Commentary

Reese could end up the biggest Giant

With two Lombardis and a solid '12 team, Big Blue's GM has no legacy concerns

Updated: September 4, 2012, 7:37 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Jerry Reese sat down Eli Manning the other day for their annual preseason chat, a New York Giants ritual that usually goes like this:

The general manager tells the quarterback what he needs to do in the coming months, and the quarterback goes out and does it.

[+] EnlargeJerry Reese, Eli Manning
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIJerry Reese expected a career year out of Eli Manning in 2011 and was rewarded with another trophy.

In various sitdowns of the past, Reese challenged Manning to elevate his receivers like he'd done at Ole Miss, to establish more of a leadership role with the defense, not just the offense, and to reduce his number of interceptions by being more willing to accept the occasional sack.

These meetings never last very long, and they're always defined by this simple term of engagement: Reese does most of the talking.

Last January, after Manning protected the ball and another trip to the Super Bowl while absorbing a fierce beating from the San Francisco 49ers, "I wanted to go down there and hug his neck," Reese said. The quarterback had carried out his orders. On his way to a second defining victory over the New England Patriots, Manning committed one turnover the entire postseason.

This time around, in defense of their title, Reese challenged Manning to do the little things better, things like improving his clock management skills and carrying out his fakes more convincingly.

"Things you wouldn't think you'd tell a two-time Super Bowl MVP," Reese said. "Things you'd talk about with my son J.R., who's a junior quarterback in high school. But these are things that can cost you games at any level if you don't do them.

"I told Eli this time that nobody cares about the two Super Bowls anymore, that they only care about who's going to win the next one. My challenge to him was, 'Let's go do it again.' Eli likes to be challenged, and I could see it in his eyes. That competitive spirit burns deep inside of him. Don't let that baby face fool you."

And don't let Jerry Reese's relatively low profile fool you, either. As much as Manning and Tom Coughlin embody the quiet purpose of a team that serves as the market's antidote to Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow, Mark Sanchez and Eva Longoria, and the bawdy, Rex-is-better-than-sex approach of the New York Jets, Reese is the brain behind the operation, a former 5-foot-9 small college safety who could end up being the biggest Giant of all.

Manning and Coughlin might land in the Hall of Fame, and the 49-year-old Reese is favored to outlast them both. John Mara, an owner who wants his team to do its talking at the line of scrimmage, believes he has the ideal football man in Reese, a GM who doesn't deal in the currency of self promotion, a GM with a chance to supplant George Young as the franchise's signature executive of the Super Bowl era.

Young saved the Giants from a bygone family feud and gave them 19 years of dignity and grace. Reese has already spent 18 years in the organization, rising from scout to personnel assistant to the big job in 2007. Twenty regular-season and postseason games into that job, Reese became the first African-American GM to win a Super Bowl ring.

Reese also became an instant role model to aspiring black executives who were once left to believe -- after reviewing decades of hiring practices in major professional sports -- that only the former pro athletes among them could graduate into front-office jobs so often filled by white candidates.

This is among the causes that inspired Reese to tell Coughlin, "Tom, failure is not an option to me," in their first meeting after Reese succeeded his mentor, Ernie Accorsi. "For African-American kids coming behind me, dreaming of being an executive," Reese said, "it wouldn't have been a good look if I failed.

"It would've impacted a lot of people if I failed. In the past some people thought you might have to be a great football player or a name to get a chance, and I'm not either. I'm a young guy who worked his way up and got an opportunity, and you have to give John Mara credit for having the guts to hire me."

Mara might've initially preferred his brother, Chris, a widely respected personnel man, but the co-owning Tisches were opposed to the hiring of a business partner's sibling. None of that matters anymore. Mara notarized Accorsi's final recommendation, Reese, over more experienced in-house candidates, and the rest is Super Bowl history.

Reese's first draft was loaded with contributors to the 2007-08 championship run and included the 250th player taken overall, a seventh-rounder named Ahmad Bradshaw who contributed to the Super Bowl XLVI run, too.

In between trophies, Reese was ripped for the Giants' failure to make the playoffs in 2009 and 2010. He was ripped again in the leadup to 2011 for letting Kevin Boss and Steve Smith walk, for letting Plaxico Burress sign with the Jets, and for letting the faceless likes of Kevin Boothe and David Baas represent his most important signings.

"People were like, 'What is this guy doing?'" Reese said. "They weren't sexy moves."

The Philadelphia Eagles were the undisputed champions of those, and they didn't even make the tournament that Reese's Giants would win.

Before his team destroyed the Jets on Christmas Eve to start its charmed six-game winning streak, Reese was blitzed with vile messages and voicemails, and most could be dismissed as standard occupational hazards. But in January Reese told ESPNNewYork.com he felt the fan criticism "got racial at times."

Even the worst kind of ignorance is tempered by success, and right now Reese stands as the best GM in the league. No fair-minded observer can question the departures of Brandon Jacobs, Mario Manningham and Jake Ballard, not after the way the departures of Boss and Smith played out.

Not after the way the 2011 season played out.

"My goal is to put a relevant team out there every year that gives us a chance to make the playoffs and win a championship," Reese said. "I think we have as good a chance as anybody else to win it this year. I like our chances. I like this team. But we can't talk about it; we have to get out there and prove it."

Reese helped the Giants prove it a second time against the Patriots by drafting Hakeem Nicks in 2009, by drafting Jason Pierre-Paul in 2010, and by signing a kid nobody would draft, Victor Cruz, who would set a franchise record last year with 1,536 receiving yards.

Now the Giants are playing for a two-peat, a goal Burress blasted into oblivion in 2008 by shooting up his leg. They must navigate a brutal schedule that starts Wednesday night at home against the Dallas Cowboys, and to prepare for the gauntlet Reese summoned his quarterback Sunday for that annual review of his responsibilities.

"I let Eli know I have all the confidence in the world that he'll lead us to another championship," Reese said.

That would be a third in Reese's six years, of course. It was suggested to the GM that he, too, might be among the best hires Mara's made, right there with Manning and Coughlin.

"The National Football League is about coaches and players, not GMs," he argued. "A GM is supposed to be in the background. I mean, I'm not worried about Jerry Reese's legacy."

There's no need to be, not with his Giants in hot pursuit of a third ticker-tape parade.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor is heard Sundays, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 98.7 FM.

Follow Ian O'Connor on Twitter: @Ian_OConnor

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

EDITORS' PICKS