The two NFL teams in the United States' biggest market have long been stuck in the mud -- but on the night of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Giants and Jets will have a golden opportunity to speed up their turnarounds.
By Judy Battista | April 25, 2022
It has been nearly 45 years since the frustration of New York football fans took flight in a banner pulled by a plane. At the final home game of the 1978 season -- ironically, a victory for the Giants -- spectators, including the intended reader, Wellington Mara, looked up to see this message: "15 Years of Lousy Football -- We've Had Enough!"
That was the nadir for the Giants, who, in the wake of that plea, made some significant changes and were in the playoffs three years later. The team has won four Super Bowls since, but the Lombardi Trophies in the display case are doing nothing to soothe the feelings of fans right now.
It hasn't quite been 15 years, but there has been plenty of lousy football in New York recently, engulfing both halves of the Gotham-area gridiron. It is not a coincidence that the New York Jets had their own aerial experience with an irate fan roughly eight years ago. Midway through the 2014 season, a plane circled the team's Florham Park practice field, trailing a banner that demanded, bluntly, "Fire John Idzik," referring to the then-general manager. Idzik was indeed fired at the end of that 4-12 campaign.
Ask Boomer Esiason, the former Jets quarterback who now spends every morning as a quasi-therapist for fans who call into his sports talk radio show, Boomer and Gio, on WFAN, for his thoughts on the state of football in New York, and he replies, simply: "Are you writing War and Peace?"
There's certainly been lots of time for reading, especially in January. The Jets haven't been to the playoffs since the 2010 season, when they lost a second consecutive AFC Championship Game. They have had just one winning season and are on their fourth head coach and fourth general manager since then. The Giants, whose most recent Super Bowl was won in the 2011 season, were last in the playoffs in 2016. Everyone would probably sooner forget how that went. A few players took an off-day boat trip in Miami, the team was blown out of a wild card game in Green Bay and a wall in the visiting locker room was left with a hole punched in it. The Giants haven't had a winning season, and are on their fourth coach and third general manager, since then.
"It's felt like the '70s to me all over again, which I never thought I would ever experience. I would say the level of frustration with our fans is as great as it's ever been." -- Giants president John Mara
For teams that share little more than MetLife Stadium, their slides into the NFL abyss have been startlingly similar. In the last five seasons, from 2017 to 2021, the Giants and Jets are each 22-59, tied with each other for the worst record in the NFL. The only other instance of both the Jets and Giants having a winning percentage under .300 in the same five-season span was from 1973 to 1977.
At that time, the Jets were just a few years removed from the crowning moment in franchise history -- the Joe Namath-led stunner of a Super Bowl in 1969. The Giants were just a few years away from hiring the former high school teacher who would become the architect of their Super Bowl teams of 1986 and 1990, George Young.
"It's felt like the '70s to me all over again, which I never thought I would ever experience," Giants president John Mara said. "I would say the level of frustration with our fans is as great as it's ever been. They haven't flown any planes yet over the stadium, but I'm painfully aware of it. It feels like that awful feeling we had in the '70s; we'd take one step forward, two steps back."
The roots of the twinned dysfunction are many and familiar. Bad coaching fits, disastrous general manager hires, ill-advised free-agency signings, draft misses, underperforming talent. It is difficult to pinpoint one moment that pushed each of these teams into their troubled times, but Esiason has had his show since right before the Giants won a Super Bowl during the 2007 season, so he has seen much of the unraveling, and he's listened to the suffering of the fans.
"If you're a Jets fan, you probably blame ownership," he said. "If you're a Giants fan, you blame (ex-GM) Dave Gettleman. But it goes deeper than that."
Indeed. Esiason, from his perch as an observer, believes the Giants' loyalty to quarterback Eli Manning toward the end of his career eventually hamstrung their ability to prepare for the future. Former coach Ben McAdoo's infatuation with Patrick Mahomes, and his reported desire to draft the eventual Chiefs star QB in 2017, has been well-documented. Still, even a miss that big doesn't explain the following: how the Giants have fired each of the last three head coaches after just two seasons; the decision to use the second overall draft pick in 2018 on running back Saquon Barkley, who averaged 3.7 yards per carry last season after missing most of 2020 with a torn ACL; the repeated swings and misses on offensive linemen; or the disastrous salary-cap shape the team was in this offseason, which limited what the new regime of coach Brian Daboll and GM Joe Schoen was able to do in free agency.
As for the Jets, Esiason points to their 2012 trade for Tim Tebow -- an experiment that ended after just one season, eight passes and 32 rushes -- as the moment after which their decisions made little sense. Nobody knew exactly how to use Tebow, and that opened up the Jets to questions about whether they were pursuing winning or publicity. But then there were the misguided hires of Idzik and Mike Maccagnan as general managers (over the two drafts that Idzik ran in 2013 and '14 and the five that Maccagnan oversaw in 2015-19, the Jets unearthed just three Pro Bowlers: Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams and Jamal Adams, none of whom remains on the team).
The end result: The teams have undergone regime changes, salary-cap cleanups and rebuilds. The Jets started their most recent one first, when they hired Joe Douglas to replace Maccagnan in June of 2019 and then, before the 2021 season, Robert Saleh to replace Adam Gase. The Giants cleaned house a few months ago, installing Schoen after parting ways with Gettleman and hiring Daboll after firing Joe Judge (and even that was fraught, as the team since became subject to a lawsuit by Brian Flores alleging racist hiring practices by the Giants and the league more broadly; the team has denied the allegations).
The bleakness has been simultaneous. But so, too, might be the teams' arrival at a turning point.
When the 2022 NFL Draft begins this week, the reward for all that futility will finally be at hand, with the Giants and Jets essentially in control of the top of the board. The teams each have two selections within the top 10 picks. The Giants have five picks in the first three rounds. The Jets have four picks in the first 38. Given the less-than-sparkling current state of each team's roster, both teams will expect several picks in this draft to make an impact in 2022, either as opening-day starters or as significant contributors. It is a bounty of opportunity, if not for an immediate turnaround, then at least to build the foundation for better days ahead.
"Every organization has gone through it. Buffalo was the butt of jokes, Cincinnati was for a long time. You draft a couple kids, get the right continuity, and now look at what can happen." -- Jets coach Robert Saleh
Both rosters still have significant holes. Both need pass rushers. The Giants are still furiously rebuilding their offensive line and need a tight end. The Jets must secure a top-end wide receiver after trying and failing to trade for three-time All-Pro Tyreek Hill; it is little wonder that they have been mentioned as a potential trade destination for Niners receiver Deebo Samuel. For both teams, the need for across-the-board talent upgrades means there are precious few positions where they could make what would qualify as luxury picks.
There are few illusions about the timeline for a payoff -- at best, contention for even a wild-card spot is probably at least another year away for both teams. Douglas, the Jets' GM, thinks it is reasonable to expect the Jets to be playing meaningful games in December. Mara said he doesn't think the Giants' situation is as bleak as others believe it is. He cautions, though, that this draft is not an overnight fix, just the start.
Those may seem like low bars to clear, but clearing any bar at all would still be a sign of progress in New York. The Jets may be a small step ahead of the Giants, because their teardown has already taken place, their salary cap has been cleaned up and the quarterback, Zach Wilson, was drafted by the current regime in 2021. For the Giants, whose free agency was severely constrained by a salary-cap crunch that Schoen has been digging out from, the incoming picks are the pieces they hope will provide stability for quarterback Daniel Jones, who is starting his fourth season with his third head coach and third offense.
The teams' own histories are reminders of how a few good decisions can change the trajectory of an organization. The hiring of Young as general manager in 1979 remains the most pivotal decision in the Giants' Super Bowl era, because of how many significant hirings and decisions -- adding Bill Parcells, Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms, Ernie Accorsi, Michael Strahan, Manning -- flowed from Young's impact on the Giants. Even more than 50 years later, the Super Bowl Namath won with the Jets stands as a formative moment for the entire league and one of the greatest examples of how a quarterback can transform a team on and off the field. There is some comfort to be had from recent NFL history, too, and the new braintrusts know that better than anyone.
"Every organization has gone through it," said Saleh, who previously served as defensive coordinator for a 49ers team that Kyle Shanahan took to a Super Bowl in Year 3 on the job. "Buffalo (which is now coming off three straight playoff appearances) was the butt of jokes, Cincinnati (which reached Super Bowl LVI) was for a long time. You draft a couple kids, get the right continuity, and now look at what can happen. It's always doable. But it's the right collection of players. It's the quarterback.
"You stay to your process and you build. Cincinnati had sense; they had (coach) Zac Taylor, and people were talking about letting him go. He stays, and it hits. The third year for us in San Francisco hit."
The interest in seeing the Giants and Jets improve extends beyond their fan bases, many of whom have expressed their displeasure by skipping games; in 2021, for the first time in the past five seasons (excluding the pandemic-impacted 2020 campaign), neither the Jets nor the Giants ranked in the top three in the NFL in average home attendance, according to ESPN, with the Giants ranking fourth and the Jets at No. 7.
The fallout of so much losing and the absence of star power in the nation's biggest market even ripples out into the league's business. When the Giants last had a winning record, in 2016, then-Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. had the league's fourth-highest selling jersey. Last season, when the Giants went 4-13, running back Saquon Barkley had the best-selling jersey among Giants players, according to the NFL Players Association. But it was only the 29th-highest selling jersey in the NFL. The Jets' best-selling jersey last year was quarterback Zach Wilson's. It ranked 43rd in the league.
The New York metro area is the nation's largest television market, and there is viewership potential when the teams are performing well -- potential that is not being fully realized right now.
Sunday Night Football is the premier television package for the NFL and has been prime time's No. 1 show for 11 consecutive years -- and the Jets and Giants have been almost entirely absent from the biggest weekly stage for years. The Jets' last game in the SNF package was the infamous Butt Fumble game on Thanksgiving 2012, according to NBC.
The Jets had been scheduled to play the Patriots on SNF in November of 2016, but the game was flexed out of that spot because the Jets were 3-7 when the decision to switch was made. The Giants were actually flexed into SNF in December of 2020 because their opponents, the Cleveland Browns, were 9-3, and the Giants had won four straight at the time the flex move was made. Other than that, the Giants had not been scheduled to be on SNF in 2019, 2020 or 2021 after being scheduled for multiple games in each season from 2006 to 2017 and for one game in 2018.
For those who are now charged with fixing this, there is no escaping the near desperation of the fan bases. Douglas admits he feels the weight of responsibility to give Jets fans something to celebrate. Daboll, on the job mere months as the Giants' head coach, says he already gets a lot of letters, many of them positive. "But we're in the early stages," he says. "The biggest thing is, you can't focus too much on the past. Losing is no fun, and obviously, it's very important to the area to do everything we can do to turn it around."
Jets owner Woody Johnson often reads fan remarks on social media -- some of them quite harsh, a few demanding he sell the team -- but has remained relentlessly hopeful that the combination of Saleh and Douglas will finally bring the sustained success that has eluded the Jets. They are on the same page, Johnson said, admitting that was not always the case with some of their predecessors.
"I've been doing this 22 years, I've heard it all before," Johnson, smiling, said of criticism directed at him. "That shows they're interested. I think that's positive. I feel their pain, as they say."
So, too, does Mara, who often references the day the banner plane flew over the Giants game. He said the fan mail that arrives in his office has indicated enthusiasm about the new regime.
"The hate mail has been a lot less severe recently," Mara said. "It was pretty bad, unlike anything I had ever experienced. Except when we benched Eli. That was pretty bad."
Perhaps the very worst is already behind the Giants and Jets, and this draft will be looked back on as the one that helped bring relevance back to New York football. The Giants' Super Bowl in the 2011 season was the last championship won by any of the New York area teams in the four major professional sports. Misery loves company, and there has been plenty of both.
"I read a cool quote from Bill Parcells," Saleh said, referencing the Hall of Fame coach who guided the Giants' Super Bowl champion teams in 1986 and 1990 and led a Jets renaissance in the late 1990s, during which he won 12 games in 1998, the most by the team in a single season to date. "He said it's euphoria or disaster every day in New York. If you're winning, it's euphoria and it gets more credit than they probably should. And if you're losing, it's the apocalypse."
Editors: Ali Bhanpuri, Tom Blair, Brooke Cersosimo
Illustration by: Dennis Padua