EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Giants’ first team meeting of the 2016 season began at 11:55 a.m. on Thursday. The clocks here are still set to Tom Coughlin time, five minutes fast. But there’s a new man at the front of the room.
Ben McAdoo has been head coach of the Giants for 198 days, but his most important speech to date happened two days ago. The start of training camp is when you set the table for the new season, and McAdoo didn’t play it safe.
McAdoo’s start-of-camp address lasted “two touchdowns,” as he puts it—exactly 14 minutes in length. First, he set a clear, lofty goal for the 2016 season: Put the fifth Lombardi Trophy in the Giants’ display case. Then, he took his message outside the white lines.
“I wanted to hit the issues that are going on in the world today. I think that was important,” McAdoo says. “It’s not easy to talk about. The racial tension going on in the world, the sexual assaults that are happening on campuses, the tension with law enforcement and the terrorism. And then I came back around and we talked a little bit about, we can make a difference, and we can do it maybe one person at a time. As long as we keep empathy and our message as we lead, as we communicate, I think we can make a difference. And the NFL is a great platform to do that.”
This is the start of the answer to a question that’s been simmering since January: Who is Ben McAdoo, head coach? The 39-year-old quietly rocketed up the coaching ladder, from an assistant high school coach in his hometown of Homer City, Pa., 20 years ago, to Packers position coach, to the chair previously occupied by Tom Coughlin and Bill Parcells in the nation’s biggest media market. The daunting shadow cast by those two coaching legends, and their four combined Lombardis, has not fazed McAdoo any more than the criticism of his ill-fitting suit at his introductory press conference—which is to say, not very much at all.
“I am comfortable in my own skin,” McAdoo says. “I don’t worry about that, not one bit. Be yourself; everybody else is taken.”
The Giants haven’t had a new coach in 12 years, so the subtle changes observed at the team facility seem exponentially more noticeable. There’s a redone weight room and new training philosophy under Aaron Wellman, a strength and conditioning coach McAdoo worked alongside as a grad assistant at Michigan State in 2001. Music is piped in during practices, and McAdoo even schedules gameday-like TV timeouts, rest breaks during which theme songs from shows like “Family Feud” are played over the loudspeakers. McAdoo has vowed to “build up” the players over the first few days of camp, and in keeping with that, the first practice of training camp on Friday morning lasted just 1 hour, 20 minutes, and included no 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 team drills. That wouldn’t have been the style of Parcells or Coughlin, but for a team snakebitten by injuries over the past few years, a gradual start seems to be a calculated move.
But it’s McAdoo’s approach to commanding a room of 90 players that really reveals what his personality as a head coach will be. Just as with presidential candidates, you can never tell exactly how a person will act in office until they’re in office. As the Giants’ offensive coordinator the past two years, McAdoo led the offensive meeting room, but the leap to the head-coaching chair is a quantum one. McAdoo had never met with the media regularly until two years ago, and this spring he was answering questions about his star receiver’s presumed relationship with a Kardashian. “I like the football questions better than I do some of the other stuff,” McAdoo admits, “but when you are standing at the podium, everything is fair game.”
McAdoo says he and his old boss exchanged voice messages before camp started, but Coughlin is now a degree separated from his old team, working in the league office as a senior advisor to the football operations department. For years it was Coughlin’s motivational slogans plastered in blue block letters all over the team facility, a daily reminder of the messages that had propelled his team to two Super Bowl runs. But after four seasons of missing the postseason, the Giants organization turned to a different messenger.
McAdoo spent his summer vacation—his “prep-cation,” as he dubbed it—plotting what that message would be and how he would deliver it. He and his wife, Toni, who was his high school sweetheart, and their two young kids, went out of town for a couple weeks. “South,” and “near a nice little body of water,” were the only location details the private McAdoo would disclose. In the afternoon, while the kids napped, McAdoo worked.
He went over the camp schedule in extreme detail, making sure “every rep is accounted for.” Last offseason Coughlin had commissioned a study and put his staff through training on teaching millennials, and McAdoo has doubled-down efforts to connect with a new generation of players. He came up with the idea of teaching in the segments of time referred to as one or two “touchdowns,” reasoning that 20-something players would retain information better in shorter bursts. “I’ll be sticking and moving, and they’ll have to be paying attention,” McAdoo says.
• OLIVIER VERNON CAN HANDLE THE PRESSURE: He signed the most lucrative deal ever for a defensive end and is expected to return the Giants D to glory, but the former Dolphin says he can handle the heat.
McAdoo credits Packers coach Mike McCarthy, whom he worked under for eight years in Green Bay and another year before that on his offensive staff in San Francisco, as his greatest coaching influence. Being a part of the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV coaching staff helped inform McAdoo’s “lesson plan” for the first two weeks of camp. In 14 separate lessons, each one a “touchdown” or two in length, McAdoo plans to lay the groundwork for what he believes are the Four Elements of Championship Football: (1) Strong leadership. (2) Talented men and women of integrity. (3) A positive work environment. (4) Comprehensive structure and function. “I really made this job into its own lesson plan,” McAdoo explains, “so we’ll see how it goes.”
He sounds a lot like Coughlin here: organized, task-oriented and a little bit nerdy. Replacing your old boss who’d still like to be coaching isn’t the most comfortable position, but McAdoo has done well at building on the past while forging his own way forward. Case in point: He talked about putting a fifth Super Bowl trophy in the Giants’ lobby, and now he’s giving his players his own road map for doing it.
That brings us back to the second part of McAdoo’s opening day speech. It’s bold enough to talk about the Super Bowl; it’s even bolder as a first-year head coach to broach topics like racial tension and gun violence and sexual assault. But McAdoo thought, if he was going to stand in front of a room of 90 men he is charged with leading, he was going to talk about Orlando and Baton Rouge and Dallas and Baylor. It fits with the way he describes his new job: A responsibility.
“Well, it’s real. We are in bunker mentality, then all of a sudden you get a couple weeks away from here, and you are like, what’s going on out here?” McAdoo says. “The thing that is tough, they are looking at me like, this guy is a white man; he’s the head coach of the Giants before he is 40 years old; how can he identify with us? I just told them, ‘Hey, I have never walked in the shoes of a black man. I have never walked in the shoes of a woman. I have never walked in the shoes of a police officer, or I have never walked in the shoes of someone in a religion other than what I know. But I choose empathy over violence.’”
It was authentic. And the players responded well. “None of the guys probably would have expected it. I mean, I didn't expect for him to touch on that topic,” says defensive end Olivier Vernon, one of the Giants’ big-ticket free agent signings. “To me, it showed that he cares about what else is going on, not just football. Outside of football, there is still a world going on, there are problems out there, so for him to touch on that and have some type of awareness for it was a good thing.”
The NFL is wondering who Ben McAdoo, head coach of the Giants, will be. His players, and the rest of us, are starting to get a clearer picture.
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Five Things I Thought About Giants Camp
1. It was important news that WR Victor Cruz did not begin camp on the physically unable to perform list. Cruz hasn’t played in a football game in nearly two years, since tearing his patellar tendon in Philadelphia on Oct. 12, 2014. He planned to return last fall, but a calf injury that required surgery kept him on the sidelines for another season. On Friday, Cruz was practicing fully with his teammates, and even though practice didn’t include any team drills, McAdoo says he’s full-go. That’s big news for the Giants, because even with Odell Beckham, Jr., and promising rookie Sterling Shepard, Cruz is still a player they really need.
2. McAdoo remains mum on whether he’ll continue to call the offensive plays after his promotion to head coach, or pass those duties to Mike Sullivan. He’d prefer to keep that decision private, believing that it could give opponents an advantage if they know well in advance who will be the chief play-caller. But there’s one strong reason to believe it will continue to be McAdoo: McCarthy, McAdoo’s mentor, called plays for his first nine seasons in Green Bay. He ceded those duties in 2015, but took them back toward the end of the season after the Packers’ offense struggled. I asked McAdoo if, as he’s weighing his options, he’ll take into account the impact McCarthy has on his team by being the chief play-caller. “He’s gifted at it,” McAdoo says. “He puts players in position to be successful, and he’s very competent with it, and I think they feed off of that. It has an impact, absolutely.”
3. Olivier Vernon had a just-salty-enough response when asked about living up to his $85 million contract. “If you have something wrong about that [contract], then you can always go against me and see what happens,” Vernon says. After Friday’s practice, he spent extra time running wind sprints with the strength and conditioning coach. He said it’s something he has done on his own accord since his first season in the NFL. “I always condition myself,” he added.
4. Art Stapleton, Giants beat writer from The Record, made this great point on our Facebook Live chat yesterday when I asked if $200 million can buy a Super Bowl defense. When the Giants opened last season, their best defensive lineman was Johnathan Hankins. Barring any major camp injuries, Hankins would be their fourth-best DL in this year’s opener, after Vernon, Jason Pierre-Paul and Damon Harrison. The Giants simply didn’t have the talent they needed on defense last year. Now they have the talent, so it’s up to Steve Spagnuolo to harness it.
5. It’s funny how the nickname “Snacks” has stuck with Harrison. Rex Ryan gave him that moniker back in 2012 when Harrison was an undrafted rookie fighting for a roster spot. Now, two coaches later, on a new team and after earning a $46 million contract as a top free agent, he’s still called Snacks. Amazing. Snacks, by the way, started camp on PUP with swelling on his knee, but dubbed it as just a precaution.
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