EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- After he had the Giants' first interception of the season at a most critical moment, Julian Love remembered a feeling he had from early in the offseason. He had spent a week around his new defensive coordinator, Wink Martindale, and he went home and told his wife that he loved the environment in the Giants' building, from the trainers to the players to the chefs in the cafeteria.
"I had joy going to work each day," he said. "I had joy leaving work each day. When you build a culture like that, good things are bound to come."
Not always, of course, or at least not always like they have come for the Giants, all of a sudden and almost inexplicably. The Giants are 5-1 after another stunning comeback victory, this time 24-20 over the Baltimore Ravens, and there is joy all around, among the tailgaters who were lined up at 7 a.m., in a roaring stadium on a fall afternoon, in rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux's tears as he left the field, his strip-sack of Lamar Jackson bookending Love’s interception that tipped the game to the Giants late in the fourth quarter.
They are, arguably, the biggest surprise of the NFL season in large part because in recent years, they lost games like this, so many of them, the ones where they got down by double digits early, where their playmakers were shut down for long stretches, where there were mistakes and hurdles and all the things that trip up teams that had a tendency to sag at the first sign of trouble.
Head coach Brian Daboll has talked about toughness and resilience since he arrived in January, and for months that sounded like so much coachspeak, more comfortable to talk about than the roster holes and the rebuild ahead. To be sure, the rebuild is still ongoing -- the Giants routinely deploy players so deep in the roster that reporters have to check their provenance, and on the Ravens' first touchdown today, the Giants had only 10 men on the field, a mistake that Daboll called unacceptable. But a revival is ongoing, too, one that few saw coming quite this quickly, with quite so much of the toughness and resilience Daboll trained them for during the summer.
"I think his approach has been great," Love said. "When we win games, or when we lose games, it stays constant. His mindset, his approach to us, stays really constant. That's an approach I haven't seen in recent years. He knows what has happened in the past here. He's creating a culture where your head is not down all day, you shake it off really quick. He's created a beautiful culture in the building right now."
That certainly sounds like an indictment of previous coaching regimes, which nobody around here wants to spend much time thinking about. Suffice it to say that last year, the Giants won four games. Total. This year, through six weeks, they have won five, all by one score, three of them after trailing by double digits. The days of running quarterback sneaks from their own goal line, as they did late last season, seem very much in the past.
"It's something we've preached since day one," Daboll said. "... This league is hard. It's not always going to be perfect. There will be a lot of people down on you, you might be down on yourself. You keep swinging. You keep on competing. Regardless of the score. That's not easy to do. Sitting on the bench bitching and complaining is easy to do. It's hard to stick with it. You've got to flush it pretty quick. ... Each week we get a little bit better. We know we're a long way away."
Beyond the very obvious psychological overhaul of the Giants, there is also a noticeable change in coaching. The comebacks do not happen by chance, but by adjustments, none as dramatic as last week, when the Giants sent quarterback Daniel Jones on the move in the second half. They are mining the depth chart and squeezing the most out of the players available, maybe most obviously on offense, where the wide-receiving corps has been decimated by injury. This week, the Ravens effectively limited the impact of the running game. Saquon Barkley was held to 83 yards. Jones ran for just 6 -- Ravens defensive lineman Calais Campbell had said before the game that Jones' legs were the X-factor in the game -- and threw for 173.
And the Giants leaned on the defense (like they have all season), which forced three field-goal attempts by the Ravens (Justin Tucker rather shockingly missed a 56-yarder when it hit the left upright), the Love interception just as it appeared Jackson would make magic of a broken play and the Thibodeaux strip-sack that sealed the victory. Those big plays offset the 406 yards yielded, including 211 rushing yards. When Daboll repeatedly mentioned all the things the Giants still have to clean up, he was undoubtedly thinking of how Ravens backup running back Kenyan Drake had 119 yards and a touchdown and how the Giants still struggle to cover tight ends, this time to the tune of Mark Andrews having 106 yards and another touchdown.
That is the inexplicable part of the Giants' formula right now, where the statistics don't necessarily line up with the results. That suggests something more has turbocharged this turnaround, a realigning of the franchise that was long overdue and badly needed. It might still have a long way to go, as Daboll insists, and there are enormous personnel decisions looming on the horizon that will shape the future. But the Giants have already come so very far from the darkest days, when there was no joy to be had.
"We're confident in our toughness and competitiveness and finding ways to win," Jones said. "We're not shocked. No, we're not shocked."