As Eli Manning marched down the field late Monday night like it was still 2007, it felt like the entire Giants organization finally exhaled. There had been so much losing over the last two years, so much misery and controversy. But for a few minutes in Santa Clara, all of it slipped away.
That, obviously, was a good thing – even though at the same time their chances at the No. 1 overall pick in the next NFL Draft started slipping away, too.
That’s not insignificant for a rebuilding team in need of a new franchise quarterback. The higher the Giants are in the draft, the better it is for their long-term future.
But that doesn’t matter right now to coach Pat Shurmur and it doesn’t matter to the players in his locker room. Nor should it. This entire franchise has been beaten down by all the losses for far too long now. Changing the culture, seeing positive results, feeling good again matters – even more than draft position.
Winning is always the most important thing for a team. And for the Giants, it matters much more than many seem to think.
“That’s what we’re fighting for, the thrill of victory which they’re experiencing now in the locker room,” Shurmur said after the Giants’ dramatic, 27-23 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night. “I think as we go along here, we made progress tonight and we’re going to have more victories. They’re going to always be hard fought, but this team fights hard. And I’m glad that they’re able to experience victory.”
The players were glad too. As Eli Manning said he told his teammates during the week, “We’ve worked too hard not to be rewarded with wins.” And they have been working hard. To Shurmur’s credit, there’s been no sign of quit or dysfunction like the Giants saw last season under Ben McAdoo. And when there was a hint of it – like Odell Beckham’s public lack of support of Manning – Shurmur struck hard to stop it before it got out of hand.
But when players are working hard, fighting to stick together and stay positive, it can become demoralizing if they continue to lose. That was especially true of a Giants team that had lost two games by a field goal or less and three others by a touchdown or less. At some point they needed to see that Shurmur and his plan could actually get them over the hump – especially with half a season left to endure.
“We’ve been in many close games, so we knew how to lose them,” Beckham said. “We each had to find a way to win it. And we did.”
That’s called learning how to win – or in the Giants’ case, re-learning. And that’s an important part of any rebuilding process. At some point they also needed a positive storyline to change the conversation from Manning’s future or the organization’s failures. They needed something good to happen, as Manning said, “Just for the morale of the team.”
“Wins are important,” Manning said. “Wins mean a lot, especially after this season and what we’ve had to go through as a team, what I’ve had to go through, and just the questions and this and that. So, just to be able to have a two-minute drive to win a football game, hopefully we can just focus on some positive things for at least one more week.”
The problem, of course, is that those good vibrations come at the expense of their draft position. They would currently pick third, behind the awful Oakland Raiders and the 49ers team they just beat. That puts them in decent position to land a quarterback like Oregon’s Justin Herbert, if that’s who they like, and they’re still in great position to be in the Top 10 where another quarterback or two – or perhaps a top pass rusher or offensive lineman – might be in play.
But at 2-7 there are eight teams right behind them with two or three wins, so the more they win, the farther they could drop. And for a team with a struggling, 37-year-old quarterback who has only one more year on his contract and no obvious replacement on a roster filled with too many holes, the last thing they need is to fall out of the Top 10.
They’ll accept that fate, though, if it means stringing together some wins. Even if it’s not the eight straight wins they need to have a shot at the playoffs, winning half of those could be enough to start to turn the franchise around. It would mean that the players they have are playing better. It would mean they’ll start to believe more in their new coach. It might even restore their faith in their aging quarterback in case he has to return next season.
Mostly, though, it would turn a losing atmosphere into a winning one. It would take the dark cloud that has hung over their locker room since the start of last season and blow it away. There’s a stench in there from having only five wins in the last 25 games, enduring a midseason coach and GM change, and seeing countless players unceremoniously cut. They’ve been in a state of depression. Keeping things upbeat has felt like an effort. Every day it felt like there were things beating them down.
“That’s why we have to keep the noise out,” Shurmur said. “Because if we listen to all of the stuff that’s said, we’re going to be ‘Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,’ know what I mean?”
Instead on Monday night they felt like Lucky Charms. As meaningless as that win may have been in the standings, there was nothing meaningless about their feeling of joy.
And there’s nothing wrong at all about that. They need more of it down the stretch, no matter what it does to their place in the draft.