Sure, they watch. Especially this time of year, when the aches and pains increase exponentially and the end of the line is right there. When the final game on the schedule is the definitive conclusion, when travel plans are made well in advance with no fear of losing out on any early-purchase deposit.
The players watch to see who has checked out. The injury list grows, and often the return to the field slows. The Giants are in the home stretch here, only four games remaining, and at 4-8, finishing 8-8 requires a closing run of 7-1, which would flip the 1-7 eyesore of the first half of the season. This is where the calendar gets dangerous for teams out of playoff contention.
“You see guys that lay down easy,’’ receiver Sterling Shepard said. “It’s easy to point those guys out and maybe think they’re not giving it their all or are not passionate about what they do. I think you can see it in some ways.’’
You can see it in many ways, most visibly by those who fall down and do not get up. Serious physical issues cannot be navigated around or toughed out with willpower. It is the painful but not debilitating ailments that players on teams out of the hunt at times — how shall we put this? — accentuate. The rush to return is lessened. One week becomes three. The stationary bike becomes a companion. The trainers’ room becomes a sanctuary.
There is only so much a head coach can do.
Pat Shurmur saw Shepard, Landon Collins and Saquon Barkley leave Sunday’s 30-27 overtime victory over the Bears after getting banged around. Shepard hurt his ribs, Collins and Barkley had to deal with shoulder concerns. All three received medical attention, missed a few snaps and finished the game. As much as the Giants winning three of their last four games is an indication Shurmur has kept the attention of his guys, seeing marquee players fight to get back in the action is as positive a sign as any his message is getting through.
“We don’t give up,’’ Collins said. “Even though our record shows what it shows, honestly I look at these guys, they don’t give up and I love that about them.’’
Sometimes the body overrules the mind, which is the case this week with Collins. His shoulder injury is significant enough that he will not play Sunday against the Redskins, and there is some doubt as to whether he will play again this season. He is the Giants’ defensive iron man, starting 59 of the 60 games played by the team since he arrived as a 2015 second-round pick from Alabama. The only game he missed was the 2017 regular-season finale. He fractured his forearm the week before.
It is better to build while winning, but the Giants lost that luxury with their rough September and October. All they can do is pick up the scraps and hope the small gains they make now lead to bigger things later, as soon as 2019.
Employing the right kind of player is a start. Shepard had trouble breathing after getting knocked around and, even after a halftime X-ray revealed no crack in his rib, he was told he was done for the day. The undersized third-year receiver had other ideas.
“Guys were fighting through a lot,’’ Shepard said. “I think Landon came out twice, being banged up and ultimately finished the game. Saquon as well. He battled through some stuff. You see that and it makes you want to do the same. They said I wasn’t going to go back out at first. But I felt like I could, so … .’’
So he returned.
Barkley, after a 2-yard gain in the fourth quarter was brought down — hard — by linebacker Roquan Smith. He missed the remainder of the series as he got checked out and some extra protection was added to his pads.
Afterward, he deflected questions about his health as forcefully as he sheds tacklers.
“This is my first year being in the NFL, but I have heard players that have been on other teams around the league that when the season’s not going your way, a lot of people call it quits,’’ Barkley said.
“You don’t get that vibe when you come in this building, when you play in a game. We love going out there competing for each other every single day and we do that no matter what, win, lose or draw. Even though it hasn’t been clicking perfectly right now, when this thing does get going, it’s going to make all of this adversity we’ve been going through so much better.’’
Sometimes this year’s adversity is next year’s payback. Sometimes this year’s adversity invades next year’s psyche. The Giants have to think pushing themselves back onto the field is not for nothing.
“If me being out there is gonna help the team get a ‘W’ I’m gonna fight through whatever I have — as long as it’s not something really, really serious, I’ll go back out there and fight for my brothers,’’ Shepard said. “You saw that around the team. I think it shows what type of team we have.’’
For now, and possibly, for the future.