ARLINGTON, Texas — The issue that has hung over the Giants for most of 2019 is moot. Now that the regular season has begun, the hand-wringing, the debating, the comparing and contrasting and the battle over present and future are non-factors.
Because it doesn’t matter who the quarterback is for the team if the defense is going to play this way.
On Sunday, it happened to be Eli Manning at the position. Not that the 38-year-old two-time Super Bowl MVP could do anything to alter the outcome in a humbling, exposing 35-17 loss to the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Nor would rookie Daniel Jones likely have fared any better had he been given an opportunity to start (although he did get the chance to mop up the mess and added to the ugliness with a late fumble).
The quarterback the Giants should have been thinking about all summer was Dak Prescott. The Cowboys passer took advantage of a lack of pressure, standing most of the game in a pristine pocket and picking apart a porous secondary. Prescott threw four touchdown passes — two of them to wide-open targets — and completed 25 of 32 passes for 405 yards in one of the best performances of his career.
“Disappointing,” said defensive captain Alec Ogletree, who had been touting the Giants as having a Top 5 unit in the league this season. “We know we’re better than that . . . We clearly didn’t do our best out there.”
But what if they did? What if that is who the Giants are in 2019?
Safety Michael Thomas called the game a “reality check” for a defense that relies on a mix of inexperienced players and vets whose teeth looked a little longer after this game.
Safety Antoine Bethea said there were only five or six big plays allowed that made the difference.
Only five or six?
“We made it way easier for them than we should have,” safety Jabrill Peppers said.
Prescott very nearly agreed.
“Nothing is easy,” he said, “but we felt like a well-oiled machine though.”
The Giants lost their regular season opener for the third straight season and the eighth time in the last nine.
It may be difficult to remember the good times after a game such as this one, but the Giants actually led 7-0 and looked impressive early in the first quarter. They forced a punt on the Cowboys’ first possession, then drove 91 yards for the opening touchdown. Saquon Barkley had an electrifying 59-yard run on the second snap of the season, Manning hit Evan Engram for a 1-yard touchdown and all seemed right with the world.
Then the Cowboys tied the score on a 28-yard play-action touchdown pass to a wide-open Blake Jarwin, went ahead 14-7 on a 4-yard touchdown pass to recently unretired tight end Jason Witten, and started separating from the Giants on a 21-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper over first-round pick DeAndre Baker to go ahead 21-7 with 1:13 left in the half.
The Giants had a chance to creep closer. Their two-minute drill after Cooper’s TD lasted eight plays and ended with a 44-yard Hail Mary attempt that was incomplete. Barkley was not targeted on that drive.
Then, in the third quarter, trailing 28-10, they reached the Dallas 8 and had third-and-2. They again ignored Barkley, handing off to Eli Penny and rolling Manning out for a sack and fumble.
That wasn’t what lost the game, though. It was the five straight touchdown drives that the Cowboys shoved through the defense. “We’ve got to get that rectified, especially against a good team,” Pat Shurmur said.
In what may well have been his final Giants game in a stadium that he christened with a win, Manning was an afterthought. Those heady days must have felt like a lifetime ago as he stood on the sideline watching Jones finish what he had started. Manning completed 30 of 44 for 306 yards.
Barkley, too, had a strong statistical showing (120 rushing yards, 19 receiving yards). “They’re a great team,” he said of the Cowboys. “[But] I don’t believe they’re that much better than us.”
On Sunday they were.