ORCHARD PARK – It is the first injury of the season that has cut the deepest for the Giants.
Before Saquon Barkley started missing games with his sprained ankle (he sat out three before returning to the field Sunday night) and before Daniel Jones was sidelined with a neck injury (the Giants are back to having “optimism” for his swift return, but they said that last week too), it was Andrew Thomas’ hamstring that was the primary health concern.
It still is.
All of the rest of the Giants’ issues, both in terms of their football and their lengthy injury report, seem to stem from that one tug on the back of the big guy’s leg on the first drive of the year. If Thomas had been playing would Barkley have had to play every snap in Arizona? Would Jones have been under constant duress and taken the blindside shot that knocked him out of action in Miami last week?
In Sunday night’s game against the Bills at Highmark Stadium that seemed destined to be defined and decided by the long list of those who did not play as opposed to those who did – and in which the Bills themselves were pretty banged up themselves – Thomas’ continued absence loomed larger than any, including the Giants’ starting quarterback’s.
Had the Giants known how long Thomas would be out they probably would have put him on injured reserve. The most confounding part of the situation is that even now, a month removed from the initial pull, nobody seems to have any idea when Thomas will return.
“It’s a pretty good injury,” the starting left tackle said on Friday. “Just trying to work through it … Once they feel I can ramp up and move around a little more, I’ll do that.”
The Giants signed Thomas to a five-year, $117.5 million extension at the start of training camp to make him the cornerstone of their offense. His absence may wind up being engraved on the tombstone of this season.
Thomas’ health and the year quite literally went sour on the same play. Everything was fine for the Giants in their opener against Dallas. They marched confidently and competently down the field on their opening possession, looking every bit the playoff-winning team looking to take the next steps that many believed they could be.
Then the Cowboys blocked the field goal.
Then they recovered the ball.
Then they returned it for a touchdown.
And then Thomas, trying to run the length of the field to stop them from reaching the end zone, came up lame.
Everything after that moment has basically been epilogue.
“It’s frustrating but it comes with football,” Thomas said. “I’m trying to keep a positive mindset. Being down on myself isn’t going to help it heal faster.”
Thomas did try to practice a few weeks ago. That barely lasted a few reps.
“It was feeling better,” Thomas said. “I just wasn’t full go. When you get out there and you have to move somebody out of the way and try to anchor it’s different than moving around on air. They’re giving me time to recover from it.”
There may not be anyone who wants Thomas back more than the guy who has been tasked with playing in his spot. Second-year lineman Josh Ezeudu, who spent most of his training camp rotating between and competing for one of the two guard positions, has struggled to adjust to the position change. After the loss to the Seahawks when the Giants allowed 11 sacks, Ezeudu sat at his locker catatonically staring into space for close to a half hour contemplating what had just occurred. When he allowed the sack that hurt Jones he sought out the quarterback in the postgame locker room to apologize.
“Josh’s number one thing that weighs on him is he doesn’t want to let anyone down,” offensive line coach Bobby Johnson said. “He is sincere in his hurt. I keep telling him ‘Keep working, buddy. We got you.’ (But) I want a guy who hurts when he lets people down.”
Even better would be someone who does neither.
Someone like Thomas, who was on the verge of becoming a dominant player contending for Pro Bowl and All-Pro votes this season, who seemed poised to move into the upper echelon of his position’s rankings.
That may not be available to the Giants for a while.
Thomas was asked if he feels “helpless” watching the Giants play so poorly without him. He didn’t agree with that word.
“Obviously I want to be out there with my teammates,” he said. “But I try to do what I can on the sideline.”
Of his teammates who have scuffled through this season so far, a list that goes well beyond Ezeudu and includes right tackle Evan Neal (who played Sunday despite being questionable with a mid-week ankle injury), backup center Ben Bredeson, guards Shane Lemieux and Mark Glowinski and Marcus McKethan, and just about everyone else the Giants have trotted out there at some point this season, Thomas said they are doing their best.
“Definitely a lot of adversity, a lot of guys are down, but we have a tight knit group,” he said. “They fight hard, so we’re doing our best to prepare.”
Other line injuries have come along too. On Sunday the Giants had two active linemen who had just joined the team as practice squadders in the past two weeks: Justin Pugh and Yodny Cajuste.
After he was hurt in the opener, Thomas remained on the field for the ensuing possessions. Eventually, once the score was lopsided enough in the fourth quarter, the Giants pulled him from action.
Thomas said he has no regrets about staying in that game – “If I feel like I can go I’ll be out there with my teammates, that’s the mindset I’ve always had,” he said – but he also admitted to wondering if those reps made the injury worse, if he might have been back by now had he tapped out sooner in early September.
“Looking back, who knows?” he said. “I might have healed faster, but I’m not sure. I’m just trying to move forward. It happened. I’m doing everything I can to get back.”
The Giants? They continue to do everything they can to demonstrate how significant that would be.