EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was such a big game that Tony Soprano had to be there. He was seated at the 50-yard line, front row, up close and vocal.
On Christmas Eve 2011, the New York Giants and New York Jets met in their quadrennial state championship at MetLife Stadium. For a change, it meant something. It meant everything, a virtual playoff elimination game for both teams.
The late actor James Gandolfini, a son of New Jersey and a devout Jets fan, was bundled up in a black parka with a green wool cap pulled down to his eyebrows in the 28-degree wind chill. He had a black pocket camera and was snapping photos before kickoff, like a geeky football fan. He knew it was a special day.
Who knew it would be one of the last big days at the stadium for the Giants and Jets?
Sparked by Victor Cruz’s 99-yard touchdown catch, the Giants won the game, 29-14, and went on an improbable run to the Lombardi Trophy. The Jets, to use an expression from the Soprano family business, ended up in cement shoes at the bottom of the river. Or, as former Jets coach Rex Ryan recalled, “The Giants rode it to a Super Bowl and we just rode it out of town.”
After cleaning up the parade confetti, the Giants sunk, too. Neither New York team has recovered, making for a decade of embarrassment on and off the field. Since 2012, the two teams have combined for 16 losing seasons and one playoff berth. The Giants were a wild-card team in 2016, the last whiff of success for either team.
Since then, they’ve been the two worst teams in the NFL — a combined 43-113 (.276 winning percentage). There’s a stench in Gotham, and we’re not talking about a sanitation workers’ strike.
The state of New York football is so dire that former Giants and Jets coach Bill Parcells, out of respect for the two franchises, was reluctant to comment on the past decade, except to say, “I’ve been a lifelong Giants fan. I like the Jets, too. I like when the Giants win. That’s what I grew up watching. That’s all. I don’t know about the last 10 years and all that.”
What in the name of Sam Huff and Joe Namath has gone wrong? Here’s a closer look.
Cycles of dysfunction
After winning Super Bowl XLVI, the Giants missed the playoffs the next two seasons (2012-13). Then the wheels came off.
It was late November 2014 and co-owner John Mara, who declined to comment for this story, was sitting on the team bus following an awful loss to a 1-10 Jacksonville Jaguars team. The Giants had lost seven in a row to fall to 3-9. He thought that was rock bottom.
“I wanted to fire everybody, from the people in the equipment room through upstairs, because that was a low point for me,” Mara said at a news conference after the Giants’ 2014 season ended.
Maybe he should have, because a majority of the equipment room personnel were quietly exiled years later following claims involving Eli Manning and fraudulent game-worn memorabilia. But this was barely a blip on the scale of dysfunction to come.
Legendary coach Tom Coughlin was pushed out the door following the 2015 season. It went so well that Coughlin, who announced his resignation as coach on Jan. 4, 2016, stiffed Mara of a handshake at the goodbye news conference.
So much for the goodwill from two Super Bowls in a four-year stretch from 2007 to 2011. Losing had permeated 1925 Giants Drive, which was falling behind the times.
“When you’re stuck in your ways, you don’t really adapt. You kind of get left behind. That’s the Giants, right?” former Giants and Jets receiver Brandon Marshall said. “I love the owners … but they’re so stuck in, ‘This is how you’re supposed to dress when you go to the practice field. This is the Giant Way.'”
What is the Giant Way at this point?
GM Dave Gettleman, hired before the 2017 season ended, said he didn’t sign receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a five-year extension to trade him. Then he traded him one season later. The team re-signed kicker Josh Brown (and eventually cut him) despite domestic violence allegations. There was Beckham fighting Panthers cornerback Josh Norman midgame, proposing to kicking nets and pantomiming peeing on the field as a celebration.
Not enough? There was former coach Ben McAdoo (who didn’t last two seasons) becoming a laughingstock at his own introductory news conference because of his oversized suit. There was the implosion of the 3-13 season in 2017.
“It was a little bit of everything,” former Giants and Jets defensive tackle Damon Harrison said of the Giants’ inability to sustain success. “… Our [defensive backs] were giving up big plays, we weren’t stopping the run, we couldn’t get the running game going on offense, we couldn’t protect Eli. It wasn’t just the quarterback play, it was a lot, man.”
It led to the hiring of Pat Shurmur (who lasted just two seasons) to get an “adult in the room.”
Even when things were going right for the Giants, during their only playoff appearance (2016) of the past 10 seasons, it was overshadowed by the infamous boat trip in Miami led by Beckham and Cruz before a loss at Lambeau Field. The Giants haven’t sniffed success since. They’re 22-56 over five seasons since that last playoff appearance.
The Jets were a franchise on the rise after reaching the AFC Championship Game in 2009 and 2010, but a series of missteps at the ownership level plunged them into turmoil. They’re on their sixth general manager-coach pairing of the decade, three of which ended with ugly divorces and one lasting only four months.
It starts with owner Woody Johnson, whose great-grandfather founded Johnson & Johnson. While former GM Mike Tannenbaum called him “unconditionally supportive” — and he was fired by Johnson after the 2012 season — other former staffers and ex-players provided a less flattering view of Johnson. They described a man easily influenced by those in his inner circle and by public sentiment. One former member of the organization said Johnson replaced “good people” after the playoff run and “kept people not as qualified, but had his ear.”
Johnson hired a search firm to find Tannenbaum’s replacement, settling on former Seattle Seahawks cap specialist John Idzik, who was teamed with Ryan, the holdover coach. The relationship turned toxic. Idzik wanted to turn the Jets into Seattle East and Ryan, who had four playoff wins on his résumé, didn’t want to change.
“That wasn’t a good marriage, obviously, me and Idzik,” Ryan said.
Idzik, in his first interview since being fired with Ryan after the 2014 season, told ESPN, “The coach-GM relationship, especially in the second year, was a major influence” in their downfall. “Ultimately, the guy to answer that question is Woody. In all candor, I did everything in my power to make it work with Rex and me.”
Idzik was surprised he got only two years, saying, “I wasn’t some young guy where you’d say, ‘Let’s see what he can do.’ I had been around the league for a while. I wasn’t a Johnny-come-lately.” Speaking in a general sense, he said the constant turnover in the organization has resulted in “quality casualties.”
Johnson, who declined to comment for this story, cleaned house in 2015, this time enlisting former NFL GMs Charley Casserly and Ron Wolf as consultants to lead the search for a coach and GM. They wound up with Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan, a Casserly protege and career scout who wasn’t on any team’s GM radar. They hired Bowles only after Johnson snubbed No. 1 target Doug Marrone, who had opted out of his Buffalo Bills‘ contract for the chance to reunite with Maccagnan, an old friend. Sources said Johnson got cold feet because of negative press surrounding Marrone’s candidacy.
The Maccagnan-Bowles tandem, which lacked a clear vision, flirted with the playoffs in 2015, but otherwise was an abject failure. They tried the win-now approach, then downshifted into a massive rebuild/salary dump. By the end, the two men were barely talking to each other.
The height of dysfunction occurred in May 2019, when newly hired coach Adam Gase — an uninspired choice — won an internal power struggle that resulted in Maccagnan’s ouster. Gase disagreed with Maccagnan on key personnel decisions, and the situation became so untenable that acting owner Christopher Johnson — in charge while his older brother was overseas in a U.S. diplomatic post — sent Maccagnan packing after the draft and a wild spending spree in free agency. It was so bad that Gase refused to sit next to Maccagnan in the draft room, sources said. Months later, Johnson told reporters that he regretted the timing of Maccagnan’s ouster.
“It starts with ownership,” said one former player, alluding to the Johnsons. “You’ve got to get the right people in. You’ve got to be able to have a strategy and a game plan and an identity. I’m not sure if they have that.”
Poor QB play
The Giants still had Manning at the beginning of the 2010s fresh off a pair of Super Bowls. That should have been good enough to foster respectability.
But it started going sideways in 2013 with a 27-interception season and the deteriorating of an offensive line that still hasn’t been fixed. It got back on track for a couple years when McAdoo was hired as offensive coordinator, only to come crashing down after he was promoted to head coach. Manning’s play dipped dramatically by 2017.
It reached the point that McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese wanted to bench him. And Mara was on board. The co-owner was among those that hatched the ill-fated plan to phase out Manning and start Geno Smith late in the 2017 season. It wasn’t necessarily the wrong thinking, just executed poorly.
The fans revolted, and former players threatened to show up on the sideline in No. 10 jerseys at the next home game, forcing the Giants to backtrack after Manning sat one game. Mara scapegoated McAdoo and Reese, and Manning was reinserted as the starter.
This set the Giants back years. Mara has since said they regretted cutting ties with McAdoo so quickly. They hired Gettleman, who predictably doubled-backed on Manning. It led to two more seasons that began with Manning as the starter alongside an insufficient supporting cast. Manning later admitted he “wasn’t playing at the level I used to be playing,” proving Reese and McAdoo right.
The Giants are still paying for those mistakes, with Gettleman almost certain to be out in the coming weeks with his record at 19-43, thanks to a roster that remains insufficient.
The first five quarterbacks drafted during the Manning era — Andre’ Woodson, Rhett Bomar, Ryan Nassib, Davis Webb and Kyle Lauletta — combined for 15 career passing attempts. It led to the drafting of Daniel Jones at No. 6 overall in the 2019 draft. They’re in Year 3 of trying to determine if he’s good enough, with an offensive line that isn’t good.
Since 2009, the Jets have used more top-5 picks on quarterbacks (three) than any other team, but their aggregate passer rating over that span (75.3) is the lowest in the league.
Big investments, small return.
They went from Mark Sanchez to Sam Darnold to Zach Wilson, filling in the spaces with a series of stop-gap vets and second- and third-day draft picks that didn’t pan out. The worst of them was Christian Hackenberg, a Maccagnan reach in 2016 that infuriated people in the organization. Hackenberg never played a down in the NFL, extremely rare for a second-round pick.
Sanchez was at the helm for the playoff runs in 2009 and 2010, but he was a limited passer who was sabotaged by poor personnel decisions. They cut his favorite receiver, Jerricho Cotchery, and brought in Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress. Tannenbaum called the Cotchery decision his biggest regret. It created a “toxic locker room,” one player said.
“That’s when it fell apart,” said former Jets and Giants kicker Jay Feely. They had tampered with the chemistry that had been established in 2009 and 2010.
If Sanchez had any confidence left, it was shattered by the 2012 addition of Tim Tebow, whose presence turned the Jets into a sideshow. Ostensibly, they wanted him to be a gadget player, not a quarterback per se, but they didn’t know how to use him, and it turned into a weekly embarrassment. Near the end of the year, Tebow was so disgusted he told the coaches not to play him unless it was at quarterback, a source said.
“It was an epic fail, that’s for sure,” said Ryan, who suspects Tannenbaum was fired because of it. Geno Smith, who replaced Sanchez, showed flashes of talent, but there were questions about his leadership. His time ended with a broken jaw, the result of a sucker punch from a teammate.
Ryan Fitzpatrick sparked the franchise in 2015, but his relationship with the organization was ruined by a bizarre contract dispute that dominated the headlines the following offseason. The feel-good vibe from 2015, their only winning season of the decade, was washed away. It was so tense that Marshall and fellow receiver Eric Decker skipped offseason workouts in support of Fitzpatrick.
“I felt like they should’ve been more bullish on getting that deal done faster so we could get back to work, and build on what we had started,” said Marshall. “There were too many distractions.”
Darnold was hailed as a franchise savior, but he never was able to solve his turnover issues from college, prompting the Jets to dump him after only three years. The new golden child is Wilson, who already has experienced the weight of massive expectations.
“When you play for the Jets, you’re paying for the whole history of the team,” former linebacker Marvin Jones said. “It’s not, ‘This is a new start.’ It’s like immediately, when you don’t have success, they go back to that old saying: Same Old Jets.”
Big-time draft misses
Five top-10 picks over the past decade for the Giants have produced OT Ereck Flowers, CB Eli Apple, RB Saquon Barkley, Jones and OT Andrew Thomas. Flowers and Apple are no longer with the team. Barkley is the only one who has proved to be elite, and that was for one season. He’s since looked like a shell of his former self because of injuries.
These kind of premium-pick misses are hard to overcome for a team that has consistently been short on talent. It’s especially debilitating to the overall state of the roster when the middle to late rounds have been a wasteland for the better part of this 10-year stretch.
Of their 50 picks from the third round and beyond over the past decade, only linebackers Devon Kennard, Lorenzo Carter, B.J. Goodson and Tae Crowder and offensive tackle Bobby Hart have been consistent starters. Zero Pro Bowls. Zero All-Pros. The Giants haven’t had a big hit in the middle rounds since Justin Tuck and Brandon Jacobs in 2005.
Even the biggest draft successes in the past decade — Beckham (12th overall in 2014) and safety Landon Collins (second round, 2015) — were discarded by Gettleman in an attempt to improve the culture.
Gettleman has had four tries at the draft with uninspiring results. So far, his three top-10 picks have been defined by injuries (Barkley) and inconsistent play (Jones and Thomas).
It was always the controversial selection of Jones that would determine Gettleman’s legacy and whether he could accomplish his hope of being retired in Cape Cod watching the quarterback he drafted lead the Giants to Super Bowls.
“Time will tell,” Gettleman has said repeatedly about Jones and his draft classes.
Time is ticking as the losses mount.
The Jets have employed four GMs this decade, each with a distinctly different style of team-building. That’s part of the problem; there’s no continuity. Because ownership has no conviction, the approach is chameleon.
But there is one common denominator: Bad drafting.
Of their 76 draft picks from 2011 to 2020, two were selected to a Pro Bowl — defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and safety Jamal Adams (one with the Jets, one with Seattle). Only two were voted All-Pro — Adams and linebacker Demario Davis (New Orleans Saints). More damning is that only six of the 76 landed second contracts with the Jets.
The draft performance took a bad turn in 2012, Tannenbaum’s final year. Curiously, Idzik didn’t bring in his own people, retaining two key members from Tannenbaum’s staff — college scouting director Jeff Bauer and personnel executive Terry Bradway, Tannenbaum’s predecessor. That Bradway still had a seat at the big table was uncommon; former GMs usually don’t stick around under the next regime. It was Bradway who hired Bauer out of a high school coaching job in Kansas City, where he had coached Bradway’s son. Bauer spent 11 years as a Midwest scout before the promotion. When Maccagnan replaced Idzik, his first order of business was firing Bauer and Bradway.
Some felt that Idzik ran a closed-door operation, minimizing input from scouts and coaches. Ryan told ESPN that in 2013, he pleaded with Idzik to draft defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who slipped to the third round. Didn’t happen. Ryan said he also lobbied for tight end Travis Kelce. Didn’t happen.
In 2014, the Jets suffered perhaps the worst draft in their history — 12 draft picks, no impact players. Instead of packaging his surplus of picks to move up for premium players, Idzik did nothing, infuriating Ryan.
“First off, nobody in their right mind is going to draft all 12 guys,” Ryan said, still in disbelief.
Idzik claimed he was open to trades, but no offers made sense. As for the actual player selections, he said, “They were Jets picks. They weren’t by Idzik or one individual. It was collaborative and we felt good about the picks.”
Maccagnan was beholden to his best-player-available philosophy, which led to some strange decisions — i.e. back-to-back safeties in 2017 with Adams and Marcus Maye. Maccagnan will be remembered for going all-in on Darnold, dealing three second-round picks to move up for him — an aggressive play that hampered his ability to build a competent cast around Darnold. It’s a never-ending cycle.
Because of the draft mistakes, they spent recklessly in free agency. The worst signing was running back Le’Veon Bell, who pocketed $28 million for 17 games and four touchdowns.
Even when the Jets manage to hit on a first-round pick, they usually trade him away, a time-honored tradition that goes back decades. They dealt six of their seven first-rounders from 2013 to 2018, casting themselves as a feeder system for the rest of the league.
When will they turn it around?
All is not lost with Jones. A general manager, personnel executive and coach who has experience working extensively with quarterbacks all believe Jones has a chance to be a very good quarterback.
“How can you evaluate him these last two years? It’s impossible,” the coach said. “He was trending up and fast in a good offensive system [under Shurmur].”
It’s possible the Giants have the right quarterback in the building. They ended Jones’ 2021 season on Monday because of a neck injury, but are optimistic it won’t affect his long-term future. If they can just get the offensive line right (they have two first-round draft picks in 2022 and a ton of draft capital overall), the offense can be salvaged rather quickly.
Coach Joe Judge still has the respect of the players and command of the locker room. He has the right defensive coordinator in place with Patrick Graham for that unit to get legitimately good once they find some edge rushers.
But most importantly, change might finally be on the way. Gettleman seems destined to be fired or to retire at season’s end. An outside hire seems inevitable given the past decade of struggles.
“The Giants, to me, it starts with ownership and doing something different.,” Marshall said. “They have to embrace the youth. They have to embrace this new culture of coaching and the athletes.”
Judge gets it. Mara and Tisch will get it, too. Better late than never.
There’s no excuse not to get it done.
With draft capital accumulated from past trades, the Jets have nine picks in 2022, including four in the first two rounds. They own Seattle’s pick from the Adams trade, which means they could have two choices in the top 5. That, coupled with $50 million in cap room, gives them the resources to replenish a talent-poor roster.
GM Joe Douglas, hired to replace Maccagnan, began his rebuilding plan in 2020 with the hope of being a legitimate contender by 2023. The only way it can work is if he hits on the quarterback, Wilson, who is talented but raw.
Douglas is methodical, especially in free agency. It will be interesting to see if he stays true to his slow-build or gets pressured into quick-fix moves. The fan base, subjected to more than its fair share of bad football, already is getting restless. Woody Johnson, who was serving his ambassadorship when Douglas and coach Robert Saleh were hired, has been known to get restless, too. Does Johnson have the stomach to ride it out?
The Jets have been down this road before. Idzik tried it in 2013, Maccagnan in 2017 — and both rebuilds lasted two years before ownership decided it wasn’t working. The challenge of changing the “Same Old Jets” mentality is one of the biggest jobs in sports. Harrison, recalling his move to the Giants, said it was “the first time I actually experienced culture for the first time, and what culture can do for you.”
“This organization has been through a lot over these last 10 years,” said Saleh, vowing to turn the Jets into perennial contenders. “It’s not something that’s easy to fix. It’s not easy to change a narrative. It’s not easy to change a perception.”