At first many onlookers thought he might be hurt. Perhaps working through an injury that was bugging him. Olivier Vernon, the Giants’ $85 million investment in their defense, was running off to the side during and after one of the first training camp practices of the summer.
Turned out there was nothing wrong. The defensive end was simply getting in some extra conditioning.
“He just likes to work,” Ben McAdoo shrugged.
Pretty soon, Vernon wasn’t alone in his endeavors. During special teams drills that he wasn’t participating in, he and Jason Pierre-Paul regularly ran 100-yard sprints. After steamy camp practices he’d be joined by entire position groups like linebackers or safeties. It quickly became a new tradition.
The Giants hope Vernon can spark another new tradition, or at least return the franchise to an old one: Winning. It’s been three straight seasons without a record over .500, four straight without a playoff appearance. That’s why things have changed so profoundly for the Giants with a new head coach for the first time since 2004 and an almost entirely new defense. But it’s the little changes, the less obvious ones, that will likely count the most. McAdoo has called it “evolution, not revolution,” and perhaps the best example of the subtle shift comes from a single player doing some extra cardio one day and then being joined by a following of teammates over the course of the preseason.
“Isn’t it funny how that happens?” noted defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. “People gravitate to natural leaders. Natural leaders don’t necessarily have to be the vocal people and OV is not a vocal guy. But there is conviction in action. People see that. He’s convicted in what he does and he shows that. He’s a pro.”
Vernon downplayed the idea that he did anything special to become the Pied Piper of Pass-rushers for the Giants. He said he always did extra running during his career in Miami, so when he came to the Giants he figured he would continue. No big deal.
But for a defense that was ranked 32nd in the NFL last season and the main culprit for the disappointing season, it can be a tremendous deal. Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison, and cornerback Janoris Jenkins – the three big-ticket purchases made by the Giants this offseason – are some of the biggest reasons why a team that has floundered for the past four years has been thinking of itself as a legitimate contender in 2016.
Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. will be there to provide the offense. A healthy Victor Cruz and rookie Sterling Shepard should only improve the dynamism of the passing game. But it’s the revamped defense – and Vernon’s defensive line in particular – that has people so excited.
“I have been fortunate to be able to be around here when we won two championships and it starts up front,” safeties coach David Merritt said. “I mean, with the new guys we have in here… these guys are doing the things that I have been used to in the past, so we have that back.”
Or, as Pierre-Paul said when asked how good the defensive front can be: “There is no limit.”
There were plenty who raised a critical eyebrow when the Giants signed Vernon this offseason, making him one of the highest-paid defensive linemen in history despite his never playing in a Pro Bowl or a playoff game. But Vernon may give the Giants more than just production as a pass rusher in an area where they were woefully under-represented last season.
“I told him the other day that I think he’s a closet pro,” McAdoo said. “He’s a guy, he’s very professional about the way he goes about his business. He takes care of himself to the highest degree. He doesn’t necessarily do it out in the open.”
He’s a head-down hard-worker, a man with a quiet personality but an intensity that simmers just below the surface. He’s not on Twitter, not taking in the scene in New York, and not worried about what others think about him.
In some ways, he may be the perfect McAdoo player, cast from a mold similar to the one that produced his new head coach. They’re certainly linked now as a rookie head coach and one of the first players he added to the roster. And they seem to know the way to get the Giants back to prominence.
They just have to hope they pick up some followers to join them and make it a tradition.