EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The music that teams play during training camp practices can be so predictable. Drake. Metallica. The theme from Happy Days.
Wait...the theme from Happy Days?
Yep. It was playing during Giants practice last week. Did Tom Coughlin return? Did he fall asleep in front of MeTV with the volume all the way up?
No, Coughlin has moved to NFL headquarters. New head coach Ben McAdoo and his staff crank up the hip-hop, metal and dad rawk from speakers lining the sidelines all through practice. The classic TV themes, from Happy Days to The Wonder Years, signal cool-off and hydration periods at set intervals.
Let's unpack this. Training camp music is not totally new at Giants camp; Coughlin allowed it now and then during stretches, though the selections veered toward "Sundays with Sinatra." Hydration breaks are also not totally new; the Giants have dabbled in sports science for years, and cool-off periods aren't exactly a cutting-edge innovation.
But silly songs from old TV shows to signal break time? That's funny. That's...fun.
Funny and fun are totally new concepts at Giants camp this year.
"Who was smart enough to move this thing inside, into the nice air conditioning?" defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo asked at the start of a press conference at the Giants' field house last week. "It gets us out of the sun." Under Coughlin, pressers were held outside in the heat, sometimes with tractors mowing the nearby field and greenhead flies nipping at ankles. A beat writer raised his hand. "You're gonna take credit for it? I knew somebody would."
Spagnuolo was in a merry mood for a man whose defense ranked 32nd in the NFL last year. His unit even lost that day's practice competition to the offense by a 7-2 score, which was kept on a whiteboard in the corner of one end zone. But Spags traded quips with reporters and referred to Jason Pierre-Paul as a "rubbery Gumby man" instead of flagellating himself and vowing stern-facedly to do better.
It gets weirder. The next day's practice was pushed back to late morning and shortened to just over an hour. It was a shells-and-shorts, half-speed installation session in mild weather. "We call it a REM Friday," McAdoo said. He pronounced it "rem"—not like the band that sang "Everybody Hurts," the theme song of the last three Giants training camps. "We had a little more REMs last night, ran a little bit later. We had a chance to hydrate them and bring it back down and recover this morning."
Setting another example of sports science aside for a moment, think of what McAdoo did. The Giants head coach rescheduled practice so his players could sleep later. Whatever happened to players being marked late before the rooster crowed twice?
I have been visiting Giants camp regularly since the end of the 2011 lockout. I have seen the Super Bowl-caliber Giants, the above-average Giants and the mediocre Giants. But I have never seen these guys. The loose Giants. The scientific Giants. The millennial Giants. Visiting East Rutherford in the past was like consulting the wealth management professionals at Coughlin, Reese and Mara to discuss your low-risk retirement portfolio. This year, the Giants have gone business casual.
This column now runs the risk of turning into one of those lazy yarns about how some minor tweaks to the practice schedule and a musical set list have magically transformed a franchise. Let's back away from the easy conclusions and quippy assistant coaches and focus on some tangibles.
• The Giants are more talented than they have been in years. Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Damon "Big Snacks" Harrison have arrived to upgrade the defense. Veteran slot cornerback Leon Hall arrived to bolster the secondary the day Spagnuolo spoke, which may have explained the spring in his step.
Spagnuolo wouldn't come right out and say he had better talent this year than last year. "If I say that, it would be an injustice to the guys who were here last year," he said. Fair enough, but even some of the guys who were here last year weren't really here last year because...
• The Giants are healthier now than they have been in years. McAdoo wants to talk about injuries the way a pitcher wants to talk about a no-hitter in the fifth inning. "We're early. Don't jinx me," he said when the subject came up.
But at this point last year, Pierre-Paul was a punch line and an X-ray on the internet. Victor Cruz was perpetually a week away from a return. Left tackle William Beatty was already lost to a weightlifting accident. Defensive backs and linebackers began dropping as soon as camp started.
There have been few camp injuries so far this year. Odell Beckham Jr. missed a few days when his ankle got stomped on by Jenkins during a full-contact drill, but he was back in action by REM-and-recovery day. Cruz and JPP have been full participants. The draft class is healthy. (In past years, top rookies such as Landon Collins and Prince Amukamara were among the first players to go down.) Consequently, Hall can be used to add depth and experience rather than quell an emergency at an injury-depleted position like Brandon Meriweather did this time last year. The reduction in injuries may be because...
• The Giants are more scientific than they have been in years. It's not just that McAdoo is casually talking about hydration and sleep patterns. The Giants overhauled their entire training program in the offseason. New strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman arrived from Notre Dame with a profile loaded with sports-science keywords: movement screenings, mobility and stability deficits, athlete-monitoring systems, psychometric questionnaires, neuromuscular fatigue assessments and salivary testing.
Coughlin and the previous training staff weren't completely stuck in the steaks-and-medicine balls era. But if the Giants used sports science in the past, they didn't implement it very well. They ranked dead last in the NFL in adjusted games lost to injury for three straight years, according to Football Outsiders. You don't remain the most injury-plagued team in the league for years solely because of bad luck and a pass-rusher's terrible decision-making with a box of firecrackers.
So the Giants aren't a better team simply because they have a new attitude in training camp. But the new attitude is an indicator of significant changes in the team's approach—changes that were long overdue.
The Giants created a three-way bind for themselves in the years since their unexpected Super Bowl run in 2011. They were extremely reluctant to play the free-agent market. Their injury rates grew increasingly crippling. And the organization's unwillingness to change made it hard for them to solve the first two problems.
This looked like it would be just another typical offseason, even after Coughlin left. Thrifty Jerry Reese stayed on as general manager. McAdoo replaced Coughlin from within, while Spagnuolo maintains deep Coughlin roots. Coughlin himself haunted team headquarters throughout the winter, like a father-in-law who keeps dropping in on the newlyweds.
But then Reese started spending all that cap space the team built up over the years. Wellman arrived and began installing new workout equipment and stressing individualization. Now, Giants practices look and sound like a mixture of the best elements of Coughlin's and Chip Kelly's practices. Best of all, the key players are all healthy enough to participate.
None of this is meant to be an indictment on Coughlin. Coughlin is the one who made it all possible. "Honestly, I think we let Coughlin down," linebacker Jonathan Casillas said, referring specifically to the defense.
"Demand here is high," he added. "Coughlin set that bar. He's got a couple of rings under his belt. We've gotta keep that tradition. Anything less than that is an underachievement."
The high bar, high expectations and traditions still matter. It's the musty Coughlin routines that were yielding ever-diminishing returns. It wasn't just that half the roster was injured on any given Sunday and the team hadn't made a major free-agent splash since Plaxico Burress. No team took football more seriously than the Giants, but few teams found more silly ways to lose games (like forgetting whether scoring touchdowns late in the fourth quarter is good or not) in recent years.
The music was much quieter during last week's shortened practice than during the full practice. "We'll fix that," McAdoo chuckled. "We tied it into the workload. The music and intensity were tied together."
The intensity doesn't always have to be crushing. The Giants have the talent to win the NFC East. It looks like they aren't going to kill themselves in August trying to do it this time. There will still be plenty of sweaty, physical days at Giants camp. But mixing in a few happy days can't hurt.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.