For years, the New York Giants epitomized everything a professional sports franchise should be.
Players both past and present raved about the first-class treatment they and their families received at the hands of the Mara and Tisch families.
Just as important for the Giants' reputation are the four Super Bowl trophies that greet visitors as they enter the lobby of the team's sprawling East Rutherford, New Jersey, headquarters that sit at 1925 Giants Drive (the number references the year the franchise was founded by Timothy Mara, the grandfather of current co-owner John Mara).
While those Super Bowl trophies have been polished to remove the many fingerprints of the men who helped to carve out the Giants' place in Super Bowl history, the gleam of the franchise itself has taken a significant hit thanks in part to a 2-10 season in 2017 that no one saw coming.
Record aside, the continued poor drafts and personnel decisions by general manager Jerry Reese so badly eroded the team's foundation that the franchise became a shell of its former self. Since 2009, he had signed only two draft picks, offensive lineman Will Beatty and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, to second contracts, and only a handful of his draft picks earned Pro Bowl honors.
Then there's the head coach, Ben McAdoo. Named in January 2016 to replace the legendary Tom Coughlin, McAdoo had never been a head coach on any level. Similarly, when he was hired two years prior to fix what John Mara referred to as a "broken" offense, McAdoo didn't have any experience as an offensive coordinator.
When he was promoted to head coach and decided to retain play-calling duties, the Giants offense developed glaring warts, and people questioned McAdoo every time his decisions left points on the board or resulted in mismanagement of the clock.
Before long, McAdoo, like Reese, got caught in the crumbling of the team's foundation. While he had to endure a grossly high number of injuries this season, something he didn't have to worry about in 2016, the cracks that toppled the House of the Giants were, in many ways, a result of McAdoo's hand.
For instance, he alienated people—players, coaches and media—with his gruff and sometimes condescending communication style.
He was also inconsistent with his criticisms of players. Eli Manning seemed to be a favorite target for McAdoo's potshots, yet left tackle Ereck Flowers, who also struggled, seemed immune to any criticisms.
And unlike last year, when everything seemed to be paradise inside the Giants locker room, cracks showed when losses started piling up.
"I wasn't happy," Apple said at the time. "You lose games and it's got to be someone else's problem and they look around and think, 'OK, this is the problem.' But it's not just one guy—it's the whole culture. We've got to fix it."
The discipline problems continued. Cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins both earned one-week suspensions.
Apple and running back Paul Perkins were both fined for failing to return from the bye week on time.
Former running back Brandon Jacobs, who admitted he had to warm up to the McAdoo head coaching hire, thought the Giants' problems were related to the injuries until he got a closer look at what was going on.
"Stuff started to go sour, and players and the coaches started to disconnect," he said. "I started to pay attention to the disconnect, and it looked to me that some guys weren't happy to be there anymore.
"I talked to Coach McAdoo when I was last up there, and he asked me, 'What do I need to do differently?' I told him, 'You need to form a team leadership committee that handles issues that pop up. And another thing you can do is not comment negatively about how bad someone performs to the media. You police that in the meeting room; you don't call them out to the media.'"
Problems aside, the current players, who have been embarrassed by their record, know they win as a team and lose as a team.
"That's not just on one man. It's an unfortunate situation, and the more I've been in this business, the more I see how much of a business it is and I realize things like that happen," said offensive lineman Justin Pugh when asked about McAdoo's firing. "I just wish we could have won some more games for him."
As things continued to deteriorate, Mara and Tisch made the unprecedented decision to relieve both Reese and McAdoo of their respective duties. They named assistant general manager Kevin Abrams and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo as the interim general manager and head coach, respectively.
The Eli Manning Fallout
When Mara announced the dismissals of Reese and McAdoo, he was asked if there was a final straw that forced ownership's hand.
"I just think that where we are as a franchise right now—you know, we're 2-10—we've kind of been spiraling out of control," a drained-looking Mara said. "I just felt like we needed a complete overhaul. I don't think there was any one event or one final act to precipitate that."
But make no mistake about it: The record, which meant the Giants would miss the playoffs for the fifth time in the last six seasons, combined with the mismanagement of franchise quarterback Eli Manning's demotion from the starting lineup, precipitated the decision.
The Manning decision, finalized by McAdoo but also approved by Mara and Reese, was the final blast of dynamite in the Giants' once stable foundation.
"My wife and I sat watching that press conference that night," said former defensive end Dave Tollefson, who played with Manning and the Giants from 2007 to 2011. "I texted Eli after we saw him fighting tears with the press, and I said, 'Eli, I hope one day my kids can handle themselves the way you did today. I'm glad to call you a friend.'"
Added Jacobs: "I was pissed off to the point of no return. To see him go through what he did and knowing what kind of a competitor and what kind of heart he possesses, I couldn't figure it out.
"I was screaming at the TV. I'm like: 'You're 2-9, and you're making this kind of decision? You need to change something around and change something else, but Eli is not the issue.' He wasn't having a crazy good year, but he was getting hit left and right, and he couldn't go anywhere."
Defensive end Osi Umenyiora also admitted to being shocked by the decision.
"It's been a while since I felt that kind of emotion," Umenyiora said. "I was so angry for him. No, he wasn't playing well this year, but who around him was?"
"It's tough because I don't think we know or will know the complete story of what happened there," added former offensive lineman Kevin Boothe, a Giant from 2007 to 2013.
"Obviously, Eli is a friend and teammate of ours forever, and those bonds are there forever. When you see someone in pain or suffering, it definitely affects you. It definitely upset me to see him have to go through that."
Said Tollefson: "Do we win a Super Bowl without Dave Tollefson? Absolutely. Without Osi Umenyiora? Maybe. Without Michael Strahan? Probably not. Without Eli Manning? Definitely not."
Manning's response to the most challenging situation of his professional career further endeared him to his former teammates, his fans and the NFL community in general.
"He has handled this with grace. I'm not sure people would have been able to handle it in this fashion," Boothe said. "I admire him for how he's handled himself, conducted himself throughout this difficult time, but I'm not surprised by it because I know the type of person he is."
The Healing Begins
As the Giants prepare this week for a home date with the Dallas Cowboys—the first of three home games against division opponents in the last four weeks of the season—the team won't just have a new general manager and head coach. They'll also go back to Manning, whose consecutive game streak as a starter might be over but who needs four more games to tie Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan's team record for most games in a Giants uniform (216).
While no one knows what the future holds for Manning, his former teammates agreed it would be hard to see their quarterback, who has said he has no plans to retire after this season, with another team.
"If I'm Eli, I'm staying there until they tell me they don't want me anymore, and then I'll go on about my business," said Umenyiora. "Things happen in this business; feelings get hurt all the time. If he has the opportunity to go back to New York, he needs to finish his career there."
And what about Spagnuolo, who in the blink of an eye Monday morning found himself named the interim head coach of a team going nowhere this season?
"He's a brilliant man, but more importantly than that, he's a better person," Umenyiora said. "He's great at communicating with people. I think everybody enjoys being around him. He's a guy who is going to tell you when you messed up, but in the same respect, he always wants to see you succeed. I think he will be an outstanding head coach."
Boothe also believes Spagnuolo is going to be a changed man as a head coach after a difficult three-year stint with the then-St. Louis Rams in 2009-11.
"You learn the most after going through something adverse," Boothe said. "I think the fact that he has had that experience as a head coach will definitely benefit him.
"He's a guy I have tremendous respect for. He is somebody to this day I could easily go up to and approach and talk to because of the bond that he shared. I think that's rare—I can't speak for too many teams where an offensive player has a good relationship with a defensive coach."
Spagnuolo, who admits to having lived through a whirlwind, understands that it's going to take one step at a time to help get the franchise back on stable footing.
However, when asked if he considered being around to see that process through beyond these last four games, he said, "I’m not going to lie—in the past, I had thought about this. But, because of how fast it all happened, I haven’t thought that way. I prayed Monday morning that (the McAdoo firing) wouldn’t happen. I’ll be honest with you. But, that’s okay. This is where we’re at. I’m honored to do it."
Patricia Traina covers the New York Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.