It sounded so rudimentary, so basic, so … simple. Football is supposed to be a complicated game, and it is easy to forget Vince Lombardi became the best coach of them all by basically running three or four plays and asking his players to ignore their various and sundry aches and pains and to run those three or four plays perfectly every time.
In that way, Pat Shurmur channeled Lombardi Sunday afternoon, in eight sparse words:
“We need to learn how to win again,” the Giants’ coach said.
This was maybe half an hour after the Giants held off the Buccaneers 38-35, putting together their first honest-to-goodness winning streak in two years and energizing the 75,863 fans who ground through a gray day yet seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves despite watching two teams whose next significant game will likely be next September.
Yes, sure: If you wish to buy into Odell Beckham Jr.’s belief the Giants can run the table from here, you can argue that point. If you are seduced by an NFC East filled with three teams incapable of eking above .500 and a fourth team that just lost its quarterback for the season, you are allowed a fever dream of a December to remember.
But here, tethered in reality, Shurmur got it just right: After 24 games of nowhere football (and a 4-20 record), the Giants are 2-0 in their last two, victories compiled against the woeful 49ers and the dreadful Bucs (by a grand total of seven points) — but back-to-back wins nonetheless. And that’s called a good place to start.
“Put a couple of wins together,” Shurmur said. “You can learn from that.”
Perhaps this flies in the face of that segment of the Giants’ citizenry that would’ve preferred a mad dash for 2-14 and another top-two pick in the draft, and if it does: good. These days we spend way too much time treating our teams like futures markets, as if history insists tanking is a surefire way to fix things. Sometimes it is. Sometimes, losing becomes a virus you can’t cast away.
Sometimes, you have to learn to win again. Because winning is the only certain antidote. Winning is the only absolute cure.
And winning can make a trip to the swamp rewarding sometimes: The folks in the building certainly seemed to enjoy the dueling brilliance of the old quarterback (17-of-18 for Eli Manning, two TDs, a near-perfect 155.8 rating) and the new running back (142 yards rushing and three total TDs for Saquon Barkley, plus more than a few holy-bleep-did-you-SEE-that? moves). They seemed to relish the fact that despite a mad rush at the end, the Bucs couldn’t catch the Giants.
They were even on their toes. This was a day, eerily enough, that was rife with more than a few creepy callbacks. That was the sad reality in Washington, where Alex Smith suffered a gruesome season-ending broken leg 33 years to the day after Joe Theismann had done likewise. Monday is the 40-year anniversary of the play known either as The Fumble (in New York) or “The Miracle of the Meadowlands” (in Philadelphia).
And, for good measure, with the Giants having all but salted away the game with 31 seconds left, a Ghost of Heartaches Past, DeSean Jackson, trotted onto the field to try to spook Giants punter Riley Dixon into paying homage to Matt Dodge.
MetLife Stadium booed Jackson immediately. The fans knew the history. Then Dixon boomed the ball into the end zone, and that, essentially, was that, and the folks left the stadium as happily as fans of a 3-7 team can be.
Not every game played around here has to be a study in self-loathing.
“Hard on the heart,” Shurmur quipped before saying, quite seriously: “It’s too damn late in the year for this to be our first win at home.”
But hard on the heart is fine. The Giants have spent too much of the past two years being hard on the eyes and not so easy on any of the other senses, either. THAT’S when it’s a toss-up for what’s worse: playing in these games or attending them. So why shouldn’t all of them, players and fans, enjoy a day like this one?
“Each game is going to be a battle,” said Evan Engram, whose 54-yard slant-and-scurry late in the fourth quarter probably sealed the game for the good guys. “We have to keep fighting because this shows our heart, shows our passion, shows our belief in ourselves.”
It’s one game. It’s two wins. It’s progress. That may sound simple, but sometimes simple works. Sometimes simple is where it starts.