Sometimes, the dog really does eat your homework, and sometimes, injuries really do impact losing.
It is generally frowned upon to “blame” injuries for underperformance, but what about when the numbers are too big to ignore?
The regular-season finale Sunday against Washington will mark the Giants’ 55th straight game without having their top running back, top tight end and top three wide receivers for an entire game. The last time their five biggest weapons went the distance together was a 38-35 shootout win against the Buccaneers on Nov. 18, 2018 — 10 games into Pat Shurmur’s tenure as head coach and one day after quarterback Daniel Jones’ third-to-last collegiate start at Duke.
Since then, the Giants have had their RB1, TE1, WR1, WR2 and WR3 — known in football as “11” personnel — available for a total of two out of a possible 224 quarters, including overtimes. Those were the first quarter against the Bears on Sept. 20, 2020 and the first quarter against the Falcons in Week 3 this season.
Pause here to pick your jaw up off the floor.
Not surprisingly, the Giants’ record during that span is 16-38.
The names have changed over time at receiver, but the injury bug has not. The trios alongside Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram have looked like this: Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Bennie Fowler in 2018; Shepard, Darius Slayton and Golden Tate in 2019 and 2020; and Shepard, Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney this season.
“I came into the season saying the expectations were high,” Golladay said, “so that’s all valid. All you can really say is ‘What-if?’ ”
Would the Giants be playoff-bound if Shepard, Toney, Golladay, Barkley and Engram hadn’t combined to miss 26 games? Almost certainly not, because the problems behind a 4-12 record start with the porous offensive line and lack of a consistent pass rush. This isn’t fantasy football, and on-paper offenses don’t exist.
The injury-plagued Titans have used an NFL-record 88 different players this season and still hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. So, they are a good example of succeeding at the next-man-up cliché that teams adopt to handling injuries.
“If I were designing an offense, and I had a magic wand, I’d make sure all the guys are healthy first of all,” Giants receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said. “When you have healthy guys that are smart and tough and physical, you can have a good offense, a good defense, a good special teams. But it starts with the health of all your guys.”
The games-missed counter since that “memorable” win over the Bucs more than three years ago is led by Barkley’s 21. Add in 20 for Shepard and 12 for fellow mainstay Engram, plus Beckham’s final four of his Giants’ career, nine for Tate (including five over two suspensions), seven for Toney with six different body parts as a rookie, and two over Slayton’s first two seasons before he missed four more as the No. 4 receiver this season.
Barkley missed the final 14 games of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He missed four this season with an ankle sprain. Were the Giants too cautious with him?
“One thing that I can wholeheartedly say is that we have an amazing training staff, amazing medical staff,” Barkley said. “I’ve had to spend a lot of quality time with a lot of those guys in that training room. The medical staff did nothing but help me and prepare me to get me ready for the season, even when adversity hit with the ankle, to prepare my body and get me out there as quick as I can and as healthy as I can to go out there and be able to produce.”
Injuries were brought to the forefront this week by Antonio Brown, who claims Tampa Bay tried to force him to play hurt and then cut him when he refused. The team denied that claim.
Giants safety Logan Ryan was asked if NFL players still are forced to play hurt.
“Not at the New York Giants it doesn’t,” Ryan said before calling head athletic trainer Ronnie Barnes “the best in the business” and recalling how physical therapist Justin Maher helped save his wife’s life in a pregnancy emergency. “I’ve advocated … how much of a great job these guys do with us and our families medically. I think the Giants are the model standard when it comes to the medical side of it.”