In hindsight, Brian Daboll told a bit of a lie in his first hours as a Giant. He hopped out of a blue pickup that January day projecting the vibe of a friendly stranger willing to deliver punch lines at his own expense.
Daboll was a nice guy, everyone around the NFL agreed, and it would be interesting to see how his demeanor matched up with the pressures and demands of the job. As it turned out, the rookie wasn’t so neighborly on game day. He rebuked his starting quarterback during the season opener, ripped into a backup offensive lineman during the Houston game, and savagely assailed the poor official who dared to take away a touchdown during last week’s loss to Dallas.
Daboll celebrated his Thanksgiving by slamming down his headset and berating the ref as if the man had just served him a subpoena. The coach stared at him in a definitive if-looks-could-kill way, and started his postgame presser in a mood in stark contrast to his mood on that first day on the job.
And that’s perfectly fine. Pro football is an unforgiving business, and anybody can lose his or her cool on any given Thursday. Truth is, Daboll has hit the right human buttons with his team 90 percent of the time, a chief reason why the 7-4 Giants still have a good shot at making the playoffs.
But this next game, against Washington, will be the first December game of Daboll’s head-coaching life. That’s notable because Daboll made it notable in a Monday team meeting, and because Kayvon Thibodeaux disclosed that the message sent was the idea that “the beginning of the season starts now.”
Asked Tuesday what he was trying to get across, Daboll said, “When you play meaningful games in December, I think that’s why we all do this. You go all the way back to OTAs and to preseason and the beginning part of the season, now you’re in December. And I’ve been on teams that have played meaningful games in December, and I’ve been part of teams that haven’t. It’s not a lot of fun when you’re not playing meaningful games.”
So this Sunday, Dec. 4, starts a fun season for the Giants, and a revealing season for their leader. Over the first 12 weeks, Daboll might’ve done the finest coaching job in the sport. But as the Giants make their improbable playoff push, he needs to be an enhanced version of himself.
“We’ve got to do a better job,” Daboll said in the angry wake of the Dallas loss. “It starts with me.”
Yes it does. Ultimate responsibility is what every head coach signs up for, and Daboll’s ultimate responsibility now is to navigate the Giants into one of those seven available postseason slots in the NFC. He needs to get Saquon Barkley back on track, and he needs to take advantage of the team’s improving health.
We’re about to find out exactly how good Daboll already is at this job, and how much he still has to learn.
This much is clear: The Giants still love playing for the guy, the two-game losing streak be damned.
“He’s done everything for the players, by the players,” Thibodeaux said. Daniel Jones, the QB1 who took that earful from Daboll during that opening victory at Tennessee, said the team has responded to “his way of relating to players. … He tries to build genuine relationships. I think it starts right there.”
The Giants who have been around a while make it clear they much prefer Daboll’s transformational leadership to Joe Judge’s more transactional style. Safety Julian Love, who played for Judge and Pat Shurmur, called Daboll “a breath of fresh air” and the team’s energy source, and praised him for allowing coordinator Wink Martindale to run the defense as he sees fit.
“[Daboll] is still learning the game, but he allows us to be ourselves,” Love said. “That’s how I feel, and it’s been refreshing compared to what we had previously.”
Daboll always preaches the need to stay consistent in his approach — he repeatedly used that word Tuesday, even though he has defied his own orders at times and devolved into a sideline madman.
“You see it after and you’re like, ‘I wish I didn’t do that,’ ” Daboll conceded after he lit up Jack Anderson during the Houston victory.
Hey, the Jekyll-and-Hyde thing is working … so far. Daboll was an NFL and college assistant for a quarter century before he got his big break with the Giants, and he’s already learned that a head coach has to be all ears when players enter his office.
“Whatever is on their mind is the most important thing to them, and it might be 100th to you,” Daboll once told me. “But I think to be a good leader you have to take time to listen to them, and I’m getting used to that.”
Daboll has touched this team over the first three months, no doubt about that. But December is upon us, and he has to connect with his players at a deeper level. As the coach said, it all starts with him.
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