EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — He was heralded and praised just a few months ago. In a situation that begged for a passive approach, Giants coach Brian Daboll, in the season opener, chose to send a message and set a tone for how his ball club would play with the game on the line. It worked.
Which is exactly what makes this Giants 20-20 tie to Washington on Sunday, in a game they desperately needed, so difficult to digest.
New York again had an opportunity to go for the win. Only this time, it shied away.
Now you just hope this won’t be the moment that keeps them out of the postseason.
“I’m treating it like an L,” linebacker Jihad Ward said. “I don’t know what a tie is.”
It never should have come down to this. Seriously. It shouldn’t have. Washington jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, but then the Giants finally got going. They scored 10 unanswered of their own, highlighted by a Saquon Barkley (63 rushing yards, 18 receiving) 13-yard touchdown. Washington responded with a field goal, but then the Giants scored another 10 unanswered when Graham Gano kicked a 27-yard field goal and Daniel Jones found Isaiah Hodgins from six yards out.
That 20-13 advantage held from the second quarter through the fourth. The Giants defense tightened on Taylor Heinicke. All the offense needed to do was something — anything — and they’d put the game on ice.
Instead, the Giants punted on each of their four drives after Hodgins’ touchdown. Bad penalties (John Felciano’s unsportsmanlike conduct), bad calls (two long shots on a potential game-winning drive at the end of the fourth) and bad breakdowns (Heinicke took Washington 90 yards to tie the game in the fourth quarter) all played a role.
But if you’ve learned nothing about the Giants this year it’s that everything with this team is going to be some variation of ugly. They scratch and claw and try to gut it out in the end.
And, again, they had a chance to do just that on Sunday.
Only this time, instead of going for the win, they played not to lose.
Jones and the offense had a fourth-and-3 at the Washington 45 with under two minutes to play in overtime. All the Giants needed was a field goal to win. They could have been aggressive. They could have gone for the win. Instead, the Giants did the exact opposite of what helped them upset Tennessee in the opener.
“I thought that was the best thing to do,” Daboll said.
The Giants do not have enough talent to rely on talent alone. The damage Dave Gettleman did to this roster over the past four years cannot be overstated. Daboll and his staff have managed to bridge the gap by out-scheming and out-coaching their opposition. They take chances when others don’t in hopes it gives them that edge. That’s exactly what they did against the Titans in the opener.
The Giants scored a late touchdown. They could have tied the game with a point after attempt. Instead, Daboll went for two. The Giants converted. The Giants eventually won.
Jamie Gillan’s punt was the exact opposite of everything that has led to this team’s success so far this year. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that it cost New York now. The defense did hold Washington, but there were just 28 seconds on the clock the next time Jones and company touched the ball.
The Giants managed to move from their 43 to the Washington 40. That was easily 10 yards from where they comfortably needed to be. Gano’s 58-yard attempt was well short. He said after the game his target line was the 35. He knew making anything more than 53 yarder in that direction (cold, wind in face) was going to be a stark challenge.
“As a competitor, you want to go out there and make those plays,” Barkley said. “At the end of the day, (Daboll) is going to make the decisions to put us in the best case to win the game. He’s been doing a really good job all year, and we’re not going to start questioning now.”
You can see Daboll’s logic with the punt — he essentially admitted to the conversations while standing behind the podium. There were two worst-case scenarios. The one where the Giants go for it and don’t get it: Washington moves the ball 20 yards and kicks a game-winning field goal. The one where the Giants punt it deep: Washington runs out the clock and the game ends in a tie.
Daboll picked the lesser of what he believed to be two evils, instead of going jugular. The Giants sit 7-4-1 now as a result. This might all prove to be a moot point in the coming weeks. It’s understandable if an unsettling feeling set in when watching Gano’s kick fall short.
The Giants’ remaining schedule is not easy. They face the Eagles (11-1) next week before a rematch with Washington. Then it’s the Vikings (10-2), Colts (4-7-1) and Eagles again. The magic number to reach the postseason is 10 — the right nine might do it, but definitely 10.
By playing for the tie, the Giants make it so that, without a doubt, they have to beat Washington in their rematch and then the Colts. If they can steal the season finale against the Eagles, presumably resting their starters, they’re in. But the nail is in the coffin if the Giants can’t beat Washington in the rematch.
That pressure wasn’t there if the Giants won on Sunday. They had a chance to make that happen, too, on fourth-and-3.
Instead, Daboll chose to punt.
And now the Giants have to deal with the potential repercussions.
“I think we’re all pretty disappointed with the result,” Jones said.