NASHVILLE – When he stood before his team on Saturday night, hours before his first game as an NFL head coach, Brian Daboll had a message for his players.
"I am not going to coach scared," he told them, emphatically.
On Sunday, Daboll was true to his word, ordering the Giants to try a two-point conversion after they had pulled to within a point of the Tennessee Titans with 1:06 remaining in the fourth quarter. Of course, the decision doesn't seem so risky when you can put the ball in Saquon Barkley's hands. The sensational back caught a shovel pass from Daniel Jones and fought his way into the end zone to give the Giants a 22-21 lead. The touchdown and conversion were the only points of the fourth quarter.
But the Giants still had to endure anxious moments, Tennessee's final possession, including holding penalties on Austin Calitro and Darnay Holmes a 21-yard completion to rookie Kyle Phillips that put the Titans in field goal range and – most notably – kicker Randy Bullock's 47-yard try on the game's final play. It curled wide of the left upright and the Giants had a pulsating and inspiring one-point victory in Nissan Stadium, their first on opening day since 2016.
And it happened because of Daboll's gutsy decision, an option he was forced to consider after the Giants' flubbed their first extra point try due to a bad snap.
When did Daboll decide to go for two?
"When we got the ball," he said.
That was at the Giants' 27-yard line with 5:27 remaining. The Giants needed 12 plays – including Barkley's 33-yard run and an intrepid fourth-down conversion by Jones – and 4:21 to cover the 73 yards, but Daboll had already solidified and communicated his decision to try to take the lead.
"Go for the win," he said. "We're going to be aggressive. That's what we want to do. That's the mindset I want the players to have. If it didn't work, I could live with it. I thought that was the right decision. We were an inch away, or whatever it was. I trust Saquon. I grabbed a couple of the defensive players who had busted their tails out there along with some of the offensive guys that weren't out there and said, 'Hey, we've got the ball wherever it was.' I said, 'If we score, I'm going for two. Are you guys good with that?' And they said, 'F yeah.'"
"He's been very clear throughout training camp and throughout the week preparing for this game that he's going to be aggressive in those situations and give us the chance to execute," Jones said. "So, I wasn't surprised. I don't think any of us were surprised by that at all."
View photos from the Giants' Week 1 win over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.
Daboll simply is going to coach based on the good that happens if his decisions succeed and not worry about the consequences if they don't.
"Absolutely," he said. "That's what you sign up for when you're a leader. Being a leader is tough. It's not easy. There's going to be plenty of times that I fail. And I understand that, but I try to prepare the best I can along with the other coaches on the staff and that's what I want out of the players, too. You got to be able to take the good with the bad. There will be plenty bad. I understand that, but just have a lot of confidence in our players."
Barkley certainly has earned it after two injury-plagued seasons. He rushed for 164 yards, the fourth-highest total of his career, and averaged 9.1 yards on his 18 carries. Barkley scored the team's first touchdown on a four-yard run, which was set up by his 68-yard scamper. He also led the team with six receptions, for 30 yards.
"He had a good spring, a good summer, and when you have a guy that you have a lot of trust in, you put it in their hands," Daboll said. "It's a players' game. … Trust your players and let them go."
Barkley's teammates were thrilled to see him charge of the game.
"We got the best back in the league," said Sterling Shepard, the most tenured-Giant. "He showed it today, and there isn't anything else to be said. I love the way he's been running the ball in practice, and he brought it straight to the game field. I'm happy with him, and I'm so proud of him because he's been working his ass off. And he deserves everything. I can't wait to see him the rest of the season. This is a great start for him. He looked top notch out there."
"It was fun. A lot of fun (watching Barkley play)," Jones said. "You saw the explosiveness, and it was fun to watch him. He's had a great camp and seeing where he's come from – he's battled back from a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries (torn ACL, sprained ankle). To get out here and do what he did today, it was a lot of fun to watch as a teammate and as a friend."
The Giants did not perform flawlessly. They did not score a point in the first half, when they totaled 131 yards and seven first downs. Titans running back Dontrell Hilliard, who did not have a receiving touchdown among his first 40 games and 41 catches, scored on throws of seven and 23 yards, the latter giving Tennessee a 20-13 lead with 2:54 left in the third quarter.
Barkley scored the Giants' first points early in the third quarter, but a bad snap cost them the extra point. After the Titans went three-and-out. Shepard got behind cornerback Kristian Fulton, caught the ball at the 29-yard line and raced to the end zone for a 65-yard score. That tied the game at 13-13.
After Hilliard put Tennessee ahead, the Giants had a chance to even the score when Jason Pinnock recovered a fumbled punt on the Titans' 11-yard line. But Jones' third-down pass to the left side of the end zone for Barkley was intercepted by Amani Hooker, which at the time seemed like a deflating mistake.
"Just a poor decision," Jones said. "Certainly, a play to take advantage of him and try to get him the ball, but I've got to make a better decision there and make sure we keep points."
But the defense forced a punt, enabling the Giants to regain the ball and begin the series that resulted in tight end Chris Myarick's touchdown and Daboll's fearless decision to try for the lead.
After Bullock muffed a chance to win the game for the Titans as time expired, the Giants' locker room exploded in a spasm of celebration and dancing, including Daboll.
Barkley and fellow captain Xavier McKinney emerged from the scrum and presented game balls to Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen.
"It was nice," Daboll said. "(The players) gave both of us a game ball, which I appreciate, but I don't play the game. It's those guys that get hit and fight through it for 60 minutes. But we got a long way to go. It's good to get one win, but we got a long way to go. There's a lot of things to correct. I know that."
So do the players.
The Giants play their home opener Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.