Sterling Shepard did not realize it, but his nine catches against Washington on Thursday moved him ahead of Bob Tucker and into ninth place on the team’s all-time receptions list.
"How many more do I need to get to eight?" he asked when it was brought to his attention.
Six to pass Chris Calloway. And if the season keeps going the way it has been for him — after two weeks he was tied for the NFL lead with 16 receptions — he could pass Frank Gifford, Ike Hilliard, Jeremy Shockey, and maybe even his old pal Odell Beckham Jr., to move into the top four.
"That’s special, man," he told Newsday. "There have been a lot of great players who have come through and played here and to have your name in the books is one of the reasons why all of us play the game. We all want to leave a stamp that will be here after you are gone."
As Shepard’s march up the list is showing, however, such placements in the record books are fleeting and can be eclipsed at just about any time. Look at poor Hakeem Nicks who began the season as the 10th most prolific pass-catcher in franchise history. Shepard has since bumped him off the page.
But Nicks has another kind of immortality with the Giants, one that no one can ever take away. He has a Super Bowl ring. Shepard? He is the longest tenured current Giant as he plays in his sixth season, their most consistent player this season, and swiftly climbing the ranks of all-time greats with the franchise. But he hasn’t even won a postseason game in the uniform.
"Man, my team goals exceed my individual goals to be honest," he said. "They trump my individual goals."
Then he took a deep breath.
"I want to get back to the playoffs so bad," he said. "That’s my goal. You ask me my goal? That’s my goal."
Shepard did get there once, as a rookie, in 2016. Like most young players, he didn’t appreciate it as it was happening.
"Honestly I thought then that it was an easy thing to do," he said. "I came out of college from a winning program then came here and went 11-5. I thought that was normal. But I haven’t been back since. That’s something I want the younger guys here now to experience. Playoff football has a different feel. Everything about it is different."
The way he and the rest of the Giants receivers performed in that game, a wild-card loss to the Packers, remains one of the biggest regrets of his career.
"One thing I do remember them telling me is that Eli is a different man when it comes to the playoffs," he said. "I was like ‘Yeah, I know, I remember watching him when I was younger.’ But I never had really seen it first-hand. He was different. I mean, his preparation was always on point, but man, he was playing lights out. I wish we would have helped him more."
In the first two drives of the game he and Beckham combined to drop four passes, one each in the end zone, and the Giants lost, 38-13.
Shepard assumed he’d get a crack at redemption right soon. Instead he’s still waiting.
He said he met with former teammate Brandon Marshall this week and the two spoke about how difficult it is just to make the playoffs. Marshall played 13 NFL seasons with six different franchises. None of his teams ever played more than the 16 regular-season games scheduled.
That’s one of the reasons why Shepard is having the kind of season he is having, why he put forth what he considered and those around the organization recognized as his strongest training camp and preseason of his career. He understands the urgency to get back. And he’ll drag the team there if he has to. He’s only 28 years old, but he understands he is likely at least halfway through his NFL career and if the Giants don’t win soon it will bring about yet another rebuild that would make an expensive veteran like himself all the more expendable.
There is urgency.
"He brings energy and juice to practice every day, energy and juice to the game whether we are up or down," wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said. "He holds himself to such a high level and he wants everyone to play at that same level."
So much so that on the last drive of the opening game against Denver, when most of the Giants fans had already fled MetLife Stadium and the Broncos had sealed the victory, he was pushing everyone on the field to finish strong.
"He was telling them "Come on, everybody, let’s keep performing at a high level,’" Tolbert said.
For what it’s worth, the Giants did score a touchdown on that drive as Daniel Jones ran it in as time expired.
Whether he can snap the sled dogs around him to mush their way through the rest of this regular season is anyone’s guess. They’re 0-2, just as they have been at the start of each year of Shepard’s career other than his rookie season. Shepard thinks the Giants are "close" to being a playoff team, though. He loves his quarterback. He trusts his defense. He believes in the message of his head coach.
"I’m where my feet are and focusing on Atlanta right now," he said, "but that’s something I want to happen. I’m going to keep doing my thing and keep trying to help the team win any way I can."
If he can accomplish that, it will put him on a list separate from the all-time this or the single-season that. It will put him on one of the Super Bowl banners that hang in the team’s fieldhouse. There have been four there since the day Shepard was drafted, each stitched with the name of every player and coach on the teams that won it all.
That would be the real stamp to leave on the organization long after he is gone.
MOST RECEPTIONS IN GIANTS HISTORY
Amani Toomer — 1996-08 — 668
Tiki Barber — 1997-06 — 586
Joe Morrison — 1959-72 — 395
Odell Beckham Jr. — 2014-18 — 390
Jeremy Shockey — 2002-07 — 371
Ike Hilliard — 1997-04 — 368
Frank Gifford — 1952-64 — 367
Chris Calloway — 1992-98 — 334
Sterling Shepard — 2016-present — 329
Bob Tucker — 1970-77 — 327