Shurmur went on a fact-finding spree by talking with former players and coaches to learn about the storied franchise’s culture immediately after he was hired. It was that important to him for the team-building that inevitably followed.
Gettleman used the term “culture” six times in his introductory news conference near the end of the 2017 season.
“Culture is critical,” he said at one point during his opening statement.
This belief is part of the reason the roster has been gutted and overhauled. Of course, performance and finances always play into the equation, but the bottom line is only 14 of the 90 players on the Giants roster remain from the day Gettleman took over.
The new regime has consistently stressed culture. They fumigated the building to eliminate the stench from that 3-13 season in 2017, when everything fell apart. They’re confident it won’t happen again with this group.
“The culture is important. I have said it a million times, you guys know that,” Gettleman said in April, not long after trading Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon and allowing Landon Collins to walk.
Collins has said publicly that he believes the departures were in part because they didn’t fit the culture the Giants were trying to build.
But Beckham, Collins and Vernon were just the latest exiled from East Rutherford. They followed the departures of notables such as Damon Harrison, Eli Apple, Ereck Flowers, Bobby Hart and Jason Pierre-Paul.
But how do they know? And what is this culture they speak of?
“The culture is a winning culture. You look at the history of the Giants. You’re used to hard-nosed football. Tough guys. I think that is what we have,” wide receiver Sterling Shepard said. “I think we’re still trying to build an identity. But hard-nosed is what I say.”
The new additions fit the new direction. Tate is a physical wide receiver known for his after-the-catch ability. Bethea and Remmers are professionals, and Zeitler is a serious individual whom offensive line coach Hal Hunter considers the most all-about-football player he has ever been around.
These players have been brought in with a purpose.
“We’re trying to build a team of guys that are talented enough, tough enough to hang together and really have all those traits that you’re looking for in teams that are good,” Shurmur said.
Of course, nothing is perfect. Tate is facing a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy. Safety Kamrin Moore is on the suspended list as he faces an assault charge from a domestic dispute.
As one NFL front office source has told me many times over the years, you can’t build your team with 53 choir boys. It’s not possible.
The Giants haven’t done that, either. What they have done is bring in a group that is married to the current regime. These are Gettleman and Shurmur’s guys.
That was something the players noticed quickly last season. If you were a leftover from the previous regime, there was a good chance your days were numbered. There was an inordinate amount of complaining and finger-pointing going on behind the scenes early last season, according to one player. It’s early, but it’s not the same this season.
Now, at least, the Giants have players who seem willing to completely consume what the coach and general manager are selling.
“These guys ain’t taking stuff from nobody. You’re either buying in, or we’re going to do something about it,” said center Jon Halapio, who joined the Giants early in the 2016 season. “I think it’s coming from everybody is just sick of losing.
“Obviously, something has to change. We have to take control of the locker room. We have to be closer. Not saying the past guys didn’t do a good job, but I think that is where the leadership is growing now because everybody is sick of losing. Something has got to change, and that is why the leaders are stepping up now.”
The dominant voices in the locker room are Saquon Barkley, Eli Manning, Russell Shepard, Zeitler, Zak DeOssie, Alec Ogletree, Bethea, Michael Thomas and Janoris Jenkins. Only Manning and DeOssie predate Shurmur and Gettleman. They’re also the only two players remaining from the Giants’ Super Bowl team in 2011.
Beckham, Harrison, Pierre-Paul and Collins were leaders, by choice or organically, in previous years. This season has a different feel.
“I feel we have a lot of guys that have bought into what the coaches and organization are trying to do,” Sterling Shepard said.
This wasn’t a knock on any specific player. Sterling Shepard and Russell Shepard have repeatedly talked about Beckham’s insatiable desire to win and how he was universally loved in the locker room.
But the results seem to indicate that the Giants were looking for players who are all about football. They don’t seem to want any of the extracurriculars that come with outspoken and flamboyant souls.
And so the culture has been altered — not rebuilt — to more closely resemble some of the past teams. That isn’t exactly a stunning outcome for an organization that often leans on its storied history.
Jenkins insists that the culture to win has always been in place, even under former coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese.
“It always has been. You just have to buy into the culture,” Jenkins said. “I feel like that’s what we’re doing now, what everyone around here is doing. Just buying in and understanding that this is a championship team, championship coaching staff, and everybody has the same mindset. Just win. One game at a time. One play at a time.”
Only time will tell. The summer is a ray of optimism for all 32 teams — they’re all undefeated now.
But this group seems to have the culture Shurmur and Gettleman desire.
“All I know is this group, we’re buying in,” Jenkins said. “I don’t want to speak about the past. That is four years ago. Can’t do anything for us today. As of today, everybody is buying in and having one helluva camp.”