This is what winning looks and sounds like.
An easy question lobbed at Eli Manning: What do you think of Saquon Barkley vaulting over defenders?
Without hesitation, Manning in his much-practiced deadpan: “Well, there are very few of us who can do that. I’m just waiting for my opportunity. It hasn’t arrived yet. It’s out there.’’
There is no place for this banter and frivolity — or the imagery of gravity-bound Eli actually trying to leap over anyone — when one loss blends into the next. The crispness of victory, and winning three of the last four games, is like a dehumidifier lifting the heaviness of the air in the room.
“When you win football games it’s more fun, that’s usually the way it works,’’ Manning said.
More fun, yes. But is it real?
This is the balancing act the Giants must maneuver as they close out 2018 with a record that will look more encouraging than their 1-7 first half indicated it might. At 4-8, they have already surpassed last year’s 3-13 plummet, but it was such a low bar to step over, the 8-8 or — more likely — 7-9 or 6-10 finish in the first year of the Dave Gettleman/Pat Shurmur regime will look considerably better by comparison.
What this season has unveiled is the full extent of how broken a roster was left behind, how damaged the culture, and how badly the psyche of the locker room had deteriorated. The player upheaval showed just how little regard the new decision-makers thought of the talent left behind.
“We took over a 3-13 operation, we need to learn how to win again,’’ Shurmur said. “Moving forward next year, and this is not looking toward next year, but moving forward next year, a lot of these same guys are going to be with us — hopefully, most of them. There’s a lot to be learned about battling through adversity at the end of the season and fighting to win games. I think you create a memory bank of stuff that helps you moving forward.’’
There is always a danger in allowing what comes last to make a lasting impression. Teams out of contention at midseason shed the well-earned pressure that accompanies the best franchises down the stretch and during playoff races. The Giants are not worry free but, in terms of tangible goals, they are ramification free. An NFC East matchup Sunday with the Redskins at FedEx Field, in the season’s final month, is significant only because it is the next game and that the Giants get a chance to go against last-man-standing Mark Sanchez, which should make for some comedic fodder, one way or another.
The stark upturn in the way the offense functions and, in turn, Manning’s production, must be evaluated for what it is. Perhaps the stability along the offensive line revealed the 37-year-old quarterback still has what it takes, as long as he is protected and can rely on handing the ball to Barkley on a regular basis. Perhaps the right side of the line, with tackle Chad Wheeler and guard Jamon Brown (who is headed to free agency) can be viewed as a reliable combination moving forward. Maybe Spencer Pulley has found a home at center.
“You can never guess or say what’s going to happen in the future,’’ said Pulley, who has started the last six games, “but I love and enjoy playing with all these guys and I think we’re building toward something special.’’
That is the conundrum. Gettleman arrived and quickly started spinning the revolving door. If the Giants go 6-2 in their final eight games, perhaps the temptation grows to add to a core already in the building. Rising above every move, of course, is what happens with Manning. He desperately wants to return and retain the keys to an attack that features Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr. and, maybe, an offensive line he can rely on.
“Feel good about this team and where we are,’’ Manning said. “Obviously took a little while to get going but feel like we’ve played better football this year than last year, for sure. The record’s obviously just a little better right now, still got some football to be played. We’ve been right there every game, been close to winning some games, had a couple of heartbreakers. We’re on the right track and doing some good stuff.’’
It is good stuff in a losing season and sometimes that stuff carries over, often it does not.
“I like this team, I like the guys, I like how things are going and the way this team has stuck together and fought through the tough stretches,’’ Manning said. “We made changes, new guys and new people. There’s quality people in this room right now.’’
The inhabitants in the room will not be the same in 2019. Manning hopes to return and once again joke about vaulting like Saquon Barkley, rather than watching his leaps from the outside, looking in.