EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The first season of the Pat Shurmur era established the cultural change, the attitude shift and the beginning of the roster reconstruction the Giants need to return to the playoffs and become championship contenders.
It also ended with an unsatisfactory 5-11 record.
"We didn't win enough games," Shurmur said today at his wrap-up news conference after a final meeting with his players. "What we did well is we took a young team and a new team and a new staff and we competed, and we had some good victories. But we've got to do a better job of winning those close games. We've either got to get a stop or get a score, and that's where we need to get better."
The Giants are Exhibit A that unlike in horseshoes, close doesn't count in the NFL. They lost an NFL-high eight games by seven or fewer points. The Giants joined Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with a league-high 12 games decided by seven points or less. But each of those teams won nine games, and the Eagles are going to the playoffs. (The NFL record of 13 games in a season decided by no more than seven points is shared by six teams: the 1978 Houston Oilers, 1989 San Diego Chargers, 1994 Giants, 1999 Oakland Raiders, 2011 Arizona Cardinals, and 2016 Detroit Lions.)
Perhaps fittingly, the Giants became the first team in history to lose each of their final two games by a single point when they fell at Indianapolis, 28-27, and in their finale at home yesterday vs. Dallas, 36-35.
As Shurmur said, the Giants need to find a way to win the games that are decided in the final few minutes. And the players believe they have the talent and fortitude to pull it off.
"I believe that we're very close and to be completely honest, I think what we have here is special," sensational rookie running back Saquon Barkley said. "I wasn't here a year before, but we're not the team that we were when we went 3-13. Obviously, we went 5-11 and that's not the record that we would like, but we're close. We're really close and I believe that's going to show next year. If we continue to believe in each other, continue to work and continue to grind and have that dog mentality that we showed this year, I think (the close games are) going to fall our way differently next year."
"You're disappointed in the wins and losses column," tackle Nate Solder said. "Obviously, we had so many close games and so many close calls and we didn't play the way we wanted to play for a lot of the season. So those are disappointing, I suppose. But then again, that's life and you grow and you're getting better and you're improving and you don't get caught up in losses like you don't get caught up in the wins, and you move forward."
Unlike Barkley and Solder, linebacker Olivier Vernon was here when the Giants hit bottom with their three-win season in 2017.
"It's a whole different team," Vernon said. "A lot of different faces. It's probably like a handful of guys that were on the team this year (13 in uniform yesterday), but I feel like the culture, as far as what coach Shurmur has been trying to bring in, as far what you expect from the guys, and our expectations. We understand expectations, we didn't get to achieve what we wanted to in the beginning of the year, but when you put the tape on, you can't really say guys weren't fighting. I think that goes to when you want to build a team, you want to build a team with guys that are going to lay it out on the line no matter what. I feel like that's the foundation we just got to work off."
Shurmur has much to evaluate in the coming weeks and months, but that assessment will include his own decisions, and not just as the head coach.
"Being I'm the play caller, there's always a handful of plays (to look back on)," Shurmur said. "You make 70 decisions in 40 seconds or 25 seconds or less. As you all have watched, you're not perfect. So what you try to do is become more perfect, make less mistakes, make more good decisions.
"I think each game, there's a different story in each game. But like I said, in a close game, you've either got to get a stop or you've got to get a score. In the games that we've lost, we haven't done those things. So those are the things you look at. Maybe there's things we could do different tactically, we'll look at that, that's always part of it, the scheme evaluation. That's what we spend our time on, at least half of each day is spent on that."
The short story is, the Giants must improve on both offense and defense if they hope to realize their lofty goals next season and beyond.
"I think we'll have a winning team when at the end of the game we can either stop the team or score against the team we're playing," Shurmur said. "That's part of being coordinated. We're going to address all those things moving forward."
Some more final-day musings from Shurmur:
*On whether he will keep his coaching staff intact.
"You can't ever say that," he said. "Some guys leave for whatever reasons, but again, that's part of the process that we'll go through. We'll meet as coaches and try to find ways to get better."
*On the season-long performance of quarterback Eli Manning, who turns 38 on Thursday.
"I think it's all coordinated," Shurmur said. "The quarterback play, the line play, the ability to run the ball – I think what we want to be offensively was better showcased from the bye week on. Prior to the bye week, we were scoring 17, 18 points a game, and after the bye week we've scored 27, almost 28 points a game. That's what you need to do. Part of that was we solidified the offensive line, which allowed Eli to do more of what Eli can do better, and helped our runner (Barkley). I think we would all agree in the second half of the year, we played much better offense.
"When you talk about a coordinated effort, I talked all along about the things I really appreciate about Eli in terms of playing the quarterback position. They're like everybody else, they make mistakes. Andrew Luck threw a pick-six last night. When you're making the decisions and you've got the ball in your hand every play, there's mistakes that are made, but there's also some great things that you're doing. We'll go back and look at it all, but I think he was better able to showcase what he could do once we solidified the offensive line. I think that's a fair assessment."
*On the ongoing effort to upgrade the offensive line.
"I think you've got to always address the offensive line to some degree," Shurmur said. "I think sometimes the answers are on your roster. (Jon Halapio) came in and played really well at center until he got hurt, then we picked up Spencer Pulley who's done a very, very good job playing center. (John) Greco stepped in and played center, we picked up (right guard) Jamon Brown. I think you've got to always try to upgrade your offensive line to some degree, because when you look around and you start to see teams that are playing bad offense, don't look at the skill players first. If you can't block them, then nothing fancy looks good, nothing normal looks good, nothing that you need to do in football looks good if you can't block them. I think that's where this game starts. I worked for Nick Saban, and I watch Alabama. Alabama's got a lot of very talented players, but when push comes to shove, the teams playing Alabama can't block them. You may make a play or score a touchdown, but when you're trying to do it over and over and over, teams can't block those guys. It's important that we're always addressing the fronts. This is a big man's game, and we've got to make sure we're doing what we can to get the O and the D-line right."
*The Giants' 2019 opponents are set. In addition to home-and-home series with NFC East opponents Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington, the Giants will host the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. They will play road games against the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots and the Jets. The Giants are 1-0 as visitors in MetLife Stadium, having beaten the Jets in 2011.
The Buccaneers are the only Giants' opponent among the five teams selected to host an international game in 2019, so there's a chance that game will be played in either London or Mexico City.
*The Giants, who selected Barkley at No. 2 overall last year, own the sixth pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, immediately behind Tampa Bay and right in front of Jacksonville.