EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It would be inaccurate to say John Mara is pleased with the Giants' 2020 season. The franchise's president and chief executive officer would never celebrate after finishing with six victories and, truth be told, is only fully satisfied after seasons that end with a championship.
But Mara is unwavering in his belief the Giants are on a path to success.
"I'm disappointed that we couldn't do better than 6-10," Mara said on a season wrap-up Zoom call. "But I do see progress in the building here. I think that the quality of people that we have in the locker room has improved a great deal. I think we have some great leaders down there. I think we've established a basis for a foundation that can have continued success going forward. I'm excited about the future of this team. I think the fact that we went 5-3 over the second half of the season gives me some reason for encouragement.
"I'm obviously disappointed we didn't make the playoffs. We had every opportunity to do that only needing one more game, and we didn't get that done. But I think what I wanted to see this year was some progress and some reason for some optimism going forward, and I did see that and that's why I'm optimistic about what we can do in the future."
Mara praised Joe Judge for leading the team around numerous obstacles posed by the pandemic and forming a productive alliance with Dave Gettleman, who just completed his third season as general manager.
"I think the way Dave and Joe worked together, I thought our personnel decisions were really sound this year," Mara said. "I feel better about our roster than I have in years, and I think the two of them working together have started the building process with something that can have sustained success going forward."
While that should portend a bright future, Mara is well aware Giants fans want more tangible evidence the franchise is moving in the right direction – victories, postseason berths and championships.
"I think there's always a certain leap of faith when you're coming off a season when you only won six games," Mara said. "But just the quality of the players that we have in the locker room, the fact that they all seemed to buy in to Joe's philosophy and Joe's message. The effort was really good all year long, the discipline was really good all year long. I just think there's a different feeling in the building now than there has been in a number of years, and I think that's why I'm optimistic."
After four consecutive double-digit loss seasons, the fans' pain is also Mara's, and no one is more eager to return to the NFL's upper echelon than he.
He was asked how much longer the fans will have to wait for a winning team.
"Hopefully not too much longer, because I can't wait too much longer, quite frankly," Mara said. "I'm tired of sitting up here at the end of the year trying to explain what went wrong and why I feel optimistic about the future. I want to do it after a winning season. I do believe that we have the right people in the building, we have a much better locker room than we've ever had before, and I think there's reason for optimism. I feel good about the way the personnel decisions were made this year. We have some opportunities now in the draft and in free agency to improve the roster even further. I think if our fans continue to stay patient with us that they will see a winning team pretty soon."
One reason for Mara's optimism is that he, like Judge and Gettleman, is convinced the Giants have a championship-caliber quarterback in Daniel Jones.
"I think Daniel before he got hurt was playing really well during that (four-game) winning streak that we had," Mara said. "Then he got hurt, I think it was in Cincinnati, and then he wasn't quite the same for the next few weeks. I thought he played very well this past Sunday (when the Giants defeated Dallas in their season finale, 23-19), and also played well in the Baltimore game. Our coaches, all of them, are very high on Daniel, and I feel the same way. I think he has what it takes to lead us to where we want to go."
But he's not hiding from where they've been. The six-win season followed years in which the Giants won three, five and four games. Clearly, there have been issues in roster construction. In 2018, Gettleman's first year, the Giants' free agent acquisitions included guard Patrick Omameh, running back Jonathan Stewart, linebackers Alec Ogletree, Kareem Martin and Connor Barwin, and defensive backs William Gay and Curtis Riley.
Because of those decisions and others, some members of the media have questioned why Gettleman still has the final word on player acquisitions.
"There's no defending the record," Mara said. "There's no defending that at all. We haven't won enough games. But listen, we made some miscalculations in 2018 with some of our personnel decisions. But I think the last two years, particularly this past year, we've seen significant improvement. I just felt like to break that up now and bring in somebody new from the outside was not going to be beneficial for us. I think Dave and Joe work very well together. Our personnel decisions, I think, were very sound, and I have every reason to think that will be the case going forward."
Mara said he "really didn't contemplate" bringing in a new general manager.
"When you go through a season, any season, your feelings change from week to week depending on how you're doing," he said. "I certainly didn't feel very good midway through the season when we were sitting there at 1-7. I kept thinking that I'm seeing a team that's practicing hard, I'm seeing a good attitude out there, nobody's quitting, but where are the results? Then we started to win a little bit in the second half of the season and things started to look a little bit better. I just like the feeling we have in the locker room. I went to more team meetings than I ever had in the past. Players are so attentive and so tuned in to the message that's coming from the head coach. It just seemed like we were on the right track. Now we just have to win some games to prove that we're on the right track. We did a little bit better in the second half of the season. Then Daniel gets hurt, and I think that certainly hurt us a little bit. I think the fact that we did go 5-3 in the second half of the season gave me some reason for some optimism about what we have in the locker room. Obviously, we need to do better."
Mara discussed several other notable topics in his call:
*On playing most of the season without star running back Saquon Barkley, who suffered a serious knee injury in Chicago on Sept. 20.
"It was brutal to watch him go down in Week 2," Mara said. "He's such an important part of this team, not only for what he does on the field but the leadership and all of the intangibles he brings to us off the field. That was really a gut punch. I'm still happy that we have him. I think, knowing him, he's going to come back stronger than ever and be a big part of this team next year. In terms of what the timetable is, it's hard to predict that right now. I know our medical people are very pleased with the progress he's made. I certainly expect him to be a Giant for a very long time."
*On whether his feelings about the team were influenced by being in title contention until the season's final week in an NFC East in which no team finished with a winning record.
"It really didn't," Mara said. "We were 6-10. We didn't deserve to be in the playoffs at 6-10. We would have taken it, but we didn't deserve to be there. I think the fact that we started to win some games in the second half of the season, and some of the younger guys that we brought in here were starting to play and show some talent, it was really the overall feeling that we're making progress as opposed to whether we were playing meaningful games or not. We were playing meaningful games because our division is what it is."
*On playing eight home games in an empty MetLife Stadium.
"It was a very strange feeling, and not a good one and not one I hope to repeat," Mara said. "Just coming into our stadium and not feeling any energy from the crowd was pretty difficult. Hopefully, that's not going to be the case next year. It was an eerie feeling each week walking into, really, every stadium you'd walk into, even those that had limited capacity. It just didn't feel the same. It's just not the same having your fans there to support you. I think the players feed off that energy and not having that, I think, hurt us this year."
*On the Giants' success in navigating the pandemic.
"Let me (say) how proud I am of our staff, our entire organization and particularly our players for the way they handled this past season," Mara said. "The effort and patience and discipline and sacrifice that everybody went through, not seeing their families and all of the protocols that kept changing seemingly on a weekly basis, we were able to get through and play the whole season with relatively few bumps in the road, and that was no small feat."
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