Brian Daboll has told his team all season long to drag their opponents into the deep end to see if they can swim. The Giants have won a lot of games in the fourth quarter doing exactly that.
But here they are, headed towards the deep end of their season, and suddenly they’re the ones drowning.
Maybe that’s why the rookie head coach seemed so furious both during and after the Giants’ 28-20 loss to the Cowboys in Dallas on Thanksgiving. This Giants team has fought as hard as it could, with surprising results, all season long just like they did when they took a halftime lead on Thursday.
But lately, when it matters most, nothing is going their way.
They are making key mistakes on the field. They can’t run the football anymore. Saquon Barkley isn’t carrying them the way he was early in the season. And the injuries are piling up so high they were forced into this game without three starting offensive linemen, two starting cornerbacks, a starting tight end, a starting safety and a rag-tag receiving corps that has been a mess all season.
No wonder Daboll was slamming his headset and screaming at officials on the sidelines. No wonder that in his post-game press conference, his answers were short and tense.
“I think it is a tough loss, it’s a divisional game and a game we didn’t play our best,” said Giants quarterback Daniel Jones when asked about his coach’s dour disposition. “It’s always disappointing. We didn’t do what we need to do to win the game.
“It’s frustrating for all of us.”
There’s no doubt the frustration is starting to show for this upstart team, and the timing couldn’t possibly be worse. At 7-4, they’re now closer to last place than first in the NFC East, and their cushion in the playoff race is dramatically shrinking. They are staring at a very dangerous final six games, that include two games against the 9-1 Philadelphia Eagles, two against a Washington Commanders team that has won five of six and a game against the Minnesota Vikings, who began their game last night with a record of 8-2.
That’s a brutal stretch for a struggling team that has been brutalized by injuries.
“They don’t get any easier,” Daboll said. “Each week is tough.”
And he knows it’s just going to get tougher for the Giants if they don’t get back some of their injured players which is far from guaranteed. Of course they weren’t going to stop Cowboys receivers CeeDee Lamb (6 catches, 106 yards) and Michael Gallup (5-63) and tight end Dalton Schultz (4-31, 2 touchdowns) when they were missing three starters from their secondary (cornerbacks Adoree’ Jackson and Fabian Moreau and safety Xavier McKinney). And they were lucky to get 39 yards and a touchdown out of Saquon Barkley behind an offensive line missing its starting center (Jon Feliciano), right tackle (Evan Neal) and left guards (Shane Lemieux and Josh Ezeudu).
They’re actually down to third-stringers or worse at many of those positions, which only compounds the problem for a roster that wasn’t that good to begin with. They can say “ext man up” as much as they want, but at some point all those “next men” start to hurt.
And that’s where they are now, especially on offense. Barkley has 62 yards on 26 carries over the last two weeks and he is still their entire offense. It’s not exactly a secret that if teams stop Barkley, they stop the Giants. And over the last two weeks, Barkley looks way off track.
“With the run game, everybody needs to do better,” Daboll said. “The blocking, the running, the design we’ve got to do a better job all the way around.”
That’s easy to say, but look at what they’re working with. The Giants started three linemen right tackle Tyre Phillips, left guard Jack Anderson and center Nick Gates who weren’t even with them in training camp and never figured to be key parts of this line. And left tackle Andrew Thomas was playing through an unspecified illness. That was clearly going to be a problem against the Cowboys’ dangerous front. It’s an even bigger problem with teams loading up to stop Barkley, daring Jones to throw to the likes of Richie James (5-41) and Isaiah Hodgins (3-31).
Jones (21 of 35, 228 yards, 1 touchdown) did have one big play a 44-yard pass to Darius Slayton (3-63) but otherwise the offense didn’t do much. They held a 13-7 halftime lead mostly because Dak Prescott threw two interceptions and the Cowboys committed seven penalties.
Still, it felt like the Giants were barely clinging to that lead. So when they collapsed in the second half, which the Cowboys opened with three straight touchdown drives while the Giants had 85 total yards before their final, garbage-time touchdown drive, no one should have been surprised.
That’s sort of the way this season is starting to feel. Daboll deserves Coach of the Year votes for getting the Giants off to a 7-2 start. They were playing far above their heads, but were well-coached and tough and were grinding out wins in the fourth quarter. Other than Barkley, there was never a whole lot to like about their team, except that they won a lot more than even they expected to do.
But after all that, they are just losing their grip. It might take an even better coaching job over the final six games to keep this Giants team above water. Their roster is the only thing thinner than their margin of error. They’re playing with too many backups and third-stringers or worse to sustain any kind of success.
The Giants just look like a team that’s falling apart.
Not that Daboll was willing to entertain any of those thoughts on Thursday, dismissing their struggles as just “the ebbs and flows of a season.” Asked if he sees this as a bit of a crossroads for his damaged team, he snapped before the question was even finished.
“No,” he said. “I see us getting ready to play Washington.”
That game is suddenly huge, because with a loss, the Giants could find themselves outside the NFC playoff picture. Ready or not, they’re in the deep end of the playoff race now, the water is getting choppy and they’re running out of time to remember how to swim.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano