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The more the Giants do, the more likely he’s gone.
It is a trade-off the organization must be willing to make, even though parting ways with Patrick Graham is so painful to consider for those on the inside who get to see him work every day. If losing their defensive coordinator to a head-coaching position elsewhere is the required penance for the franchise getting reacquainted with the elusive art of winning, it is a price that has to be paid.
The Giants went 6-10 in 2020 and the meager success achieved was mostly the by-product of a vastly improved defense. This attracted some notice. What comes next will determine the next line on Graham’s résumé.
“If the Giants’ guy, and I’m sure he’s a really good coach and a good person, if he has any success his name will be bantered around,’’ an NFL source fully versed in the hiring cycles of head coaches told The Post. “Plus, he’s in New York. If you’re in New York and you can’t get press, something’s wrong. If it isn’t a good year he’s dead, because you can’t write stupid things.’’
No, you cannot write stupid things attempting to inflate the worthiness of a candidate coming off a bad year. Thus far, everything written or said about Graham is fodder that stokes any career-advancement aspirations he might quietly harbor.
Lest we forget, Steve Spagnuolo was on the scene for only two years in his first go-round as Giants defensive coordinator before landing the Rams’ head coaching job. Of course, that he made it out of Year 1 with the Giants was an upset, given that it was his surging defense that led to the toppling of Tom Brady and the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl 42.
It is not going to take that sort of historic achievement to pry Graham away from the Giants. Everything about the Giants’ defense in 2020 was an uptick or an upheaval from the previous season, and Graham’s handiwork, doing more with less, attracted attention. The Jets after last season called, seeking an interview for their vacant head-coaching position, but Graham declined, much to the great relief of his bosses. Seeing Graham in green would have made the men in blue queasy. That the Giants anteed up and sweetened Graham’s contract — boosting him toward the NFL’s highest-paid coordinators — did not hurt the relationship.
The timing was not right for Graham, an Ivy Leaguer who calls his current role “my dream job,’’ working for a friend and confidant in Joe Judge. He received an early indoctrination into the Giants back in 2007 and 2008, when he was a graduate assistant at Notre Dame for head coach Charlie Weis, a former Giants assistant under Bill Parcells (and also a Jets assistant for Parcells). Tim McDonnell, currently the Giants co-director of player personnel, was also at Notre Dame at the time, and the influences of Weis and McDonnell helped Graham develop a yearning to work for the Giants. He got his first crack in 2016 as Ben McAdoo’s defensive line coach but that only lasted two seasons.
“He was very, very, very good,’’ Weis told The Post. “Any time a kid graduates from Yale, you’re expecting a kid with some intellect. That’s almost a given. Pat just did everything the right way. He grinded, he was smart, he was great with the players but he wasn’t trying to be buddy-buddy with the players. He was tough. He did all the right things.’’
Graham, 42, is often self-effacing. When he is asked about playing football at Yale, Graham smiles and says, “I was on the team at Yale.’’ He never refers to his job as orchestrating “my defense’’ and he has become increasingly engaging with the media. He recently lost a great deal of weight, citing better health and diet, but an ancillary benefit could be, if he keeps the weight off, that his appearance will be easier to sell as a leader of a football team as its head coach.
“Do I have a desire?’’ Graham said. “I think about today. I have a desire to do well today. In terms of desire to be head coach, I love coaching football. I love being a teacher that happens to teach football.
“You know, everybody in their profession likes a natural progression. If it comes up one day, it comes up one day. But is it the focus of my life? Absolutely not. The focus is to coach ballplayers, teach, be around these guys, do a good job for my boss, my head coach and whatever I’m doing, I’m making sure I’m making my parents proud and my family proud.’’
Around the Giants, the Patrick Graham Fan Club is so pervasive, and the language used to laud his acumen so superlative-laced that genuine praise at times sounds choreographed.
There are two returning starters at safety, Jabril Peppers and Logan Ryan, and a fully healthy Xavier McKinney, the 2020 second-round draft pick who appears destined to start. Three players for two spots in the lineup? How will that work?
“That’s the beauty of coach Graham, baby,’’ Peppers said. “He makes it make sense.’’
Same question to Ryan, virtually the same response.
“That’s the beauty of Pat Graham,’’ Ryan said. “I think we have good players and I think Pat Graham does a great job of making the defense fit the players.’’
Graham is so ubiquitous, some of his players believe there must be more than one of him.
“One thing I’ve always raved about Pat Graham is just how smart he is in terms of knowing our opponent and knowing his players,’’ defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. “You know, we don’t run the same defense every week. It’s like we change our defensive coordinator to who we are playing, what type of schemes we are going to get that week.’’
Williams prior to last season was viewed as an immensely talented player, with a caveat attached to his performance. He got close with the best of them but did not seal the deal with sacks and momentum-turning plays. All that changed in his first year with Graham. Williams established a career high with 11.5 sacks — he had a total of 7.5 sacks in his three previous seasons — and earned a fat ($63 million) new deal from the Giants.
“He’s going to just make sure that I perfect what I am good at instead of changing who I am,’’ Williams said. “He knows players are going to get the job done in different ways. You know, me and Dex [Dexter Lawrence] probably will play the B-gap different ways, but as long as we can control our B-gap and do the job, he’s going to be OK with that.
“I think that goes a long way, because he’s not creating robots out there.’’
The Giants were a wholly different unit, as far as efficiency and production, with Graham calling the shots. The defense in 2019, under the direction of James Bettcher, was 30th in points allowed at 28.2 per game. That improved to No. 9 in the league (22.3 points a game) in 2020. The Giants last season allowed the fifth-fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL, were 12th in yards allowed, 10th in rushing yards allowed and a sterling third in red-zone percentage, as only Denver and Washington were better at preventing red-zone touchdowns. Despite the losses to injury of edge-rushers Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines, Graham brainstormed ways to 40 sacks, tied for 12th in the league, and the Giants’ 64 quarterback knockdowns were seventh in the league.
A stickler for detail, Graham demands proper technique. As a result, his group had only 97 missed tackles, 10th fewest in the NFL. Without a reliable second cornerback, Graham felt obligated to play more zone coverage than he prefers to do. He was unwilling to leave his secondary exposed. As a result, Graham called for blitzes only 25.5 percent of the time, ranking 20th among all defenses.
There are hard workers galore in the building; no one puts more into it than Graham. The higher-ups value above all else his ability to communicate complex ideas to one and all, be it the mega-experienced Ryan or a rookie such as cornerback Darnay Holmes.
The competition is hot and heavy for nomination as president of the Patrick Graham Fan Club. Inside linebacker Blake Martinez is the top candidate. He wears the helmet with the radio transmitter inside, receiving the defensive calls directly from Graham before each snap. They operate like lifelong dance partners, in lockstep.
“There’s a lot of words that come to mind, but I think, in my eyes, I think genius,’’ Martinez told The Post. “I think a guy that’s able to explain things, able to allow anybody no matter who you are, understand exactly what he’s looking for, caring enough to take you aside and put that extra work in for you. Also relentless in his pursuit of being great.’’
That Graham did not take the Jets interview produced exhales galore.
“He’s a hell of a coach, man,’’ Peppers said. “Everybody has to do what’s best for him and I’m happy we got him back. We’re not done yet. I don’t think we touched the tip of the iceberg.’’
Having a top-10 defense will elevate Graham, but nothing raises a profile more than winning.
“In New York if he can do what Spagnuolo did and have a raging defense I think he’s on his way,’’ the NFL source said. “Minus that, then he’s just like anybody else, he just gets lost in the wash.
“If you’re a last-place finisher or third I think you’re dead in the water. If you’re not in that round of eight it’s hard to get a head job. Or you better last year have been in the round of eight and then had a good season.’’
There it is. If the Giants are a legitimate winning team in 2021, Graham will likely be gone in 2022.
“He has all the makings of a head coach,’’ Weis said. “This is no disrespect to the Jets, I think staying with the Giants at least in the short term is a much better move for him right now. I think he’s putting himself in a perfect position to be a head coach. I don’t think he has to be in a rush.’’
Graham is in no rush. They could come calling for him soon enough.
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