EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Steve Spagnuolo is a longshot to be the Giants' head coach next season, because it's hard to envision John Mara endorsing anything that resembles the status quo. Maybe a few wins would improve his chances. Maybe.
But that's not going to happen if he continues playing ultra-conservative football. What the Giants need -- what Spagnuolo needs -- is to think big and bold.
He most definitely did not think that way during Sunday's 30-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in his debut as interim head coach. The offensive game plan was littered with too many runs and almost all short passes. Any time Spagnuolo faced a low-percentage fourth-down situation -- even twice in Cowboys territory -- he chose to punt.
That all resulted in the same pop-gun offense, a defense that wore down over time and no game-changing plays for the Giants. It was just more of the same.
Really, that's the last thing these Giants need in the midst of a 2-11 season.
"We do have to figure out a way in the fourth quarter when it gets down to gut-wrenching time to make a play or two," Spagnuolo said. "Now, I'm going to put a little bit of that on me. I didn't like a couple calls I had in the fourth quarter that resulted in bad plays for us defensively. I don't want that to be on the players."
That's fair, though without knowing the specific plays, it's hard to dissect Spagnuolo's failures. There was a 54-yard pass from Dak Prescott to Cole Beasley, which was a short pass before Beasley basically ran through the Giants' secondary. Tight end Jason Witten followed that with a 20-yard touchdown on the next play. There was also another short pass from Prescott to running back Rod Smith that turned into an 81-yard touchdown.
But Spagnuolo really could've done a better job long before that.
For example, he could've put his head together with offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and taken a little bit of the reins off quarterback Eli Manning. Granted, they were badly shorthanded at receiver, where two of their four players (Darius Powe and Kalif Raymond) came into the game with one career catch. But they still had Roger Lewis, who has some big play ability, not to mention tight end Evan Engram and a supposedly healthy Sterling Shepard.
Manning completed 31 of 46 passes and still only threw for 228 yards. He almost never threw the ball deeper than 10 yards downfield. Yes, they're shorthanded. But they were also 2-10. Why not at least try for a few big plays? What do they have to lose?
In fact, that should be the theme of the rest of this season for Spagnuolo: What do the Giants have to lose? He definitely should've thought of that at the end of their opening drive: a monster, 17-play, 62-yard march that ended with a field goal. The last six plays on that drive -- all inside the Cowboys 23 -- were runs.
Why not one pass at least to the corner of the end zone just to see if, say, Engram could come down with the ball?
What did the Giants have to lose by going for it on their next drive when they faced a fourth-and-3 from the Cowboys 37? The resulting punt into the end zone put the Cowboys at the 20, a net gain of 17 yards. They would've been better off doing almost anything there, as long as Manning wasn't sacked or didn't throw a pick-six.
Spagnuolo said he remembered that decision "because I heard the reaction. But, to me, it felt like it was going to be a field position game, which it really was right into the fourth quarter. When you kind of get that feeling, I wanted to stick with the field position game, back them up. Our defense was playing pretty good at that time. So, I thought it was the right decision."
Maybe it was, if this situation was normal. But at 2-10 (now 2-11) and going nowhere, there's no real reason to play a field position game.
There was even less justification for a similar decision in the fourth quarter, with 4:42 left in the game. The Giants had a fourth-and-8 at the Cowboys 46. They trailed by a touchdown. And Spagnuolo called for a punt again.
"We talked about (going for it) going into the third down, but it ended up fourth-and-8, not fourth-and-3 or fourth-and-2. That was why we made that decision. One-possession game."
Under normal circumstances, that makes sense. But these are abnormal circumstances in an abnormal year.
There's a reason the old proverb goes "Fortune favors the bold."
For what it's worth, Spagnuolo said he felt comfortable in his first game as head coach since the St. Louis Rams fired him after the 2011 season. He had plenty of things to second guess -- and he'll have more when he sees the film -- but he seemed to feel like he belonged.
"Look, it doesn't feel good right now because we lost the football game," Spagnuolo said. "So your mind goes back to all the things you could have, should have, would have done. That's what happens when you lose. But I didn't feel uncomfortable. I thought everybody else around me -- coaches, players, trainers -- responded really well, and to me that's what I'm grateful for. Everybody did their job, and for the most part, I thought we did pretty good."
Maybe they did, but "pretty good" won't cut it when co-owners Mara and Steve Tisch begin evaluating their head coaching options, especially when "pretty good" leads to a 20-point loss. Maybe the Giants should be scared with the lack of talent on their roster and how they've been decimated by injuries, but Spagnuolo can't coach as if he's scared. He has to be daring. He has to be inventive. He has to make gutsy decisions.
It doesn't matter if they work. Chances are they won't. But slogging his way to an uninspiring win isn't going to work for him in the long run. He's a longshot candidate, so he needs to play the longshots. If he really wants to be inspiring and light a fire under what's left of the Giants, big and bold is the only way for him to go.