The Giants set a value on their own players, and if those players can find more money elsewhere, New York will let them leave. Nine months ago that unbending philosophy enraged the fan base; when Reese allowed Boss and another passing-game weapon, wideout Steve Smith, to walk, his office voice mail was flooded with harsh messages from supporters sure he was piloting the franchise on a Titanic-like course. It seems silly in retrospect, but the Smith and Boss decisions unleashed the hounds—even highly educated ones. Said Michael Norman, an NYU journalism professor, author and lifelong Giants fan, "I wanted to run Jerry Reese out of the stadium. I just thought, What is this guy doing? Bring back Ernie Accorsi!"
Reese smiled last week at the memory of the withering criticism. "That stuff happens everywhere," he said. "It's just louder here. But if I listened to the media and to the fans, and made decisions based on popular opinion, well, then they hired the wrong guy. Fans think of the now. I think of the now—and two years from now. That way you just build. You don't have to counterpunch."
Asked if he agonized over the Smith and Boss decisions, he replied, "I don't agonize over anybody."
That attitude goes far toward explaining how the Giants have won two Super Bowls in five years. They have a clutch QB in Manning, a fearsome rush, a staff with excellent teachers and ... well, you knew all that already. What you probably aren't aware of is a scout in Marysville, Ohio, who knows tight ends, and how important experts like him are in building what the Giants have. The story of how the Giants replaced Boss with Jake Ballard and didn't miss a beat perfectly illustrates their approach to building a winner.
Last July, when the lockout ended and training camps opened, teams scrambled to sign their draft choices and free agents. It was a crazy quilt of quick action. New York wanted to keep Boss, and Reese made him a three-year, $9 million offer. The Giants liked Ballard a lot too—a 2010 undrafted free agent from Ohio State, he was a gritty in-line blocker and a decent receiver. "If it's gonna snow and the wind's gonna blow, we gotta run the ball, and we need tight ends who can block," tight ends coach Mike Pope said.
The Giants weren't budging from their offer to Boss. He visited the Raiders, who had just lost tight end Zach Miller to the Seahawks. When the negotiations in Oakland stalled, Boss flew back to New Jersey with the intention of re-signing with the Giants. While he was in the air, however, Raiders owner Al Davis—in what might have been his last player negotiation—upped the ante. He offered Boss's agent, Scott Smith, a four-year, $16 million contract, with $6 million guaranteed. Smith tried to get the Giants to move. No dice. "Kevin's one of the best kids we ever had here," Mara says. "I wanted him to be a Giant for life. But around here, when the money gets above X, we say goodbye."
Instead, New York would give three young tight ends—Ballard, 2009 third-rounder Travis Beckum and Bear Pascoe, whom they'd taken from the Niners' practice squad in '09—a chance to win the job. The 6'6", 275-pound Ballard was the most intriguing. In four seasons in Columbus he caught just 34 passes, not enough of an offensive factor for any team to consider drafting him. But in watching Ohio State tape and a couple practices, Devine, who works the Midwest for the Giants, saw potential. "He had a great work ethic, was a very good blocker, and the few times he had the chance you could see he had soft hands," Devine said last week. "The way we're taught with the Giants is, there are no perfect football players. Can we look at players in the college game and find those with enough ingredients to fit into our system? I thought Ballard had a chance."
Twenty tight ends were drafted in 2010. Ballard wasn't one of them. But acting on Devine's scouting report, New York signed him as an undrafted free agent the day after the draft ended. "My agent told me the tight end coach of the Giants liked me, and the Giants weren't bringing in any other tight ends," Ballard said on Sunday. "And the Giants trust their scouts. They take a hard look at the undrafted free agents, who maybe other teams don't look at as seriously. (Also in Ballard's UFA class was UMass receiver Victor Cruz. With him the Giants got a little lucky. The Paterson, N.J., native was part of a crop of regional prospects the team brought in for workouts a few weeks before the '10 draft. If Cruz hadn't taken part in those workouts, Big Blue wouldn't have signed him. In 2011 he replaced Smith and set the franchise record for receiving yards.)
After a year on the practice squad, Ballard took over for Boss in 2011 with the help of Pope, who in 29 years of coaching the position has transformed a lot of crushing blockers—Mark Bavaro, for one—into solid offensive contributors. Midway through the '11 season, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride began seeing Ballard as more than just a sixth offensive lineman, and Eli Manning began turning to the tight end on key plays. At New England in Week 9, the Giants trailed by three points in the final two minutes when Manning, on third-and-10 from his own 39, sent Ballard up the left seam and threw a high ball slightly behind him. Twisting his body in heavy coverage, Ballard reached and made a circus catch with those soft hands Devine had described in his scouting report. Four plays later, looking more athletic than he ever had for the Buckeyes, Ballard made a diving catch from Manning for the touchdown that beat the Patriots.
Compare Boss's 2010 numbers with Ballard's in 2011—never mind the transcendent Cruz—and you see why Jerry Reese, with the scouting and coaching staff he has, doesn't agonize over players: