EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – As Jason Garrett prepared to face the Dallas Cowboys' defense, his thoughts turned to cornerback Trevon Diggs and his NFL-high five interceptions, rookie linebacker Micah Parsons and his 2.5 sacks and…Pudge Heffelfinger.
No, Heffelfinger isn't on Dallas' roster or anyone else's. Hasn't been for some time. Heffelfinger is considered the first American professional football player, having been paid to play the sport way back in 1892 (when he received $500).
Old Pudge was apparently a stickler for ball security, long before terms like "giveaway" and "turnover differential" entered the football lexicon. Garrett, the Giants' second-year offensive coordinator, is just as concerned today, with good reason. The Cowboys have multiple takeaways in eight consecutive games dating back to last season, their longest streak since 1999. This year, they are tied with Buffalo at an NFL-best plus-7 differential and their 10 takeaways are one behind the Bills for the NFL lead.
If the 1-3 Giants are to defeat the 3-1 Cowboys in AT&T Stadium, they must take care of the ball.
"It starts with the ball, the ball, the ball," Garrett said this week. "You can talk about all the statistics in the world, but the number one statistic in football is the turnover ratio. Look at the stats when it's plus one, plus two, plus three, and plus four and look at the winning percentages for any coach, for any player, for any team. It goes back a long way, it goes back to Pudge Heffelfinger in 1892."
Garrett learned about Heffelfinger from his late father, Jim Garrett, who was a professional and collegiate player, coach and scout for 50 years.
"He used to talk about Pudge a lot," Garrett said, "but that'll certainly be a focus of our attention this week."
Dallas' ability to force turnovers is just one area of concern as the Giants prepare to face what coach Joe Judge emphatically calls, "clearly the best team we've played so far in all categories."
The Cowboys' offense is fourth in the NFL in scoring (31.5 points a game), third in yardage (420.8 a game), second in rushing (165.8) and third in third-down conversion percentage (50.0). They have much star power on that unit, including quarterback Dak Prescott, running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard (6.8 yards a carry), wide receivers Amari Cooper and Ceedee Lamb, tight end Dalton Schultz and an offensive line that is arguably the league's best.
"We all know about how talented that line has been over the course of the last decade-plus and they just keep on rolling with those guys," Judge said. "That's really helping their run game and their pass game. I think you talk about No. 4, Dak is one of the top guys in the league, one of the most productive players. He's still a threat with his legs, he's not afraid to run it, but this guy really keeps his eyes downfield, looks to extend plays really more for the pass than anything else. I think when you talk about their offense, you can go ahead and just spin a wheel, there's a weapon at every turn, so you can't focus on one guy. You've got to play good, sound defense as a team and work hard to get them off the field, and that's easier said than done."
"It's a huge challenge," cornerback Adoree' Jackson said. They've got a lot of weapons and a great quarterback."
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Prescott has completed 75.2% of his passes and thrown 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. Cooper and Lamb have a combined 44 receptions – 11 a game - for 522 yards and four touchdowns.
"How do you slow them down?" defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said. "Mix of coverages, mix of affecting the quarterback, but the thing about them is they're moving those guys around, whether they're in the slot, they're out. I think one thing that can help us is making sure (we) take care of the deep part of the field, maybe get some hits on them when they're down at the line of scrimmage but keep changing it up on them. They're pretty dynamic, they're pretty dynamic players, so we've got a challenge ahead of us."
The Dallas defense's penchant for takeaways represents a complete reversal from the 2020 team. A year ago at this juncture, Dallas was 1-3, had a league-worst minus-7 differential and just three takeaways. This season, the script has improved, due largely to the influence of new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, the former Atlanta head coach.
"We actually coached together in Miami (in 2005-06 under Nick Saban)," Garrett said. "We were on the same staff, so I know him well. He's a good friend. I think a lot what you see in his defenses are what he values as a person and as a coach. They play fast. They play physical. They run to the ball. They do a really good job of taking the ball away. All those things that you've seen throughout his career and his different stops you're seeing in this defense."
The Giants have committed just three turnovers this season, two fumbles and Daniel Jones' only interception in 144 attempts on a Hail Mary on the final play of the first half in last week's overtime victory in New Orleans. Jones has thrown just two interceptions in his last 331 passes, covering more than 10 games.
"You have to take care of the ball and I think he's done that," Garrett said. "Starting from about midseason last year, he's done a great job taking care of the ball. He has made really good decisions, he's played decisively. I think he's getting a better understanding for what we're asking him to do, what defenses are trying to do to us and he's seeing the field and he's making a lot of good decisions."
That must continue against a defense that has a league-leading eight interceptions.
"I think it's a good group, a very talented group," Jones said. "They play fast, play hard. They've turned the ball over a lot, taken the ball away and affected the game. We'll have to be aware of some of those guys, but it comes down to us doing what we need to do and executing as a unit."
That's been a football truth since Pudge Heffelfinger played.