ARLINGTON, Texas – After an active and productive offseason in which they drafted seven players who made their NFL debuts on Sunday, added talented veterans on offense and defense, and transformed 40% of the roster, the Giants returned to the field to absorb an unpleasant result.
They lost to the Dallas Cowboys in AT&T Stadium, 35-17, in a game very similar to their 2018 finale, a 36-35 loss to the same NFC East rivals.
How similar? Quarterback Dak Prescott was the Cowboy who inflicted the most damage, throwing four touchdown passes and no interceptions while completing 25 of 32 passes for 405 yards. That gave him a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
Less than nine months ago, Prescott completed 27 of 44 passes for 387 yards and, yes, four touchdowns.
On Sunday, Prescott took advantage of a clean pocket (no sacks and just two Giants pressures) and several breakdowns in the secondary to throw scoring passes to four different receivers – 28 yards to Blake Jarwin (who scored three times in MetLife Stadium in December), four yards to Jason Witten (playing his first game since 2017), 21 yards to Amari Cooper and 25 yards to Randall Cobb. Dallas also got a 10-yard touchdown run from Ezekiel Elliott.
"On defense, I think there were some big plays against us in the passing game that we've got to – we've got to get that rectified, especially against a good team," coach Pat Shurmur said. "There were a couple that we've got to get closer in coverage. I'll look at it. I've got an idea of what happened, but I want to make sure I see it before I follow-up with a full answer."
"You kind of have to step back and look at the big picture," safety Antoine Bethea said. "It was like five or six plays. Five or six big plays where they made a play or a miscommunication on our end. We have to go in tomorrow and critique the film. A lot of the stuff we did wrong is correctible."
Is the same true of the inability to put pressure on Prescott?
"We've got to look at that, too," Shurmur said. "That has an effect on how well the quarterback plays."
Dallas gained 494 yards and converted six of 10 third down opportunities.
"Those are just numbers, man," cornerback Janoris Jenkins said. "This is week one. We still have 15 more weeks to go. Numbers are numbers. At the end of the day, we are going out to win the "W," and we just have to get back to work."
Speaking of numbers, the offense posted several that were impressive, but couldn't convert them into enough points. The Giants gained 470 yards, their highest total in 19 games dating back to 2017. Eli Manning completed 30 of 44 passes for 306 yards and one touchdown and did not throw an interception. The new-look offensive line allowed only one sack and enabled Saquon Barkley (120 yards on 11 carries, including a 59-yarder) and Evan Engram (11 catches for 116 yards) to give the Giants a 100-yard rusher and receiver in the same game since the 2018 opener vs. Jacksonville.
But after a promising start, they fizzled. On their first possession, Manning's one-yard touchdown pass to Engram capped a 91-yard drive. But they didn't reach the end zone again until 2:49 remained in the game, when Wayne Gallman scored on a two-run to make the final margin more respectable. The seven possessions between the touchdowns yielded only Aldrick Rosas' 28-yard field goal, in part because they converted only two of 11 third down opportunities in the game.
"I thought we got off to a good start," Manning said. "The defense got a stop. We got the ball, drove down there. We had a good drive and scored a touchdown. The next time we got the ball, we had another great drive going down there. We had a third and short and tried a little action and didn't have anything. Unfortunately, we got called for grounding, which I thought Saquon was in the area of that throw. We were probably going to go for it on fourth down. Instead, we got no points. (The penalty) backs us up and we got nothing. It was just an unfortunate situation there."
"We've just got to finish drives," Engram said. "We kind of made some mistakes that put us back a couple times. Our defense was playing good and got stops. But we've got to finish drives. That simple."
The game was out of reach when the Giants took possession at their own 39 with 1:46 remaining, so Shurmur inserted rookie quarterback Daniel Jones into the game.
Jones completed three of four passes for 17 yards but fumbled away the ball on a third down from the Cowboys' 44-yard line.
"I thought it was the right thing to do to get him some work" Shurmur said. "We don't want to fumble the ball like he did. You can see he's a competitive guy. He'll learn to run that out of bounds. In his mind, he competes and he said, 'I wanted to guarantee we got the first (down).' You've just got to secure the ball on that play. For the rest of it, I felt like it was important to get him some work."
Manning also made his debut as a substitute in his first game, on the road against a division opponent. On Sept. 12, 2004 in Philadelphia, he relieved Kurt Warner with 2:37 remaining and the Giants trailing, 31-10. He completed three of nine passes for 66 yards. On Manning's first career snap, he handed the ball to Tiki Barber, who ran 72 yards for a touchdown.
Jones had nothing quite so momentous in his first regular-season action, but he enjoyed the experience.
"It was good," he said. "It was exciting to run out there…it being a regular season game has a different feel to it. The circumstance of the game also felt a little different. It was still exciting to be out there."
Jones is expected to eventually succeed Manning as the starter. On Sunday, he was just a temporary stand-in.
"I was excited," Jones said. "I don't think there was an awkwardness to it. I'm the backup quarterback, so that's my job."
"The game was kind of out of reach at that point," Manning said. "We took some guys out. I was fine with it."
The Giants aren't currently looking at big personnel changes. They need more points from the players who are on the field.
"We wanted to come out and start the season out right," Barkley said. "But I do think that we did a lot of great things. We made a couple of mistakes and they were able capitalize on those mistakes. We've just got to get better, get back to the drawing boards."
The next chance to celebrate their first victory will come Sunday in the home opener vs. the Buffalo Bills.