EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - When training camp opened back in July, John Mara was admittedly still stuck in a "nightmare". It had been nearly seven months since the Giants had ended their disastrous 3-13 season. But the memories were still painfully fresh.
"I haven't gotten over last season quite yet," he said. "I have to be honest about it -- I did not see it coming. I felt very good this time last year. I think most of you predicted that we were going to have a great season, some of you even predicted we'd go to the Super Bowl. I wasn't quite buying into that but I certainly did not see 3-13 coming.
"I don't know that you ever fully get over that."
A winning season, though, would be a nice start.
That's what the Giants expect this year, not the beginning of some long rebuilding project. They may not be an obvious Super Bowl contender, but they feel much closer to their 11-5 team from 2016 than their mess of a team from last year. Otherwise they wouldn't have put their faith in a 37-year-old quarterback, believing that he not only had "years" left in his right arm, but that he was good enough for one more championship run.
They are healthy -- unlike last year when injuries destroyed them. They have rebuilt a locker room, that was a combustible mix of bad attitudes a year ago. They seem to have much more faith in new coach Pat Shurmur than they ever had in Ben McAdoo. And they love the changes new GM Dave Gettleman has made, overhauling the Giants' roster and finally attempting to fix the offensive line.
Will it all work? Even Gettleman admitted he doesn't know.
"There isn't a day that goes by," he said, "that I'm not asking myself, 'Have I given Pat and the guys enough players to win?'"
They'll soon find out.
In the meantime, here's a look at the 2018 Giants.
MVP-to-be: Odell Beckham Jr.
The Giants didn't guarantee him $65 million because they like his hair. They're counting on 90 catches, 1,300 yards and 10-plus touchdowns, and more than a few big, game-breaking plays. Anyone who saw the offense without him last year knows the Giants just can't move the ball without him. Sterling Shepard is a nice No. 2 receiver, but he can't carry the offense. With all due respect to the 37-year-old quarterback, this is Beckham's offense. This is Beckham's team.
Under the radar star: Kareem Martin
The linebacker, who came from Arizona to join his old defensive coordinator, James Bettcher, has been a strong presence on the outside. Olivier Vernon has been more active as a pass rusher, but when he's healthy he also might end up getting more attention from blockers. The 26-year-old Martin has only had 4 1/2 sacks in his four NFL seasons. That number may go way up.
Rookie to watch: Saquon Barkley
He was "touched by the hand of God" and is expected to be a future Hall of Famer, as Gettleman said, and is so good the Giants passed on their quarterback of the future to draft him. No pressure, kid. Hope that hamstring is OK.
Rookie to watch (non-Saquon division): B.J. Hill
After all the excitement of Barkley and their second round pick, guard Will Hernandez, Hill got overlooked. But this third-rounder out of N.C. State has been terrific all summer and won a job on the Giants' new-look defensive line. He's an end in the 3-4, but is basically a defensive tackle who has shown the strength to be an effective run stopper. With Hill, nose tackle Damon Harrison and Dalvin Tomlinson, last year's second-round pick, on the line and Vernon and Martin rushing off the edge, the Giants have a chance to be dominant up front.
The player that can't get hurt: Eli Manning
Not that he ever gets hurt, but if he does the Giants will turn to either Alex Tanney, who has made one NFL start, or Kyle Lauletta, a fourth-round pick who last played for the Richmond Spiders. On the bright side, if Manning got hurt early enough, the Giants would be a lock for a top 5 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Biggest concern: The offensive line
It has been atrocious for several seasons, but is it really any better now? The addition of left tackle Nate Solder (for four years, $62 million) immediately makes it better, especially since it pushes the struggling Ereck Flowers to the right side. The Giants also have enormous, Chris Snee-sized hopes for rookie left guard Hernandez. After that, center Jon Halapio and right guard Patrick Omameh are probably upgrades, but Flowers at right tackle is a mystery. The right side remains a work in progress at best.
Underrated position group: The linebackers.
Yes, the linebackers -- the scourge of the Giants (in general) since the days of Carl Banks and Lawrence Taylor. Finally, in a year when they're switching to a 3-4 (in other words, they need more linebackers) the group is pretty good. They traded for Alec Ogletree -- he and B.J. Goodson can be a terrific tandem in the middle. Vernon (likely to miss the opener with an ankle sprain) moves back to linebacker and he and new-addition Kareem Martin look to be a pass-rushing force. Same for Lorenzo Carter, a third-round pick out of Georgia, who has looked great all summer.
Biggest offseason addition: Nate Solder
He is an enormous upgrade over Flowers and the left tackle anchor the Giants have needed probably since their last Super Bowl team. Even if there are issues on the right side of the line, it will be a huge comfort to Manning if he knows his blindside is protected well for a change.
Biggest offseason loss: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
He had his issues last year -- he was suspended for a game for violating team rules and he clashed with McAdoo -- but he was well-respected by his teammates, had become a veteran leader and still could play in a limited role. He's on the decline, so he's not a huge loss, but it's amplified because the Giants are very thin at cornerback without him.