History repeats itself at New York Giants training camp

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — On Feb. 14, 1979, the Giants named Dolphins director of pro scouting George Young the team’s general manager. Young picked another outsider, San Diego offensive coordinator Ray Perkins as head coach. The two imports were hired to revive a moribund franchise.

“It’s a sign the Giants are conforming with the rest of the league,” president and co-owner Wellington Mara said upon hiring Young.

History is repeating itself, almost eerily, for the Giants. For the first time since that February day 43 years ago, the Giants have gone outside the organization for both GM and coach. GM Joe Schoen came from Buffalo and he hired Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll as coach.

“We need to make some changes in how we do things around here. That was one of the big reasons why we wanted to bring somebody in from the outside,” president and co-owner John Mara said when he hired Schoen.

Like father, like son. Schoen’s mom was four months pregnant with him the last time the Giants went outside the organization for the twin hires. Daboll was 3.

“Wow,” Schoen said when I gave him the history lesson. “That’s crazy. The way this league is today, I don’t think you see that happen again.”

Since the Giants won the Super Bowl 10 years ago, they have won neither the division nor a playoff game, and they’ve averaged six wins a season with five head coaches. Hiring Young spurred the Giants to a long era of success, including two Super Bowls in the next 12 seasons. Wellington’s son would take that, particularly with the long slog the Giants have been through since stunning the Patriots in Super Bowl 46 a decade ago.

Viewing camp practice Friday—John Mara watched alone on the sideline, the way his father did religiously for years—I thought a couple of things: All 90 of these players, from quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley on down, are on trial with two new bosses. Of course there are a few, like franchise safety Xavier McKinney and twin tackles Andrew Thomas and Evan Neal, who border on cornerstones, but this might be the most fungible roster of any in the league—and it could be the one that changes the most in the next two years.

Secondly, this offense looks way behind the D early. As the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” aptly boomed through speakers in mid-practice, there were two botched shotgun snaps to the quarterback, a dropped swing pass by Barkley, and Jones throwing a pick-six to cornerback Darnay Holmes. Man, was that ugly. And it didn’t get better before the end of practice. The offense truly painted it black Friday.

One practice in July is one small piece of the jigsaw puzzle for Schoen and Daboll. One of the reasons Mara picked Schoen is that he’s been part of three teams—Miami, Carolina and Buffalo—that went from moribund to the playoffs in short order. “I have faith we’ll get this turned around, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” said Schoen, 43, who looks like a slimmer version of Steve Garvey, well-coiffed and well-dressed, sitting in the Giants’ cafeteria Friday morning before practice. ”I’ve seen how to build teams the right way three or four times, and we’re going to build depth and talent with a steady plan in place.”

Already around the building you hear of Daboll reaching out like none of his predecessors did. In early June, he phoned all 21 members of the media who cover the Giants every day in early July. “Looking forward to working with you,” was his message in 10- to 15-minute conversations with each one. He walks around the business side of the building, introducing himself to strangers, telling each how important everyone in the building is to winning. As one of the veterans in the building told me, “I don’t remember a coach ever telling someone selling suites how valuable he was.” That’s not going to win one play this fall, but it does make people happier in the workplace, particularly when losing has been so prevalent.

Everyone wants to know about Jones’ future, but that’s impossible to know till the games begin. If anything, the schedule gives Jones a fighting chance. Six of the first 10 games are against teams (Carolina, Chicago, Jacksonville, Seattle, Houston, Detroit) that, like the Giants, could struggle to reach .500.

Jones showed his star traits Friday at times—sprinting through the defense for one long run, combining with talented second-round pick Wan’Dale Robinson several times—but he had more bad plays than good ones. “He’s big, he’s strong, he’s athletic, he’s got good mobile skills,” Daboll said, evenly, about Jones. “There’s a lot of different things you could do with a quarterback like that. We’re still tinkering with things to make sure that what I want him to do is be vocal back to me on things that he doesn’t feel comfortable with.”

Robinson, the 5-8, 185-pound rookie receiver from Kentucky, stood out to me with his versatility and confidence; he could earn the starting slot job. “He’s a problem,“ safety McKinney told me. “Very tough to cover.” The Giants are waiting to see more from their $18-million-a-year 2021 free agent, Kenny Golladay, who’s not separating from DBs well early in camp. That signing looks like a disaster. The receiver group’s a work in progress, but Robinson is real shot in the arm for it.

Regarding Saquon Barkley, who’s missed 18 games to injury in the last two seasons, I keep thinking his future’s elsewhere. The Giants are just getting their cap right—they should be in the top seven in cap space next offseason—and I doubt they want to spend more than $12-million on a running back, even if Barkley plays very well this year. Like so many players on the roster, my guess is he’s auditioning for 31 other teams as much as the Giants this fall.

New York Giants Training Camp
Giants safety Xavier McKinney. (Getty Images)

One player who’s quickly become a Daboll/Schoen favorite is McKinney, a Nick Saban favorite while at Alabama. McKinney enters his third year feeling free under new coordinator Wink Martindale. The new DC loves turning his safeties loose. Good for McKinney, who didn’t blitz on a single snap with the former staff last season. That will change, as will his workload. Martindale, in a rarity, gave the green dot to a safety instead of the customary linebacker. The green dot is worn on the back of one defender’s helmet, and Martindale calls the defense into that player’s helmet before each snap. “An honor,” McKinney told me. “That shows the coaches trust me.”

I asked McKinney about the new regime. “We faced so much adversity the past two years. For us, it’s like can’t get any worse,” McKinney said. “We’ve touched the bottom. We’ve seen the bottom. We can only go up. The energy is a lot different in the building. You really feel that team bonding as far as from player to coach, coach to player, staff to coach. We finally feel that family atmosphere we’ve been wanting for a long time.”

Sounds great at the dawn of training camp. But the job this summer and fall is for Schoen and Daboll to begin building a solid base—with the tackles, with Kayvon Thibodeaux and McKinney keying a young defense. With or without Jones. The pain’s not over yet, but no one expected it to be in year one. Patience, Giants fans. 

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column