EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The play that perhaps best illustrated the Giants' frustration in the first half of the season occurred on the second play of the fourth quarter against Washington on Oct. 28.
The Giants trailed, 10-3, when Olivier Vernon's 43-yard fumble return gave them possession on the Redskins' 39-yard line. It was soon fourth down, but the Giants needed to gain just three yards to keep alive a drive they hoped would end with a tying touchdown. Evan Engram was wide open, and Eli Manning threw him the ball on the left side. But the ball went through the second-year tight ends' hands. Washington took over, soon padded its lead on Dustin Hopkins' 39-yard field goal, and won the game, 20-13.
For Engram, it was the latest in a series of missed opportunities that have frustrated the second-year pro. Because the Giants had a bye last week, he has not had a chance to redeem himself, but intends to do so tomorrow night against the 49ers in San Francisco.
"I was pretty pissed for a couple of days afterwards," Engram said. "It was a big play, but I know I make those in my sleep. It was unfortunate that play happened and it's definitely an important play behind me. Just keep working and staying the course, get back to the basics. But definitely as a competitor you want to be perfect and you want to strive for perfection. A lot of times that doesn't happen, but it's definitely something I put behind and keep working."
Engram's 1½ season with the Giants have been a blend of disappointment, production, and frustration. The former is exemplified by the team's 4-20 record since his arrival. But Engram has produced since the Giants selected him on the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Last season, he led the team with 64 catches (for 722 yards) and six touchdowns, and was named to the league's All-Rookie Team.
But Engram also dropped several passes, an issue that has continued this season. His annoyance was exacerbated this season by a knee injury that forced him to miss three games.
"That was tough," Engram said. "That was the real first serious injury since my freshman year of college, and I missed significant time. It was weird - when they went to Carolina, I didn't travel. I had to stay home and watch it on T.V. It was just weird and didn't feel right, and I felt just helpless, really, I felt like I could've been out there and if I was healthy helping the team especially in that close game. A couple more plays we come out with that win. It was just a tough experience to sit back and watch my guys go out there and battle without me and me not being out there going to battle with them."
If the Giants are to improve in the second half of the season, Engram will almost certainly be a key contributor. He is doing everything he can to maximize his strengths and eliminate the drops.
"That's part of the game, working on little things from struggling in the blocking game to getting back to basics," he said. "You can do it. I mean, everybody works, stays after practice or even goes out earlier and gets some stuff in, so it's just part of the game, part of keeping your tools and keeping your game polished. It's just hard extra work."
When he doesn't get the desired results, Engram sometimes has trouble letting go of his disappointment. But that doesn't preclude him from moving forward.
"His work ethic is just phenomenal and he's his biggest critic on himself," said his mother, Michelle Zelina. "We just had this conversation (last) weekend (when Engram visited his family's home in Georgia during the bye). Everyone's on his butt for dropping the ball, but you know he doesn't do that on purpose. He's his own worst critic and he's just so hard on himself. But he was like, 'Mom, you know, if the ball touches my hands, I need to catch it.' I said, 'Exactly, but have fun out there. You got to relax and get back to basics and enjoy it.'"
Coach Pat Shurmur has been impressed with Engram's willingness to confront his deficiencies and desire to improve on them.
"Evan is a pass catching tight end," Shurmur said. "I think that's just the nature of who he is, and it's important that we catch the ball consistently. The one thing I'll say about Evan is, he works at it harder than any of our guys. He's had a couple drops just like there's been some other guys that have dropped balls, but he works at it and if you believe in hard work changing the outcome of things. I feel good about him not having that be a problem.
"He's one of the guys that really works hard at catching the football. He will just continue to do that, put it behind him and move on. That's really the nature of it. If I had a guy who was dropping balls and didn't work at it, then the rubber's going to hit the road on that; but with Evan, we have lots of drills that he does, he works hard at trying to catch the ball constantly, and he's just got to trust and believe himself and go out and do it. As long as he's a Giant and he's out there playing, we're going to do everything we can to help him."
*San Francisco quarterback Nick Mullens does not have a large body of work for the Giants to study. He made his NFL debut 10 days ago, when San Francisco routed Oakland, 34-3. Playing a quarterback with so little on tape is unusual.
"We go back to where we watched the preseason stuff and you got some snaps on the guy," secondary coach Lou Anarumo said. "He had a heck of a game against Oakland and he's an NFL quarterback, and he'll present different challenges for us. We'll be ready for both guys (including C.J. Beathard, whom the Giants faced last year), however the game shakes out. But he had a heck of a game last week and their whole offense – (coach and playcaller) Kyle Shanahan does a great job in moving guys around. We've had enough tape to watch on. We get it back from going back to the preseason and seeing what he's done along with the Oakland game."
*This is the Giants second and last Monday night game of the season; they lost in Atlanta three weeks ago. The Giants are 24-39-1 on Monday, including 15-29-1 on the road.
*The Giants and 49ers have met 40 times combined in the regular season and postseason. Each series is tied (16-16 in the regular season, 4-4 in the postseason). In those 40 games, they are separated by only one point (Giants 816, 49ers 815).
*The 49ers have NFL-low totals of two interceptions and five takeaways, and their minus-13 turnover differential places them behind every team but Tampa Bay (minus-15).