On the day the Giants fired Tom Coughlin, co-owner John Mara was asked to defend what seems like an indefensible decision. He admitted that day that his team was short on talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. So why, he was asked, fire the coach who was forced to coach those players?
Why not fire the general manager who assembled the losing team?
"We've had three losing years in a row. A lot of that is due to some personnel decisions that have been made," Mara said at a press conference right after the 2015 season ended. "But I still believe that Jerry Reese is the right guy to lead us going forward. "Why do I believe that? Jerry put together two Super Bowl-winning teams. I would venture to say if we were to poll all of you in this room two years ago about who the top general managers in the league are, every one of you in here would have him on your list.
"So now two years later, after another bad season, do we want to throw all that out? I still think he's capable of putting a great team together."
One year later, it's clear that Mara was right and his faith in his embattled GM was justified. One year ago, thanks in large part to years of bad drafting, the Giants were coming off their second straight 6-10 season, three years of losing records, and four years of missing the playoffs. Now they are 11-5, back in the playoffs with a chance to beat the Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Lambeau Field on Sunday afternoon.
And Reese is as responsible for the quick flip as much as anyone. No doubt he got a big assist from Mara and Steve Tisch, who gave him the green light - and the blank check - to go crazy in free agency and dole out more than $200 million in contracts. But it was about more than just spending. It was spending in the right places, and being unafraid to do it even though offseason spending sprees have historically been terrible ways to rebuild NFL teams.
And it was about his unwavering faith in his players, even in the face of often-justified criticism, and his belief that even during their miserable 2015 season the team was more talented than it showed.
THE BLANK CHECK
To see how he did it, it of course starts with the money. The Giants had an enormous amount of salary cap room entering free agency - a fact that had a lot to do with Reese drafting too many players who weren't worthy of lucrative contracts when their rookie deals were up. That bad drafting had created an unintended bonanza, though most people around the NFL didn't consider this to be a stellar free-agent crop.
Reese was undeterred. He got into a crazy bidding war with the Jacksonville Jaguars before landing defensive end Olivier Vernon for $85 million over five years ($52.5 million guaranteed). He pounded on defensive tackle Damon Harrison (five years, $46.25 million, $24 million guaranteed) when the Jets opted not to re-sign him. And he surprised everyone by throwing huge money at Janoris Jenkins (five years, $62.5 million, $28.8 million guaranteed), even though many NFL talent evaluators had serious questions about whether he was worthy of a big-money deal.
In a sense, though, Reese had no choice. The Giants had the worst defense in the NFL last season and put up historically bad numbers. So in a spending spree that lasted only a few short hours, he landed the best defensive end, the best defensive tackle and what he believed was the best cornerback on the market.
Then he sat silently as many screamed about how badly he had overpaid.
KEEPING THE FAITH
Reese also gave a one-year, $10 million deal to defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who turned down more money from the Arizona Cardinals to take it. This was significant and somewhat personal for JPP. Just eight months earlier he nearly blew off his right hand in a fireworks accident and missed the first half of the 2015 season. While many screamed for the Giants to cut him - and even though there were more than a few members of the Giants hierarchy furious with Pierre-Paul - Reese stood by him stronger than anyone in the franchise.
And according to several sources, Reese was the driving force to bring JPP back.
Reese also had faith in other players on his team that many - including a few on the inside - had begun to doubt. He saw greatness in safety Landon Collins, who struggled as a rookie after Reese had traded up to take him in the second round of the 2015 draft. He was convinced the cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie wasn't showing his age last season and would rebound from an injury-plagued year. And he believed the healthy returns of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and linebacker Jonathan Casillas would be a boost too.
His faith wasn't nearly as justified on the offensive side, where left tackle Ereck Flowers struggled mightily in his second season after Reese lost out on several free agent tackles because of the Giants' refusal to move Flowers to the right side. And receiver Victor Cruz (39 catches, 586 yards, one touchdown) hasn't looked anything like his old self after taking a huge pay cut to return for one more year.
Still, many around the league - especially friends of Coughlin - were convinced the Giants' cupboard was bare at the end of the 2015 season. Reese, though, saw a team that had blown an NFL record five fourth-quarter leads and declared last January "I don't think we're that far away."
THE LITTLE THINGS
Reese also rekindled some of the success he had in 2007, when every move he made seemed to work out great. Despite huge holes at linebacker, he put his faith in the injury-prone Keenan Robinson and Kelvin Sheppard, both of whom were more than adequate this season. He found some key undrafted free agents, like receiver Roger Lewis and safety Andrew Adams, who made contributions, and some battle-tested veterans like running back Bobby Rainey and corner/safety Leon Hall.
And his draft, for the first time maybe since 2007, looked outstanding in its first year. Cornerback Eli Apple wasn't his first choice in the first round, but he's emerged as a promising starter. Receiver Sterling Shepard (65-683-8) would've set rookie records if Odell Beckham hadn't put them out of reach. Safety Darian Thompson (third round) won a starting job before getting injured. And Paul Perkins (fifth round) might be the starting running back on Sunday after several weeks of giving the sagging rushing attack an Ahmad Bradshaw-like boost.
Reese doesn't get all the credit for the turnaround, of course. McAdoo's coaching and the way he handled several crises in his first season deserve praise, as does his decision to stick with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo when many assumed he'd be fired. Spagnuolo did a wonderful job meshing all the new pieces on defense. And the players are convinced that McAdoo's player-friendly schedule and the new approach by new strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman are a big reason why - after being one of the most injured teams in the league for years -- they enter the playoffs as one of the healthiest teams in the league.
But in the end, as coaches often say, it's the players that play - and these are Reese's pieces. He cannonballed into the free agent pool and incredibly came out with three All-Pro players. He plucked some very important role players off the NFL's scrap heap. And he struck gold again in the draft, just as some of his more recent draft picks were beginning to arrive, too.
And it all fit - which might be the most remarkable part of all.
"I don't know who did the scouting or brought this group together like that, but I know Jerry Reese had a big part to do with it," Harrison said. "The group of guys that were here before and the group of guys that they brought in, you just don't see that too often. Different groups that genuinely get along on and off the field. That had a lot to do with [the success]."
That still doesn't overshadow the fact that his personnel decisions were as much to blame as anything else for the three miserable seasons that preceded this one. But as much as he deserves the criticism for that, Reese deserves the praise for this. Just like Mara expected, Reese dug the Giants right out of their deep hole.
And just as Mara believed, Reese turned out to be the right man for the difficult job.