets enough respect for how competitive he is. He always talks about competitive stamina, competitive mindset, and it kind of starts with your coach. It kind of started Week 1 when we scored a touchdown and you go for two. I think it starts there. It shows the trust that he has in us, the belief that he has in us. And when a guy like that is your head coach, showing him that as a player you don’t want to go out there and let him down, you want to enhance your level of play. And he’s been doing that all year from start to finish — from once he came in, just the energy he was able to bring to the facility, not only him, but Joe [Schoen] too, all the coaches, they’ve been doing a phenomenal job and I think the players are feeding off that.”
It has all added up to a far more successful season than almost anyone thought possible. Daboll hopes the Giants aren’t done surprising people.
“You work with these guys every day. A lot of them are my kids’ ages. Some of them have had some challenging times here. So, I’m extremely happy for the players, first and foremost, but the staff, trainers, ownership, coaches,” he said of reaching the playoffs. “Our goal – it’ll never be just to make the playoffs. That’ll never be just our goal.”