Never Count Out Touchdown Tommy

There are good and bad ways, or more and less fun ways, for a football team to be bad. Some teams are hapless and bleak and only that; I remember, in this instance, a stray phrase from Jeff Johnson’s old McSweeney’s NFL column about getting a nosebleed in a rental car where this experience is concerned. But there are teams that are hapless and sassy, and teams that are mediocre all the way through to their beige middles, and teams that are lopsided in funny ways that put them in tragicomic conflict with themselves at least as much as they are with whatever opponent is beating them 31-27 that week. None of this is exactly what you’d want as a fan, but on one of those low and glowering December Sundays when the sun never quite comes up, any of them will do.

For most of my life, the New York Giants have made it a fundamental tenet not to be any of those things. They have sometimes been good, and occasionally been very bad, but mostly they have steered at a cultural and aesthetic level towards a very specific sort of righteous stodge. This is not some enlightened “process over results” thing, either. As far as I can tell the stodginess is the point. The slow execution of various gestures of respectability and circumspection and a high-handed version of patience are not just the process in action but the actual desired result. Roughly every decade or so they march to a Super Bowl in delirious and unlikely fashion, but always, always this is done in the most grim and workmanlike manner possible.

For all the ways that people think they know New Jersey, this is also a big part of it. It really is everything that it has been held up to be—the place Springsteen protagonists fight so furiously for and against, the politely feral burbscape Tony Soprano wheezes and rages around in, a sandwich from one of those grease trucks on the Rutgers campus that somehow contains within it another smaller but still substantial sandwich. But at the highest levels, where important stuff might theoretically happen but mostly does not, it is also what the Giants are—proud, complacent, dedicated above all else to making sure that stuff more or less stays the same, or at least stays in the same order.

This is part of the Giants’ brand—the Jets are reliably grasping and weird, overwrought and overindulgent, weepy and fuming and sloppy. Long Island shit, in short. The Giants, on the other hand, will lose their 8-12 games per season the right way.

Last year, though, the Giants were rather jarringly fun. They tried some stuff and some of it worked; they played both loose and confident under a new coach, won a playoff game for the first time since 2016, and were mostly unrecognizable. That the bottom fell out this season, instantly and shamefully, felt less like a surprise than the inevitable hangover that follows the organization’s first instance of cutting-loose in a presidential administration or so. (A tendency towards downcast after-the-fact moralizing is also a New Jersey thing, from my experience, although that might be more of a family folkway.)

The Giants, like the Jets, probably shouldn’t be quite as mediocre as they have been, and certainly would be a lot better if they’d gotten anything like the quarterback play that they expected. They did not try to get better in ways that might have made them more fun to watch. But the Giants really did build a solid defense, and the offense couldn’t possibly have been as flat and sludgy in the long run as it looked early in the season. But if they had figured things out, the whole Tommy DeVito thing wouldn’t be happening. When life gives you lemons, make limoncello. Or at least win some fun games during the late middle of what was looking like a lost season.

The emergence of DeVito—son of the North Jersey soil, product of Don Bosco Prep, a guy who sought a waiver to play a sixth year of college football and didn’t get it, undrafted rookie third-stringer—has made the Giants fun not just in the “how long can this keep working” ways that defined their last season, but fun in ways that the Giants’s cultural dedication to being boring seemed to have made impossible. Only some of this has to do with his play, which has admittedly improved from “only trusted to hand off the ball” to some madone-ified Gardner Minshew stuff, and virtually none of it has anything to do with DeVito himself. He’s played well, in the ways that good back-ups do—he’s a decently choosy and shifty runner, has largely avoided the sort of mistakes that come with reach-versus-grasp issues, and generally seems un-awed by the moment that’s been thrust upon him. The coaching staff hasn’t asked him to do anything he can’t do, and DeVito hasn’t taken it upon himself to try to do any of that stuff. This is classic backup quarterback stuff, basically.

DeVito seems like a pleasant enough guy, too, but the team’s attempts to center him in Epic Content—putting him on camera to mutter about chicken marsala with the unsettling Italian-American YouTube caricature Cugine, for instance—haven’t really landed. DeVito’s not really that kind of star, and even by sportswriting standards there are only so many ways to write about how a 25-year-old lives at home and enjoys his mom’s cooking.

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Which has helped, in a surprising way. If DeVito himself is a little bit too shy to be especially colorful, his success has opened the door for the kind of goofy, noisy, broadly human but specifically New Jersey shit that the Giants have traditionally treated as off-brand. DeVito’s large extended family gets a Taylor Swift-grade volume of reaction shots during games, and deserve it; they are hugging and yelling in ways that suggest they really mean it. If some of this is maybe a bit much—here is a “staff report” from the Bergen Record headlined “Tommy DeVito’s Family Throws Tailgate Before Giants’ MNF Game”—it is also refreshing given the organization’s longstanding dedication to whatever the NFL version is of non-regional newscaster diction.

The bafflement with which the shelf-stable minds of NFL media have greeted this blast of Being From A Place is its own sort of reward. NFL insider Albert Breer, in a tweet about that newsworthy tailgate, seemed both aghast and unfamiliar with the concept of “catering.” The Manning brothers, themselves the product of a specific enough American terroir that they each appear to be gradually transforming into a pair of Duck Head chinos, were even more flustered. When confronted with the admittedly jarring visual presentation of DeVito’s agent Sean Stellato, described him as “slimy.” (“I think he might watch too much Goodfellas,” Stellato told WFAN yesterday. He also challenged Peyton Manning to a footrace.)

Stellato, as it happens, isn’t actually from New Jersey. He is from Massachusetts, starred at Marist, spent some time in the Arena Football League 2, and appears to own a lot of hats. Here, much more than with DeVito, it’s easy to understand the confusion. Stellato’s aesthetic is a little bit jarring if you’re used to the usual buttoned-up or dressed-down agent presentation; his exuberantly be-hatted suit-jacket-and-skinny jeans fits do not really compute that way, and on Monday night his all-black ensemble gave him the look of an extremely swaggy priest. But this is part of the fun of it—not just that it’s working, but that it doesn’t seem like it should work, and the way that improbability ripples out. I like to imagine the Giants ownership, patrician and slow-moving and ready to be scandalized, sitting down across from Stellato to negotiate. Maybe he is wearing a blaze orange Borsalino style hat. Maybe he is also wearing a vest over a dri-fit turtleneck, and a chain with the word “family” on it. It doesn’t matter. For the time being, he has the leverage, and everyone else has to deal with it.

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