The Autopsy, Part I: How it all got so bad, so fast for the New York Giants
We talk to everyone in the know to learn how the Dave Gettleman Era went off the rails. In Part I, we examine why faith in Eli Manning backfired. This isn't a normal front office, either.
These New York Giants go to such extreme, such ridiculous lengths to smack their own fans across the face that, honestly, it’s almost impressive.
As if David Gettleman’s slipshod roster-building wasn’t enough, the Giants announced that last Sunday would be “Fan Appreciation Day” at MetLife Stadium. And what would fans receive as a gesture of goodwill for, week-in and week-out, subjecting themselves to such horror? Not an autograph. Not a hat. Not even a damn beer. No, the Giants promised season-ticket holders one free soda.
A medium soda, that is. Can’t be too charitable this holiday season.
It’s unclear whether or not John Mara was kidnapped by Cousin Eddie, but the announcement was swiftly (and hilariously) condemned by fans and legends past alike. Lawrence Tynes, who once kicked this team into the Super Bowl, supplied the best burn. And the rollout of this “promotion” was somehow even worse. On site, fans who braved this 21-6 loss to the Dallas Cowboys were told only one soda for one PSL could be redeemed.
Any season-ticket holders on-hand with a wife, a friend, a son were supplied exactly one medium soda.
No wonder one ex-scout for the Giants thinks the only way things will ever change is if fans flatly refuse to show up.
“If John Mara looks up and sees 50,000 no-shows on Sunday,” he says, “that will resonate because the product isn’t good.”
For the ninth time in 10 years, the Giants will fail to make the playoffs. For the fifth year in a row, they’ll likely finish with six wins or less. There is not one moment we can all point to as the harpoon to the chest. Rather, this franchise has more so endured a slow bleedout, spiraling one direction and one direction only through a calamitous series of errors. Bad only turns to worse. Right now, the Giants are in the throes of their worst stretch of football since the early 1970s.
To piece together how they reached rock bottom, Go Long spoke with several people who’ve been in Dave Gettleman’s front office the last four years.
What a funhouse. Year to year. Try not to spit up that Pepsi.
2017. Enduring faith in Eli Manning blinds New York from taking Mahomes-sized swings at an heir apparent.
2018. Instead of building the roster with Quenton Nelson and Nick Chubb — two future All-Pros that scouts on staff loved — Gettleman opts for Saquon Barkley and Will Hernandez.
2019. The Giants love Justin Herbert but, with Herbert staying in school, make Daniel Jones the pick at No. 6 overall. Not that scouts on staff had a clue what Gettleman ever thought of Jones.
2020. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett pushes hard for tackle Andrew Thomas at No. 4 overall.
2021. The Giants gift-wrap linebacker Micah Parsons to Dallas and Mac Jones to New England. (Yes, there was a coach on staff who really liked the Alabama quarterback.)
Only the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans have scored less points than the 4-10 Giants. Incompetence has spread through every tentacle of this organization. Gettleman once took great pride in building a winner in Carolina without firing anyone but, in New York, sent several scouts packing. Speaking freely on the condition of anonymity — to help explain how the Giants reached this point — those who saw the wreckage firsthand aren’t exactly sure how this team moves forward.
Once the dust settles, this could go down as one of the worst stretches for an NFL general manager in the modern era.
As one former front-office member in New York put, every decision Gettleman has made seems to be “completely out of left field.”
“Take a running back at No. 2. OK. Now, we’re going to take a quarterback nobody else wants. Now, we’re going to sign a left tackle to billions of dollars that nobody else would’ve paid. It’s every decision. It wasn’t, OK, this makes sense in a vacuum. It was always, ‘What!? What are they doing?’ Most decisions you can justify. It’s the continual pattern of swinging for the fences. The stuff no one else would do. And he keeps stacking it.”
Asked when exactly this ship started to sink, another ex-scout takes a deep breath and chuckles.
“Where do you begin?”
It’s not pretty. But until the Giants undergo serious self-reflection, chances are, they’ll make the same mistakes again. And again.
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The Model Franchise
Right on the general manager’s desk is a sign for all to read. The ex-scouts cannot help but laugh at the irony. Any time anyone speaks with Dave Gettleman, these are the words that greet you first. It was their understanding that Gettleman wanted this message at the forefront of everyone’s minds as they scout and draft and sign new players.
Assholes need not apply.
“But guess who’s the biggest A-hole in the room?” this scout says. “It’s the guy saying he doesn’t want them guys.”
The lame-duck boss central to the Giants’ woes is widely dismissed by the public as a clown, a caricature of a head coach. True, his press conferences often feel more like a comedy routine. As if your drinking buddy woke up one day, became GM and demanded “hog mollies” at once. Those who’ve been around the GM assure everything we think about Gettleman is exactly how he conducts himself behind the scenes, too. They remember seeing Gettleman saunter around the facility in flip-flops and shorts. “Who does that?” one former front office member says. “No one else can get away with doing that. The press conferences you see? That’s him every day.” He has offered up some funny one-liners and such sincerity at the mic is a nice change of pace from bland nothingness, too.
Yet those who worked with Gettleman day-in and day-out also insist there is a different side to the man. A side that makes a mockery of that sign on his desk.
“There’s a switch,” one ex-scout says. “He can be a bully. The biggest asshole in the building has that on his desk.”
Adds another ex-scout: “Abrasive. Bombastic. And a know-it-all.”
The work environment is one rooted in fear. Younger scouts laugh at those jokes laced in a signature New York accent but, as one ex-scout says, they’re actually “afraid of their shadow” around the guy. His temperament isn’t a secret around the league. One person remembers the Denver Broncos throwing a party when he departed as a scout in 1997. Gettleman’s rise to power in New York was strange. He served as a scout, director of pro personnel and senior pro personnel analyst with the Giants from 1998 to 2012, took over as the Carolina Panthers GM 2013-2017, was fired, then hired as the Giants GM in 2018.
Panthers greats were ecstatic to see Gettleman canned in ’17, too. Josh Norman, Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams all piled on with Williams even calling the GM a “snake.”
Yet for whatever reason, co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch conducted an extremely narrow search. The only other people they interviewed were Marc Ross and Kevin Abrams in-house and ESPN analyst Louis Riddick out of house. One source even recalls Gettleman being stunned he got the job. Gettleman promised to keep Eli Manning as his starting quarterback in 2018, per one source, so he got the job.
This was no clown to Mara, either. He loved Gettleman’s off-the-cuff style.
Upon taking over, Gettleman promised changes to his scouting department. “Be prepared for change, change, change,” one ex-scout recalls. The new boss wasn’t kidding. Gettleman totally warped the entire scouting process in New York. At the day-to-day level, scouts needed to re-learn how they wrote reports. Before, they could write freely on how they saw a prospect. It was more of an organic story with an introduction, anecdotes and positives/negatives intertwined. Now, scouts needed to list positives, then negatives with strict, cookie-cutter prose.
Big picture, the entire system for ranking prospects changed.
For decades, the Giants used a scouting system first instituted by Hall-of-Fame coach Sid Gillman predicated on size and speed. Ideal size/speed warranted an “I” with a number grade. If you were small for the position but fast, you were given a “G.” Big and slow warranted an “F.” Over time, more and more letters were added. A first-round talent with an extraneous circumstance — a bad personality or a low Wonderlic score, for example — could get a “D.” The various letters helped teams separate players in a uniform fashion and it’s withstood the test of time from Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys in the 60s to the New England Patriots’ renaissance in the mid-70s to, finally, GM George Young bringing it to the Giants in 1979.
In 2018, Gettleman basically told everyone to forget what they’ve done forever and ushered in a polar-opposite system that was more of a grade-and-position grid, predicated on scouts’ evaluations. One that Hall-of-Famer Ron Wolf originated and made famous. This works like a charm for a franchise like the Green Bay Packers that’s full of experienced scouts capable of hitting more than they miss, one ex-scout in New York says. After all, Wolf’s resurrection of the Packers in 1992 will forever go down as one of the most remarkable stories in sports.
Not so much in New York where everyone was trained for something completely different.
As Gettleman tried to wipe his scouts’ memories of anything they learned from the previous regime, he also started doing what he allegedly abhorred: Firing scouts. Quite callously, too. At the NFL Combine in 2020, the scouts all flew out to Indianapolis on a Sunday, had a team dinner, attended weigh-ins on Monday morning and, then, everyone got a text message to meet for a meeting in a suite to review pro days. After a while, Gettleman and Abrams emerged “abruptly,” one source recalls, and said they just let go two of the team’s longest-tenured scouts.
Which was beyond strange. Why fly those scouts out to Indy just to fire them? No one interviewed for this story got legitimate answers.
A Giants team spokesman was unable to make Gettleman available for this story.
As one ex-scout adds, nobody in the entire personnel department ever coached beyond high school and only two even played college football. That makes scouting through a pandemic difficult.
“The problem with the Giants,” he notes, “is the people they’ve entrusted to evaluate the players and the lack of continuity with the coaches is coming back to bite them in the ass.”
The problems here run even deeper, too.
One former member of the front office says it pays to be part of the Giants’ “protected class.”
Right on the team website, the name atop the “Player Personnel” chart is Chris Mara. The brother of John Mara, the owner, oversees all scouts. Underneath his name, you’ll find two co-directors of player personnel. One is Mark Koncz, whom Gettleman hired from Carolina. The other is Tim McDonnell, who is John Mara’s nephew. He’s described as a “really nice man” but one whose meteoric rise to power is baffling to scouts that’ve spent their entire life on the job. John Mara remains heavily involved with both Chris Mara and McDonnell serving as what one former co-worker labels a “shadow scouting staff.”
One person close to Gettleman’s predecessor, Jerry Reese, recalls people gunning for the ex-GM. He needed to fight battles privately that the public never realized.
“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.”
Ironically, multiple scouts credit Reese as the one who cultivated a true “family” atmosphere throughout the entire personnel department as the GM from 2007 through 2017.
“It’s not the same place that way,” one ex-scout says.
Of course, a different team in the NFC East draws all the criticism when it comes to meddling. Whereas John Mara is widely praised for running a model franchise, Dallas Cowboys owner/GM Jerry Jones has been (justifiably) ripped for poisoning the football department over the last 25 Super Bowl-less seasons. We covered this all at Go Long right here before the 2021 season began. This can manifest itself in small ways. Once, when tackle Russell Okung was interested in signing with the Giants as a free agent, Chris Mara stepped in to say that Okung’s ex-agent calls him an asshole, so, the Giants didn’t sign him.
“If a regular scout comes in and says that, you say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. I appreciate the information but we’re not going to use that because it’s nonsense,’” one source says. “But you’re the senior vice president of personnel and you own the team and you say that, it’s over with. It’s done. There’s zero accountability, zero consequences for this. So, you can do whatever you want to do on the front end — not go through the proper channels — and then, on the back end, there are zero consequences for it.”
This structure can manifest in big ways, too. Like the Giants hanging on to Eli Manning too long.
Faith in a declining quarterback is what precipitated the mess we all see today.
Saying goodbye is hard to do
Two Super Bowl triumphs over the greatest dynasty in sports can be understandably blinding.
Both games will forever live in NFL lore. More specifically, two throws will. First, in Super Bowl XLII, Eli Manning stuck a ball to David Tyree’s helmet. Then, in Super Bowl XLVI, he dropped a impossible gem into Mario Manningham’s hands.
Yet thinking that Manning had one more run in him from 2016 through the end of the 2019 season cost the Giants. Dearly. As his arm faded, the Giants remained nostalgic for those ’07 and ’11 title runs which made for some weird emotional swings. One source remembers Mara being pissed off at Manning on gameday — “We’ve got to move on!” he’d say — and, even on Monday, he’d admit the QB struggled. Yet whenever it was time to make a serious decision, this was Manning’s team. No questions asked.
Such resolute sentimentality became a crowbar lodged in the engine of this franchise.
The Giants could not move forward.
They’re not the only victims. This same mistake is made across all pro sports leagues. To fully understand, go back to 2016. Back to when Mara thought his offensive coordinator of two years, Ben McAdoo, was getting the best out of Manning so he gently nudged Tom Coughlin out the door and promoted the longtime Packers assistant to head coach. You could make the case that Manning was damn good those two seasons, too. One of the fired scouts does exactly that in calling the 2015 Giants the “most competitive 6-10 team of all-time” — he cites specific plays and games, too. To him, riding with Manning was smart.
Others, however, counter by calling this the “Cult of Eli” and say those Giants fell behind in games because of Manning and that the quarterback was simply putting up hollow stats.
“When you really watched the games,” one former front office member says, “our offense wasn’t good.”
His point: If anyone should’ve known McAdoo was not the answer, it was Mara.
The same coach who showed up at his introductory press conference in an ill-fitting suit wore ill-fitting suits on the plane to road games for two years. A disciple of Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, McAdoo’s offense relied on receivers winning their 1-on-1 matchups with minimal misdirection, confusion, unpredictability. The Giants did make the playoffs in 2016. A banner season by Odell Beckham Jr. — pre-boat party — sure didn’t hurt. But even the Giants’ lone playoff appearance these last 10 years ended up biting them in the ass.
Into the next offseason, one source recalls McAdoo being infatuated with a young quarterback out of Texas Tech named Patrick Mahomes. McAdoo saw Brett Favre in Mahomes and loved everything he witnessed at the QB’s pro day. When asked about him in one of the final pre-draft meetings, with Mara present, one source remembers McAdoo saying “I want to get my f------g hands on him.” Picks. Players. Whatever it took. Of course, Mahomes was a difficult prospect for all scouts to read. You may remember Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula trying, and failing, to get his evaluators to believe.
Skepticism was the theme everywhere. Scouts across the league viewed him as a second- or third-rounder.
And, here, such a suggestion was blasphemy.
The Giants were riding and dying with Eli, baby, so the Giants never even considered doing exactly what the Kansas City Chiefs did in trading up for Mahomes. They were blind to the possibility of drafting any quarterback in the first round.
“They were still on the ‘Eli has something left,’” one ex-scout says. “Eli? We were about five years late on that deal.”
In 2017, Manning and the Giants went 3-13. A basic offense combined with a declining quarterback, an injured OBJ and big-name signings checking out spelled doom. It also didn’t help that McAdoo was simultaneously trying to change Manning’s footwork. Hired as the man who’d get the best out of Manning, this only ticked the QB off. With five games left, McAdoo and Reese became Public Enemies No. 1 and 2 when they benched Manning for Geno Smith.
The front office was ready to move on. The fans wanted Manning’s 210-game starting streak to continue in a lost season.
Mara sided with the fans.
Both McAdoo and Reese were fired on the same day, becoming the Giants’ first in-season staff firings since 1976. Gettleman sashayed on back to New York, this time as the GM, and inherited the No. 2 overall pick in a loaded draft class. Unlike Reese and Ross, he posed no threat to sever ties with Manning. Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was hired as the new Eli Fixer and, after watching the tape, declared to his personnel staff that the quarterback could still play.
Recalls one ex-scout: “We’re like ‘Oh my gosh. They can’t let go. They’re doing this with their heart.”
Moving on is never easy but the 49ers (Joe Montana) and Packers (Brett Favre) were able to say goodbye to Hall of Famers and kept on winning. It’s possible. Nonetheless, the Gettleman Era was off ‘n running with a 37-year-old Eli Manning into a 2018 draft that has served as a haymaker to the jaw of the organization.
A blow that still lingers.
“The Eli Manning situation,” one former personnel man says, “put an anchor on the franchise.”
The “Gold Jacket” Running Back
The tease is the only reason to watch Big Blue these days. Every so often, Saquon Barkley goes full Cirque du Soleil on a football field to make a few more fans believe that, yes, he will be in Canton one day. The running back did it again in last Sunday’s rancid loss to Dallas.
His one-handed snare behind the line of scrimmage defied physics.
There’s no denying that this 6-foot, 234-pounder with 4.4 speed is gifted. Even better, he’s universally praised as a phenomenal human being.
Yet, none of that changes the fact that Barkley is a running back and drafting any running back No. 2 overall can get everyone fired.
With this pick, the Dave Gettleman Era started to nosedive immediately.
The GM truly believed Barkley was a Hall-of-Famer who would grab Eli Manning’s hand, direct him to the fountain of youth and lead the Giants back to Super Bowl glory. He couldn’t contain his excitement a month before the draft, making it clear the Giants need to picture whoever they take No. 2 overall “putting on a gold jacket.” On April 26, 2018, he got his guy: Barkley. And re-watching Gettleman’s presser that day is a wild ride. He was a weird combination of giddy (about Barkley) and dismissive (toward skeptics).
Gettleman called the positional value argument “a crock” and “nonsense” and — pretending to hunch over a computer — mocked anyone making this point as someone too obsessed with analytics. Anyone can get hurt playing this sport, he said. “Nobody’s immune.”
When asked if this was an easy pick, Gettleman couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. He was at a loss for words on who Barkley reminded him of, pointing to the fact that Barkley had the “feet and speed” of a little guy with the “power and strength” of a big guy.
“He was touched by the hand of God, frankly,” he added.
Trading down obviously would’ve been a swell idea — remember, this was a 3-13 team with holes everywhere — but Gettleman’s mind wasn’t exactly open to the possibility.
“People call you and they want the second pick in the draft for a bag of donuts, a hot pretzel and a hot dog. Go away, leave me alone, I ain’t got time to screw around.”
Reliving his favorite play on film, Gettleman explained how Barkley once faced two linebackers in his face with a safety coming down and, like magic, strung together three moves to take it to the house. He had to hit rewind a few times, too, “and say to myself I know I wasn’t drinking.”
Know this, too: Gettleman didn’t go rogue. The Giants’ brass was mesmerized.
At the Combine, cameras captured Chris Pettit — the team’s director of college scouting — shaking Barkley’s hand with a gleam in his eye. That gleam, one ex-scout says, was very real. Internally, Pettit never hid his love for the running back. Almost as if this was a high school crush, he’d tell people Barkley was so rare, so spectacular that it sincerely did not matter who was on the Giants’ offensive line. Barkley could move mountains.
Too many important people at the top of the organization “got blinded by that talent,” one ex-scout says.
The pick has backfired, of course. Barkley was spectacular as a rookie with 2,028 total yards and 15 touchdowns and the Giants still went 5-11.
Turns out someone playing an inherently dangerous position leads to injuries, too. Barkley then missed 21 games with a high ankle sprain (2019), a torn ACL (2020) and a low ankle sprain (2021). The offensive line, Gettleman’s point of emphasis from the day he was hired, has broken like a dam weekly and — surprise, surprise — that matters. This season, Barkley is averaging only 3.7 yards per carry off reconstructive knee surgery. Hindsight’s 20/20, of course. The Giants could’ve solved their quarterback issue by drafting Wyoming’s Josh Allen No. 2 that spring but, fair enough, Gettleman said then that he wasn’t in love with any of the quarterbacks. It’s true that USC’s Sam Darnold belly-flopped as the Jets’ handpicked savior.
In an alternate universe, however, the Giants easily reboot into contention.
With a tick of gamesmanship, Gettleman could’ve convinced the world he wasn’t sold on Manning, loved the entire quarterback draft class and slid down a few picks. The Jets, Bills and Cardinals sure were desperate for one that spring. Gettleman might’ve been able to name his price and still found an All-Pro in this loaded draft class. There were people in personnel who knew the Giants were in no position to make such a luxury pick.
Listening to those voices could’ve gone a long way.
Voices like Steve Devine, the team’s Midwest scout who watched both Barkley and Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson extensively. He was adamant that the Giants should draft Nelson — heck, right at No. 2. Devine told the group that Nelson would change the whole demeanor of the Giants’ offensive line to accomplish exactly what Gettleman promised Day 1: a return to “big-boy football.” The Giants passed. The Colts took Nelson at No. 6. Nelson has been a first team All-Pro every single season.
At this rate, a gold jacket is absolutely in his future.
“All of the pretty stuff Saquon was doing,” one ex-scout says, “overwhelmed people.”
If not Nelson, then why not N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb? One source recalls longtime scout Steve Verderosa pushing for the pass rusher who’d go on to make the Pro Bowl with the Denver Broncos in 2020. It was not too complicated to him. The Giants had the same grade for Barkley and Chubb so, considering defensive ends last longer than running backs, he believed Chubb should be the pick.
At the 11th Hour, miraculously, Barkley’s grade improved a tick.
“Did he earn that grade?” one ex-scout says. “All of a sudden in April, on a Thursday night, he earned that grade?”
Substance was needed. Not style. And if Gettleman absolutely needed to take a running back, great. He could’ve easily drafted Georgia’s Nick Chubb with his second-round pick (34th overall) instead of guard Will Hernandez. The Browns took Nick Chubb with the 35th pick and he has since rushed for 4,574 yards with 35 touchdowns.
There was one area scout on staff who studied Chubb and loved Chubb, too.
This scout notes that while Barkley had breakaway speed, he was not a running back that played to his size.
“Sometimes you want your back to stick his foot in the ground and drop a shoulder on somebody,” he says. “I just don’t see it. If he gets a lane, a crease, yeah, he’ll blow by you and goodbye. But I just… I don’t know. We weren’t in a place to take a guy like that. You’ve got to envision the gold jacket and blah, blah, blah. Dave had all these soliloquies but I don’t know how you can do that with the state our team was in. You can have all of these weapons, all these shiny cars but you can’t do anything with them.”
Nobody was telling Gettleman he was a fool for wanting to run the football in the modern game — as we’ve seen in 2021, that wins! — but the Giants should’ve been much smarter about how they went about implementing such a strategy. Instead of teaming up Nelson and Chubb, Gettleman drafted Barkley and Hernandez and paid free agent offensive tackle Nate Solder $62 million over four years.
“The Patriots gave him to us when he was finished,” one ex-scout says. “We paid a king’s ransom, though. Good for him but, man, he might’ve had a ski mask on.”
Adds another: “Nate’s bad. Nate is a below-average NFL offensive tackle.”
New York did get around to drafting a quarterback. In the fourth round, Shurmur insisted the team select Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta even though some scouts had a 7th round/Priority Free Agent grade on him. The new head coach (and Pettit) both liked what they saw in the kid and believed he had a chance to develop. They were wrong. Lauletta’s career ended with zero completions, five pass attempts, one interception and one arrest.
When hope was still in the air, in September 2018, I chatted with Eli Manning, Shurmur and players throughout the locker room for this story at Bleacher Report. Everyone genuinely believed one more Super Bowl run was plausible.
“I want to prove them right,” Manning said of the Giants’ brass.
“We still feel like he has years left,” Shurmur added. “And he's an outstanding player.”
Games were played that 2018 season. Manning was shot. The Giants went 5-11 and finally — gasp! — they made their long, long, long overdue quarterback move in 2019.
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