It was three days before Christmas 2019 and the Giants were nearing the end of another dismal season. A nine-game losing streak was snapped a week earlier, but this was a joyless time for a franchise that soon would fire another head coach, searching for a ray of light amid all the darkness.
And the Giants found a spark.
Daniel Jones, their rookie quarterback, was brilliant. He threw five touchdown passes and not one interception, passing for 352 yards on the soft grass at FedEx Field. Saquon Barkley, the second-year running back, was spectacular, ripping through Washington for 189 yards, including a touchdown burst of 67 yards and a 33-yard reception for another touchdown. It added up to a 41-35 victory, but far more compelling was this young, tantalizing 1-2 punch, seemingly capable of carrying the Giants onward and upward.
Jones and Barkley return to the site of those scintillating performances Thursday night, but everything about them, and their team, is lacking. Jones last week lost for the 19th time in his 27 starts, committing yet another key turnover at another crucial juncture. Barkley last week returned from an 11-month ordeal following knee surgery and struggled to regain his footing, literally. The Giants opened this season with a 27-13 loss to the Broncos, their still-young offensive leaders once again unable to make enough of a difference.
There was a time, not too long ago, when Jones and Barkley came to Landover, Md., and were everything the Giants needed them to be. Can they be that again? If so, the Giants can use them, right now, to prevent another season from spiraling away.
“We’ve got to capitalize,” Barkley said. “We’re talented, we know the talent that we have, we trust the coaching staff that we have, but it’s on us to go out there and capitalize.
“I feel like if we’re able to do that more consistently, the season is going to play out how we want to play out. I think that’s where we find ourselves — whether it’s from when I’ve been here, or the last two years, or even last week.”
This is an offense that scored a total of seven points in the first 59 minutes and 59 seconds of the season opener, coming off averaging 17.5 points a game in 2020. Washington is coming off a 20-16 home-field loss to the Chargers.
Amid all the terrible football the Giants have put forth, they’ve known how to beat Washington, carrying in a five-game winning streak against their rivals. Jones is 4-0 as a starter in this NFC East series.
“I think every year is different, every team is different, every game is different, so we’ll prepare for this one individually,” Jones said, “but I think we’ll have a good game plan going in.”
Will they? This is a sore subject among Giants fans, fearful that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is not doing enough to give the assembled talent an advantage. On four offensive series, the Giants last week advanced for first downs on the Denver 30-, 22-, 6- and 16-yard lines. The total scoring output from this desirable field position? Zero points.
There is every reason to suspect a crisis of confidence at work here. How could there not be?
“I feel like we have it in us and we’re capable of it,” said receiver Sterling Shepard, who has seen more of this with the Giants than anyone on the roster. “I know we’re capable of it, everybody knows we’re capable of it. We’ve just got to put it together and do it.”
The start to the 2021 season was more than a failure to produce on offense. The defense, supposed to be the strength of the team, could not get Teddy Bridgewater off the field and now gets to see if it can solve the riddle that is Taylor Heinicke, suddenly Washington’s starting quarterback, with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick out several weeks with a hip injury.
Even if there is a revival on defense, the Giants need more points.
“I think we all believe we can do it,” Jones said.
They did it — Jones and Barkley — late in the 2019 season, in the same place they venture into now. That seems like a long, long time ago.