Decline of the Giants: The errors that caused years of misery

When that final Tom Brady pass fell to the end zone turf in Lucas Oil Stadium and the confetti started falling that evening in early February 2012, the Giants were champions, again, winning a Super Bowl by upsetting the mighty Patriots for the second time in four years. A franchise steeped in tradition earned more shiny silver hardware for the trophy case and respect from all corners of the NFL.

There has been no confetti cascading down on the Giants on a football field since.

It has been nine seasons since the Giants basked in the glow of that glorious night in Indianapolis. The music stopped, the band went home and no one yet has cleaned up the mess.

Since then, the Giants have gone 52-85, winning at a sluggish 38 percent clip. There have been two winning seasons and one playoff appearance. Since the infamous Boat Trip photo before the NFC wild-card loss in Green Bay after the 2016 season, the Giants are an NFL-worst 13-44 — an embarrassing 23 percent winning rate under three different head coaches, with seasons of three, five and four victories, plus this season’s 1-7 once again turning a franchise that once expected to play into the new year irrelevant before Halloween.

Blame can be spread through every corner of the organization — from top to bottom: ownership, front office, coaching, player procurement and development, the skill level (or lack thereof) of the players themselves.

At a time of great division, all can agree that the Decline of the Giants is real. Where to start unraveling this mess?

Here we go:

The Draft

You want to trace the origin of the fall of the Giants? Start here and all will be revealed. Former general manager Jerry Reese graded out with more plusses than minuses in his first four drafts, starting in 2007, but he lost his touch, at times reaching for gaudy athletic skill and sacrificing actual production on the field.

Consider this: Of the top three picks each year from 2012-17 — a total of 18 players — just two of them were retained and signed to second contracts. One of them, Odell Beckham Jr., never played on that deal when he was traded away soon after signing. The only high Giants pick on a second contract on the current roster is Sterling Shepard.

Look no further when assigning blame for the Giants falling off a cliff.

“For whatever reason, they haven’t been able to draft guys and get the majority of their guys to the second contract,’’ NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks, a former NFL player and front office executive, told The Post. “What it ends up leading to is a constant turnover. There’s expected turnover, that’s typically the bottom of your roster, but you think your team has a solid core of 10-12 guys that are your higher picks that form the nucleus of your team. They allow you to transition from one set to another set over a 10-year period. And they haven’t been able to do that.’’

Think about what should be the middle-aged (in NFL terms) heart of the Giants’ roster: Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg and Ereck Flowers on the offensive line; Jayron Hosley, Eli Apple and DeAndre Baker at cornerback; Landon Collins and Darian Thompson as the safeties; perhaps Damontre Moore and Owa Odighizuwa as outside pass rushers.

Missing so high and allowing certain players to walk destroys a roster and forces a team either to hang on too long to a player to justify the selection or to desperately try replacing the bad picks by throwing money at the problem.

“It’s crazy because sometimes we all swing and miss in that big seat,’’ Brooks said. “System fit and player strengths is No. 1 when it comes to a guy being successful. Some of these things were guys that didn’t necessarily fit how the Giants wanted to play. Ereck Flowers is playing in the league. He left the Giants and had success with Washington [he is currently with the Dolphins], but they’re playing him inside at guard. Maybe that was the best position for him.

“Landon Collins appeared to be a really good player for the Giants. Drafted top of the second round, played at a high level, but for whatever reason wasn’t retained. Odell Beckham Jr., we thought he was tracking to be a Hall of Fame player his first three or four years with the Giants. That is a success story, but at the end of it, it didn’t work.

“And you do have some where some of the guys you just swing and miss on. Eli Apple was a swing and miss. Just didn’t work. It’s like that sometimes.’’

It is too soon to judge general manager Dave Gettleman’s three drafts. The main contention is the Giants passing up on what was supposed to be a quarterback-rich 2018 class to take Saquon Barkley — not because of the quality of the player, but the ability of teams to succeed with lower-rated running backs. Gettleman’s legacy is tied to the development of quarterback Daniel Jones, taken at No. 6 overall in 2019.

“For the Giants, it is what it is,’’ ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former NFL player and front office executive, told The Post. “If they missed on draft picks, they all failed: The GMs failed, the coaches failed for maybe not communicating to the GM the kind of players they needed, the trainers failed, the assistant coaches failed. That’s when guys like Mr. [co-owner John] Mara turn it over because they go, ‘You’ve got to go and we’ve got to find a way to build a total program.’ Hopefully they get it right at some point.’’

The Open Market

If the draft is the foundation, free agency is the accent piece that turns a house into a home. Prior to their two most recent Super Bowl triumphs, the Giants had expertly signed players from around the league to augment what they already had.

The Giants have lost their touch here. Under Reese, the signings were born more out of desperation than strength: Martellus Bennett, Keith Rivers, Brandon Myers, Cullen Jenkins, Jon Beason, Rashad Jennings, John Jerry, Jameel McClain, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Marshall Newhouse, Geoff Schwartz, J.T. Thomas, Brandon Meriweather, Janoris Jenkins, Jonathan Casillas, Damon “Snacks’’ Harrison, Olivier Vernon, Rhett Ellison.

A 2016 orgy cost more than $105 million in guaranteed money for Jenkins, Vernon and Harrison, purchasing a defense that was sensational — for one season.

“In terms of the team building, I think they got away from some of the stuff they did in the past,’’ Jason Fitzgerald, founder of OverTheCap.com, told The Post. “It all goes back to that one big offseason they had. They brought in a ton of guys, they overpaid pretty much all of ’em. None of those players were worth the kind of money they paid them. It just sent them on a bad path [away from] getting your fundamental pieces through the draft and adding some free agents here and there to keep improving. This was more like getting some hired guns, and it didn’t really work out.’’

With Gettleman in charge, the first two years were rough: Patrick Omameh, Jonathan Stewart, Nate Solder, Kareem Martin, Golden Tate, Mike Remmers, Alec Ogletree (acquired in a trade), Kevin Zeitler (trade), Markus Golden, Leonard Williams (trade) and Antoine Bethea. Not that these all are bad or high-priced players, but as far as impact, performance and value based on salary, there were far more misses than hits. This year, Gettleman seems to have struck gold with James Bradberry, Blake Martinez, Kyler Fackrell and Logan Ryan.

“You get to a point where you really should be shedding salary to rebuild your team, and they constantly would keep bringing it in,’’ Fitzgerald said. “The trade for Alec Ogletree. That was pure salary dump by the Rams. I’m sure they did a dance when the Giants were willing to take that contract off their hands. Bring in Leonard Williams with your season going nowhere and all you can do is franchise tag. Other things they did, they didn’t seem to have big-picture thoughts, it was always little Band-Aids.’’

The Offensive Line

The one position group that has compromised winning more damagingly than any other is right here. The decline of the line made the back-end of Eli Manning’s career nightmarish and the front-end of Jones’ career a struggle.

Nothing lasts forever. Kareem McKenzie was gone by 2012, which was Chris Snee’s last full and healthy season. No one can say Reese neglected the offensive line. From 2013-15 he used two first-round picks and one second-round pick to fortify the position. The three picks did not work out. Pugh, a tackle, was drafted too high (in the first round) and was better-suited to guard. Richburg was injury-plagued and not a good fit as a second-rounder. Flowers, the bane of Giants fans’ existence, was a disaster as the No. 9-overall pick in 2015. That trio was supposed to anchor the line for a decade.

As a result of this draft malfeasance, Reese and then Gettleman had to take stabs at replacements — rarely an appealing option. Jerry, Newhouse and Schwartz were all middling veterans who either got hurt or were nothing special. Flowers helped cost two assistant coaches their jobs and was a thorn in the sides of Tom Coughlin, Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur. The Giants are still trying to dig out from under the bloated contract Gettleman gave Solder as a direct result of Flowers’ inability to compete at left tackle.

Gettleman promised to fix the line, and in three drafts selected Will Hernandez (second round), Andrew Thomas (first) and Matt Peart (third) with high picks and Shane Lemieux in the fifth round. The line is not fixed yet. Hernandez is sturdy, but has not developed as planned. Thomas is enduring a rough NFL indoctrination. More work is needed here.

“I don’t think it’s as bad, at least on offense, as some people think,’’ a veteran NFL talent evaluator told The Post. “Hernandez is not a bad football player, [Nick] Gates has ability, Kevin Zeitler is a really good guard. Cam Fleming, something’s got to be done there, the right tackle, he’s a journeyman.’’

The Manning Follie

This goes all the way to the top. The very top. No one was benching the franchise icon without first getting approval from ownership. Coughlin never considered it. McAdoo sensed Manning was declining and wanted the Giants to draft Patrick Mahomes (they did take a quarterback, Davis Webb, in the third round). McAdoo got fired the day after benching Manning for a game at Oakland (for Geno Smith, of all people), which was a travesty considering Mara made it expressly clear McAdoo needed to get the younger quarterbacks onto the field.

“Manning was on a downhill slide and they kept trying to hang with him,’’ the talent evaluator said. “The Giants never pulled the plug on Manning soon enough. They tried to, and politically it didn’t work out.’’

Keeping Manning also played a role in Reese’s hiring of McAdoo, as the continuity ownership craved for the aging quarterback made McAdoo, the offensive coordinator, appear to be a more desirable candidate than he actually turned out to be.

Shurmur, in 2018, stuck with Manning, but by 2019, with Jones on the roster, he pulled the plug on Eli after just two games. Did the Giants stick with Manning too long? Did they allow sentiment to get in the way of finding his replacement? Could Manning sitting on the bench for his final season have been avoided? Yes, yes and yes. Loyalty is an admirable quality, and Mara has it, in abundance, and to a fault.

“Eli is a hero,’’ Brooks said. “He is revered in that area because he is a two-time Super Bowl winner and he had success with the franchise. When they did try to move on or move Eli from the lineup, man, New York went crazy, the outrage of the city and the fans. It seemed like it was a little too much for ownership to stomach, so it kind of prevented them from doing what they needed to do at that stage.’’

Holding onto Manning also meant holding onto his contract. Manning cost the Giants $22.2 million on the salary cap in 2018 and $23.2 million in 2019, when he spent 12 games on the bench.

“The way they handled that blew up on them,’’ Fitzgerald said. “They ended up holding onto him probably two years longer than they wanted to and that was a lot of money they had to pay him those two years.’’

All this has knocked the Giants down, and kept them down, for nearly a decade.

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