It’s hard to define the word “culture,” especially when it comes to a football team. So when new Giants general manager Dave Gettleman was speaking about the topic and its importance to him last week, he decided to tell a story rather than actually explain what he meant.
He went back to 2015, when he was running the Panthers and had traded for defensive end Jared Allen in late September. The defensive end had been in the NFL for 11 full seasons with three other teams.
“After two weeks, he came up to me,” Gettleman recalled. “He said: ‘Dave, I’ve been in this league a long time. I have never been in a locker room like this.’ He said: ‘It’s a pleasure to come to work. Everybody is in this together and I’ve never seen this before.’
“The proof was in the pudding,” Gettleman continued. “That team won a lot of games, so culture is critical.”
Steve Wilks, defensive coordinator and assistant head coach of the Panthers, was in that 2015 locker room. He knows what Gettleman wants. They can talk in shorthand. There is no need for long-winded setups, no need to establish backgrounds and develop characters in the narrative.
They are from the same universe.
THE CASE FOR WILKS
The Giants have conducted four official interviews for their head-coaching vacancy in the past week, including Saturday’s meeting with Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur in Minnesota. There is a chance that in each of those interviews, Gettleman told the same story about Jared Allen, attempting to illustrate what he wants people to say about his Giants.
“One of the greatest things I’ve ever had a player say to me,” Gettleman said of the conversation.
But there is one candidate to whom Gettleman will not have to recite the vignette. And that might make all the difference in his and the team’s ultimate decision on the Giants’ next head coach.
It’s why many think Wilks is the favorite to land the job with the Giants. It’s one he’s been linked to since early December, when the Giants fired Ben McAdoo and Jerry Reese. That’s when Gettleman’s name was first floated as a front-office replacement, and Wilks, who was in Carolina for the entirety of Gettleman’s tenure, was attached to him.
Gettleman has been coy regarding direct comments on possibilities for the new coach. He has a list of criteria he is looking for. Smart. Tough. Communicator. Head-coaching experience would be a plus, but, he has said, “not a deal-breaker.”
Wilks has never served in that capacity, though he has been the Panthers’ assistant head coach since 2015. It was a promotion from defensive backs coach that Gettleman signed off on. In that role, he acted as both defensive leader and overall inspiration. Even the offensive players felt his impact.
“He always has a very positive message,” former Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. — whose Saints will play the Panthers in Sunday’s wild-card round — told the Charlotte Observer this past week. “He’d keep reminding, ‘Make sure every day is right.’ That’s been a trademark around there . . . Over the years, he’s learned from some great people. As long as you soak everything up, when you get the opportunity, you’ll be fine.”
A FIRST FOR GETTLEMAN
That he is getting to choose the head coach at all is an entirely new experience for Gettleman. When he took the job in Carolina in 2013, Ron Rivera already was there. In fact, the week before Gettleman’s interview with the Panthers, ownership publicly stated that Rivera would be remaining with the team.
That experience, too, comes with an illuminating Gettleman tale.
“I was walking into a situation where I was inheriting a coach,” he said. “And I had never met Ron. Obviously knew of him, but never met him. I got the job Wednesday night, and Thursday morning Ron picked me up, we went to a breakfast place, sat down, got a cup of coffee, and I looked at him and I said: ‘You ready for our blind date?’ ”
Wilks will require no such awkwardness. He and Gettleman have worked together, won together. The fact that he’s on the list of candidates indicates that he already has a measure of support from Gettleman. It might just be a matter of winning over co-owner John Mara and, eventually, Steve Tisch.
When that interview will take place depends a lot on how the Panthers perform on Sunday.
The Giants will be watching closely. It will be Wilks’ opening statement in his interview.