It happens every week. In a league in which players and coaches bounce around from team to team, just about every matchup has at least one participant playing against a squad he once represented.
Usually it’s no big deal. This week, though, the level of cross-pollination is exceptionally high. That's why a number of people have been walking around the Giants’ facility giving each other an arched eyebrow here, a knowing nod there, and even, on occasion, admitting to each other something that generally goes unsaid in NFL locker rooms and meeting rooms.
Playing the Panthers means a little bit more than just playing the next opponent. At every level of the Giants' organization, literally from the general manager to the equipment manager, you’ll find someone who recently called Carolina home -- and someone who would like nothing more than to leave that former home victorious.
“They definitely say it,” wide receiver Russell Shepard, who spent last season with Carolina, told Newsday of the behind-closed-doors chatter in the building among fellow former Panthers. “It’s business, they say, don’t take it personally. But that only goes so far. You’re gonna take it personally. I think this game is very personal to a lot of people.”
Gettleman knows the personnel
One of them, undoubtedly, is Dave Gettleman. He was abruptly fired as general manager of the Panthers last summer, two seasons after taking the team to a Super Bowl. In December, he was named general manager of the Giants.
His fingerprints are all over both teams that will be on the field Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. Of the 106 players on the two active rosters, Gettleman signed or drafted 59 of them. That doesn’t count the players he inherited and re-signed with the Panthers. Nor does it include two players from this year’s Giants draft class currently on injured reserve or veteran running back Jonathan Stewart, who is on IR. Gettleman signed him to a two-year deal hoping to squeeze some production from his 31-year-old body, but also to introduce the Giants to the culture he tried to build in Carolina.
Oh, he’s also responsible for both head coaches being in place with their teams, having stuck with Ron Rivera and hired Pat Shurmur.
The Panthers have changed ownership since Gettleman’s departure, and Rivera clearly has no hard feelings toward him.
“We’re still seeing the aftereffects of the players he brought in,” Rivera said. “I think you could start off by saying he put the final touches on this group of guys we had during a really nice stretch. He came in with the philosophy that we're gonna get big guys and put them up front, because big guys allow you to compete. Especially down the stretch ... Dave came in and did an outstanding job getting us to where we wanted to be.”
Not everyone is looking forward to the warm familiar embrace with Gettleman, who will be making his first road trip with the Giants since beginning treatments for lymphoma over the summer. He left a complicated legacy in Carolina, having built a championship-caliber team but also having made unpopular decisions with veteran players.
“I ain’t playing Dave Gettleman on Sunday,” quarterback Cam Newton said this past week. “I respect him and everything that he has going on, but I don't see no reason for me answering questions pertaining to him.”
Gettleman, who declined to be interviewed regarding this game, probably shares Newton’s lack of sentimentality. That can only be left to the imagination … or the insight of others in similar positions.
“The GM being fired, myself being fired, other guys being fired,” Shepard said, “it means something more to the guys. Of all the games we’ve played so far, this is probably the most personal game. And I think that goes across the board.”
'A mirror image'
Gettleman and Shepard aren’t the only ones with ties to the Panthers. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula and special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey held the same positions with Carolina last year. Director of player personnel Mark Koncz was with the Panthers’ front office from 1994-2016, including three seasons working with Gettleman. Tight end Scott Simonson spent two seasons with the Panthers.
In the offseason, the Giants hired Jackie Miles to be their new equipment manager. He had held that same job with the Panthers since their inception.
The road goes both ways, too. Panthers special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn was a Super Bowl hero as a player with the Giants.
“They’re a mirror image of us,” McGaughey said. “You’ve got to realize that Chase played here, I coached him here, he worked with me for two years [in Carolina] and we think very similar.”
That kind of intimate knowledge can be difficult to process when it comes to coaching.
“You can’t chase ghosts,” McGaughey said. “All you can do is prepare for what you see on tape. It’s not one of those deals you go out there, what if he does this, what if he does that. You ain’t got to worry about that, you still got to go play.”
The familiarity does have some benefit. Shula, for instance, shared his thoughts on the Panthers’ offensive players — if not their exact scheme — with the Giants’ defenders.
“We talked to him about a couple of things,” safety Landon Collins said. “We’ve got some insight about what they do, and how they use stuff.”
Shurmur has never coached the Panthers, but he was on the Vikings' staff under offensive coordinator Norv Turner two years ago (in fact, he replaced Turner when he was fired during the season). Now Turner is the Panthers’ offensive coordinator. Shurmur and Rivera also coached together as assistants with the Eagles.
“Every time I’ve ever been in this scenario where we really know this team or really know that team, you overthink it,” Shurmur said. “It’s important that we don’t do that … There’s some generality, some things you think about and try to apply, but what’s really important is watch the tape, prepare for the team that we’re playing based on what we see.”
The emotional component
That’s a fine approach for the preparation. But once the Giants get on the field Sunday — a field more than a few of them recently called home — there undoubtedly will be an emotional component to it all.
Not all of the participants chose to admit to it. This, after all, is an important game for the Giants, not just the former Panthers who are now Giants. They’re 1-3 and in desperate need of a victory.
“We need to win, that’s what this game means to me,” Shula said. “We need to win.”
“I don’t get caught up in the going back and revenge game,” McGaughey said. “It’s football. We’ve got a job to do every week regardless of the opponent. They’re all nameless gray faces, and when we go out there, we got a job to do and just go out there and play and get a win. That’s the most important thing.”
But there undoubtedly is a fire in them that wants to show the Panthers what they are missing. It wouldn’t be human to feel otherwise.
“Different guys have different reasons, but it adds a little extra,” Shepard said. “Myself, being there for a year, being released this offseason, having an opportunity to play against them, there’s definitely going to be a little bit of extra motivation for me. For the coordinators [too]. It goes across the board from the front office to the players to the coaching staff to the equipment guys.
“They know,” Shepard said. “It’s special.”