Putting a fresh coat of paint on a damaged wall doesn’t fix the wall. The New York Giants learned that Sunday night in Dallas.
ARLINGTON-The New York Giants went out and bought themselves some new toys this past offseason.
To improve an already strong receiving corps, they brought in Brandon Marshall from their MetLife Stadium co-tenants. They used their first three draft selections on Evan Engram, a flashy tight end from Eli Manning‘s alma mater, Ole Miss; Dalvin Tomlinson, a defensive tackle from a modern day dynasty in Alabama; and Davis Webb, the possible heir to Manning’s quarterback empire. Furthermore, they re-signed defensive line staple and Super Bowl hero Jason Pierre-Paul to a 4-year, $62 million extension.
In the meantime, they mostly ignored their offensive line. The group that almost never shows up in the box score, the group whose jerseys are seldom worn by fans. The group responsible for protecting Eli. Despite room for improvement in that area, despite the accusation that the unit kept the team’s return to the playoffs brief, the Giants mostly stood pat.
In other words, they went out and bought themselves a Ferrari but ignored the mold damage in the garage.
Granted, there are 15 games to play after the Giants’ 19-3 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in their season opener, but the first four quarters in prime time offered a sense of unwanted deja vu to Giants fans on Sunday night.
Last season yielded 11 wins and a brief playoff appearance, but there was an underlying sense that it could’ve been more. The defense had a magnificent season, anchored by the breakout of Landon Collins and the additions of Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon, though it often picked up the slack for offensive struggles. The Giants failed to break 30 points at any point last season, and 11 games were decided by one possession.
Blame was mostly placed on the offensive line, namely on tackle Ereck Flowers, as Manning would be forced into making poor decisions and the Giants’ struggling run game again ranked in the depths of the league.
Despite the line’s troubles, the team opted to spend their offseason money on their flashy additions and re-signings. The starting five on the line, for example, remained the same. All offseason, general manager Jerry Reese and head coach Ben McAdoo gave votes of confidence to Flowers, a rare Giants top 10 pick who was ranked 62nd amongst tackles by Pro Football Focus last season. Also returning was Weston Richburg, ranked PFF’s second best center in 2015, played most of last season with a hand injury, and guard John Jerry was brought back via three-year, $10 million extension, joining fellow starters Justin Pugh, another former first-round pick, and Bobby Hart.
Newcomers were kept to a minimum, as free agent tackle D.J. Fluker was a healthy scratch on Sunday night and sixth-round Adam Bisnowaty failed to make the team out of camp. The only new lineman active on Sunday was Chad Wheeler, an undrafted rookie out of USC.
Sunday’s showdown with the defending NFC East champion Cowboys had an added degree of difficulty with the injured Odell Beckham Jr. out, but it was hard not to feel confident in the Giants’ chances. They had swept the Cowboys last season and had their flashy offensive weapons poised to make an impact in Beckham’s absence. Marshall and Engram made their blue debuts, Sterling Shepard embarked on his sophomore season, and fellow second-year man Paul Perkins officially took over top running back duties. Under center for the 200th consecutive game, of course, was Manning.
Even without Beckham, it was still an offense featuring talented skill players that could potentially help a fantasy team or two. In a cruel ironic twist, however, it was players who never sniff fantasy lineups that decided the Giants fate on Sunday night.
Trouble emerged right from the get-go. Situated on their own 6-yard line after Dallas punted on their opening drive, Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence made sure his teammates got the ball back quickly. Using a stunt that fooled Hart and Jerry, Lawrence’s first sack of the season concluded a three-and-out. It was the start of tough night for Jerry, who was later flagged for a holding penalty (that was declined).
Here's DeMarcus Lawrence's sack: pic.twitter.com/W1FxKq39bM
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) September 11, 2017
Under pressure all night, Manning was forced into quick, short throws. He completed 29 passes, though they only accumulated 220 yards. When the Giants did eventually reach the red zone on their first drive of the second half, a nine-yard sack by Charles Tapper on second-and-goal from the Cowboys 4 killed the Giants momentum. They were forced to settle for an Aldrick Rosas field goal on the drive that took 16 plays and just over nine minutes to complete.
Charles Tapper just recorded his first NFL sack. #Sooners #OUDNA pic.twitter.com/uhpeNjsoo0
— Sooner Gridiron (@soonergridiron) September 11, 2017
Manning was sacked three times on the night, twice by Lawrence, and the run game picked up only 35 yards on 12 attempts. The abbreviated drives kept the Giants’ defense on the field, and while they mostly kept the damage to Dan Bailey field goals, the Cowboys offense took advantage of the winded defenders, who were quickly forced back on the field after the constant three-and-outs. By contrast, the Cowboys much-lauded offensive line allowed them to go on efficient, methodical drives that kept their mediocre defense off the field, earning them the victory.
Again, it’s just one game, and lackluster debuts have happened before. For example, the Giants looked lost in their 2011 opener against Washington, but wound up playing in Super Bowl XLVI exactly 21 weeks later. But this week against Dallas reeked of foreboding foreshadowing.
The decision to keep the offensive line the same was a show of stubbornness from the Giants’ decision-makers, but it became a platform they were willing to live or die on. The defense, as shown last season, can keep the team in games and even steal a few wins in the process, but they can’t gain any momentum when they’re forced on and off the field with little rest.
For example, the unit was forced to be on the field for just over two-thirds of the first half thanks to the struggles. Notably, the Giants got the ball back after the lone touchdown of the game with 1:41 remaining in the first half. They went on to take a mere 22 seconds off the clock on a three-and-out, one of three on the night, and Dallas wound up with a field goal and a 16-0 lead before the half ended, deflating the Giants as they hit the locker room.
Again, it’s one game, but if this keeps up against the Lions, Eagles, and Buccaneers all of whom are stocked with offensive weapons and on the Giants’ slate over the next three weeks, things could quickly snowball and leave the Giants in a deep, early hole in the competitive NFC East.
The Giants bought their Ferrari this offseason, one fueled by applause and expectation that was expected to take them on the ultimate road trip, a trek to Minnesota for Super Bowl LII. But if that problem from within…the mold in the walls, the offensive line…goes unaddressed or gets worse, it could keep the Giants home, struggling to make repairs…literally and figuratively.