EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Pat Shurmur has high expectations for the Giants and he's comfortable letting everyone know it.
"We feel like we are a better team than we were a year ago," the second-year head coach said today. "We just have to go out and perform. We know we are at the stage of our year where winning football games is what it's all about and so that's where we're at."
The Giants begin their season Sunday afternoon in Dallas against the defending NFC East champion Cowboys. It's the perfect opponent to gauge the strength of a Giants team that significantly restructured its roster in the offseason and has continued to do so in the last two days. The Giants concluded their 5-11 season in 2018 against the Cowboys, dropping a 36-35 decision on Dec. 30.
Since then, the Giants have added front-line players like offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler and Mike Remmers, safeties Antoine Bethea and Jabrill Peppers, rookie starters Dexter Lawrence and DeAndre Baker, plus a quarterback of the future in Daniel Jones, among others. (One of their key acquisitions, wide receiver Golden Tate, will miss the four games while serving an NFL suspension.)
Shurmur is bullish on his new group.
"I like the way we have built our team," he said. "I like some of the changes we made personnel wise. I also feel like the second year in our system we are smoother in how we operate. That's why I think, I don't care what everybody outside thinks."
Asked if he thinks if there is "more talent in the building," Shurmur said, "I feel like we are a better football team right now, and this is a team sport."
Shurmur's confidence and enthusiasm is shared by the players.
"We can be one of the best teams in the league," said linebacker Alec Ogletree, who was announced today as one of the team's seven captains. "We have a shot at it, just like every other team, of making it to the end of the year and to the Super Bowl. We have to start with Week One, starting with Dallas. That's our focus right now, taking care of business this week and (then) going from week to week.
"We are a better team than we were at this point last year. Last year was a new a year for everybody. It took a little time for everybody to get going the right way. This year I thought we attacked OTAs really well and the summer really well. Now we just have to continue to attack the season as well as we did in the offseason."
The players believe one advantage they have this season is this is an exceptionally close-knit group. They enjoy spending time together off the field. With Shurmur's blessing, Saquon Barkley bought a Ping-Pong table in the spring that sits in the center of the locker room and has become the epicenter of team bonding.
Fourth-year wide receiver Sterling Shepard said "without a doubt" this team is closer than it was last year.
"I think that's the thing that we wanted to accomplish over the offseason, getting guys with great character," Shepard said. "You look around the locker room and we've just got a group of great guys at the end of the day.
"I can't say anything specific, it's just the feel. You know that if you've been in a locker room before, you can feel when a team is very close. Like I said, I can't be too specific with it, but it's just a feeling, and it feels great."
The table helps. The Giants are in the midst of team-wide Ping-Pong tournament, complete with an NCAA-style bracket taped to a nearby locker.
"We get together," Shepard said. "We huddle around the table, give it a little amped up feel."
"We definitely have come together a lot closer this year," Ogletree said. "Like I said, it was new for everybody last year. Things were happening all over the place. It's one of those things the more you stay together with a certain group, the more comfortable you get with being around each other."
Ultimately, as Shurmur said, it's about winning football games. And frankly, a lot of people outside of the Giants locker room expect that to be the case.
"Nobody is really giving us a chance,' Ogletree said. "But we have to worry about what our standards are and what we say we want to be. We have to do the things we know we can do. Like I said, we have to play to our standards and not to what somebody else says we should be or what they think."
*When the Giants played the Cowboys in December, NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott was inactive. Because he is trying to get a contract extension and has yet to report, Elliott might miss another encounter with the Giants.
"That's really an issue for Dallas," Shurmur said. "…We're getting ready for him to be there. If he's not, then we rally.
"We're going to play defense the way we have to play to defend the Cowboys. Certainly, if Zeke is there, you have to spend special attention (to him). They have some running backs that have done well in camp that they feel good about. We have to play good team defense, regardless of who's playing against us. There's no telling who they're going to line up with at this point."
*Shurmur explained the team's decision to keep Alex Tanney on the roster as the third quarterback behind Eli Manning and Jones.
"I think it makes sense for us to keep three quarterbacks," Shurmur said. "That's why we did it. (General manager) Dave (Gettleman) was in agreement. We felt like that's the best thing for our (quarterback) room. That's why.
"Daniel is going to be ready when it's his time. Having Alex here, who is a veteran, I think adds to the room."
Regarding the decision to keep Tanney and waive 2018 fourth-round draft choice Kyle Lauletta, Shurmur said, "There are things behind the scenes where we felt like Alex was doing well. I think Kyle made great progress. We were really pleased with what (Kyle) had done. We just felt like it was the best thing for us to move forward with Tanney."
*Although he had yet to practice, cornerback Sam Beal seemed to be progressing from his hamstring injury but was placed on injured reserve yesterday. He will be eligible to return to practice in six weeks and play in a game in eight weeks. Beal spent the entire 2018 season, his first in the NFL, on I.R. after undergoing shoulder surgery.
"I just feel like for him, (we want) to give him the opportunity to get as healthy as he can be before he gets out there," Shurmur said. "Sometimes it's not just the player. It's the full roster, and maybe adding a player at another position. That's part of it. There's sort of the player, then there's sort of the big picture. When you're going through that process of picking the best 53 (players) to get ready to play Dallas, sometimes you have to consider both sides of that."