They learned the playbook. They learned about the speed of the NFL. Now the Giants’ top two rookies — tight end Evan Engram and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson — are learning their next lesson about pro football.
How to lose.
Or more to the point, how to handle losing.
No NFL team since 1973 has been able to go a full season without dealing with it at least once, and it’s not something that many players are prepared for in college. Tomlinson played at Alabama and lost seven games his entire career there. He’s been with the Giants for less than two months and already has lost six.
“It’s hard to win games in the NFL,” he said when asked what he has taken from the early days of his career. “Most games are decided by a touchdown or less. Things happen, but you have to continue getting better and just move on to the next week, refocus on the next game, just so you can go out there and give it your all.”
It’s probably not something Engram and Tomlinson gave much thought to in April when the Giants drafted them in the first and second rounds. At that time, they were thinking about how they would fit in and about where their place in the franchise’s championship legacy would be. They likely were giddy that they’d been selected by a playoff team that seemed to be on the rise rather than by any of the moribund teams throughout the league.
In other words, being 1-6 and, for all practical purposes, eliminated from playoff contention before the calendar even turned to November was not what they were expecting. But it’s what they have been handed. The championship window may be closing on some of the veterans, but for the rookies, it hasn’t even been cracked open yet.
“The biggest thing I’ve been learning is a lot about myself, about this team, about kind of handling adversity and how hard it is to win in this league,” Engram said. “Definitely a lot of learning, a lot of fighting. This team is really relentless, and I try to come in here and be the same with these guys each and every day.”
Engram at least has some experience with losing and disappointment, strange as it may be to put it that way. His Ole Miss team went 5-7 last year. It started the year No. 11 in the country but by mid-October had fallen out of the rankings.
He wound up taking on a larger leadership role throughout that season, and this year with the Giants, he’ll likely have to do the same. For the past two games, he’s been their only viable offensive weapon.
“Guys are going to have to step up across the board, but personally, I definitely am ready to be whatever I have to be to help this team as much as I can,” Engram said. “If that’s an increased role, I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to attack it. These guys are going to push me and I’m going to push them as well.”
Engram and Tomlinson aren’t the only rookies trying to adjust to their new reality.
“We’re a close-knit group and we push each other,” Engram said. “We help each other. So these guys, these young guys, are definitely fighting. There are some things we can get better at, some things we can continue to improve on, but we’re staying positive. We’re coming up here and working.”
Said Tomlinson: “For the most part, the rookies are just trying to improve so we can help contribute to the team more than we did in the past. We just feel like we have to continue to get better.”
They’re actually doing pretty well. Tomlinson is a starter on defense and a strong contributor; Engram has had a positive impact on the passing game. He led all rookies in receiving yards through the first seven weeks (342), was tied for the lead in touchdown catches (three) and was second in receptions (30) behind Christian McCaffrey (44). Engram’s season stats project to 69 catches for 782 yards. Given what should become a larger role, that could put him in range of Jeremy Shockey’s Giants rookie records at tight end (74, 894 in 2002).
Not even that possibility could make Engram flash a smile, though.
“I mean, it’s tough to be pleased when we’re losing as a team,” he said. “[I’ve had] big games here and there, but with a loss, it’s kind of hard to feel good about it. There’s always things that you can look back on. Maybe if I did this better, we score here, or if I did this better, we get this first down. So it’s definitely tough to enjoy playing well but not getting the results we want as a team.”
That, more than anything, may be the lesson he and his fellow rookies take with them throughout their careers from this otherwise forgettable season.
“I try to stay positive and I don’t live in the past,” Engram said. “It’s definitely tough in the moment and in situations, definitely in games when things aren’t going our way. But I definitely don’t let it linger. I throw it in the trash and get ready and get excited for the next opportunity.”
The next game. Or, maybe, the next year.