Last Thursday, one week before the kickoff of the NFL draft, Giants coach Tom Coughlin stopped by the office of p.r. chief Pat Hanlon at the team's headquarters in East Rutherford, N.J., before heading back into afternoon draft meetings. Coughlin held a square Styrofoam container with the remnants of his salad inside. While he talked to Hanlon and a visitor, the container fell from his hands, stray seeds and cloudy dressing spilling onto Hanlon's carpet.
"Look at that!" Coughlin said disgustedly. He turned around to walk to the kitchen to fetch paper towels.
"Tom, we'll get someone to clean it up!" Hanlon called after him, but it was too late. Thirty seconds later the 65-year-old Coughlin was on his knees, picking up sunflower seeds and carefully wet-wiping and then dry-wiping the dressing. In a minute the carpet was spotless, and Coughlin left for his meeting.
In the midst of the newsiest NFL off-season in recent history—Peyton Manning moving to Denver, Tim Tebow shipped to the swamps of Jersey, the Saints' bounty scandal shocking the league, the Colts and the Redskins homing in on franchise quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III—the biggest headline from the Super Bowl champions is this: Eli Manning will host Saturday Night Live on May 5. As the league begins its three-day draftapalooza on Thursday, can anyone identify a juicy off-season morsel about the Giants? Bueller? Bueller?
That's how Big Blue operates: ego-free, hype-averse, everyone contributing. And that's the team's approach to the draft, all seven rounds and beyond.
Most non-Kiperized NFL fans will be glassy-eyed come Saturday, when rounds 4 through 7 take place. That's when Giants general manager Jerry Reese and his staff do some of their smartest business. In the 2007 draft, his first as G.M., Reese took tight end Kevin Boss of Western Oregon in round 5 and running back Ahmad Bradshaw of Marshall in round 7; both were key contributors during that Super Bowl season. (In fact, all eight of New York's 2007 picks took part in the playoffs as rookies.) And last April the Giants drafted three players in the sixth round who would be core special-teamers in another Super Bowl--winning campaign: linebacker Greg Jones of Michigan State, defensive back Tyler Sash of Iowa and linebacker Jacquian Williams of South Florida, who forced the decisive overtime fumble in the NFC Championship Game at San Francisco. If you get drafted by the Giants, you've got a terrific chance of playing in a playoff game. More than half of Reese's picks have.
"One of the great things about the way this team operates," says club president John Mara, "is how workmanlike Tom Coughlin and Jerry Reese are, and how egoless. All they care about is building the best team they can."
In the last two decades a generation of fans has grown to love the NFL's hot stove league. When free agency begins, they clamor for big names and big moves. When the Bills signed the best defensive player on the market this year, pass rusher Mario Williams, western New York was so excited you'd have thought Buffalo had just won the AFC East. When the Eagles brought in a cadre of stars in free agency last summer, training camp practices felt more like a coronation than preparation for a season. But teams that win free agency rarely win the Lombardi Trophy. Ask the Redskins of a decade ago, who gave an $8 million signing bonus to 32-year-old Deion Sanders (he lasted one season before retiring), or the wild-spending Raiders of recent vintage. "We have a saying around here," says Mara. "You don't win the Super Bowl in March."
Reese, Coughlin and Mara have the same team-building philosophy as predecessors George Young, Bill Parcells and Wellington Mara a generation ago: get big people up front on both sides of the ball, be able to run the ball late every season when the weather gets dodgy, and find a quarterback whose passes can cut through that weather. And on defense the front seven takes precedence over the secondary, sending waves of rushers at the opposing QB.
The Giants don't ignore free agency to fill those needs. In the six off-seasons since he replaced Ernie Accorsi as G.M., Reese has signed four players to contracts averaging $5 million a year or more: defensive tackle Chris Canty, linebacker Michael Boley, safety Antrel Rolle and center David Baas. All started in the Super Bowl XLVI victory over the Patriots in February. But when New York spends, it's not a knee-jerk reaction for a quick fix or in response to outside pressure; it's to address a long-term need at a position. Canty was the Giants' top-rated free-agent defensive lineman, and Boley the linebacker they wanted in 2009. Rolle was their top-ranked safety in '10, and Baas was the No. 1 center on their board last summer. Those four players were 26, 26, 27 and 29, respectively, when New York signed them. "We don't have a template in how we build here," says Reese. "We use every way."
The Giants set a value on their own players, and if those players can find more money elsewhere, New York will let them leave. Nine months ago that unbending philosophy enraged the fan base; when Reese allowed Boss and another passing-game weapon, wideout Steve Smith, to walk, his office voice mail was flooded with harsh messages from supporters sure he was piloting the franchise on a Titanic-like course. It seems silly in retrospect, but the Smith and Boss decisions unleashed the hounds—even highly educated ones. Said Michael Norman, an NYU journalism professor, author and lifelong Giants fan, "I wanted to run Jerry Reese out of the stadium. I just thought, What is this guy doing? Bring back Ernie Accorsi!"
Reese smiled last week at the memory of the withering criticism. "That stuff happens everywhere," he said. "It's just louder here. But if I listened to the media and to the fans, and made decisions based on popular opinion, well, then they hired the wrong guy. Fans think of the now. I think of the now—and two years from now. That way you just build. You don't have to counterpunch."
Asked if he agonized over the Smith and Boss decisions, he replied, "I don't agonize over anybody."
That attitude goes far toward explaining how the Giants have won two Super Bowls in five years. They have a clutch QB in Manning, a fearsome rush, a staff with excellent teachers and ... well, you knew all that already. What you probably aren't aware of is a scout in Marysville, Ohio, who knows tight ends, and how important experts like him are in building what the Giants have. The story of how the Giants replaced Boss with Jake Ballard and didn't miss a beat perfectly illustrates their approach to building a winner.
Last July, when the lockout ended and training camps opened, teams scrambled to sign their draft choices and free agents. It was a crazy quilt of quick action. New York wanted to keep Boss, and Reese made him a three-year, $9 million offer. The Giants liked Ballard a lot too—a 2010 undrafted free agent from Ohio State, he was a gritty in-line blocker and a decent receiver. "If it's gonna snow and the wind's gonna blow, we gotta run the ball, and we need tight ends who can block," tight ends coach Mike Pope said.
The Giants weren't budging from their offer to Boss. He visited the Raiders, who had just lost tight end Zach Miller to the Seahawks. When the negotiations in Oakland stalled, Boss flew back to New Jersey with the intention of re-signing with the Giants. While he was in the air, however, Raiders owner Al Davis—in what might have been his last player negotiation—upped the ante. He offered Boss's agent, Scott Smith, a four-year, $16 million contract, with $6 million guaranteed. Smith tried to get the Giants to move. No dice. "Kevin's one of the best kids we ever had here," Mara says. "I wanted him to be a Giant for life. But around here, when the money gets above X, we say goodbye."
Instead, New York would give three young tight ends—Ballard, 2009 third-rounder Travis Beckum and Bear Pascoe, whom they'd taken from the Niners' practice squad in '09—a chance to win the job. The 6'6", 275-pound Ballard was the most intriguing. In four seasons in Columbus he caught just 34 passes, not enough of an offensive factor for any team to consider drafting him. But in watching Ohio State tape and a couple practices, Devine, who works the Midwest for the Giants, saw potential. "He had a great work ethic, was a very good blocker, and the few times he had the chance you could see he had soft hands," Devine said last week. "The way we're taught with the Giants is, there are no perfect football players. Can we look at players in the college game and find those with enough ingredients to fit into our system? I thought Ballard had a chance."
Twenty tight ends were drafted in 2010. Ballard wasn't one of them. But acting on Devine's scouting report, New York signed him as an undrafted free agent the day after the draft ended. "My agent told me the tight end coach of the Giants liked me, and the Giants weren't bringing in any other tight ends," Ballard said on Sunday. "And the Giants trust their scouts. They take a hard look at the undrafted free agents, who maybe other teams don't look at as seriously. (Also in Ballard's UFA class was UMass receiver Victor Cruz. With him the Giants got a little lucky. The Paterson, N.J., native was part of a crop of regional prospects the team brought in for workouts a few weeks before the '10 draft. If Cruz hadn't taken part in those workouts, Big Blue wouldn't have signed him. In 2011 he replaced Smith and set the franchise record for receiving yards.)
After a year on the practice squad, Ballard took over for Boss in 2011 with the help of Pope, who in 29 years of coaching the position has transformed a lot of crushing blockers—Mark Bavaro, for one—into solid offensive contributors. Midway through the '11 season, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride began seeing Ballard as more than just a sixth offensive lineman, and Eli Manning began turning to the tight end on key plays. At New England in Week 9, the Giants trailed by three points in the final two minutes when Manning, on third-and-10 from his own 39, sent Ballard up the left seam and threw a high ball slightly behind him. Twisting his body in heavy coverage, Ballard reached and made a circus catch with those soft hands Devine had described in his scouting report. Four plays later, looking more athletic than he ever had for the Buckeyes, Ballard made a diving catch from Manning for the touchdown that beat the Patriots.
Compare Boss's 2010 numbers with Ballard's in 2011—never mind the transcendent Cruz—and you see why Jerry Reese, with the scouting and coaching staff he has, doesn't agonize over players:
," says Devine, "I looked in the back of the room, and there was an older man with gray hair sitting there every day, taking notes and observing. It was Wellington Mara. When you see the owner sitting there with his notebook out, you understand how much of a cornerstone the draft is here, how much this organization believes in it."
In the draft room this week Reese, Coughlin and the Giants' staff will be working together—no egos, no credit sought—to shape the roster for 2012 and beyond. Major headlines are unlikely in April, but don't be surprised if come January some unknown is making a big impact for Big Blue.
"WE HAVE A SAYING AROUND HERE," SAYS MARA. "YOU DON'T WIN THE SUPER BOWL IN MARCH."
"FANS THINK OF THE NOW," SAYS REESE. "I THINK OF THE NOW AND TWO YEARS FROM NOW. I DON'T AGONIZE."
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3
SHINE ON If you're drafted by the Giants—no matter the round—you've got great odds of playing in the postseason in pursuit of the NFL's ultimate goal, the Lombardi Trophy.
JOHN BIEVER (BALLARD, OHIO STATE)
JAKE BALLARD TIGHT END, OHIO STATE Undrafted free agent, 2010 He caught just 34 passes in four seasons as a Buckeye, but the Giants' Midwest scout saw soft hands and a strong work ethic, and New York snapped him up postdraft.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (2011 ACTION)
CLUTCH CARGO His game tuned by the same position coach who developed Mark Bavaro, Ballard made big catches in 2011, including this leaping 28-yard grab that set up his own game-winner at New England in November.
RANDY LITZINGER/ICON SMI (JONES)
GREG JONES LINEBACKER, MICHIGAN STATE Sixth round, 2011 Undersized but intense and intelligent, the former Spartan started five games in '11 and was one of three Giants picks from his round to play a significant role on special teams.
PETER G. AIKEN/GETTY IMAGES (CRUZ)
VICTOR CRUZ WIDE RECEIVER, UMASS Undrafted free agent, 2010 Spotted in a regional predraft camp in '10, Cruz made the most of his chance when Steve Smith left: He set a franchise record for receiving yards in 2011, with 1,536.
SURE-HANDED Cruz (left), once an unknown, and Hakeem Nicks, a 2009 first-rounder, shared the postgame spotlight in Indy in February.