Imagine waking up Christmas morning to the surprise of a big box under the tree, getting all excited about the gift you really wanted but felt foolish asking for — and then seeing someone else’s name on the tag.
That’s the Giants and the playoff race. So, can you really feel crushed that such a short-lived dream is slipping away?
“I don’t think our progress as a team is going to be measured necessarily on making the playoffs,” coach Joe Judge said Monday, six days before facing the Baltimore Ravens. “One thing I’m very interested in as a coach is seeing how our team responds to challenges.”
The Giants opened the season with a first-time head coach, an undermanned roster and a daunting schedule. Expectations called for a fourth straight season around the five-win mark, leaving success to be determined by the development of young players.
A 1-7 start didn’t change perception.
A funny thing happened on the way to the bottom, however: The rest of the NFC East collapsed and a four-game winning streak left the Giants in a first-place tie with control of their own destiny after 12 games.
As fans got excited, Judge never fully embraced the idea of battling for a spot in the postseason — and didn’t change the way he employed personnel. Playoffs in Year 1 of the Judge Era is an awkward mix of premature but not exactly ahead of schedule, given the Giants are 5-9.
“I’m still looking to develop as many players as we can,” Judge said. “We want to develop players by still putting ourselves in position to be successful on Sundays. We’re not out there having tryouts, but we are working to get as many young guys as many reps as we can to get them experience.”
Mistakenly trying to win and rebuild at the same time in 2018 is what marred the start of general manager Dave Gettleman’s term. This situation is more like building and accepting wins as they come.
“I wouldn’t say we’re worried about it slipping away,” tight end Evan Engram said. “I do think our sense of urgency is up, and we do understand what’s ahead of us. I think we’re really motivated. This is as meaningful as it gets.”
In any other division, the Giants would be in third or fourth place — at least five games out of first and with no shot to earn a wild card. Their hope is based on circumstance — all four NFC East teams are separated by 1 ½ games with two to play — more than worth.
“I’m not downplaying the playoffs,” Judge said. “It’s the National Football League. We’re all here to compete. We’re all here for the highest prize in all of sports. At the same time, I’m a firm believer in keeping our sights on what the immediate goal is, and the long-term goal will take care of itself.”
The approach shouldn’t be a surprise given Judge’s coaching background with the University of Alabama and the New England Patriots, where success is measured in championships. It’s not the same situation with the Giants, who suffered wake-up call losses against the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns and now are guaranteed a seventh losing season in the last eight.
“May there be a time that we talk about [playoffs] in the future? Possibly, based on what the situation is,” Judge said. “We can’t do anything about [Week 17 opponent] Dallas right now. We can only control Baltimore. Anything that may or may not come after that doesn’t even exist yet. Wasting mental energy and focus on something that doesn’t exist is just wasted time.”
If the Giants don’t capitalize on the unexpected gift of down years across the NFC East, can the season be considered a success? Depends when the question is asked. Before the first game, yes. After 12 games, no. On Monday? No one seemed fully sure.
“I don’t really understand the question, but I think our goal is to go win the division,” Engram said. “That means our goal is to make the playoffs. Obviously, we put ourselves in that position. It will be disappointing if we don’t. So, I guess not.”