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Giants’ coaching staff mess is Brian Daboll’s to clean up ... and he better

Forcing Wink Martindale out, combined with other moves on the coaching staff, put the heat on Daboll entering Year 3

New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

The New York Giants’ 2024 offseason is certainly off to a messy, though entertaining and good for blogging fodder, start.

Most of that mess, and the resulting intrigue, involves Brian Daboll’s coaching staff.

Daboll is the first Giants head coach since Tom Coughlin to last more than two years. That’s good. The Giants had to get off the two-years-and-change-head coaches treadmill. The bad news is that his coaching staff is undergoing a massive, and seemingly unusual, amount of turnover just one year after the staff was lauded for its work as the Giants made a surprising playoff run.

Strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald and running backs coach Jeff Nixon left for other opportunities. Special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey and offensive line coach Bobby Johnson were fired on Black Monday. So, too, were Wink Martindale protégés Drew Wilkins and Kevin Wilkins, brothers who were the outside linebackers coach and assistant outside linebackers coaches, respectively.

Then, of course, the big shoe dropped Monday afternoon when it was reported that Martindale was going to resign.

Let’s be clear: This is the result that Daboll wanted to what was obviously a fractured relationship with his defensive coordinator. Despite Daboll saying on Monday that his “expectation” was that Martindale and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka would be back, it was always curious that Daboll said that was his plan while also admitting that he had not talked to either coordinator yet about their intentions for next season.

That’s easy to translate — Daboll wasn’t going to fire either of them. If they were going to leave, and Daboll is clearly OK with Martindale leaving, they were going to have to take the responsibility for that decision themselves.

Daboll then made what he wanted the defensive coordinator to do crystal clear by firing Martindale disciple Dean Wilkins, the outside linebackers coach Martindale brought with him from the Baltimore Ravens, and Wilkins’ brother, Kevin. You obviously don’t fire them if you are trying to coax Martindale into staying.

Something to note is that as of this writing, Martindale has not officially resigned. The expectation, of course, is that he will but it has not happened yet. Why?

This is simple. It’s about power. It’s about control. It’s about Martindale’s next move. Martindale is reportedly still under contract to the Giants for another year. That means the Giants, should they choose, can deny Martindale the opportunity to interview for other defensive coordinator jobs. Sorry, Eagles! Sorry, Commanders! The Giants can’t stop Martindale from interviewing for head coaching jobs, but they can stop him from interviewing for jobs that would be lateral moves.

So, it is clear at this point Daboll doesn’t want Martindale in the building at 1925 Giants Drive. Martindale’s leverage, though, is if he stays in the building for now he can perhaps negotiate his exit and gain at least some control over his ability to seek another defensive coordinator role for next season. Oh, and he can delay the Giants’ ability to start lining up and conducting interviews to replace him.

There has, to this point, been no word about Kafka’s intentions. Still, just because he hasn’t resigned yet, doesn’t mean he won’t. There has been some speculation that Daboll might want to take control of the offense next season, and he said Monday that internal conversations about that would be forthcoming.

Kafka had four head-coaching interviews last offseason. Being demoted to offensive coordinator without play-calling duties, if that happens, won’t advance his career path. Just because the attention isn’t on him right now, don’t be shocked if Kafka is somewhere else next season.

There is only one thing clear right now — the heat will be turned up on Daboll, and also GM Joe Schoen, in Year 3 of their regime. Especially, though, on Daboll.

The current tattered state of a coaching staff that was the toast of the NFL in 2022 when Daboll was Coach of the Year, is Daboll’s mess to clean up.

Shortly after Daboll became Giants’ head coach, I reached out to as many people from his past as I could for a feature story that ran here at Big Blue View. He was described as a “very intense young man.” He also described himself as a “son of a gun” who was harder on the players he coached than he needed to be.

Those who have known him for a long time thought that Daboll had become more “authentic,” more true to the person he really is as a coach in recent years. Here’s a Daboll quote from his introductory presser:

“ ... you have to be yourself in this business. That’s what I aim to do. I’m a people person. I think I’m a good leader and that’s the first thing, to be authentic. I’m a big relationship guy. I love my players and I want to get to know them off the field. I think that’s where it starts.”

Daboll is reportedly tough on his coaches. If so, he wouldn’t be the first NFL head coach who could be described that way. Maybe the pressure of being a head coach and having his future employment tied directly to wins and losses occasionally causes Daboll to sometimes revert to the “intense” person who isn’t exactly Mr. Nice Guy behind the scenes.

Some have speculated that the narrative that Daboll is overly hard on coaches is something that Martindale, or those in his camp, want us to believe — or at least talk about — as Martindale looks for another opportunity. I don’t know.

As is often the case with these things, maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle. Maybe there is blame on both sides for two alpha males who believe strongly in their abilities.

What I do know is that this mess is Daboll’s to clean up. It is the biggest test of his tenure thus far. If he cleans it up and the Giants have a good season in 2024, he will probably be around for a while. If he doesn’t and the team implodes in 2024, that could doom his time with the Giants.

McGaughey managed to outlast Pat Shurmur. He managed to co-exist with and outlast Joe Judge, a former special teams coach who was heavily involved in that group while coaching the Giants. He couldn’t outlast Daboll.

Johnson is a guy Daboll brought with him from the Bills, despite some in Buffalo not being upset to see him go. The hiring didn’t work. Young players did not appear to get better. Players did not seem to work well together to handle twists and stunts. The pass blocking was atrocious. The run blocking was spotty.

The offensive line was the biggest reason for the failings of the Giants in 2023. Daboll needs to get it right with the hire of the next offensive line coach.

What about losing Martindale? Again and again throughout the season defensive players talked about how much they loved playing for Martindale.

In talking about Martindale on Sunday evening after the season finale, linebacker Bobby Okereke called him “a great, elite coach” and “a legendary coach.” He also said Martindale was “a phenomenal leader.”

You can argue that the results under Martindale have been mixed. Our Nick Falato illustrated that on the platform formerly known as Twitter:

Bad offense, inconsistent special teams and the blunt truth that the Giants need more difference makers on defense all factor into those numbers.

Martindale is one of the best, most widely respected defensive coordinators in the NFL. If the Giants get it right when they hire his replacement, things go smoothly and the defense plays well, then Daboll will be vindicated and things will be fine.

If the hire goes sideways, like Bill Sheridan replacing Steve Spagnuolo as Giants’ defensive coordinator in 2009, and the defense plays poorly you can bet there will be key veteran defensive players blaming Daboll for screwing up a good thing, costing him valuable locker room support and perhaps his job.

So, in essence, Daboll might be getting what he wants with the revamping of his coaching staff. At the same time, though, he has turned up the heat on himself.