When a foot is put to the ball to start Super Bowl XLVI, Giants players coaches, owners and millions of fans will be anxious, edgy and tense. But the general manager will not join them in mass nervousness.
"I am pretty calm before and during a game," Jerry Reese said. "There is really nothing I can do, so there is no sense for me to get uptight about it. I can't play, I can't put on a helmet, I can't call any plays, so I have a lot of confidence in our players and our coaches. I have full confidence that they will get the job done. So, it's pretty relaxing day for me on game day."
Reese's work is done in the days, weeks and months prior to kickoff. It is a process that is never-ending for the Giants' chief football decision-maker. And his skill is evident in his team's success. For the second time in Reese's five seasons as general manager, the Giants are in the Super Bowl. On Sunday, they will represent the NFC in Super Bowl XVLI against the New England Patriots, the same team they defeated for the title four years ago.
Reese had more influence constructing this roster than he did the team that won Super Bowl XLII. More than 10 rookies contributed to the Giants' title run that season, but the majority of the team was put together by Reese's predecessor, Ernie Accorsi. All but nine members of the current 53-man roster were acquired under Reese's watch.
It would be easier to convince Reese to wear a Patriots jersey on Sunday than it is to accept credit for that.
"I don't think it's ever with a Giants organization anybody's team - it's our team," Reese said. "We all work hard to get where we are from the first person to the last person, whoever they are. It's all about team for us, that's what important. It's our players, it's our team, it's our chance to win the Super Bowl. I don't think you phrase it as my team."
Last summer, fans throughout Giants nation were unhappy with the team Reese and his staff were assembling - or, more accurately, were allowing to leave. The names have been repeated often – Plaxico Burress to the Jets, Steve Smith to the Eagles, Kevin Boss to the Raiders and, so many outsiders believed, the Giants' chances for a successful season into the wind.
Reese heard from numerous fans who, to put it kindly, questioned his competence. At least one wished him ill health, which is a little unbelievable. Reese responded with the same calm he displays on game day.
"It is my job to take the heat," Reese said. "Really, it's not taking heat; it's an honor and a privilege to take the heat. Working for the New York Giants, a lot of people would sit here and take the heat. It's really a privilege rather than having the pressure."
While numerous members of the media and pessimistic fans conceded the NFC East to Philadelphia, Reese, at a training camp news conference, confidently said the Giants were "going to be good." Now that they're in the Super Bowl, it's clear Reese had an accurate handle on the team's talent level.
"We looked at our football team and we knew that we had good players, we knew we had good coaches," Reese said. "I had confidence that some of the things that happened last year, the plays that we didn't make, we would make them this time. It obviously got framed as a guarantee. It was just me giving our team a vote of confidence that I believe we would make those plays, I believe we will qualify for the tournament, I believe will have a chance to make a run. I just wanted to let our players and our coaches know that I believed in them. I think your players and coaches want the front office and the ownership to have confidence in their abilities."
Reese thought the Giants had a solid enough roster as the Giants prepared to report to training camp in late July that he didn't need to make he called any "big, sexy moves." He wanted to solidify the team at some specific positions.
"Coming out of the lockout, we knew there were a couple changes on the offensive line that we needed to make," Reese said. "We had David Baas rated as the highest center. We went out right away to secure that guy. You need to have a guy at the pivot who is going to touch the ball every time. (Kevin) Boothe became a priority as well, because we had the lockout and we needed a guy who we didn't have to train. He had been in our system, he's played all over the front for us. He can go in and play center, he can play either guard and he can actually play tackle in a pinch. He is also smart and big and tall. He became a priority for us as well, along with the punter. None of that is sexy but those are some moves that we wanted to make. Those are good football decisions. To the untrained eye it looked like nothing was really happening, but we knew we had some good pieces in place but we just had some holes we needed to fill."
During camp, the Giants added valuable pieces like Deon Grant, Dave Tollefson and punter Steve Weatherford. In late November, the Giants brought back Chase Blackburn, who has been the starter at middle linebacker.
"You always like to have some veteran players, back-ups, spot players and some of them can come in and start for you at times," Reese said. "Tollefson was guy that was still available, Deon Grant was still available and Chase was another guy who came back at the latter part of the season and gave us a calming presence in there as a middle linebacker. Weatherford has done a really nice job, he is a terrific holder. He has quietly had a very nice season for us. He has brought a nice calming presence to that unit.
Reese's faith was tested several times during the season. The Giants lost four games in a row and five of six in November and December and were 7-7 entering their Dec. 24 game against the Jets. But Reese never lost the confidence he had displayed last summer.
"In most games the margin of error from winning and losing is really, really small," he said.
"The margin of error from being 3-13 or 13-3 is a very small margin of error. We knew what we were doing wrong and correct some of things so we could start to play some good games. One game, the offense would play a good game, the defense would play a good game, the special teams would do some nice things but we weren't putting it all together. I knew if we could just find a rhythm and put everything together and start playing good games as a whole, offense, defense and special teams that we still controlled our destiny and could get some rhythm and we have done that.
"Obviously, we have been in a sudden death situation the last four or five weeks. As you have seen in times past, when our backs have been against the wall, we played pretty good. I would never bet against Tom Coughlin in a big spot, anyway."
The same is true of Eli Manning. The now-tired debate about Manning's worthiness as an elite quarterback was so much wasted breath to Reese, who has long considered him to be among the NFL's very best.
"I think we all saw him being this good," Reese said. "Really, he has been a good quarterback for a long time. People think he just started to play good now. I am not sure who they have been looking at. I have referenced this many times, when he was back at Ole Miss in his senior year we went out to scout the guy. He had some very marginal players around him and they were winning games in the SEC, which in my opinion is the highest level of competition in college football. They were beating LSU, they were beating Florida and he had some little tiny receivers out there and he just made them better. That is one of his strong points that we highlighted is this guy makes everyone around him better. He has continued to do that at this level."
While he is not surprised Manning has posted franchise-record passing numbers, Reese concedes he did not see the contribution that Victor Cruz, and to a lesser extent, Jake Ballard have made. Reese began his Giants and NFL career in 1994 as a scout and was the team's Director of Player Personnel, in charge of the college scouting. Cruz and Ballard were signed in 2010 as rookie free agents and caught a combined 120 passes in the regular season.
"That just proves more than ever that the draft is not a perfect system," he said. "In the draft it's important to get more right to get more wrong, because you are going to get some of them wrong. Nobody is batting 1,000 percent in the draft. It's important to us, after the draft to look for the undrafted player. You don't have as many rounds these days. In the old days, Rosie Brown got picked in the 27th round. Jessie Armstead got picked in the eighth round. You don't have that many rounds anymore, you only have seven rounds. So it's important for us to continue to work hard after the draft and have guys targeted that we like.
"Victor Cruz, you can attribute to our scouts. We bring the local guys in, he was one of the locals and there were a couple redeeming qualities that we liked about him. His maturation, he just gets the most credit. Sean Ryan, his position coach should get credit, Eli Manning should get credit. All of those guys have helped him mature and develop quickly in the player he is. We had no idea that he could develop in the player he is. We liked him, he had a couple tools that we liked but we had no idea that he was going to be the contributor that he has been so far."
Reese touched on several other subjects in a recent interview:
*On whether he talks to his predecessor, Accorsi, who can best understand the demands of Reese's job:
"I still talk to Ernie. We don't talk a lot about football. We talk about his new dog and those types of things. He is always there if I need an ear. He has always been someone who encourages me. Ernie thinks I am a big boy and I can handle what is going on. He has always been a great support and I am really glad we are such good friends."
*On his commitment to remaining intimately involved in personnel, as he told team president John Mara he would when Reese was hired in January 2007.
"That's important to me. I told John that, and I meant that. I (went to) Mobile, Ala. to watch the Senior Bowl. The week before that I was down in Tampa to watch the East-West Shrine practices. I do know that is the lifeline of your football team. We believe in building through the draft and it's important to see as many guys as you can see that you can possibly draft. That is important to me. I do still like scouting, the thrill of the hunt is still there and that's always an exciting time, draft day."
*On whether he and Tom Coughlin are on the same personnel wavelength.
"I think we have similar views. Everybody has an opinion. That is what great about this organization. If you look at players, you are entitled to your opinion about them and obviously people have different opinions on different players. We try to come to a consensus on who the player is, what he can do, what he can't do and how can he fit with the New York Giants. Before we pick a guy, we want to have the consensus that this is the guy. If we have too many questions about him, we will try to pick another player. We want everybody to feel good about the players after we get him because they are ours and we have to make them work."
Reese was hired on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 16, 2007, a day that had great significance for the Giants' first African American general manager. He enjoys being in this position as much today as he did then.
"I love this job. I relish the challenge of this job. It means a lot to me on a lot of levels. I want to do a great job for the organization and for the Mara and Tisch families. It means a lot for my family, it means a lot for the organization in general. It does mean a lot for me to be carrying the torch for young African Americans who are coming behind me. I have said this before, people have suffered for me to even have an opportunity to be here, so it is important to me to try and accomplish my goals and our goals so people behind me can have an opportunity. That is important for me.
Now there is one more job for Reese's Giants this season – win the Super Bowl
"We have gotten to where want to go and we will all be terribly disappointed if we don't finish the job now," he said. "We battled hard, we truly have had some peaks and valleys. We have had injuries, we have had a brutal schedule and now it's time to reap the harvest of the hard work, the tough schedule, and all the injuries. So it's important for us to win this football game. That is our number one focus and that is our number one goal that we set every year: to win the Super Bowl. We are on the doorstep right now and the key word is 'finish.'"