EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — In one of his first meetings with Giants players as their new defensive coordinator, Don “Wink” Martindale addressed each of them individually, in front of their teammates, and curtly told them what they needed to improve on.
It didn’t matter if they were starters or fighting for a roster spot, everybody got critiqued.
Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, one of the team’s best players and a sixth-year pro, said he’d rarely seen such a blunt approach — but it landed.
“I appreciated it,” Jackson said, adding that Martindale’s reputation helped the message resonate with teammates, too. “I don’t think any pride got in the way because he’s had a lot of great players, and he knows what he’s talking about. You knew where you stood and everyone around you knew where you stood.”
Including their wild-card win over the Vikings, the Giants have played in 14 games decided by one score, winning nine of them, in large part because Martindale’s defense has kept scores close enough for the offense to pounce. In his first season, the defense jumped from ranking 23rd in the N.F.L. to a respectable 18th by allowing fewer points and generating more sacks. The Giants blitzed on nearly 45 percent of passing plays, the highest rate in the league, according to the N.F.L.’s Next Gen Stats, nearly double the team’s blitz rate from last season (24.2 percent).
In addition to Martindale’s aggressive play-calling, players say his calm but brashly honest demeanor has been a catalyst throughout the season. As the defense prepares for Saturday’s divisional-round matchup against the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles, Martindale’s success has also turned him into a candidate for head coaching vacancies across the league. He’s postponed at least one interview request for a head coach job, reportedly from the Indianapolis Colts, until after this week.
“When I came here as a Giant, it wasn’t a steppingstone for me, it was a destination,” he said.
Martindale arrived in New Jersey after a four-year run as coordinator of a Baltimore Ravens defense that allowed the league’s fewest yards in 2018. But Coach John Harbaugh fired Martindale last off-season after he and Martindale hit a stalemate over the coordinator’s contract.
Martindale interviewed for the Giants’ head coaching vacancy after the 2019 season, but the team eventually hired Joe Judge. The process introduced Martindale to the Giants ownership, and in less than a month after leaving Baltimore, he was hired by Brian Daboll, the Giants new coach.
“I knew there was going to be a lot of movement in the N.F.L., and it has re-energized me to go someplace new and try to build it again,” Martindale said in a news conference Oct. 13.
That began with the training-camp tough love, but Martindale has balanced that approach by probing for points of connection with his young charges, too.
“He’s the definition of, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’” said Kayvon Thibodeaux, the standout rookie linebacker. “Even with me, when you look at him, you build a certain judgment because he is older, because he dresses a certain way. But when you meet him and see his real passion for the game, his genuineness is real.”
Martindale, 59, got his coaching start as an assistant for his Division III alma mater, Defiance College in Ohio. In the year between graduation and that first football job, Martindale drove trucks for his family’s business. He hated it, he said, but his wardrobe still reflects the profession. His graying mullet is usually covered by a baseball cap, and he often wears a long-sleeved shirt under a vest or cutoff hooded sweatshirt.
But Martindale also sports Air Jordan sneakers and frequently chats up players about shoes and other non-football topics as a way of keeping things light.
“Anything you can get players to talk about is the start of a conversation, and the players influence my swag. There’s no doubt about that,” Martindale said in an interview. “You’re around these guys all the time, and they really do keep me young.”
He’s also developed a weekly bonding exercise that Giants players say has made a big imprint on the team’s culture. The morning before games, in the defense’s final meeting for the week, Martindale asks each player to proclaim his goals for the next day. Then he asks assistant coaches to state a goal for players in a position group that they do not coach.
“You visualize what you want to do, but then you hold yourself accountable,” Jackson said. “You tell your brothers what you expect from yourself and what you want to do.You see it, your brothers next to you see it, and you want to play for each other.”
Amid the stress of the Giants’ tight games, Martindale’s composure has set the tone for his players, who said Martindale rarely showed overt emotion. Becoming animated on the sideline requires too much energy that he could divert to focusing on the next play, he said.
Thibodeaux said Martindale often solicited players’ input during timeouts instead of just talking at them. As one of the Giants’ defensive signal callers, safety Xavier McKinney communicates with Martindale through the microphone in his helmet during games. He said the coach never sounds rattled or frustrated when he distributes instructions.
“He’s confident in whatever he calls, and that gives us the confidence to go out there and play whatever call he has for us,” McKinney said. “He gives us the confidence to call it however we see it, and it’s been fun. He has our back and we have his.”