If Joe Judge saw his season flash before his eyes as he carried his star running back off the Soldier Field turf, he wasn’t about to share that with the public. Ever defiant, ever the optimist, Judge did everything but utter the hollow cliché “Next man up.”
As if the next man could possibly replace the one that went down.
“It's never about what happens to you. It's about how you respond to it,” Judge said, after the Giants lost 17-13 to the Bears, and more importantly lost running back Saquon Barkley, likely for the season. “I liked the way our guys responded. We've got the right guys. We've got the right kind of guys.”
Maybe they do, but the Giants now don’t have Barkley, a 23-year-old superstar who was clearly one of the most talented running backs in the game. He suffered a likely torn ACL early in the game on Sunday that led to the painful scene of watching his head coach help him off the field before he was carted off to the locker room.
If that diagnosis is confirmed on Monday – and the Giants certainly believe it will be -- then Barkley is out for the season. And that’s an enormous loss that won’t be easy for the remaining Giants players to survive.
So how will they respond – or how can they respond? Here’s a look at what needs to happen for the Giants to survive what could be a very long, next 14 games:
1. Bring in help
There’s always a chance that Wayne Gallman is an undiscovered gem who just needs a chance. Except he’s had chances before and the results haven’t been good. He started the week after Barkley got hurt last season and gained just 63 yards on 18 carries. He’s never broken 90 yards in a game.
Dion Lewis has, but he’s a 29-year-old third-down back, not a workhorse. And Eli Penny is mostly a fullback. That’s why the Giants have to make a push to sign Devonta Freeman, who will arrive on Monday for the start of his testing, workout and visit with the Giants. They need at least someone on the roster who has experience as a workhorse. Freeman, a former 1,000-yard back who was cut by the Falcons in the offseason, is the best bet.
Other options: Bilal Powell is looking for work, but the ex-Jet is 31 and an injury risk. Other than that, there’s not much on the market, unless 34-year-old Marshawn Lynch feels like unretiring again.
2. Turn Daniel Jones loose
Barkley suffered a serious ankle sprain in Jones’ debut last season, and that was a crushing blow in a rookie quarterback’s first start. But Jones still completed 23 of 36 passes for 336 yards and two touchdowns. Given the circumstances it’s still perhaps the most remarkable performance of his career.
The Giants wanted to build this offense around Barkley and the run game, but offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has to see he can’t do that now. They should trust Jones and let him carry the team – and by design, not out of necessity. He showed he can do it last year without Barkley and with a hobbled Barkley, all while playing behind a terrible offensive line. Now he’s going to have to do it again.
3. The O-line really has to be fixed
There are no more time for growing pains or building chemistry. The line has to be better – far better – than it’s been in the first two games. It looked better at times on Sunday in Chicago, but the results were the same. Jones has now been sacked a ridiculous seven times in two games, while the Giants have run for a pathetic total of 104 yards – 61 yards if you don’t count their quarterback running for his life.
If you want to know what’s coming for the Giants, just look back on Opening Night when the Steelers teed off on Jones once they neutralized the run game. Only it’ll be worse because defenses won’t worry about the run game anymore. So expect lots of blitzes and heavy pressure. If this line can’t keep it off Jones and maybe create a hole or two for less talented running backs, there will be no hope for the Giants at all.
4. The defense must carry them
Yes, you read that right. And the defense actually has been pretty good the first two weeks – at least by the Giants’ recent standards. They currently rank fifth in the NFL, and while it’s far too early for such rankings to matter, it’s still quite an achievement for a defense that has been a disaster the last few years.
The Giants actually have mounted a decent pass rush (six sacks). The front seven has been formidable against the run. And cornerback James Bradberry has lived up to his billing as the Giants’ top free agent, even though the rest of the secondary around him is a mess.
It won’t be easy, but the Giants’ best bet is for Patrick Graham’s defense to hold strong and keep the scoring low, giving the Giants a chance to grind out a few close wins – which might be the best they can do.
5. Joe Judge needs to be aggressive and creative
There’s no reason to hold back anything anymore. At 0-2 the Giants are likely doomed anyway, since only 12 percent of those teams have gone on to make the playoffs in the last 30 seasons. And most of those teams were better than this current group.
The best way to lose his team? Go into a shell. Play conservative. Play scared. The best way to energize them? Pull out every trick in the book. Whatever it takes. Take shots down field. Throw in some razzle dazzle. Be aggressive on fourth down. Blitz the heck out of the opposition. Don’t worry about the risks. Sure, it could blow up spectacularly. But who cares? If it works, think of the confidence it will build.
And that, sadly, is what Judge’s main priority will be for the rest of the season: Building confidence and a culture of winning. Giving his players a reason to believe they can succeed. Maybe there are no medals for trying, but in this case a few moral victories could go a long way towards a better future. And who knows? One big play, when the coach took an unexpected chance on someone, could even be enough to change an entire game.
It could even change the tone of what already feels like a lost season.