Jon Feliciano spent some time this past weekend back in Buffalo where he was able to catch up with some of his old Bills teammates. Of course they wanted to know how things were going for him with the Giants, but more pressing to them was finding out what differences Feliciano had seen from Brian Daboll.
Making the jump from coordinator to first-time head coach in the NFL almost always changes a person. Daboll was wildly popular with the players while running the offense in Western New York thanks to a loose fun-loving style and a never muted sense of humor, but surely, they assumed, he had tightened up at least a little bit with the promotion and added responsibilities.
Feliciano was happy to tell them he had not.
“For Dabes, that hasn’t happened,” Feliciano said. “I think he’s kind of doubled down on being Dabes.”
And how does Feliciano define “Dabes?”
“A dirtbag from Buffalo,” the starting center said, using the term that has become a badge of honor that was also bestowed upon Feliciano himself. “He’s just authentic. He’s going to shoot it to you straight and be out here and have juice and have fun. He’s OK with people being out here making mistakes as long as you make them full speed and as long as they don’t become a habit.”
The Giants almost certainly will not lead the league in scoring, yards, or wins when the regular season begins. They may not even be in the top half of the league in any of those important bellwethers for success. But this spring you’d be hard-pressed to find a team in the NFL that has completed more fist bumps, chest thumps and bro hugs in their offseason workouts than the Giants have. They are a cuddly, affectionate, goofy, happy bunch and this week’s three-day minicamp which began on Tuesday and caps the offseason program on Thursday only punctuates that vibe.
That’s a far cry from the mood of the team over the past two years. Joe Judge, Daboll’s predecessor, ran a tight program big on discipline and consequences. Such philosophies can work, but for the Giants and their subpar rosters it led to a dispiriting 10 wins in 33 games and a complete overhaul of the organization.
Daboll comes from the same tree as Judge — both learned formative lessons early in their careers from the Sultans of Surliness, Nick Saban and Bill Belichick — but he clearly brings a very different perspective from those experiences.
The Giants sensed that right away when the offseason program began in early April. It’s such a breath of fresh air that offensive line coach Bobby Johnson said he had to remind his players that smiles are not prohibited in the building. Learning the playbooks have been important parts of this offseason program. Learning the head coach and his staff have been equally significant.
“I think guys are happy to be here,” defensive lineman Leonard Williams said last month. “They're happy about the teammates that they have next to them. They're happy about the coaches that are coaching them. I think when you're happy about all those things that I just said, it makes it easier to come into work and have a great attitude and great energy, and it shows in practice how we're flying around out there.”
Feliciano wasn’t here when Judge was making the players (and coaches) run laps for mistakes in practices, but he certainly heard about those things from afar and has learned more about them from his new teammates who were sent jogging around the field from time to time.
“It’s a big change,” Feliciano said he’s been told. “You can tell people get scared when they mess up. No one likes messing up. But it’s OK. Dabes wants you to take chances, Bobby [Johnson, the Giants’ offensive line coach who came from Buffalo as well] wants you to try a new technique, and if something happens it’s all right. This is the time for it to happen.”
So far the Giants are undefeated under Daboll and the mood he has set for them.
At some point, however, his casual grip on the reins of the team will collide headfirst into realities such as training camp, the preseason, and the regular season schedule. Things like losing streaks and bad clock management and poor play-calling can have a way of altering a person’s disposition as previous Giants head coaches have learned. What happens then?
Nothing, Feliciano insisted.
Just as making the transition from coordinator to head coach did not affect Daboll, nor, Feliciano said, will the transition from breezy June practices to the sticky perspiration of the summer to the crunch of the autumn and winter cleanse the team’s top dirtbag of his essence.
“People were always asking me, especially after the first week or two here: ‘Is this him?’” Feliciano said of the questions from his new teammates. “Yeah. Every day you get the same thing. People were a little hesitant to believe that that’s how he is all day all the time but I think he’s shown them over the course of six weeks that he’s the same guy all the time.”
Always has been. Perhaps always will be.