EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – John Mara is attending his 60th Giants training camp and admits, "I've never experienced anything like this before." He concedes this will be "an unusual year" in the NFL.
It is certainly that and more for everybody, including someone who has been associated with the league since birth and is now one of the league's most influential owners. The pandemic forced all NFL teams to have an offseason with no practices, training camps with daily Covid-19 testing, and a season in which games will be played in stadiums that are empty or sparsely populated.
But while so much has changed for Mara, his hopes for the Giants have not. He held his annual camp news conference today – via Zoom – and as always declined to target how many victories he expects or hopes for. But with a new coach, a restructured roster and questions regarding whether a full season can even be played, Mara's expectations remain consistent.
"I want to feel like when we walk off the field after the last game that we play, whenever that is, that we're moving in the right direction," Mara said. "That we have the pieces in place to compete for a Super Bowl, and that the combination of people that we have here is going to work going forward. … I think we give the same answer every year because that's truly what it is. You can't pin it to a certain win-loss total, but you just want to feel like this group that we have together right now is building something that's going to compete for a championship.
"It's pretty hard to sit here and say, 'We need to win X number of games, we need to be in the playoffs this year.' We made some big changes over the last few years, and I think we're starting to build a foundation that can last over the long haul. That's what (team chairman) Steve (Tisch) and I want to see at the end of the year. Are we moving in the right direction? I know that's not going to satisfy a lot of our fans, but I just think it's the right philosophy to have."
Mara is confident this team will display that kind of progress in part because of the leadership and performance of the franchise's two most important on-field figures, first-year coach Joe Judge and second-year quarterback Daniel Jones.
The cancellation of the NFL preseason eliminated an early opportunity for in-game evaluation. But as per his custom, Mara has attended most training camp practices and he is impressed with the coach's organization, discipline, staff and connection to everyone on the roster.
"I've been very pleased so far," Mara said. "The things that are noticeable to me are the amount of teaching that goes on on the field. It's like nonstop. I think the intensity of the practice. I think the communication that he has with the players, on football and non-football issues. I've always been very, very impressed with the staff that he's put together. There's a lot of experience on that staff, and I feel very confident that we're in a good place right now in terms of trying to get these players to perform at their best."
Jones threw 24 touchdown passes in his 12 starts last season and provided much proof that he will be the franchise's long-term fixture at the game's most important position.
"I feel good about him right now, the amount of work he's put in, the way he's looked at camp," Mara said. "I'd like to see him take the next step this year. I'm confident that he will do that. The thing that is gratifying to me is that I know our coaching staff is very high on him right now. Guys that have been around successful quarterbacks in the past, and they think that he has what it takes to get us to the next level. Every indication so far is that he does have what it takes. I feel good about where Daniel is right now. Obviously, we want to see him move to the next level. But I think he did a good job last year. Obviously, he had the issue with the (NFL-high 23) turnovers. But he showed a lot of grit and a lot of promise and made a lot of big plays. I think with the right supporting cast around him, I think the sky is the limit for him."
View photos of the Giants' active roster as it currently stands.
Mara discussed numerous topics in his 26-minute discussion with reporters:
*On whether he believes the NFL will play a full season:
"I would say I don't know about all 256 games or whatever it is, but I am definitely more confident now than I was," Mara said. "If you had asked me in March or April, I would have had serious doubts about that. But given the way the protocols have worked so far and given the very low rate of positive tests, I think we have a good chance of playing a full season. Obviously, there are going to be some setbacks during the season that we'll have to deal with. But I think we have the protocols and the process in place that we'll be able to deal with it. If it means postponing a game here or there or making it up, I think we'll be able to do that. Time will tell. But right now, I think the players and the staff have done a great job of being responsible. As I said, our testing results so far have been terrific. I never would have believed that we would have had so few positive tests, and I hope I'm not jinxing it by saying that. But it's worked very well so far."
*Mara fully supports the recent social justice endeavors not only of his players and staff, but throughout the NFL.
"I've never expressed any reservations about my feelings about that," he said when asked about the possibility of players kneeling during the national anthem. "My position about that back in 2017 is the same as it is now in terms of, I'll support any player's right to engage in silent protest. What makes it easy for me to do that is when I see how much work they're doing in the community and how important what is going on in this country right now is to each of them. They back it up with actions, not just words. My position now will be the same as it was back then.
"We'll probably talk about that with the players possibly sometime during the week. I'll say the same thing to them that I said to the group in '17, and that is my preference is everybody stand, but if you decide that in your conscience you think taking a knee is the right thing to do, I'm going to support your right to do that because I believe in the First Amendment and I believe in the right of people, especially players, to take a knee in silent protest if that's what they want to do."
"In terms of the social justice initiative, our players are very engaged in working in a lot of different areas. They asked me to take part in that video (shown in MetLife Stadium prior to a scrimmage) last week and I was happy to do that. We had a great meeting, Joe and I, with our leadership group last week to talk about some of the things that we want to do in the future. I'm going to support our players, particularly when they engage in the type of activity that they have been off the field. They've been fantastic about that, so I'm going to continue to support them. I understand the fact and accept the fact that that's not going to be necessarily popular with certain segments of our fan base, but I think it's the right thing to do."
*On what he's learned from listening to the Giants' Black players and what further actions he plans to take:
"I think, and this is something I think we're going to do on a league-wide basis, one of the things we would like to do is get our players in front of some of our local political leaders, be it the governor, the mayor, maybe the police chief, just to talk about what steps are being taken going forward to affect some sort of change," Mara said. "I will tell you this, one of the most memorable team meetings that I've ever been involved with took place I guess right after the George Floyd murder when we had a Zoom call with the players. I listened to the players talk about their own experiences growing up dealing with law enforcement and whatnot. To see the raw emotion that came out of them, guys got very, very emotional talking about it, it was something that really was an eye-opener for me. Then to see how they reacted since then and all of the work they've put in in their communities and in our local community here has been really gratifying. It makes it easy to want to support them going forward."
*On whether he is optimistic fans will be permitted to attend games in MetLife Stadium later in the season and his thoughts on the fact that some teams – such as Dallas – will play in front of their fans at the start of the season.
"We're not going to have fans certainly in September," Mara said. "I'm hopeful that at some point we can have them back in. But I have to say I'm not all that optimistic about that. … I've had a couple conversations with the governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey) and we are very supportive of what he's been doing so far. The most important thing is the health and safety of our players and staff, and the fans entering the building. If we get to a point where the state believes that we can do this safely, then we'll consider letting fans in the building. But I'm not sure that we're at that point right now, so I think we just have to be supportive of what the Governor is trying to do. That's what our position is.
"In terms of there being fans in other buildings where we go, that's just the way it's going to be. We had a league meeting a couple weeks ago, I think I made the statement that we just have to accept the fact that this is going to be an unusual year. It's not necessarily going to be competitively fair in the sense that some teams are going to have fans in the building, some teams are not. That's just the way it is, and we have to deal with it. Certain areas of the country are going to be a little more liberal about letting people in the building. That's just something that we're going to have to accept and move forward."
View the best photos from the final day of training camp.