Given how pitiful the Giants’ defense was in Sunday’s 35-17 loss to the Cowboys — a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would indicate — maybe it’s unrealistic to think Pat Shurmur’s play-calling near the end of the third quarter was a huge factor in the outcome.
But this is the NFL, and strange things happen when you catch a break — or make your own, which could have been the case late in the third quarter with the Giants driving toward the Cowboys’ end zone.
It was 28-10, the Giants had looked decent on their previous drive (which ended with a field goal), and a touchdown here would have made it an 11-point game with plenty of time remaining. They went from their own 25 to the Cowboys’ 8 after some solid work by Eli Manning.
Third-and-2. A perfect spot to get your best player involved, especially behind the revamped offensive line that was fortified in the offseason. Handoff to Saquon Barkley, right?
Handoff to . . . Eli Penny.
You’re really going to give the ball to your 6-1, 250-pound fullback?
Penny was stuffed after a gain of 1 up the middle. Fourth-and-1 from the 7.
It has to be Barkley here, right? I mean, you can’t make the same mistake twice.
You can, and you do.
Shurmur had Manning fake a handoff to Barkley and roll to his right. Manning looked for Sterling Shepard but didn’t feel comfortable attempting a pass. Trying to buy some time, he eventually was caught by Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who forced a fumble that was recovered by the Cowboys.
Dallas then drove 89 yards for a touchdown — Ezekiel Elliott’s first of the season — and it was 35-10.
Any second-guessing by Shurmur?
Not a smidgen.
“We should have gained more yards on the one to Penny,” he said of the first call.
“We have to do something with the ball on the rollout,” he said of the second.
Sorry, but you’ve got to let Barkley touch the ball at least once in that situation.
It may not have been as dramatic a decision as Pete Carroll signing off on the Seahawks not using Marshawn Lynch near the goal line in a Super Bowl, but it still was a sequence that deserved to be scrutinized — even if nothing short of scoring on every possession would have been enough to overcome a defense as inept as the Giants’.
Manning took the blame on the fourth-down flop.
“Had a little misdirection, got outside, first couple of guys were covered up,” he said. “I thought about throwing it to Sterling across the end zone. Just thought the safety was there to make a play. At that point, try to run for it, try to create, maybe just hit somebody. Unfortunately, wasn’t able to get that going.”
Neither Manning nor Barkley questioned the coach’s decisions.
“Obviously, as a competitor, you want the ball in your hands,” Barkley said. “But you have to trust the system, you have to trust your teammates, and that’s what I do. I’m not going to question the call. I believe that good calls are right. We just as a team, as a whole, especially on offense, have to find a way to capitalize and convert on that third down and convert that fourth down and find a way to get in the end zone.”
But Barkley hit the nail on the head with what he said next.
“It’s little things like that, if we’re able to do and capitalize on that, it can be a completely different game,” he said.
This is a team that has precious little margin for error, and misfiring on opportunities like that are critical. Shurmur, Barkley and Manning blamed the execution of the plays, but Shurmur is to blame for calling them. He’s also the one who could have — and should have — gotten Barkley more than 11 touches in the running game and four passes.
Barkley had 120 rushing yards on those 11 carries, including a 59-yarder in the first quarter. There should have been more involvement.
When you’ve got one of the best players in the game, you give him the ball.
Especially when it matters most.