It’s been a little over a month since the ultra-disappointing 2023 season ended for the New York Giants. The decline felt worse than the actual W-L change. The Giants finished both 2022 and 2023 in third place in the NFC East, winning three fewer games with a tougher schedule, as the Giants fell from 9-7-1 in 2022 to 6-11 in 2023. It seemed worse because of the terrible 2-8 start, the uncompetitive losses, and the lack of development at quarterback and the offensive line.
For all intents and purposes, the season was all but officially over when the team blew two winnable games in October to the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. After Halloween, most fans wanted to fast-forward to the offseason to see what management and the coaching staff was going to do to rectify this mess.
Free agency begins March 11-13. The Draft takes place April 25-27. But there have been significant changes in the past 30 or so days, exclusively with respect to the coaching staff. Here are the most important developments:
New Defensive Coordinator: We may never know the full story about the circus departure of Don “Wink’ Martindale and his two close associates, the Wilkins brothers from the defensive staff. It appears Martindale or one of his cronies leaked to FOX‘s Jay Glazer that there was growing friction between Martindale and Brian Daboll and that Martindale was unlikely to return. It’s important to note that this report occurred in late November right before the bye week. The Giants were 3-8 and Martindale knew he would not be asked about the report until after the bye. Slick timing. Of course, everyone eventually pleaded ignorance but the cat was out of the bag, intentionally on Wink’s part.
Why did Wink do it? Good question. It’s certainly possible and probable that he simply wanted out in order to become a defensive coordinator with another NFL team. If that was his gambit, he failed, ending up in the college ranks. Could Wink’s intentions actually been more Machiavellian? Remember, the leak came before the Giants won three of their final six games. Was Martindale scheming to convince ownership that they had to choose between him or Daboll? Wink wants to be an NFL head coach. Perhaps he mistakenly thought he saw his chance with John Mara, who had already interviewed him for the top spot back in 2020. However, Daboll has some Machiavelli in him too and called Martindale’s bluff by firing the Wilkins brothers minutes after playing it sweet and innocent at his post-season press conference. It was a pretty funny fuck-you move.
Regardless, Martindale is out. Ex-Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen is in. Of the eight candidates the Giants were publicly-known to have interviewed (and there may have been more), only two had been defensive coordinators at the NFL level. The 37-year old Bowen was one of the two. Whether true or not, the popular belief is that the Giants missed out on two of their favorite targets, Baltimore Ravens Defensive Backs Coach Dennard Wilson and Buffalo Bills Linebackers Coach Bobby Babich. Because of his experience, Bowen was the safer candidate, but it remains to be seen if he was the best available.
Martindale has been overrated by many Giants fans. The rush of turnovers for a couple of months overshadowed the NFL’s 27th-ranked defense that was unable to stop the run (29th in the NFL). The unit was also 26th in scoring defense. This despite significant talent upgrades on the defensive line, linebacker, and the secondary in the offseason. Wink’s 2022 NYG defense wasn’t good either, though he had more talent/injury issues to deal with.
Despite significant injury issues and being hampered by bad Titans’ offenses, Bowen’s defenses finished 6th, 15th, and 16th in scoring defense the past three seasons. In 2023, Tennessee had the NFL’s #1 red-zone defense. Of note, their run defense finished 2nd, 1st, and 13th the past three years. In fact, no team has given up fewer rushing yards the past three seasons. In a nutshell, we should expect a defense that is tougher and more physical against the run, but also one that blitzes far less. Martindale blitzed 46 percent of defensive snaps; Bowen 20 percent. Titans fans also complained about soft coverage. How much of that had to do with Tennessee’s talent/injury issues in the secondary remains to be seen. Bowen will also be able to lean on the expertise and institutional familiarity of defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson (who has also been promoted to defensive passing game coordinator).
New Offensive Line Coach: Whether he deserved the criticism or not, most Giants fans wanted offensive line coach Bobby Johnson gone. Johnson now joins the long line of ex-NYG offensive line coaches who have not been able to turn shit into gold. Johnson has since been hired by the Commanders. Enter Carmen Bricillo, who spent the last four years with the New England Patriots and Las Vegas Raiders, coaching their respective offensive lines. It’s interesting to note that while Daboll took his sweet time in finding his new defensive and special teams coordinators, Bricillo was hired on January 11th right after his interview. It suggests that he was an early target and that he impressed in his meetings with the offensive coaching staff. The good news is that Bricillo was considered something of a miracle worker in Las Vegas as the Raiders were able to patch together competent offensive lines with limited resources and injury issues. He will also have Andrew Thomas. The challenges will be to get Evan Neal and John Michael Schmitz playing at the level expected of them while also finding two competent starting guards.
Why is the offensive line coach so high on this list? Because any Giants fan with a half a brain knows that the offensive line has been the Achilles’ heel of this team for more than a decade now. Players and coaches have come and gone. The Giants have spent premium draft picks and huge sums of free agent money on the position. Nothing has changed. Can Bricillo turn it around?
New Special Teams Coordinator: Again, whether he deserved the criticism or not, most Giants fans also wanted Thomas McGaughey gone. In two different stints with the team, McGaughey has served under Tom Coughlin, Pat Shurmur, Joe Judge, and Brian Daboll. But too many special teams snafus finally caught up with McGaughey. He has since been hired by the Buccaneers. Enter relative unknown, 36-year old Michael Ghobrial, who has only served as a special teams assistant at the pro level with the Jets for three years. The Giants also took their time with their special teams coordinator search as Ghobrial was one of four other publicly-known candidates interviewed, including Seahawks Special Teams Coordinator Larry Izzo. The Giants were also denied interview requests for three other candidates. Izzo would have been the safer choice. It will be interesting to see how Ghobrial pans out.
Interesting Promotions: Some old faces received interesting promotions. This was most likely done to soothe egos, increase salaries, and/or reward previous service. Despite New York’s lower offensive rankings, 36-year old offensive coordinator Mike Kafka has been a hot head-coaching candidate the past two offseasons. Seattle also pursued him as offensive coordinator and the Giants turned them down. He has since been promoted to assistant head coach. Defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson, who was passed over for the defensive coordinator vacancy, was promoted to defensive passing game coordinator. This is a role he held in Atlanta for four years from 2016-2019. Finally, quarterbacks coach Shea Tierney was promoted to offensive passing game coordinator. It has been widely speculated that Tierney will replace Kafka as offensive coordinator if and when Kafka departs. This appears to be another step in that direction.
Rounding Out the Coaching Staff: Running backs coach Jeff Nixon was hired by Syracuse to be their new offensive coordinator. He has been replaced by Joel Thomas, a respected running backs coach who has been in New Orleans for the past nine seasons. The Giants allowed tight ends coach Andy Bischoff to join the Chargers. He was replaced by Titans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, who coached tight ends in Houston before becoming Bischoff’s boss on the same team. The 37-year old Kelly has been a fast riser, already serving as offensive coordinator on two NFL teams.
As mentioned, the Wilkins boys were a package deal with Martindale and thus were let go during the power struggle. Outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins was replaced by Charlie Bullen. Defensive assistant Kevin Wilkins was replaced by Zak Kuhr. The pressure is on Bullen to get Kayvon Thibodeaux to consistently perform at a high level as a pass rusher. He will also likely be given a high draft pick to work with as well as Azeez Ojulari’s final shot. Bullen has spent 11 years with the Dolphins and Cardinals before serving one season under ex-NYG outside linebackers coach Brett Bielema at Illinois. Finally, Aaron Wellman returns to the Giants as strength and conditioning coach, replacing Craig Fitzgerald who departed for Florida. Wellman served in the same role for the Giants from 2016-2019 before leaving for Indiana.