Dysfunctional Giants Need Locker Room Leader Who Will Get Tough with Teammates

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterDecember 29, 2017

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (left) and Eli Apple are two of the three Giants cornerbacks who've been suspended by the team this season.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (left) and Eli Apple are two of the three Giants cornerbacks who've been suspended by the team this season.Associated Press

If you ask people across football about the Giants, they'll focus on one thing: The team lacks character.

Not characters. The Giants have those. But character.

"No leaders," said one AFC front-office executive.

This was again evident when a Giants player, in a text to B/R on Thursday, confirmed an ESPN report that one of the reasons defensive back Eli Apple was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team was he got into a verbal altercation with one of the assistant coaches. ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan reported the argument was with cornerbacks coach Tim Walton.

The player said of Apple: "He's the worst teammate I ever had." 

It's rare to hear one NFL player describe another that way. It almost never happens.

The in-fighting you see on the team...the ugliness...the suspensions: It's what occurs when you fail to draft or sign true leaders.

"You're seeing with the Giants," the executive explained, "how one or two guys can poison an entire locker room."

But only if that locker room doesn't have an antidote.

If you want to understand why the Giants are a discombobulated mess, let's go back in time. The year was 1998, and one of the greatest leaders the Giants ever had was on a rampage.

New York's offensive line had been playing terribly and Michael Strahan, who years later made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had seen enough. He and another brilliant leader on the team, linebacker Jessie Armstead, walked into the meeting room where the offense was gathered.

Michael Strahan was a leader who could effectively take teammates to task.
Michael Strahan was a leader who could effectively take teammates to task.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Strahan called the line "pu--ies." Armstead said something similar. The room was stunned, but Strahan and Armstead were the only players on the team with the clout to tell the line the truth.

"We were very upset with what they did," running back Tiki Barber said at the time. "We thought it was out of line. But I have to admit, it worked. There was a carryover, no question. We were mad for a long time."

"A week later, the offense responded," Armstead said. "Maybe they finally got mad. They were crying all this week about what Mike and I said, but they stopped crying and finally hit somebody."

"We didn't point fingers at anyone," Strahan said. "We just said things in general. I stood up and said, 'We need to play with fire, like we give a darn.' Then Jessie stood up and said: 'It's time to play with emotion. Hey, [quarterback Danny Kanell], if you see a lineman mess up, tell him, yell at him. If you see a receiver mess up, yell at him. I know when I make a mistake, people point it out. When our defensive backs make mistakes, I yell at them.'

"That's how it went. Some players were offended. But that's too bad. We needed to turn things around. I was actually nice. I tell you what, if we would have lost to Arizona, then I would not have been nice."

There is something about that delicious quote, all these years later, that is instructive now for the Giants. It's something they could learn from.

The Giants have talent, but it's chaotic and unglued. The Giants lost this season because they were hurt (22 players on injured reserve), but also because they have no leadership.

They just suspended a 2016 first-round pick (10th overall) in Apple for the final game of the season. That means three Giants cornerbacks—Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Apple—served some type of team-mandated suspension this year. Not sure any other team has had three DBs suspended in one season.

The great franchises, the ones that win, have all had a Strahan. The consistently losing ones have an abundance of Apples.

The Patriots have Tom Brady and others. The Seahawks, during their run, have had a number of leaders. The Steelers, Eagles and Rams all have them. The Giants in their two most recent Super Bowl runs had several, and the earlier Giants Super Bowl squads had players like Phil Simms and Harry Carson.

History is important. History is important because if you forget its lessons, you are doomed to repeat the failures.

What you see with this Giants team, more than anything, as it cracks apart on the field and off it—including across New York radio stations—is a complete void of leadership. The team hasn't drafted good leaders or cultivated the ones they have.

Eli Manning isn't necessarily that guy. Neither is Odell Beckham Jr.

This isn't just me saying this. When people from other teams see the Giants, they tell me they see a team not necessarily lacking in talent but missing locker room accountability and leadership.

The team's hiring of Dave Gettleman as general manager Thursday could fix what ails the franchise. He had been the general manager for Carolina, which (except for its allegedly sexist and bigoted owner) has a good locker room and stability. Gettleman's greatest challenge will be replicating that.

Leadership in sports is a complex and tricky thing. It isn't just words. Sometimes, even action isn't enough. There has to be a combination of both.

Harry Carson
Harry CarsonBruce Dierdorff/Getty Images

We've seen that combo before in players like Strahan and Carson, another Giants Hall of Famer. He has told this story several times, and it gets better every time I hear it. He told it again recently to the New York Post's Paul Schwartz, and like Strahan's story, it shows the value of having a credible leader.

To set the scene, the Giants were trailing the Lions 10-7 at halftime of a 1988 game.

"People were throwing s--t at us and I couldn't take it," Carson said. "I remember, I exploded in the meeting room. I said things I don't even remember, but I felt like I was possessed. [Defensive coordinator Bill] Belichick didn't make any adjustments, because he couldn't talk 'cause I was screaming. [Offensive coordinator] Ron Erhardt couldn't make any adjustments because I was just ranting and raving.

"And the one thing I remember saying is, 'I'm going back out there to play. If you don't want to play, stay the f--k in the locker room!'  Guys heard me, we went back out, and Detroit did not score another point and we won the game. Sometimes things need to be said, things need to be seen."

Leadership isn't just yelling. It's challenging teammates and having the credibility to mount that challenge. Carson had that. Strahan had that.

Can the Giants get someone like that again?

     

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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