The Philadelphia 76ers, America’s most prominent cult, introduced the world to The Process™ in 2013 and sports haven’t been the same since. “Blowing it up” and tanking to get a top draft pick is a way of life in a system where the only thing worse than being at the bottom of the standings is being perpetually stuck in the middle. In the NBA, purgatory is not having a superstar. In the NFL, it’s not having a franchise quarterback. A third of the league is looking for a long-term answer under center at any given time. That search can last for years, which fans of the Jets, Browns, Bills, Jaguars, 49ers, Rams, Raiders, Broncos, Redskins, Dolphins, and Texans will tell you if you ever make the mistake of asking them about it.
The Giants’ 3-13 season was revolting, but the outcome could be exceptional. After earning a wild-card spot in 2016, New York began the year as a playoff favorite, but tripped and landed face first into a micro-tank. Now the team owns the second overall pick in a quarterback-heavy draft class that could include UCLA’s Josh Rosen, USC’s Sam Darnold, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. Like the Packers going from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers or the Colts going from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck, New York has a chance at the rarest thing in football: a succession plan for an aging signal-caller. If the Giants pick the right passer in this year’s draft, a team that hasn’t worried about the quarterback position since 2004 won’t need to think about it again until the 2030s.
The process of getting to the second pick was painful. The offense was 31st in points scored, and the Giants’ defense, which finished second by DVOA in 2016, fell to 24th, as the team had the most players on injured reserve in the league with 27. Numbers, however, don’t do this season any justice. Last week, All-Pro safety Landon Collins called 2016 first-round pick Eli Apple “a cancer.” The top three cornerbacks had bizarre seasons that all earned separate one-game suspensions, with Janoris Jenkins getting punished for no-showing at the team facility, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie arguing with McAdoo over playing time and breaking team rules, and Eli Apple getting benched for disciplinary reasons before retweeting a tweet saying the Cowboys running back Rod Smith iced the Giants in a game he missed. Fans had to watch Eli Manning, the most important quarterback in franchise history, cry at his locker after being benched. All of the above led co-owner John Mara to fire coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese in the middle of the team’s worst season in more than 30 years.
“It’s really been a perfect storm,” Mara said after firing McAdoo. “Everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong so far this season.”
Sometimes everything needs to go wrong before anything can go right. The highest-profile loss for the team this year was Odell Beckham Jr., but even a fractured ankle for the fulcrum of New York’s offense had a silver lining. Beckham’s absence allowed New York’s younger options to develop. Giants sophomore receiver Sterling Shepard and rookie tight end Evan Engram grew into leading roles in 2017, and when Beckham returns, the Giants will have one of the best group of pass catchers in the league and one of the best groups imaginable for a young quarterback to begin with.
The terrible season also exposed McAdoo, who might still be with the team if the Giants had eked out six wins. McAdoo’s handling of Manning obscured how bad the team’s offense truly was under him, and the Giants quarterback of the future can now develop in an offense that doesn’t run with the same personnel group 90 percent of the time, like New York did in McAdoo’s one full season as head coach. The Giants, however, have yet to find McAdoo’s permanent replacement. Making the wrong hire could throw a massive wrench into New York’s rebuilding plan, especially if the negative energy in the locker room festers. But the right hire could undo the damage McAdoo wrought, maximize the talent on the roster, and lead the Giants back to the playoffs as soon as next season. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks have been linked to the job, and a defensive-minded coach would need to rely on a strong offensive-coordinator performance to develop a young quarterback. It may be wiser to tap an offensive mind, like Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who would have a chance to have overhaul the messy offense that McAdoo installed.
Hiring the right coach falls on new general manager Dave Gettleman, who spent 15 years with the Giants and was instrumental in building its two Super Bowl teams before leaving for Carolina and turning one of the worst cap situations in the league into a contender that nearly won the Super Bowl. The Giants will need Gettleman’s penchant for talent evaluation and cap management—negotiations for Beckham and Collins loom and its offensive line needs to be rebuilt—after Reese handed out a small fortune to rebuild the defense in 2016.
That defense was among the league’s best in 2016 and the league’s most disappointing in 2017—but much of what made the unit bad this year is fixable. Injuries to B.J. Goodson, Keenan Robinson, Jonathan Casillas, and Kelvin Sheppard made the linebacker position a revolving door, and the secondary unraveled on and off the field. Despite that, the core of Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, and Jason Pierre-Paul remains a wrecking crew. The unit is far more talented than a typical team with a top-two selection. The Giants defense next season may not be as good as it was in 2016, but it won’t be anywhere near as bad as it was in 2017, either, and could rebound into top-10 form with more help on offense and a head coach that doesn’t antagonize its players.
Even the way Manning was benched is good for the franchise in the long term. “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” Harvey Dent tells Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight. That line about Gotham’s heroes also applies to its quarterbacks. Giants fans had already begun whispering among themselves early in the season about when the team should move on from Manning, who turns 37 on Wednesday. As The Ringer’s Bill Simmons wrote in his Eli Manning mailbag, a fanbase that could have turned on Manning instead rallied around him. Gettleman has hinted that Manning would be back in 2018, and he can lead the team until the moment comes for him to step aside––a moment where the fans will likely be ready for him to go.
The Giants are a slow, methodical organization. The front office stuck by Tom Coughlin when the team nearly revolted in 2007 and then won a Super Bowl. Only an abject embarrassment like 2017 was going to convince ownership that the team needed to be disrupted. That perfect storm came at the perfect time. Some organizations spend years looking for a franchise quarterback. Others can never find the right head coach. With one terrible season, the Giants are primed to hit fast-forward on their rebuild and lock down their future in both positions—now they just have to make the right picks.