INDIANAPOLIS – Saquon Barkley was testy, frustrated and maybe a little bit ticked off as he stood in the locker room after Sunday’s loss to the Colts. He had been limited to 43 rushing yards, the Giants blew a 14-point lead and his team dropped to 5-10.
“I hate losing,” he said. “It doesn’t sit well in my stomach.”
A 28-27 defeat will cause that kind of indigestion.
Strangely enough, though, it also sprouted some optimism. No, the Giants didn’t make enough plays to come away with a win at Lucas Oil Stadium, but they did seem to make enough against a team fighting for a playoff berth that the effects of this game may resonate into some Sunday to come.
So Barkley, the rookie running back who undoubtedly will be at the center of whatever future the Giants have in the coming years, said he has no choice but to cling to his belief that everything – even the losing – happens for a reason.
“We are going through adversity,” he said. “But once we get this thing figured out, and I believe it will be soon, we’ll get this thing going and we’ll be playing at a high level. We’re going to look back and laugh at years like this.”
Like Ebenezer Scrooge’s gloomier glimpse forward, that Giants path is not etched in stone. There are plenty of ways these next few years could play out. As the Giants head into the final game of their miserable season, however, they chose to embrace a tone of hope and raise a holiday toast to better days ahead.
There are no moral victories in the NFL, of course. No gold stars for efforts that come up short. As Pat Shurmur said after the game, “Right is right.”
“You win or you lose, and we didn’t win,” he added. “That’s the reality. That’s the big boy part of this.”
But maybe the Giants did make progress in their quest to change the culture they have been striving to redefine. This time the sanguine message came not from the head coach but from the players themselves, and they were not simply parroting his talking points but instead saying – and feeling – their own truths.
The Giants have lost seven games by a total of 28 points, including four games by a total of nine points. “We’re super-close,” wide receiver Sterling Shepard said. “We’re there. We just have to find what the little things are and correct them . . . We just have to figure out what it is and get over the hump.”
In this game, there were a few. Eli Manning played his best game of the season, completing 25 of 33 passes for 309 yards, throwing for one touchdown and rushing for another. Shepard caught five passes for 110 yards in the first half alone and tight end Evan Engram gained 113 yards on eight touches, including 26 yards on two carries.
But with the Giants ahead 24-21 early in the fourth quarter and facing a second-and-2 at the Indianapolis 7, they had to settle for a field goal that kept it a one-possession game. When the Colts punted and pinned them at their 4 with 6:34 left, they could not get a critical first down and punted it back. And when they needed a defensive stop in the final two minutes, they committed two defensive penalties – one each on Tae Davis and B.J. Webb -- that set up a 1-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Luck to Chester Rodgers that gave the Colts their first lead of the game, 28-27, with 55 seconds left.
A desperation downfield pass by Manning was picked off with 23 seconds left to end any hopes of a Giants win.
“They made enough plays to win and we didn’t in the end,” Shurmur said.
In the big picture, though, this may be more beginning than end.
It’s not only the young kids such as Barkley and Shepard who have many years left in the league – and probably with the Giants -- who are blithely stoked with optimism because they don’t know any better. Center John Greco has spent his career on losing teams (including six seasons with the Browns) and has been part of plenty of squads that had records similar to these Giants, but with very different vibes.
“For a lot of years during my career in Cleveland, we could never turn the corner,” said Greco, 33. “This team, I think, putting the record aside, we believe each week that we can win. There’s no doubt . . . You can sense the change in the locker room. You have guys whether they’re young, old, in between, fighting for one another. I think that’s what you need to have a good team, and we’re right there.”
Greco might not make it there with them. He’s a free agent after this season. He said he’ll discuss with his family in the coming months whether he even wants to play beyond next week. And he’s OK with all of that. Especially if he can feel as if he helped set the Giants on a proper course.
“I can’t play forever,” he said. “I’ve been saying these last three or four years, ‘Man, I just want to be on a winning team.’ Whether I play next year or not, if I don’t, and I see it, then I can say at least I was a part of the change and I’ll have that gratification. It’ll be fun seeing my teammates, the guys I played with, moving forward and having success. Hopefully I can say that I felt like I was a part of it.”
And days like Sunday will be looked back on with a knowing nod, a wink and maybe – maybe – a laugh from Barkley.