There is still much to learn about Ben McAdoo, whose career as a head coach remains in its infancy and whose legacy can’t be measured until years from now. The Giants believe they have one of the brightest young coaches in the game and hope he will put his stamp on the team by adding another Vince Lombardi trophy or two to the four championship emblems already in house.
Yet there’s no way of knowing whether McAdoo can build on a promising 2-0 start heading into Sunday’s important matchup against Washington and transform a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2011 into a Super Bowl contender. Only time and results will afford the opportunity for a realistic judgment of his tenure.
Nevertheless, this was an important week for the 39-year-old coach from the tiny Western Pennsylvania town of Homer City — population 1,707. Confronted with complicated societal issues that seeped into his locker room and infiltrated the self-described bunker that he and his workaholic coaching staff immerse themselves in, McAdoo’s handling of the situation may have gone a long way toward unifying his team and humanizing his character among the players.
After the two police shootings last week of African American men — events that have sharpened the focus on a problem that 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick drew further attention to with his decision not to stand for the national anthem — McAdoo responded to the concerns raised by his players in a very genuine way. A way that offered his players a window into the coach’s feelings and the conflicting emotions that have bubbled to the surface during such a contentious national debate.
McAdoo expressed his initial feelings about the national anthem early on, responding to Kaepernick’s decision to sit for and then take a knee during the anthem by saying he would be disappointed if any of his players didn’t stand, calling it a “small gesture to those who served and sacrificed their lives for our country.” Many of his players expressed similar sentiments at the time, with wide receiver Victor Cruz chiding Kaepernick’s decision and guard Justin Pugh lashing out that the move showed a callous disregard to the military.
But in the intervening weeks, and with the recent fatal shootings of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, there has been time for introspection. Even Cruz and Pugh this week said they have gained a greater understanding for what Kaepernick is trying to do, even if they still disagree with the quarterback’s decision to take a knee.
And while McAdoo himself is still deeply uncomfortable with conflating the issues of racial oppression and the anthem, his willingness to speak directly with his players on the issue has resonated at an important level. Several players expressed their profound respect for a coach who will take the off-field concerns of his players so seriously.
“It’s good to have a coach who’s willing and understands and sees the bigger picture,” running back Rashad Jennings said.
Jennings indicated that all the players will remain standing for the anthem before Sunday’s game, although it is certainly possible that some players may decide not to. Defensive tackle Jay Bromley, who eloquently discussed his concerns about racial tensions in America, told me he wouldn’t make a decision until shortly before game time. Others may do the same.
Whatever happens, though, McAdoo raised his stature among the players by expressing his feelings, by listening to their concerns, and by trying to make a difference. He wanted to leave the anthem out of it, and his message appears to have resonated with his players.
“I had a conversation with a few guys, and they’re conflicted and want to make a difference,” McAdoo said. “I encourage them to, and I’d like to be involved with them. Anything I can do to help. But still, I feel that you can make a difference outside the anthem. I still believe you should pay tribute to the people who sacrifice their lives so we can coach and play in this great game.”
McAdoo said he can’t — and won’t — force his players to stand. That’s their choice, and he respects their right to decide. And that doesn’t preclude him from being disappointed if some don’t stand; he would be. But at least there is a clear understanding after some heart-to-heart talks this week.
It remains uncertain just how the coach and his players plan to address the issue of the police shootings in particular and racial injustice overall, although Jennings told me he plans to reach out to local police departments to open a dialogue. He may also meet with community groups.
“We’re going to do something, for sure,” he said. “It’s just a matter of what.”
In the end, McAdoo’s legacy as a football coach will be judged almost solely on wins and losses. But what happened last week, when his players saw him more as a man and not simply the guy who blows the whistle in practice and calls plays during the game, carries some importance as well. Whether or not that translates to what happens on the field remains to be seen, but a coach got closer to his players. And they to him.
Win or lose, that means something.