Late last July, at the outset of New York Giants training camp, general manager Jerry Reese stood before reporters and was unusually candid with his disdain for his team's recent shortcomings, as Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com described the scene.
Reese and the Giants had come to an agreement on a long-term extension with slot receiver Victor Cruz, then a restricted free agent, only weeks before this moment. If the previous absence of Cruz, as well as outside receiving threat Hakeem Nicks, at earlier offseason workouts had him worried, he covered it up effectively by hanging above the locker room a daily countdown to Super Bowl XLVIII, which was held at the Giants' and Jets' shared home field, MetLife Stadium, in February of 2013.
And if Reese had any concerns about the stability of his offensive line or the health of his star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, he masked it with conviction as he delivered his Giants this stern, supposedly final warning (via Youngmisuk):
All I know is that we've been in the playoffs one time in the last four years and that's really not acceptable for us. That's not our standards. That's not what we shoot for. We want to put everybody on notice, myself, everybody is on notice that that's not our standard.
Three months later, Reese was talking to many of those same reporters during the Giants' bye week, now speaking on behalf of his 2-6 team, defending the leadership of both head coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning. Reese assured that Eli "didn't forget how to play his position all of a sudden" and reminded that it was "not Tom's first rodeo," per Tom Canavan of lohud.com.
The beat writers ran sarcastic updates on Reese's Super Bowl countdown, as the Giants played themselves into an 0-6 hole to start the 2013 season. The focus during Reese's mid-season press conference was not on New York's faint glimmer of playoff hope after capturing two straight wins before the break. Rather, the press probed the GM for possible scapegoats, anyone to blame for what figured to be yet another postseason-less campaign.
|2007||10-6||YES||Won SB XLII|
|2011||9-7||YES||Won SB XLVI|
The Giants won five of their remaining eight games, somewhat salvaging the season with a 7-9 record and a third-place finish in the NFC East. It was just enough of a late-season surge to move their draft position outside of the top 10. Frustrating news for the pack-it-in crowd, whom I'll never fully understand.
But in May of 2014, armed with the No. 12 overall pick, Reese assembled what I believe to be the most fearless draft class of his entire tenure as the Giants GM.
"In Reese We Trust"
To understand the saying, you must also be familiar with the Giants' history of general managers.
The '13 Giants were so poor to start the season, they drew several comparisons to teams of the 1970s. The franchise was in a decade-and-a-half-long depression without a playoff appearance when George Young took over as GM of the Giants in 1979. Young picked Phil Simms in his first season at the helm, and the rest is history.
Young held the job until 1997, earning five NFL Executive of the Year awards along the way (1984, '86, '90, '93, '97). His successor, Ernie Accorsi, kept the Giants competitive during his GM tenure (1998-2006), as well. Accorsi pulled off the now-infamous draft-day trade for Manning in 2004 and surrounded him with a Super Bowl-caliber supporting cast, which included players like guard Chris Snee (draft of 2004), defensive end Justin Tuck (draft of 2005), wide receiver Plaxico Burress (free agency, 2005) and linebacker Antonio Pierce (free agency, 2005).
When Reese took over as GM in 2007, it didn't take long to get the feeling that the franchise had once again been left in good hands. Reese's first draft class as GM was stellar, as several of his rookie selections—such as cornerback Aaron Ross (Round 1), wide receiver Steve Smith (Round 2), tight end Kevin Boss (Round 5) and running back Ahmad Bradshaw (Round 7)—played important roles during New York's improbable '07 Super Bowl run.
Since then, Giants fans have mostly trusted Reese's personnel decisions, even when they don't seem to make immediate sense. However, draft classes like the one in 2007, as well as several individual, risky picks—like the selection of raw defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in Round 1 of 2010—have paid profuse dividends for the Giants.
Dating back to 1986, under Young, Accorsi and Reese, no team has claimed more Lombardi Trophies than the Giants (4). They are also the only franchise to have won a Super Bowl in each decade since the 1980s.
So, the adage I've often seen used by Giants fans—whether in the comment section here on Bleacher Report, or even as the motto of other fan-oriented sites—is this: "In Reese We Trust." In reality, it should be "In Whomever's Been In Charge of Personnel Decisions Since George Young We Trust."
|George Young||1979-1997||1986, 1990|
|Jerry Reese||2007-Present||2007, 2011|
And really, should the fanbase blindly trust the GM's every move? Look at how many terrible moves are made around the league yearly; some are bound to be made by this particular one, garnished with football-infallibility after assembling just one premier draft class back in 2007.
The fans are starting to take notice, too. The Marvin Austins of Reese's draft classes outnumber the Linval Josephs; the same can be said for the David Wilsons that eclipse the Ahmad Bradshaws, as well as the Clint Sintims that overshadow the Jason Pierre-Pauls.
I think some fans took particular notice to one word from Reese's press conference back in July of 2013.
The word: "myself."
How far does the team have to sink before New York considers firing its general manager? Sure, to some teams like the Clevland Browns, GMs are as disposable as paper plates and napkins in the coaches' lounge. But we're talking about an executive position most necessary to a franchise's bedrock of success, when the franchise in discussion is the New York Giants.
After a 7-9 finish in 2013, Reese's feelings toward his head coach and quarterback hadn't changed—they were to stay through the 2014 season at ages 68 (in August) and 33, respectively. The offense they were to coach and quarterback was to be completely different, though. Two-time Super Bowl-winning coordinator Kevin Gilbride was out, and ex-Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo was in.
New York's offense ranked 28th in the league last season, and several assistant coaches on that side of the ball were held accountable for the Giants' continued postseason drought in 2013. Reese had held true to what sounded a lot like a promise that heads would roll if New York failed to qualify for the playoffs yet again, a fourth time in five years.
The question remained: What would Reese change about himself?
A Different Direction
The Giants are known to stick to his board, drafting with a strict best-player-available approach. Reese, an ex-scout himself, places a lot of faith in the reports generated by his scouting department and where each prospect is ranked on the Giants' big board. This method, in my opinion, is the most scientific, devoid-of-emotion way to draft. It is also one Reese has utilized with a great deal of success during his first seven seasons as GM.
I'm not saying Reese completely abandoned this method in 2014; I'm saying that he showed off a bit more of his football gut than usual this May—I'd say the most he has shown since drafting Pierre-Paul at 15th overall in 2010.
Did the Giants make the right pick in Round 1?
I'm calling this 2014 draft class Reese's most fearless because he made these picks under a historic amount of pressure when it comes to Giants GMs. Reese is not on the hot seat, but no longer is he seated on a throne of football-crazed pseudo-papacy either. If his job was ever truly on the line, it would be the fault of no other's words but his own—"myself," last July.
Reese backed Coughlin and Manning in October of 2013 because he knew what both of them can do when up against the wall. This May, using the 2014 draft as his platform, Reese showed that he can do just the same.
Reese's strategy in the 2014 NFL draft didn't come off as cold and mathematical as it has in the past. I think Dan Graziano of ESPN.com nailed it when he argued that first-round selection Odell Beckham Jr., a wide receiver out of LSU, was a pick based on "love, not need or value."
Reese must be so in love with Beckham as a prospect that he is not at all afraid to risk his entire credibility on the 5'11" receiver's future success in the NFL. With safer-looking prospects left on the board—like Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald (St. Louis Rams, Pick 13) and Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin (Dallas Cowboys, Pick 16)—Reese took a leap of faith on Beckham, an offensive fireplug desperately needed to revive New York's pulseless offense.
A lesser GM might have been too afraid to pull the trigger on another undersized, yet irresistibly athletic scoring threat in the first round, when only two years earlier he had done exactly that, unsuccessfully, for running back David Wilson. No other GM would have the gall to select an LSU prospect and describe him as "pro-ready," when only two years earlier, in Rueben Randle, he had picked a player of the same exact position from the same exact school with the same exact "pro-ready" description in his scouting report, only to find out he was anything but.
Heck, even Beckham's last name is eerily similar to another of Reese's most popular pass-catching draft busts: former Wisconsin tight end Travis Beckum, a third-round selection in 2009.
Reese picked Beckham not fearing the consequences of making the same mistake twice.
This is the attitude that marked Reese's entire 2014 draft.
A Familiar Focus
A pro football general manager usually makes (or breaks) his career based on the quarterbacks he selects during his time in office. For example, Ernie Accorsi, who saw Johnny Unitas up close as a young public relations director with the Baltimore Colts in the early 1970s, later drafted John Elway when he was Baltimore's GM in 1983 (Accorsi resigned upon Elway's trade to Denver). He also acquired Bernie Kosar in the 1985 supplemental draft, when he was GM of the Cleveland Browns.
Accorsi was the GM that made the 2004 draft-day trade for Eli Manning, the cornerstone of a quarterback Reese has had on his roster since the start of his tenure. When I look back on the 2013 trade up to draft QB Ryan Nassib out of Syracuse in the fourth round, I can't help but wonder if Reese was beginning to feel that inescapable GM itch. An itch that can only be scratched by drafting a franchise quarterback.
But with Big Blue beaten, battered and, ultimately, broken in 2013, Reese was forced to refocus this offseason.
He did so, squarely on Manning.
Three of the first four picks were offensive players who can make an immediate impact in Eli's offense: first-round wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. of LSU, second-round center Weston Richburg of Colorado State and fourth-round running back Andre Williams of Boston College.
Manning is without Hakeem Nicks on the outside for the first time since 2008. Beckham is a big-play weapon, likened to DeSean Jackson now of the Washington Redskins, that can get involved in the offense right away. If he can draw the attention of a defender or two on the outside, life will be that much easier underneath for Victor Cruz—Manning's favorite target.
Richburg will be the Week 1 starting center. Encouraged by 2013 first-rounder Justin Pugh's stellar rookie season at right tackle, in which he started all 16 games, Reese spent another high-round pick on an O-lineman in 2014—this time a second-round center out of the Mountain West Conference. My favorite Richburg anecdote (h/t Art Stapleton of The Record): In 2011, the Ram broke his right hand, so he snapped the rest of the season with his left hand. This guy will do anything to get Eli the ball between his legs on Sunday.
Grade the Giants' 2014 draft class?
There was not a smidgen of consistency in Manning's running game last season. That is sure to change in 2014, regardless of how well David Wilson's return from spinal fusion surgery goes. Now, to supplement the 231-pound Rashad Jennings at running back, the Giants have a 230-pound Williams. Look no further than this highlight video to witness how powerful a downhill runner the 2013 Heisman finalist was at Boston College. Wilson might one day make a nice change-of-pace back for the quarter ton of power running game that is the newly formed Jennings-Williams combo.
All of these picks, ready to contribute as rookies, are tied to immediate success at the quarterback position. Reese's 2014 draft has placed all the attention back on Manning, where the franchise probably wanted it all along. The Giants can't count on Eli to be breaking the touchdown record at age 37, like his brother Peyton did with the Broncos in 2013, so the time to win, Reese knows, is now.
First through free agency and now through the draft, Reese has equipped his franchise quarterback with all the weapons to make it happen.
The GM has done it in fearless fashion.