The record is the record, and it is lousy. The failure to make the playoffs, or even to come close, is not up for debate. The Giants at 5-11 are what they are as they leave behind 2018 as a losing operation. But they insist what they showed in the second half of the season is more indicative of what comes next.
“I believe that we’re very close,’’ rookie running back Saquon Barkley said Monday as he cleaned out his locker after his first NFL season. “I think what we have here is special. I wasn’t here the year before but we’re not the team when we went 3-13. We’re 5-11 and that’s not the record we would like but we’re close. We’re really close.
“I believe that’s gonna show next year if we continue to believe in each other and continue to work and continue to grind and have that dog mentality that we showed this year. I think things are gonna fall our way differently next year.’’
There is close and then there is what the Giants inflicted on their increasingly frustrated fan base. They closed out the season losing 28-27 in Indianapolis and 36-35 to the Cowboys at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. All hail the Giants for doing something no NFL team has ever before “accomplished” by losing each of its final two games by one point. The Giants lost an NFL-high eight games by seven or fewer points.
“We certainly didn’t reach any of our goals in terms of being in the playoffs and competing for the championship, but we’re a different team than this team was a year ago,’’ coach Pat Shurmur said.
There are massive issues to resolve, most notably whether Eli Manning returns for a 16th season, which is not a fait accompli but feels as if it is inevitable, given the way Shurmur speaks about Manning, who turns 38 on Thursday.
Shurmur held a team meeting and general manager Dave Gettleman spoke to the entire team for the first time since Week 5. Players said he mixed in some humor and also reminded the players how close they were to winning many more games.
All who were on the scene a year ago say this exit day is far more hopeful and upbeat than the 2017 experience following a 3-13 season that was so dismal it got general manager Jerry Reese and head coach Ben McAdoo fired with four games remaining. Shurmur in his first year spoke repeatedly about having to move away from the culture he inherited and, to his credit, the Giants played hard and alert from beginning to end. Their greatest failing was a lack of talent on the roster and a few glaring deficiencies — offensive-line play and woeful pass-rush production — that short-circuited their ability to close out tight games.
Unlike last year, these Giants hung together, though, which is why receiver Russell Shepard, finishing up his sixth NFL season, said it was the most fun losing season he has ever had.
What went down in 2017 was very bad. Another last-place finish was certainly not good, but offered, perhaps, a sign the arrow might be pointing up considering the second half of the season was far better than the first.
“Going from what I was in last year,’’ said safety Landon Collins, whose contract is up and hopes to return, “the focus, the determination, the guys being accountable for what they’re doing and being in tune and loving the game and enjoying every time we go on the field, even if we were 3-6 or whatever we were, guys were still coming to work preparing to win every game.’’
The Giants went 1-7 in their first eight games, showing resolve on defense but scoring only 18.8 points a game, with Manning getting sacked 31 times. Changes were made on the offensive line — the right side of Ereck Flowers and Patrick Omameh was deemed a disaster and upgraded to Chad Wheeler and Jamon Brown — and Shurmur shifted the focus of the attack from Odell Beckham Jr. and the passing game to Barkley in the ground game. The Giants went 4-4 in the second half of the season and averaged 27.4 points a game. Manning was sacked 16 times in the final eight games.
“I think there’s more stability in our offensive line at the end of the season than there was in the beginning of the season and for whatever reason that’s true,’’ left tackle Nate Solder said.
“I think what we want to be offensively was better showcased from the bye week on,’’ Shurmur said. “I think we would all agree in the second half of the year we played much better offense. I talked all along about the things I really appreciate about Eli in terms of playing the quarterback position. He was better able to showcase what he could do once we solidified the offensive line. I think that’s a fair assessment.’’
Manning, in a departure from previous years, did not make himself available on what is commonly called “baggie day.’’ He spoke at length about his season and his future last Wednesday and again after Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys and clearly did not want to rehash the uncertainly swirling around his future one more time.
Shurmur knew little of the Giants when he was hired last year and only knew Manning based on reputation. After eight games, Shurmur realized he had to move the pocket to help with Manning’s protection and take some of the burden off him by featuring Barkley, who went on to a record-breaking rookie season.
“I think Eli ran more boots and nakeds — he hadn’t run this many boots and nakeds since he was at Ole Miss,’’ Shurmur said. “But it works.’’
On a day when eight head-coaching vacancies surfaced around the league, ushering in franchise upheaval, the Giants parted ways having never been in contention all season but upbeat as to what comes next. That optimism will be tested as they attempt to inject their roster with the talent needed to turn almost into just enough.
“Right is right,’’ Shurmur said. “We got to start winning these close games.’’