When Giants co-owner John Mara addressed the media during training camp to discuss the Giants’ 2021 season, he did so with cautious optimism that things finally would take a turn for the better, that his team would begin making tangible progress toward a playoff berth and, eventually, another Super Bowl championship.
"I want to see us make progress and become a winning team again," he said in August, standing a few feet from the practice field. "We’re overdue on that, and we spent a lot of money in free agency. I think we’ve had a couple of really productive drafts. Now it’s time to prove it on the field."
Nearly three months later, things couldn’t look much worse.
The Giants are 2-6, they haven’t shown the ability to win close games, their defense has mostly been a disappointment, Daniel Jones hasn’t elevated his game to elite status, Joe Judge hasn’t distinguished himself, and the playoffs seem light years away.
(Jim Mora voice): Playoffs . . . PLAYOFFS? Are you kiddin’ me?
The Giants come off yet another desultory performance in a 20-17 loss to Kansas City, a game that appeared within reach at the end but came undone after a penalty offset what might have been a game-turning interception late in the fourth quarter.
Nearly halfway through the season, things couldn’t look much worse.
The Giants are 2-6 and tied for last place in the NFC East. They’re already hopelessly behind the 6-1 Cowboys, who are looking Super Bowl-good this season, and barring an immediate turnaround, they’re heading for another season without a playoff berth. They’ve gotten to the postseason just once since winning the Super Bowl in 2011, and there are no indications that they can put together a run at this point.
After all, they’d have to go 7-2 in their last nine games just to eke out a winning record. Anyone out there who thinks they can get that hot that quickly?
Didn’t think so.
Off-field issues were added to the on-field misery this week as a series of false positive COVID test results had the Giants doing much of their work virtually in advance of Sunday’s game against the Raiders at MetLife Stadium. Judge went back to his experience last season in dealing with intensive COVID protocols and things went as smoothly as possible, considering the circumstances.
But expecting the Giants to suddenly elevate their game is a pipe dream at this point. And Mara’s vision of restoring respectability to a team that once was the gold standard for NFL excellence must wait again.
What makes this year’s situation particularly troublesome is what happens next. Assuming the Giants don’t make it to the playoffs, you can expect significant changes in the offseason. That starts with general manager Dave Gettleman, who almost certainly won’t be asked back next year after presiding over a fourth straight losing season.
This roster is not much better than the one he inherited, and Jones simply isn’t the franchise-caliber quarterback you need out of a No. 6 overall pick. He’s good, and sometimes he’s very good. But he’s not a top-tier passer and likely never will become one.
The Giants undoubtedly will exercise the fifth-year option for Jones, keeping him under contract through the 2023 season, but it still doesn’t change the fact that Gettleman didn’t find the Giants’ next Eli Manning.
Assuming there will be a new GM next year, that creates an awkward dynamic with Judge, who has regressed this year after a mostly impressive rookie season in which he got the Giants close to a playoff berth while coaching with several limitations because of the pandemic.
Do you bring in a Judge acolyte in the top front-office position, a GM who will do what Judge asks or even demands? Or do you create a brighter line between the two and not cede power to a coach who has yet to prove himself? Or do you think about moving on from Judge altogether?
It’s a tricky dynamic to navigate, and Mara will need to thread the needle with an executive whose personnel evaluation skills are far superior to Gettleman’s. This is not a talented roster, and only a more gifted GM can change that over time.
Mara knows this will be a complicated equation, but he also knows that his actions will determine the immediate and long-term future.
"We’re all on the hot seat, with our fans in particular," Mara said in August. "We’ve given them too many losing seasons. It’s time for us to start winning."
Unfortunately for Mara and his team’s fans, no, it isn’t winning time yet.