EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — For weeks, Pat Shurmur has made it clear his offense has to run through Saquon Barkley. And the Giants were thriving since he seemingly made that discovery during their bye week.
Barkley, he decided, was the Giants’ best player. He was becoming one of the most unstoppable forces in the NFL. It seemed painfully obvious that everything they do should run through the super-rookie.
So why was he made to disappear on Sunday, just when the Giants needed him most?
It’s a great question that Shurmur needs to answer in the wake of the Giants’ 17-0 loss to the Tennessee Titans, a loss that finally ended their longshot bid at the playoffs. Barkley ran just 14 times for 31 yards in what was his least effective game so far as a pro.
Most damning, though, it came in a game that was 7-0 until there was 2:20 left in the third quarter, and not really out of reach until there was 5:06 to play in the game. The Giants lined up for 62 offensive plays — 47 passes and 15 runs.
That’s a terribly unbalanced ratio that usually isn’t a sign of good football, especially in a relatively tight game. It also goes against everything Shurmur has been saying would be his offensive plan.
So why, in a game they absolutely had to win, in a game they played without receiver Odell Beckham Jr., in a game played in a driving rainstorm with wet footballs slipping out of many receivers’ hands, would the Giants virtually ignore the one player the Titans defense probably feared?
“We just couldn’t get any real traction running the ball,” Shurmur said. “We obviously attempted to do it, and then we didn’t stay on the field on third downs either. (There’s a) long list of things we didn’t do well that keeps you from running the ball more and getting to some of the things you want to do.”
It’s true Barkley only averaged 2.2 yards per carry in the game and the Giants had a tough time running. But that doesn’t necessarily suffice. For one thing, just the attempt at running keeps the defense honest and opens up the play-action game for the quarterback. For another, hasn’t Barkley proved by now that he’s a threat to break off a long run on almost any play? He could easily do nothing for his first 14 carries, and go 70 yards for a touchdown on his 15th.
But instead, with a passing game featuring Russell Shepard, Bennie Fowler and Corey Coleman as compliments to the de facto — and ineffective — No. 1 receiver Sterling Shepard, Shurmur decided to try to win this game through the wet and windy air.
It really is no surprise that it didn’t work.
“When you don’t have one of your better players on the field, you have to run the football,” Russell Shepard said, “especially in these conditions.”
Added left tackle Nate Solder: “I think we fell right into the Titans’ hands.”
They sure did. The Giants entered the fourth quarter down 14-0. They ran 17 plays. All passes (though in fairness, they did have one Barkley run for seven yards that was nullified by a holding penalty on tight end Evan Engram). And it’s not like the Giants were getting Barkley involved that way, either. He was only targeted on four of those passes, and he only caught two.
Barkley was targeted 10 times in total, though he only had four catches for 25 yards. But his last rush that counted came with 1:43 left in the third quarter with the game still within reach at 14-0. It’s not like the Giants were down 41-0 or even 21-0 where they had to get into a full passing mode. They had time to run their offense the way they wanted it.
Instead, they threw passes on their final 18 plays of the game.
And the pass-happy play calling actually started earlier than that. On the first drive of the second half, the Giants had stalled at the Titans 29 and were facing a third-and-20. It was only 7-0 at the time and points were obviously precious. It seemed like the smart thing to do would be to run a draw to Barkley, pick up a few yards, and let Aldrick Rosas kick a mid-range field goal.
Instead, Eli Manning took to the air and he was picked off at the Titans 15, leaving the Giants without anything to show for a decent half-opening drive. Why throw it there, especially in a situation in which the Titans were clearly expecting a pass?
“I wanted to throw it there,” Shurmur said. “That’s why.”
That’s fine. Shurmur doesn’t have to explain his reasoning if he doesn’t want to. But if he doesn’t, it’s going to be hard to take him seriously the next time he says Barkley has to be the centerpiece of his team. He should have been on Sunday. The conditions were perfect to ride the running game. It’s what the Giants needed to do.
Instead, they inexplicably went away from what they do best. Now with the playoffs officially out of reach, they’ll have an entire offseason to wonder why. As they do, they need to remember it well into next season. Shurmur was right: The Giants offense really does have to run through Barkley.
And they have to make sure that they never abandon him like that again.