You can change the coach. You can change the general manager. You can change the uniforms. You can even change the quarterback and then change back to him.
But you can’t change what the Giants are this season.
That was the lesson from Sunday’s 30-10 loss to the Cowboys, which followed a predictable script that has been well-rehearsed by the team all year.
About the only noticeable difference that interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo brought to his first game was the re-insertion of Eli Manning as the starting quarterback. Beyond that, it was another Sunday of nearly unwatchable football in which the Giants were in the game for three quarters or so until the offensive ineptitude caught up to them and the defense finally wilted under the strain.
The result was another notch in the loss column.
The seismic events of the past two weeks have not had any effect on that.
This one sunk the Giants to 2-11, giving them more losses than any season since 2003 with three games to play. The last time they finished a season with two wins was 1974.
All of which appears to be taking a toll on the Giants’ psyches.
“It seemed like they wanted it more,” cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. “We’re playing to get our identity back, they’re playing for the playoffs. So we knew it was going to be a fight. They outlasted us as far as the mental toughness of the game.”
A frustrated Jason Pierre-Paul was spotted slamming his helmet on the sideline and, according to the broadcast on Fox, was heard imploring the stagnant offense to “get going.” Manning lamented the absence of “firepower.” And tight end Evan Engram sounded disheartened for the first time this year.
“It’s really frustrating as an offensive player, as an offense, that we can’t play complementary football,” he said of the missed opportunities. “We could have blown this game out of the water.”
Instead, they drowned in it.
Despite those grumblings, Spagnuolo said he was pleased with the effort, especially at the end of this week of changes.
“I thought the adversity revealed a lot of good things in our football team,” he said. “I do believe that unity strengthens and I saw unity, and that’s a sign of a stronger football team, in my mind. I would hope that they would continue to do that going forward and then just focus on the next game.”
The game was remarkably close for the first 3 1⁄2 quarters, tied at 10 for most of the second half, before the Cowboys scored 20 points in a span of 4:41 to turn it into a blowout.
When Dak Prescott hit Cole Beasley for a 54-yard gain to the 20 midway through the fourth quarter, Landon Collins — who initially missed Beasley but ran him down to prevent the TD — injured his ankle on the play. That left the middle of the Giants’ defense without their Pro Bowl safety on the next play, and Prescott easily found tight end Jason Witten for a 20-yard TD that made it 17-10 with 7:38 left.
After the Giants punted inside Cowboys territory, Prescott hit Rod Smith on a third-and-3 pass that he turned into an 81-yard score. Dallas led 23-10 after a missed extra point.
After Manning was intercepted, Smith’s 15-yard run made it 30-10 with 2:57 left.
“We do have to figure out a way in the fourth quarter when it gets down to gut-wrenching time to make a play or two,” Spagnuolo said.
The Giants had some chances while the game was close in the second half. Roger Lewis Jr. dropped a third-and-2 pass early in the fourth quarter that forced a Giants punt. With the Cowboys up 17-10 later in the quarter, Manning’s third-and-8 pass for Engram left the Giants begging for a flag before punting again.
Manning threw two interceptions in that fourth quarter, souring a game that began as a celebration of his career and a welcome back to his starting job.
One of Ben McAdoo’s final acts as head coach last week was to give Geno Smith the start in Oakland, a move that created such public backlash that it became impossible for team ownership to keep him for the remainder of the season.
Plaxico Burress and Victor Cruz were on hand and wearing their No. 10 Giants jerseys in support of Manning, joining thousands of fans. Manning was greeted with a standing ovation when he took the field, and chants of “E-li Mann-ing!” rattled through the building when he hit Rhett Ellison for a 1-yard TD pass and a 10-3 lead.
That lead lasted just a little longer than the cheers, though, as the Cowboys tied it 29 seconds later. Dak Prescott hit Dez Bryant on a short slant and he shook off Brandon Dixon before taking it to the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown.
That left the score tied until the fateful fourth quarter.
“You fight hard for three quarters and right when you think you’ve got it, something goes wrong,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “And then something else goes wrong and it just keeps going wrong. For it to be the [14th] week in the season, we should already have a pinpoint on why that is happening, but we’re still searching for answers.”