The game was far from over late in the third quarter when the Giants were deep in Cowboys territory. They were moving the ball, on the verge of scoring, facing a third-and-2 from the Cowboys' eight yard line.
It was the perfect time to place the ball in the hands of their best player, who just happens to be one of the most dynamic players in the league. So the Giants lined up, the ball was snapped, and Eli Manning turned and handed the ball to…
That one play didn't cost the Giants the game in their 35-17 loss in Dallas on Opening Day, but it sure was a symbol of a problem they need to avoid this season. They have made it clear they want to run their offense through Saquon Barkley, their spectacular second-year running back. And they surely know that a team's best player should always get the ball in the biggest spots.
So why does it sometimes seem like Giants head coach Pat Shurmur needs to be reminded that Barkley is on the field?
Barkley was sensational in the Giants' opener on Sunday. He was also sensationally underused. After his first NFL fumble on the first play of the game -- an eight-yard catch -- he ripped off a 59-yard run on his first carry of the season. But he carried the ball only 10 more times after that all game long. His totals were impressive, but small -- 11 carries for 120 yards, four catches for 19 yards.
In all, he was involved in just 17 of the Giants' 66 offensive plays. How can they possibly justify using their best player only 25.8 percent of the time?
Yet, Shurmur had no regrets about the way he used Barkley and explained it all away by saying, "Games play out differently." Unfortunately, this wasn't a new issue for him. It was a predictable, easy-to-decipher pattern. The Giants got behind early and they prematurely abandoned whatever plans they had to run the ball with Barkley, feeling that in order to come back they needed to let Manning throw.
There is some logic to that, but it usually only makes sense in the fourth quarter. The Giants did fall behind early, getting down 21-7 at the half. But it was 14-7 until the Cowboys scored with 1:13 left in the second quarter. The Giants, to that point, had run only 17 plays, and only five of them were runs by Barkley. That's inexcusable considering the size of his first run.
The Giants opened the second half with the ball and a chance to make it a seven-point game, so what did they do? Five passes in their first six plays (none to Barkley) and a run up the middle by … Penny!
Barkley's first touch in the second half went for 11 yards, but it didn't matter. By then, Shurmur was beginning to coach like the Giants were down 40 with three minutes to go.
When the Cowboys made it 28-10, though, there were still nearly 25 minutes left in the game. By then, Barkley had only been involved in only nine of the Giants' 36 plays. He had rushed only seven times, even though he had totaled 85 yards.
Of course, the deficit wasn't nearly as big as it seemed, even late in the third quarter when Shurmur made the fateful decision to call that red zone play for Penny. Yes, they were down by 18 points, but they were at the eight yard line with a chance to cut their deficit to 11 (or maybe 10) with more than 20 minutes to go. It was a turning-point moment, a chance for them to begin a comeback.
Is that really the spot a smart coach wants to turn to Penny, a 250-pound fullback who touched the ball 15 times last season, over the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year?
"We should have gained more yards on the one to Penny," Shurmur said.
Sure. Maybe. But it seems a good bet that Barkley had a much better chance to pick up the two yards they needed instead of the one Penny got. Barkley is -- and this can't be stated enough -- the Giants' best player. Maybe the Cowboys would've known he was coming, but so what? Let them stop him. That's not the time to get cute.
And that wasn't even the worst decision Shurmur made on that series. Once that Penny run failed and Shurmur decided to go for it on 4th and 1, he called an ill-advised rollout pass that ended with Manning getting sacked after staring at two completely covered receivers in the end zone. So, two shots from inside the 10 to pick up two yards and actually make it a game, and he shelves his best player who had touched the ball just 11 times to that point?
It's crazy, but it happened. And it's hard to believe that Barkley wasn't steamed.
"Obviously, as a competitor, you want the ball in your hands," the diplomatic captain said. "But you have to trust the system, you have to trust your teammates, and that's what I do. I'm not going to question the call."
Everyone else should question it, though, because Barkley was correct when he said that if the Giants were able to capitalize on that opportunity it would've been "a completely different game."
It should have been a completely different game, and it probably would have been if the Giants had used Barkley like the MVP candidate he could be this season. They have gone to great lengths over the last two years to explain their decision to draft Barkley second overall, to tout the value of running backs and a strong rushing attack, and how Barkley is a special player -- or as GM Dave Gettleman said, "Touched by the hand of God."
If all that's true, he just can't be a bystander in the offense, especially in the big moments. This can only be Barkley's team if Shurmur lets him lead the way.