There is no undoing the consequences of what went wrong on the afternoon of Nov. 25, and Pat Shurmur had to reckon with the reality that any meaningful hope of a divisional title had evaporated.
The Giants blew a 19-3 first-half lead and suffered a 25-22 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles in Philadelphia, and Shurmur played a central role in the collapse.
He gambled and lost badly by having Eli Manning throw a deep pass to Odell Beckham Jr. near the end of the first half that was intercepted by Malcolm Jenkins. That squandered what should have been at least a field-goal attempt.
His second-half play-calling was equally suspect. He virtually ignored Saquon Barkley, who had a splendid first half, and couldn’t solve an Eagles defense that was down to practice-squad call-ups because of a series of injuries in the secondary.
Shurmur grew defensive in his postgame remarks as he tried to explain some of his decisions, and his discomfort made for an awkward scene. Beckham’s subsequent second-guessing of the game plan put an exclamation point on his failure.
What came next would be an important moment for Shurmur as he navigates through his first season in the pressure-packed New York market, which does not take kindly to the faint of heart.
With questions swirling about Shurmur’s fitness for the job, and with his players seeking answers in a season punctuated by a 1-7 first half, Shurmur’s response would be critical.
It turned out to be exceptional.
Shurmur’s performance in a 30-27 overtime upset of the NFC North-leading Bears made a huge difference. He produced the kind of moment that teams need from their coach when things seem hopeless. It
came in the form of a trick play he saved for just the right opportunity.
With the Giants trailing 14-10 at halftime and Manning looking absolutely abysmal, Shurmur made the call. On the Giants’ first series, he had Beckham run an end-around and then look downfield to throw the option pass. Beckham initially didn’t find an open receiver and appeared ready to run the ball, but he then saw Russell Shepard pop free deep over the middle. Throwing off one foot, Beckham completed the pass for a 49-yard touchdown.
The Giants’ defense allowed the Bears to tie it and send the game into overtime, and a field-goal drive on the Giants’ first possession in the extra session proved the difference.
The win brought to mind another 30-27 overtime game involving the Giants, one that proved critical to the winning coach, who also had been through tough times in his first year with an NFC East team.
The Redskins’ Joe Gibbs started out 0-5 in 1981 and feared he’d become the first coach in NFL history to be fired before ever winning a game.
But he kept his team together and finally found some answers.
Like Shurmur, who revamped many of his offensive concepts during the bye week after the 1-7 start, Gibbs reconfigured his offense and started getting results. In a game that would prove pivotal to the team’s eventual success, Gibbs beat the Giants in overtime at Giants Stadium to get to 5-6. The Redskins finished 8-8 that first season and the next year won the first of three Super Bowl titles under the future Hall of Fame coach.
“I don’t know how much prouder I can be of this team,” Gibbs said afterward. “When we were 0-5, we were at the lowest point of any team in the NFL . . . To be where we are, after the start we had, it’s a testimony to these guys never quitting.”
Gibbs was a central figure in a book I’ve written about the 1980s, “Guts and Genius,” the story of three unlikely coaches who came to dominate the decade. Those coaches — all of whom feared they’d be fired within two years of getting their first NFL head-coaching jobs — were Gibbs, Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells, who totaled eight Super Bowl titles between 1981-91 and presided over one of the greatest eras in pro football.
With all three coaches, it was critical to find a turning point from which to pivot from difficult beginnings.
For Gibbs, one of those moments was against the Giants. As the teams meet on Sunday in the latest renewal of one of the greatest NFL rivalries, it’s a fitting reminder that Shurmur can stake his own claim to history by continuing the team’s upward trajectory after a dismal start. That even with what happened in Philadelphia late last month, there is meaning to be found in the rest of the season.
“You could really feel something, the way we got better,” former Redskins guard Mark May said of the Redskins’ second-half turnaround in 1981. “And I think Joe [Gibbs] knew that having another year together would be helpful.”
Shurmur’s moment against the Bears offers at least a flicker of hope for what might come next. “We’re building a house, and I think everything’s connected,” Shurmur said this past week. “We took over a 3-13 operation, we need to learn how to win again. 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.”
It’s what almost every championship coach must overcome, these early struggles that test the mettle of even the greatest coaches, men such as Walsh, Gibbs and Parcells. Shurmur may never be mentioned in the same breath as that trio of legends, but he will expend every breath to at least turn the Giants into the kind of team Parcells once did in leading the franchise to its first two Super Bowl victories.
Parcells was nearly fired after going 3-12-1 in his first season, but he found a way after finding his voice.
Former Giants linebacker Carl Banks recounted a story for “Guts and Genius” of Parcells speaking to his team in training camp in 1984 and laying it out there.
“I’ve never seen [Parcells] more vulnerable in terms of putting his heart on his sleeve,” Banks said in the book. “That was the birth of ‘the Parcells guy.’ ”
“Look, they’re going to fire my [butt] if I don’t win around here this year,” Parcells told them. “I need you guys. You give me everything you got and I’ll give you everything I got.”
Within three years, the Giants had won it all.
Shurmur now hopes to create a legacy of his own. It will come only with more meaningful moments like the one he produced last Sunday.