Jerry Reese understood perfectly well the frustration that Giants fans felt about him over the summer, when it seemed as if every high-profile free agent was signing with hated NFC East rival Philadelphia or -- even worse -- the Jets.
"If I was a fan, I would be concerned, too," the Giants' general manager said Thursday from his office at the team's training complex. "You can understand why the fans get upset, because they see other teams go out and sign all these players, and we sign a center [David Baas], a punter [Steve Weatherford] and a guard [Kevin Boothe]."
With the Eagles getting cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, defensive end Jason Babin, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, running back Ronnie Brown and others, and the Jets signing former Giants receiver Plaxico Burress, Reese received intense criticism.
Losing free-agent tight end Kevin Boss to the Raiders and releasing offensive linemen Shaun O'Hara and Rich Seubert made it even worse. When the Eagles signed former Giants receiver Steve Smith Aug. 10, the consensus from Giants fans seemed clear: In terms of making the improvements needed for a playoff run, Reese had failed miserably.
Well, sometimes it takes a little longer to get the last laugh. But Reese's inaction on the free-agent market -- a calculated decision because of his belief in the players he already had -- has been justified in the best way possible. The team once derided by its own fans is one victory away from a chance to win a second Super Bowl under Reese.
"Flashy signings look great on paper in August," he said, "but coach Coughlin and I talk about 'let's coach for January. How can we get to January?' We put a lot of thought into what we're doing. We're not sitting up here willy-nilly. We try to do things as a staff and we had a plan and we stuck to that plan."
Part of it involved making what Reese considered reasonable offers to Smith and Burress, but they went elsewhere for roughly twice what the Giants were willing to pay. But neither panned out. Smith, coming off knee surgery, played only nine games for the Eagles, had only 11 catches and went on injured reserve Dec. 11. Burress had 45 catches for 612 yards and eight touchdowns, but only two TDs in his last seven games. The Jets are not expected to bring him back.
"My job is to get with our personnel staff, our college director, pro director, our owners; we come up with a plan we want to do that's the best for the New York Giants,'' Reese said. "That's what we do. Sometimes it doesn't look pretty or sexy, but we try to make the best football decisions to make this team relevant and put a winning product on the field.
"Personnel is not a science, and you just hope you pick the right guys," Reese said. "You don't get them all right. Sometimes you miss on guys. Nobody's passing a thousand percent. You want to get more right than you do wrong. It's trying to get the best guys out there. And there's that thing called the salary cap, too."
As it turned out, Reese was spot on with his judgment at receiver, tight end and the offensive line, the three areas he was most criticized about.
"At the receiver spot, we had two known products in Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, and that's 20 touchdowns and 2,000 yards," he said. "Victor Cruz had flashed, so maybe he could do it. We have a quarterback in Eli who is in the wheelhouse of his career. He had some turnovers, but we thought he could self-correct those things. We thought our offensive line could be solid, and we had some tight end unknowns who we thought could do the job."
He signed Baas to replace Seubert and inked Boothe to a two-year deal in what appeared to be a minor transaction over the summer. But Boothe has become an indispensable part of the line, filling in at center when Baas had a neck injury and moving over to guard when a season-ending eye injury to left tackle Will Beatty forced guard David Diehl to go to tackle. Tight end Jake Ballard has emerged as a worthy successor to Boss, making several key catches.
Reese also helped patch a defense decimated by injuries when he re-signed safety Deon Grant, now a starter, and brought back linebacker Chase Blackburn to provide much-needed leadership in the middle.
So for all the angst felt by Giants fans in August, Reese believed in his heart that he had enough to make a run. Turns out he was right, but he's not content with just getting this far. "We have to win this game this weekend," he said. "We're 60 minutes away from having a chance to win the Super Bowl, but if we don't take care of business this weekend, it means nothing. Nothing. Zero."
The only thing that matters now is getting to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI. And winning that one, too.