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The Autopsy, Part III: Will John Mara do the right thing with his New York Giants?
With one game to go, decision day looms. The New York Giants need to completely start over to turn this team around, too. How far will Mara go? We talk to more people in the know.
Miss “The Autopsy” at Go Long? Catch up right here:
Welcome to rock bottom.
Watch where you step and cover your nose. It smells like sewage down here.
This is exactly what it looks like when everything that can go wrong does go wrong in the NFL. The New York Giants, a once-proud institution, an alleged model for the 31 other franchises, are liquefying before our very eyes. Right after the team leaks that it plans to bring back head coach Joe Judge and quarterback Daniel Jones — in an attempt to rally the troops, I suppose — the troops respond by getting outscored 63-13.
The Chicago Bears, a team overdue for a reset itself, embarrass the Giants.
A bad offense somehow only gets worse. And worse. And worse. This is a Giants team that has scored one touchdown on its last 35 possessions which, we can only infer, makes Jason Garrett the son we never knew Bill Walsh had. Four years of GM Dave Gettleman mangling the roster reaches its trainwreck conclusion of a final scene with a Mike Glennon-led offense producing minus-10 yards passing. The team’s hope was to gracefully let the GM “retire” with as much dignity as possible, while selling the fallacy that he actually made necessary changes to the football department but there’s no escaping the reality gnawing at this franchise’s jugular: Through four years of Gettleman, this team has never had a record above .500.
An absurd achievement.
The only thing worse than toiling in rock bottom is the team’s failure to acknowledge that this is where it currently dwells. The Giants appear blissfully oblivious. Whereas Jerry Reese went 99-87 as GM, won two Super Bowls and was fired midseason, here’s Gettleman stumbling and bumbling to 19-45 and he has his hand held out the door. The Giants can declare anything said negatively about the organization is a lie but, hey, there’s the head coach of the team — the man co-owner John Mara allegedly wanted back in 2022 just two weeks ago — standing in front of a microphone spewing blatant lie after lie.
Amid more condescending OKs... and All rights… than you ever heard from your kindergarten teacher, Joe Judge’s 11-minute diatribe was one wild ride on the Delusion Express. We’ve seen Bill Belichick’s disciples crash and burn before but never like this. Judge claimed that halfway through the 2018 season in New England, when the Patriots were 6-2, coaches “were all pretty convinced we were getting fired.” Which, of course, is insane. Those Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl. Judge claimed that Giants players told him guys quit on their team in 2019. Never mind the fact that those Giants actually won two of their final three games.
And Judge also ridiculously asserted that players he coached last year were calling him “twice a week” saying how much they wish they were still with the Giants “even though they’re getting paid more somewhere else.” This farcical statement was swiftly debunked and discarded.
Take it away, Timmy Tough Nuts.
“I’ll tell you right now, if you’re in the damn building, you walk on through our locker room, you ain’t seeing that crap you saw before,” Judge said. “All right? You ain’t seeing guys planning vacations. You ain’t seeing golf clubs in front of players’ locker. You ain’t seeing that stuff. OK? You ain’t seeing it. All right. And that’s not because of some high school program because we’re cracking the whip.”
Honestly, when we ran Part I and Part II of “The Autopsy” — and a huge Thank You to all of our new subscribers for finding Go Long — I wasn’t necessarily planning on exploring a Part III. But somehow things only got worse the last two weeks and, judging by your mood, people want to sift around this sewage a bit more in hopes that something… anything… could change in 2022.
So, we placed a few more calls to folks in the know and it’s clear the state of affairs here is as bad as it’s been since commissioner Pete Rozelle himself needed to step in and help Wellington Mara find a GM in 1979. These Giants will miss the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 years and own a .275 winning percentage the last five years, which is worse than that of the Jacksonville Jaguars. What’s most striking in conversations with fired scouts who witnessed the wreckage firsthand is how much they still want to see the Giants return to glory. They’re upset Gettleman fired them, of course, but much more upset to see a once-proud organization become what one described as a “disaster area.”
Honestly, it’s not too complicated. Everything boils down to one question.
Are the New York Giants willing to bring in a completely independent mind to fix this mess?
For too long, the Giants have remained stuck in a pattern of promoting familiar faces, yes-men who won’t do anything too drastic.
“Everyone says they want the truth,” one former front office member says. “They don’t want the truth. They want to hear what they want to hear.”
The understandable fear is that the Giants will once again half-ass this rebuild when a full-scale demolition is a must. They’ll close out this miserable season against the Washington Football Team on Sunday and, asinine as it seems, sources familiar with this team’s thinking wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Maras spun a win as a sign of tangible progress and ran it back with Judge for a third year.
Not that fans should hold their breath for such an outcome the way these Giants have played.
Either way, what happens next will determine whether the Giants continue to rot or take the painstaking, yet necessary steps toward a rebuild. A true rebuild. If this was the case, many smart GM candidates would be willing to take this all on. Sadly, those who spoke with Go Long are skeptical. One former front office member says there’s a zero percent chance the Giants are open to hiring a general manager who’ll genuinely fumigate the building. (“Just the fact that they’re talking about bringing Joe Judge back shows you what’s going on there.”) One former scout agrees and is sincerely “disappointed” and “shocked” that Mara, a man he deeply respects, allowed the franchise to reach this low of a low.
“His office is right there in the center,” this ex-scout said. “Does he not know what’s going on 10 feet f------ that way? Does he not know? I’ve always liked John. I’ve got all the respect in the world for him, and that’s what makes this hard.
“But some things need to be talked about.”
Nothing here is done by accident. The New York Giants are an image-conscious operation that leaks news ever… so… delicately.
Three weeks ago, they started to plant the seeds.
In came the report that VP of Football Operations, Kevin Abrams, was the leading contender to take over as GM. Abrams, who has mostly dealt with the salary cap, is in his 23rd season with the club. In came the news that head coach Joe Judge and quarterback Daniel Jones would be back in 2022, thus neutering the cockamamie idea of a new GM coming in and — Gasp! The horror! — assessing the entire operation with an independent brain.
Then came something the Giants weren’t exactly expecting: A total, utter collapse that put their previous collapse to shame.
New York was blasted by Philly, 34-10. Then by Chicago, 29-3.
Do not re-watch the latter. It will blind you.
Possibly, Mara now has no choice but to trash the idea of a Judge-Abrams-Jones ticket.
Those most familiar with the inner-workings of the organization are skeptical because the Giants have forever been a franchise that chooses to operate in a Snuggie. The last time this team “searched” for a general manager, in 2018, it interviewed one person with no ties to the organization (ESPN’s Louis Riddick). Despite a legion of candidates on 31 other NFL teams, the Giants wouldn’t talk to — literally — anyone. No serious football team does this. This isn’t an intramural basketball team at Syracuse University passing off its team name to underclassmen. The Giants are a $4.85 billion corporation. So, now, we’ll see if John Mara and Steve Tisch learned their lesson. Once Gettleman finally exits, they’ll go through the whole process again and there is a chance that public pressure is so deafening that the owners have no choice but to step outside of their comfort zone. But if Judge stays? If they follow through with their leak? The obvious pretense to any GM interview is that thou must be all in on working with both Judge and Jones.
Which rightfully will immediately eliminate the best candidates for the job.
The most qualified general managers — the smartest, the ones most ready to truly build a winning team — will seek a clean slate.
Not an understood… you’ve got to fix Jones. Not a clear… Judge is our guy.
One would think the Giants wouldn’t repeat their mistake. When the team replaced Reese — a GM willing to move on Eli Manning — the obvious understanding was that, if you wanted the job, you needed to be in on Eli. Gettleman was. Pat Shurmur was. That moment of faith ended up setting the franchise back and as, one former front office man says, this is how the same mistakes “keep getting recycled” within the organization. If Judge is still employed, every prospective GM is going into the room knowing exactly what everybody wants to hear.
“If you rock the boat too much, it’s not happening. Everyone says they want the truth. They don’t want the truth. They want to hear what they want to hear.”
Maybe there is still hope for Jones at QB. Maybe the 2019 sixth overall pick deserves to be the starter into 2022. Let an outsider make that determination. Clearly, the Giants need to embrace discomfort. Mara and Tisch need a GM they’ve never spoken to in their life who’ll put the franchise’s issues under a microscope and tell them things they don’t necessarily want to hear.
The last time the Giants hired a GM, it was someone who was with the organization from 1998 to 2012, and Gettleman then whacked experienced scouts left and right while botching draft after draft.
Before the Giants attempt to move forward, they’ll need to examine what went wrong in the past.
One longtime scout with the team says the organization was hellbent on shifting away from scouting and toward a burgeoning analytics department under director of football data and innovation Ty Siam. To him, this isn’t all that different from what the Cleveland Browns tried (and failed) to do with Sashi Brown a few years back. He believes Siam is “a smart guy” thin on football knowledge.
“If you’re going to pick your players based on numbers,” he adds, “do you need a scouting staff?”
In theory, this push toward analytics aligns with promoting Abrams to GM. The Giants would be all-in on the spreadsheet, on crunching numbers. Not so much on putting eyeballs on prospects across country as much as possible. Multiple sources who spent years in the building call Abrams “a money guy” and “a salary cap guy.”
Then, there’s the presence of Chris Pettit, the team’s director of college scouting.
He is described as an entrenched member of the Giants’ “protected class.”
When Gettleman was hired, one scout remembers Pettit scrambling for power by quickly getting to his office to make recommendations on what worked and what did not. He also got close to Tim McDonnell, the nephew of John Mara, who rapidly rose from pro scout to assistant director of player personnel to co-director of player personnel. Other scouts saw that it clearly paid to be his friend. “You’ve got to get in,” one said. “You want to be one of his boys.” While repeating that they enjoyed being around McDonnell as a person, they add that this dynamic simply did not exist before.
“Everybody just did their job and didn’t worry about it,” said one longtime scout. “But when he got there, him being family, then that part of the office changed. And I’m not blaming it on Tim. But it happened. And Chris Pettit, he immediately buddies up to him. Because that’s the kind of guy he is. It’s not about how good of work he does and how competent a scout he is. It’s ‘I’m going to save my job.’ As a co-worker, he was fun. He was funny and cool. But the second Pettit got that job — I mean the f------ second — he flipped. Just like that. It was unbelievable how all of a sudden, he was God’s gift to scouting immediately. You hated to look down at the phone and see it was him because he wanted to lecture you about something.”
Adds another former front office member: “As soon as he got a little bit of power and he knew he was tied in with Tim McDonnell, he just turned on everybody.”
Meanwhile, as we broke down before, the Giants managed to botch pick after pick after pick. It did not help that Gettleman completely changed the scouting system, from how scouts wrote reports to how boards were stacked. One other new twist was that Pettit and Siam, one scout said, came up with different “emoji”-like symbols and signals to serve as “alerts” in the Giants’ system. A boat captain’s face and hat for a team captain. A red “M” for medical. One for an all-star game. Etc., etc.
“It was almost like they based their importance on how much shit they could come up with to stick on a report,” this scout said. “Is that how we’re going to base our success? That we came up with a big red ‘M’ for medical? Let’s come up with a big red ‘M.’ And they do that shit all the time. It kept changing and changing and changing and ‘we’ve got to add this’ and ‘we’ve got to add that.’ It wasn’t about evaluating a player to the front office guys. They were changing shit and bringing it to Dave to say, ‘We came up with this idea!’ because he likes that shit.
“They worked so hard to try to come up with different things like that to appear that they were making improvements.”
No wonder scouts believe Pettit will be putting the hard sell on again to whoever becomes the new GM. Such is the game of NFL survival everywhere. Whenever GMs are fired, the mad dash for the life boats begins — and you better find a boat this time of year. As for his actual scouting acumen? Pettit wasn’t afraid to give his opinion on players before, one ex-scout says. But as the director, he says he became hesitant to give his opinion before reading the reports of others.
“A good scout is what they see, not what they hear,” said one longtime Giants scout. “And that ain’t him. He’s all about what he hears. These college coaches now, when you go in, you better listen but don’t stake your job on what you’re being told. Because these guys don’t get paid to be honest with you and be your buddy and tell you the truth on a player. They want to get them drafted because that makes them look good and helps them get more players to come in for them.
“There are scouts out there who think they are God’s gift to scouting and never missed anybody in their life. I promise you that’s not me. But you can tell. It’s called ‘fishing.’ When we’re at a practice or sitting there before a game, and you’ve got a scout who keeps wanting to talk about players, that’s fishing. When you’re not confident in your opinion and you’ve got to ask everybody: ‘What do you think of him?’ I don’t think Pettit’s the worst of that. We’ve had worse on our staff. But he’s damn sure listening and he’s not the type to stand behind his grade. He’ll sway a little bit.”
One high-ranking personnel exec in the AFC, who also knows how tight Pettit is with the owner’s nephew, calls Pettit “not bad, but nothing special” as an evaluator.
Right above his name on the personnel organizational chart is McDonnell and right above McDonnell, of course, is the co-owner’s brother: Chris Mara, Senior VP of Player Personnel. One scout recalls Chris Mara as someone who wrote a slew of reports but was mostly “harmless.” (“He would give his opinions but he wouldn’t really push anything.”) The Giants would like people to believe his impact on decision-making is minimal yet, still, this is the first name all see atop the “Player Personnel” totem pole. Ownership’s fingertips are quite obviously all over the football department so — with the Giants enduring some historic losing — everything must be examined.
Otherwise, the Next Big Thing at GM won’t want to touch your organization with a 10-foot pole. (A sentiment that’s growing, by the way.)
Naturally, people are pessimistic that John Mara will take a big picture look at the entire building.
“Are you going to fire your family?” said one former front office member. “Are you going to get rid of your family — and all of the people, by extension, who are tight with your family and tied in. That’s what you’re dealing with when you’re dealing with the situation there. … If they don’t do anything, why do they have the titles? Please explain it. You have the titles. You make decisions. But there’s no accountability. Here it is. On the front end, they’re telling you, ‘Oh, he doesn’t do anything.’ OK.”
About culture, too. Several sources indicate that current staffers are “miserable” with morale taking such a nosedive under Gettleman. It’s not necessarily a secret. They’ve made their unhappiness clear to the ex-Giants scouts. While not blameless, Jerry Reese was widely beloved as a human being when he ran the show from 2007-2017. He went out of his way to cultivate a healthy work environment.
Gettleman? The GM who once took great pride in not firing people, who then put an “Assholes need not apply” sign on his desk in New York guided the Giants to a pretty dark place.
“Jerry Reese didn’t get a red carpet out the door and he was a hell of a f------ guy,” one ex-scout says. “Shit. Gettleman. I always thought the funniest thing — when he first got the job — some article said that watching video was his ‘happy place.’ Bullshit. He’d sit in there and watch it with us. I don’t know how much he watched himself. I never saw that kind of happy place where he did all kinds of evaluations and reports.
“When you’re out to dinner with him or something, he’s fine. He’s not a 24/7 dickhead. But he’s obviously two-faced as hell because what he’s showing you isn’t what he’s thinking. He jokes around. He’s good to talk to. He acts like he cares about you. And he threw families to the wolves.”
What now? Abrams is well-respected and well-liked and known as a strong communicator so, that’s a start. Given how bad it’s gotten through December, however, promoting Abrams is a brutal sell for Mara. Let alone the fact that the team would be promoting someone who hasn’t been on the scouting trail nearly as much as other qualified candidates who eat, sleep and breathe football. Sure, cap guys have ascended to GM posts elsewhere but given the many personnel blunders that sent the Giants to rock bottom, is that the best hire right now? The best GMs like Brian Gutekunst in Green Bay and George Paton in Denver and Chris Ballard in Indianapolis and Jon Robinson in Tennessee rose to power by scouting like crazy and forming their own convictions.
Surely, the next sharp GM is out there somewhere if the Giants are open to giving that GM carte blanche. Maybe it’s Indianapolis’ Ed Dodds or Cleveland’s Glenn Cook or Eliot Wolf, the son of Hall-of-Famer Ron Wolf.
Mara’s constituents overwhelmingly want a fresh face. Not Abrams.
“You’d be going from a guy who thinks he’s God’s gift to football,” one former Giants scout says, “to a guy who doesn’t know football. But yet you think you’re going to get better? That’s one less opinion in the draft room because Kevin is not a football guy.”
One former front office member predicts that if the Giants do indeed run it back with Judge, Abrams and Jones, the fan base “will go nuts.”
Especially if this Jake Fromm-led roster is blown out by Washington.
“You make that commitment and get blown out in three straight games by double-digits and make a complete fool of themselves? This place would implode.”
“If they’re even competitive this week, against a bad Washington team, they’ll spin that as if it’s some sort of progress and they’re doing great. They’ll spin the hell out of it to say, ‘See! He was right!’”
Traditionally, the Giants have been a team that follows the traditional model of a GM wielding most power. Yet don’t be surprised if they keep chasing the New England Patriots’ model into 2022. Judge coached under Belichick for nine years and, clearly, is trying to project his own brand of bravado.
Amazingly enough, the plan two weeks ago might’ve been to empower Judge as a Belichickian-like top man.
“Hell, that’s who they always wanted to be,” one ex-scout says. “Do you know how much New England has been shoved down their throat since Gettleman got back? ‘We want to be New England because they do everything right. We want to be like them.’ We kicked their ass in two Super Bowls but we still don’t feel like we’re them.”
Of course, teams fall into this trap all the time.
Chasing the Patriots is proven folly because nobody can replicate what Belichick (and Tom Brady) pulled off together for two decades. Assistants always pack up that do-your-job, take-no-bull mentality, bring it to a talent-devoid team in need of a total rebuild and it does not resonate. It fails. Adults tune you out. In his first camp, Judge made his own coaches run laps with players in practice. That didn’t work out for fellow ex-Patriot assistant, Matt Patricia, as the head coach in Detroit. In his second camp, after a brawl, Judge went on a profanity-laden tirade and lined players up for 100-yard gassers.
Belichick wins. So, Belichick’s message is both feared and respected. (Even if you lose talents like Kenny Moore along the way.)
Stuff like this in New York? As the losses pile up? Over time, more players will slam that snooze button.
“This is another area where the Giants fell behind,” the former front office man says. “The ‘Belichick Tree’ ship had sailed. Why people try to keep replicating that is mindboggling. How are you going to replicate something that’s never been done before with the Brady and Belichick thing? Go get the greatest quarterback of all-time. Now, try to replicate it. Teams don’t look at it like that. It’s bizarre.”
So far, Judge has been little more than a Belichick knockoff on Aisle 47 at BJ’s Wholesale.
And let’s pretend Judge is right, let’s say current players genuinely do love playing for him right now. What does that even mean? With a few exceptions, these are players who shouldn’t be around much longer. The roster’s in need of a total makeover.
“It’s not LeBron and Dwyane Wade saying you’re a great coach,” one longtime NFC exec says. “You have the f------ worst team in the NFL. Who cares? Who cares!? It’s like eating Chef Boyardee from a 5-year-old and saying, ‘You’re a great cook!’ Who cares if it’s a good meal. It’s not a world-class chef. It’s crazy! ‘They’ve got my back.’ OK. Even if that’s true, they’re horrible. Who cares?”
Of course, the team is not playing like they love their head coach at the moment.
If the Giants were showing a shred of fight then, maybe, the Maras could begin to believe they had Belichick Lite in charge.
Instead, this is the sort of product that’s making season ticket-holders spit up their complementary medium soda. Injuries are zero excuse. Practically every team in the NFL has dealt with something in 2021. The Houston Texans stripped their roster bare and beat the current No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Detroit Lions also stripped their roster down, yet have fought like junkyard dogs all season. They’ve lost six games by a touchdown or less. The Baltimore Ravens, down to fourth- and fifth-stringers, have lost four games by a combined five points since December. Nobody is quitting under John Harbaugh.
And the most damning indictment of all is found right in their home state of New Jersey. The franchise these Giants have been able to stick their nose up to for decades upon decades, the 4-12 New York Jets, appear to have the brighter future. They were seconds away from upsetting the defending champs last week and took down the playoff-bound Bengals and Titans earlier in the year.
Other teams are ravaged and remain competitive. The Giants get waxed.
“When the Giants go into a game,” one longtime NFC exec says, “you just know it’s going to be a disaster.”
Exactly one year ago, Joe Judge offered quite a rallying cry for his team. His Giants had a shot at sneaking into the playoffs as NFC East champs at 6-10 but the Philadelphia Eagles decided to pull Jalen Hurts for Nate Sudfeld at the start of the fourth quarter and lost to the 7-9 Washington Football Team.
Judge blasted the Eagles. Judge was widely praised.
“To disrespect the effort that everyone put forward to make this season a success for the National Football League,” he said then, “to disrespect the game by going out there and not competing for 60 minutes and doing everything you can to help those players win, we will never do that as long as I’m the head coach of the New York Giants.”
One year later, arguably no team is disrespecting the game more down the stretch than the Giants. The reception around the league sure has changed, too. Judge has been blistered all week in the national media by pundits and former coaches and players alike. Execs around the league we spoke to for this story describe him as “overwhelmed” and “overmatched” and someone who should’ve never been hired in the first place.
One theme is undeniable with the fired Giants scouts, too. Their love for the Giants and, in many cases, John Mara himself runs deep. One scout heard me pronounce the last name with a hard “R” in one radio interview and reached out. Gettleman destroyed the atmosphere in the building but fired employees still want to make sure the owner’s name is spoken correctly. That’s how deep the loyalty for this franchise runs. They’re pulling for Mara. They believe this still can be a special place.
Gettleman is to blame. Judge is to blame. Pettit is to blame. So is kicking decades of scouting experience out the door. So is this warped organizational hierarchy. Everything led to what we’re now seeing on Sunday and, as much as the Giants may want to patch this all up with Band Aids, full-fledged surgery is a must. No owner wants to cycle through head coaches and GMs all the time but the Giants have no choice but to start over.
To what degree will Mara fix this mess? We’ll see.
Fans do not want “continuity” propaganda shoved down their throats. They’re smart. They’re fed up. And like they did back in the mid-70s, if things don’t improve, they’ll simply stop showing up to games. Those boos during Eli Manning’s jersey retirement back in Week 3 will seem like child’s play.
A lifeless MetLife Stadium could become even more lifeless.
It’s time for the Giants to get uncomfortable ASAP.
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