When Giants president and co-owner John Mara announced in January the departure of coach Tom Coughlin after 12 seasons, he made it clear that general manager Jerry Reese would eventually follow Coughlin out the door unless he didn’t significantly upgrade the roster.
“Jerry knows this is on him,” Mara said at a news conference. “I’ve had that discussion. You can’t hide from the record. It’s up to you to get it fixed, because the last three years are just not acceptable.”
After three straight losing seasons and four consecutive years without a playoff berth, Reese was on the spot to make some major changes. Or else.
More than halfway through the season and with four straight wins improving the Giants’ record to 6-3, Reese’s sweeping roster overhaul is so far paying dividends. And while there’s still plenty of time for things to fall apart down the stretch, the fact that the Giants are very much in the NFC East race bodes well for the team. And for the architect of what has been a major transformation from last year’s 6-10 team.
At 6-3, the Giants have not only won as many games as they did all last season, but they’re just two games behind the Cowboys in the division with upcoming games against the Bears on Sunday at home and the Browns next week in Cleveland. If they hold serve in those games, they would be 8-3 heading into a crucial stretch against the Steelers in Pittsburgh and then Dallas at home.
“These are exciting times,” said Eli Manning, whose last playoff appearance was the Giants’ 2011 Super Bowl run. “Hey, when you know every game does count towards making the playoffs, it is fun to be in these situations, and looking forward to these next seven games.”
Manning has been the one constant on the Giants’ roster, and despite any flaws in his game, he remains the team’s single most indispensable player. But Reese’s recent moves have been critically important in surrounding the quarterback with players on both sides of the ball who have made important contributions to what has so far been a winning season.
Again, there’s no guarantee of avoiding a late-season collapse. But with the Giants’ rebuilt defense already showing demonstrative proof that last year’s woefully inept group is in the past, and with signs of life from an offense that still needs to play more consistently, it is reasonable to assume the Giants will be in the thick of the playoff race the rest of the way. Things are looking up, thanks in large part to the talent brought in by the embattled general manager.
1) Reese was the most aggressive GM in the league during the free-agency signing period, spending more than $200 million in contracts for defensive end Olivier Vernon, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison. He also re-signed Jason Pierre-Paul to a one-year deal. Vernon has been a consistently strong pass rusher and run defender all season, Harrison has helped the Giants become the NFL’s seventh-best team in defending the run, and Jenkins has been one of the most reliable cover corners despite playing against the opponents’ best receivers. Pierre-Paul has been an effective pass rusher, although he has just 1 ½ sacks.
2) The Giants have gotten significant contributions from several of this year’s draft picks, including first-round cornerback Eli Apple and second-round receiver Sterling Shepard. Fourth-round running back Paul Perkins has seen increased playing time in recent weeks, and sixth-round tight end Jerell Adams scored his first NFL touchdown in last Monday’s 21-20 win over the Bengals. Third-round safety Darian Thompson earned the starting free safety spot out of training camp, but has since been sidelined by a foot injury that will keep him out until next season.
3) Several of Reese’s prominent picks from recent drafts are also panning out. Start with Odell Beckham Jr., who has become one of the league’s best receivers since being taking in the first round in 2014. And 2015 second-round safety Landon Collins, who was so coveted by the Giants that Reese traded up to the top pick of the round to take him, has been playing at an All-Pro level so far this season. After struggling as a rookie in 2015, Collins leads the Giants with four interceptions and has twice been named the NFC’s defensive player of the week. Other recent picks to make significant contributions include 2015 first-round tackle Ereck Flowers, 2014 second-round center Weston Richburg and guard Justin Pugh and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins from the 2013 draft.
4) Two more obscure moves have paid off: signing free-agent linebacker Keenan Robinson, who previously played for the Redskins, and cornerback Coty Sensabaugh, who was released by the Rams earlier this season. Both have made significant contributions in understudy roles.
Reese has not been without fault, though, most notably with the decision to bring back kicker Josh Brown. The move was approved by both Reese and Mara, but turned into a nightmare after Brown was suspended for violating the personal conduct policy and follow-up reports indicated he had allegedly been abusing his wife for several years.
Reese has declined to address Brown’s situation, choosing only to discuss on-field issues during his one and only meeting with reporters after the team returned from a bye week in late October.
“I think the defense has shown signs of being a pretty good defense,” Reese said. “Some things we need to do to be more consistent, but I do see some signs of a really good defense out there. Offensively, we definitely need to pick up the pace in a lot of categories. Obviously, we need to run the ball better. We need to do better down in the red zone and score some points.”
The Giants have won two straight since Reese addressed the media during his one and only in-season group interview. He declined a request this week to be interviewed about the team’s progress and his roster moves.
Ten months after Mara’s ultimatum, Reese has done his part in transforming a roster that first-year coach Ben McAdoo now has within striking distance of the Cowboys. There’s a reasonable chance the Giants can end the four-year playoff drought that already resulted in Coughlin’s ouster and threatened Reese’s long-term future.
Many of Reese’s moves are at the heart of that improvement, and if the Giants do play in January, the general manager will have had plenty to do with getting there.
Jerry Reese has made a series of moves to upgrade the Giants’ roster since last year’s 6-10 season. Here are the most important ones:
• Janoris Jenkins, CB. The Rams free agent signed a five-year, $62.5 million contract with the Giants. At 28, he’s still in his prime and has been one of the league’s top cornerbacks this season. He has two interceptions and 11 passes defensed.
• Olivier Vernon, DE. The Giants signed the 25-year-old former Dolphins pass rusher to a five-year, $85 million contract. He has just three sacks, but has created sustained pressure on opposing quarterbacks and has been excellent in defending the run.
• Damon Harrison. DT. A former Jets’ nose tackle, Harrison has transitioned well from the Jets’ 3-4 defense to the Giants’ 4-3 alignment after signing a five-year, $46.25 million contract. With 49 tackles and 1 ½ sacks, he’s a major reason the Giants are seventh in the NFL against the run.
• Eli Apple, CB. The Giants took the Ohio State corner 10th overall after the Bears moved one spot ahead of them to take Georgia pass rusher Leonard Floyd. Apple has become a starter, although a hamstring injury slowed him earlier in the season and he was benched in the second half against the Eagles two weeks ago. He responded well in Monday night’s win over the Bengals.
• Sterling Shepard, WR. The second-round rookie out of Oklahoma has enjoyed a mostly seamless transition to the NFL, and is the Giants’ second-leading receiver with 39 catches for 426 yards and four touchdowns.