By Jason Keidel
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Maybe we should have known.
After all, the Giants are 1-9 against the Dallas Cowboys on opening day of an NFL season. They were playing in Dallas. They played without their transcendent talent, Odell Beckham Jr. The Cowboys had a cinder block on their shoulder, knowing they had lost twice to the Giants last year. They were enduring the ignominy of the Ezekiel Elliott case. And they were playing a stand-alone, national TV game.
All of that fueled an ugly, gridiron alchemy Sunday night in Jerry’s World, with the Giants burping just three points in four quarters, their lowest total in a season opener since 1995.
Or maybe it’s more than that.
We love what the Giants did last year, making it rain on defense and stalwart defenders Snacks Harrison, Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon. You can’t win with an anemic defense and pillow-soft pass rush.
But that’s not the new beef with the new Giants, who added Brandon Marshall to take pressure off Beckham, on and off the turf, supposedly making Big Blue the Big Boys of the NFC East. Add Marshall and rookie tight end Evan Engram to the emotional chokehold they have on the Cowboys, and you moonwalk to the division title.
Perhaps the cynics were right. For all the cosmetic changes to the offense, they assert that none of it matters if you can’t run the ball. And if Sunday night is any indication, the Giants have one of the most inept rushing attacks in the sport.
The Giants had 12 rushes (if you care to include Eli Manning) for 35 yards. Elliott alone had 104 yards. Dak Prescott had more rushing yards (24) than Paul Perkins (16) or Orleans Darkwa (14). Even in this era of frenzied passing, the ability to run the ball is more than symbolic. Even if the rush now sets up the pass, there’s still an essential place in football for it. And the Giants can’t.
And when they decide to dump the running game and pass the ball, they must protect the passer. And the Giants can’t. Demarcus Lawrence (two sacks, three tackles for loss) looked like DeMarcus Ware, having his mail forwarded to the pocket, spending the night in Manning’s face. Maybe the Cowboys had just three total sacks, but Manning had unusually happy feet all evening.
And the passing game can’t collapse when Beckham misses one game. Shane Vereen can’t lead the club in catches (nine). Roger Lewis can’t lead the club in receiving yards (54). The offense can’t fold under the weight of Beckham’s ankle. Marshall can’t have one catch for 10 yards.
This is what the detractors detected, and they may be right. You don’t build an offense around a wide receiver, no matter how wildly gifted he is. Not without a robust running game. Not without a granite offensive line. The Cowboys’ defense, hardly a strength, looked like the football version of Hurricane Irma last night.
Sure, it’s one game. And just as you can’t crown the Chiefs or bury the Patriots after 60 minutes, the Giants have 15 more games to make it right. Not to mention the Cowboys were boiling with payback fever. For nearly a year, they heard that their 13-3 record last year had an asterisk, with 66 percent of their losses coming at Big Blue’s hands.
And Dallas dominated from whistle to gun. With less than seven minutes left in the first half, the Cowboys may have been up up just 6-0, but they held the ball 17 minutes to a meager six for the Giants. Overall, Dallas possessed the ball for 34 minutes, averaging 5.5 yards per play, compared to the Giants’ 4.4 yards. Dallas ran 71 plays; New York ran 53.
This is not how the Giants wanted to celebrate the 2017 season, or a Manning milestone. Just part of a bedrock gene pool that is the Manning family, Eli, like his brother, is indestructible, making his 200th consecutive start for the Giants. But Manning needs someone behind him who can run the ball, someone (besides Beckham) at his flank who can catch the ball and five men in front of him who can block.
The Cowboys whipped the Giants in Week 1, which is a poor preamble to the season. Not only are the Giants 0-1, but they’re already a game out of first place, a game behind the Cowboys and Eagles and have a crucial, divisional loss.
The Giants can surely come back from this. But they can’t fall apart whenever Beckham clutches a bruised limb or takes a week off. They can claim Beckham their best player, but he can’t be the most important.
If you don’t know the difference, just ask the Dallas Cowboys.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel