EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Dave Gettleman wants some credit for his resumé.
It’s an objectively impressive one, spanning three decades across four NFL teams. He won’t gesture toward the three Super Bowl rings on his fingers, but he will assure you that he knows what he’s doing. He believes his history—along with head coach Pat Shurmur and the talented staff assembled, who have all been doing this a long time with various levels of success—deserve a level of trust from Giants fans.
I’ve heard him use that line a few times in recent press conferences, including the one he just conducted here in late July. We are meeting over lunch at the Giants' facility, sharing a table in a cafeteria that's emptying as practice nears. I’m here to find out why he is doing what he's doing. Because Dave Gettleman is the most interesting general manager in the NFL, and it seems that’s not always a good thing.
Our conversation starts with why he's so certain his past successes guarantee future results. I argue that billionaires make bad investments, pointing to Tom Dundon's quick-trigger quarter-billion-dollar investment in the AAF. Every year one-fourth of the NFL’s head coaches—the fraternity of 32 of the world's greatest pro football minds—get fired. There has to be more. Why is Gettleman so sure that this plan, for these Giants, will work?
“It’s very rude to answer a question with a question,” Gettleman acknowledges, but, “My question is: Why won’t it?”
I’ve been interviewing Gettleman with regularity since 2013 when he got his first GM job with the Carolina Panthers. He’s never written an article, but he can deftly make a point to a journalist by comparing his work to theirs.
“Why is there any guarantee that you’re going to write good articles? Why is there any guarantee that your career will continue to grow?” he says. “There’s no guarantee.
“I’m not saying this from an arrogant place, I’m just saying that I’ve been around enough successful teams and I’ve seen the way they’re built. And to a degree I know what it looks, smells and tastes like. I have confidence in myself. I have confidence in the organization, and Pat and his staff, the scouting staffs. I have tremendous confidence in ownership. It’s almost like … you’re asking me if I’m being penalized because I’m confident in my skills.”
He can put on this gruff exterior when it comes to business, and he’s been doing it since before his decisions fueled New York's tabloid backpages. Gettleman won’t throw the first punch but, at times, can seem ready to spar. He’s jovial—cheeky, even—but then makes cutthroat personnel decisions.
Several star players who got their walking papers from Gettleman now regularly call him out. One recently joked about physically running over the 68-year-old on the sideline. He floored the NFL world when he traded Odell Beckham Jr. shortly after declaring he didn’t sign him just to trade him. He did it again a month later when he drafted Duke’s Daniel Jones at No. 6 to be Eli Manning’s successor.
If he paid attention to the jokes made about him, he wouldn’t care. Gettleman is aware some of his moves are unpopular, but every piece of him believes in his plan that’s based on a tried-and-true formula.
“People make fun of me. If it makes them happy, let them have it. I don’t care,” he says. “I just know I’m blessed. I’ve got the Lord and my family and I’ve got football.”
By the time Gettleman came to the Giants the first time, he had been to three Super Bowls. Twice he went with the Bills as a scout before enjoying a Super Bowl XXXII victory as a scout for the Broncos. In 1999 he joined the Giants as the pro personnel director and went on to get two more rings. But as he entered his 60s he couldn’t secure a GM job; the Giants passed him over in favor of Jerry Reese and he missed out on one of the Browns’ many openings.
In 2013, Jerry Richardson brought him to Charlotte where he inherited Ron Rivera, Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly. His moves helped immediately push the Panthers’ young core, which hadn’t had a winning season, into contention. They won the NFC South in each of Gettleman’s first three seasons. The pinnacle of his tenure there was the 2015 season that saw Carolina go 15-1 but fall short to the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
While the Panthers enjoyed their greatest stretch of success, Gettleman’s tenure wasn’t without controversy. He cut beloved Panther great Steve Smith with gas still left in the tank. He rescinded Josh Norman’s franchise tag when the All-Pro corner waited months to sign it. Richardson signed off on those moves, but Gettleman’s slack ran out when he played contract hardball with two of Richardson’s favorites: linebacker Thomas Davis and tight end Greg Olsen.
A year and a half after overseeing the best season in franchise history, Gettleman got the axe a week before the start of 2017’s training camp.
“There are times where my bedside manner hasn’t been the best. People will tell you that millennials want honesty,” Gettleman says. “Sometimes I’ve been a little too abrupt and to the point. And I think it’s because I’ve never been a pussyfooter. I’ve never dallied around. … Maybe there has to be a softer, kinder Dave Gettleman. Yeah, I’m 68, but I’m not an old man falling down. I’d like to think that I can learn, that I’m agile and can still learn.”
Gettleman took the reins in New York less than six months after his dismissal in Carolina. The Giants improved from 3-13 to 5-11 last season. He nabbed Saquon Barkley—rather than a quarterback—with the No. 2 overall pick in his first draft with the Giants and immediately faced criticism, especially from an analytics community that believes in the devaluation of the running back position. At his post-draft press conference, he pantomimed typing on his computer while dismissing the notion. It helped earn Gettleman the distinction of being a “personnel dinosaur.”
“If that makes me a hater of analytics, because the analytic people say [you can plug and play whomever at running back], you can’t!,” Gettleman says. “If that’s the reasoning, that I’ve become a doddering old fool that hates analytics … that’s O.K.”
Over the past year, Gettleman kept hearing about the “Kansas City model” for quarterbacks. Alex Smith is to Eli Manning as Patrick Mahomes is to Daniel Jones. Gettleman had grown tired of this phrase, so after picking Jones at No. 6 and faced with more questions of when he’ll boot out Manning for the new guy, the GM had his fill.
“Maybe we are going to the Green Bay model, where Rodgers sat for three years,” Gettleman said. “Who knows?”
No one, not even Gettleman himself, believes Jones will sit for three years behind Manning. So why even say that?
“Just to say it,” Gettleman says.
“You know why? Because they didn’t invent it. People have done this since the dawn of time, especially way back in the day when the first-round quarterback didn’t have to play right away.” He goes on to track Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen’s circuitous path to NFL starter.
“Media, and just in general, there are so many people who think sports started in 1979. Your generation of writers, if I said who are the 15 best players of all time, there wouldn’t be one player from before ’90.”
Of course there would be. There’s that punchiness again. This isn’t a default setting, though. During his first stint in New York, Gettleman earned the nickname “the Mayor” for being so personable and nice to everyone in the building. Manning has seen Gettleman’s sarcastic side plenty.
“He has a personality and gets along with the players,” Manning says, “and he wants the players to show their personality and for that to come out.”
But … that trade he made in March, Eli …
“Having your character in the best of ways, and making sure it’s the right style and you’re representing the franchise in the right way,” Manning says. “He’s got to make decisions and we’ve got confidence in him that he’ll do the right thing.”
Four days before our sit down, GQ dropped its Q&A with Beckham. Among the wide receiver’s headline-making comments: The only reason the 5-11 Giants got primetime games was because of him, and that he felt disrespected by the way Gettleman handled his trade.
Manning had already responded to that comment. “We won a few games before he got here,” he said dryly. Later, he tells me of the mic-drop comment, “it just kind of came out.”
Gettleman allowed one question about Beckham in his half-hour meeting with assembled Giants media this day but waved off a follow-up. (Gettleman left it at “Odell plays for the Cleveland Browns now, and we’re moving on. We wish him the best.”)
Later, Gettleman tells me he didn’t read the article. I paraphrase what Beckham said—that he didn’t appreciate how Gettleman communicated with him. (More precisely, Beckham told GQ “I felt disrespected they weren’t even man enough to even sit me down to my face and tell me what's going on,” even though Beckham was in Paris at the time of the trade.)
“Here’s what I’d say,” Gettleman says. “I handled it professionally and with complete respect. What more can I do?
“I can’t be responsible for the way people characterize things that happened. Because you know what? It’s the way they saw it. It’s what they feel. You can’t argue with emotions.”
There’s no way to argue this team gets better on paper without Beckham. The trade hinges on the nebulous idea of culture, the necessary and mysterious ingredient for any championship team. Gettleman always says he’s doing what’s best for the New York Football Giants but rarely dives into what that truly means. He tries.
“When I’m retired sitting in my chair, rocking back and forth, thinking about my life, I don’t want to say I wish I had done… whatever,” he says. “If your culture’s right, every player in that locker room will give you everything they’ve got. And in the face of tremendous adversity, they’ll keep slogging through. That’s what culture is.”
He’s said before—and it doesn’t apply only to the Beckham trade—that “people don’t understand what’s going on and people don’t have knowledge of the stuff that’s going on here.” In one sense, it’s admirable that Gettleman keeps private discussions private. A more cynical take says this is a cop-out giving the GM the ability to wiggle out of having to lay bare the defensible (or indefensible) reasons for his personnel decisions.
“You don’t know,” Gettleman says. “And you know what? That doesn’t make you stupid. That just makes you … you don’t know!”
In part because he refuses to publicly substantiate his decisions, Gettleman leaves himself open to criticism—legitimate or otherwise. Steve Smith danced on Gettleman’s grave when he was fired in Carolina. Norman rarely pulls punches when Gettleman’s in the news. There’s Beckham, of course. And then former Giants safety Landon Collins came over the top in a July interview with NFL Network, saying he’d look to pop Gettleman on the sideline during warmups when Washington plays the Giants next. Collins later said he was joking and was reportedly warned by the league for the comments.
It seems in vogue to pick on Gettleman. And he doesn’t care.
“I have no idea if it’s popular or not,” he says. “At the end of the day as long as I know I treated people with respect, if they don’t like the answer, what am I supposed to do?”
Gettleman’s next big decision—how and when he moves on from Manning to Jones—will dwarf the others.
He says that will be a decision for Shurmur, but more realistically it will be a collaborative effort. There’s no matrix they’ve constructed for when it’ll happen. (1-3? No. 2-4? Maybe. 2-5? Yes, do it now!) “We’ll know when it’s time,” Gettleman says.
The hope, of course, is that Manning continues the strong camp he’s had and returns the Giants to glory. The reality is there will be immense pressure on Gettleman and Shurmur from Manning’s first three-and-out and will only build with turnovers.
Jones says New York was always the place he wanted to be and the best situation for him.
“It’s a responsibility, and there’s more to it in some senses, but I’m confident I can handle it,” Jones, 22, says. “Playing quarterback in New York is a huge opportunity for any guy and to me it was the most exciting and what I wanted to do.”
Gettleman, who inherited his coach and quarterback at his last stop, has hitched his wagon to Jones and Shurmur. He fell in love with Jones at the Senior Bowl and hasn’t stopped fawning over him since. Imagine just how much Gettleman, lover of pass rushers, must be enamored to let Josh Allen go by at No. 6?
But the moves Gettleman has made—and especially the way he’s handled them—have almost put him in a position of all-or-nothing. Will it be enough for Jones to be a Pro Bowl alternate in the near future, or does he have to become an MVP candidate? Will a double-digit win season or two provide affirmation, or do these Giants have to win a fifth Super Bowl to satisfy all?
“I’ve had a special career, and I’m proud of what I’ve done,” Gettleman starts. “I want to say this right. … No matter what happens moving forward, I’ve had a great career. No matter what happens. And to now be the general manager of the New York. Football Giants. Are you kidding me? There are guys who would blow my head off to sit in my chair even for a week. Don’t think for one moment that I don’t realize how fortunate I am and how big a job this is.”
We wrap up on the interview on that note. Shortly after, Gettleman is told that Kevin Abrams, the team’s VP of football operations, has been looking for him. Gettleman gathers his things, God-blesses those around him and heads out, past the team’s four Lombardi trophies and up the stairs to his meeting. On his way through the lobby he passes a television, tuned to ESPN. It shows clips from the Giants practice and a discussion of Manning’s comment responding to Beckham’s GQ interview. Gettleman—unbothered, uninterested, or both—pays it no mind.
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