EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Team in the Blue Flannel Suit returned to work on Wednesday night in a stadium named after an insurance company, and played as if its defense of the NFL championship were just another evening at the office.
It lost a potentially critical game against a tough divisional foe, with the Cowboys winning 24-17 on the strength of two touchdowns passes from Tony Romo to Kevin Ogletree. But for the Giants in September, the result is almost secondary to the process. The process needs work, but then again working on the process, from summer through the dead of winter, is what the Giants do best.
The Giants were sloppy, inefficient and in need of quality control. They dropped passes and fumbled. They blew coverage downfield and pass-protection assignments. They looked like they were just back from a long weekend -- out of sync, out of the flow.
They did NOT look like they had a Super Bowl hangover. Tom Coughlin did speak after the game about "taking a bite of humble pie," but then backtracked on any speculation about his team's overconfidence. "I didn't see a whole lot of that," he said. "I'm not going to tell you that we didn't feel good about ourselves. … I think we had every right to feel that way." His overarching message was standard office boilerplate: "We have got our work cut out for us."
The guys at Sterling Cooper don't get hangovers, and neither do the Giants. They are the NFL's corporate, methodical, managerial, disciplined champions. They just don't get excited -- or really exciting, for that matter -- in September. Not when the shareholders meeting is slated for February.
Not Party People
For the Team in the Blue Flannel Suit, a season-opening celebration is like an office birthday party: yellow tablecloths in the break room, ice cream cake, then back to work.
The concerts and hoopla were remanded to Rockefeller Center, across the river. Risers carrying spotlights, lasers and smoke machines were wheeled onto the field minutes before the Giants left the tunnel, then whisked away seconds later. There were fireworks, but you missed them if you looked down to check a text message.
It was also easy to miss the fireworks on the field in the first half, which ended with the Cowboys leading 7-3. Michael Boley returned a Romo interception 51 yards to the Cowboys' two-yard line in the second quarter, but the Giants settled for a field goal. The Cowboys answered with Romo throwing a perfect 38-yard strike to Dez Bryant, then tossing a drive-and-dish touchdown to Ogletree.
Romo and Ogletree struck again at the start of the third quarter, when the quarterback rolled away from danger and found the journeyman receiver for a 40-yard score. The Giants responded with a nine-play, 89-yard drive, but the play of the night came on the Cowboys' next possession. Running back DeMarco Murray took a handoff and started right, found nothing, slipped two tackles, then channeled Marcus Allen, cutting and weaving for 48 yards.
Giants' mistakes snowballed. Rookie David Wilson fumbled early and was rarely seen again. A would-be pick-six caromed through Corey Webster's hands. Victor Cruz dropped passes ("Concentration drops," both he and Coughlin called them) and committed a foolish penalty. Andre Brown let a kickoff bounce around near the Giants' end zone. And, of course, two whiffed tackles helped Murray make video game magic.
The Cowboys tried to match the Giants error for error, committing every variation on the false start they could think of, but every time they slid back five yards, a Romo Houdini trick or a defensive lapse by the Giants moved them forward 10. When the Cowboys committed back-to-back penalties on their final drive, they were simply making room for Miles Austin's leaping, game-icing, 34-yard touchdown catch.
The record crowd of 82,287 was often spookily silent. The Giants were down by just seven points when the third quarter ended, but the crowd barely murmured as the defending champions went about their messy business. The Super Bowl party was short-lived. But then, the Giants are not party types.
The Pain Professionals
The Team in the Blue Flannel Suit may be the greatest champion in modern sports history, not because it's the best team (not by an order of magnitude), but because it gives fans what they crave most.
Modern sports fans do not want start-to-finish excellence or season-long domination. In fact, gaudy records and lopsided wins fill us with anxiety, because we have been trained to think of sports as a morality play and come-uppance as an actual primal force, like gravity. Fans prefer teams they can worry and carp about, but they also covet championships. Only the Giants can consistently cap a full season of frustration and consternation with a sudden burst of Super Bowl euphoria. They provide pleasure born of agony, the perfect cocktail for a nation that made "Fifty Shades of Grey" a bestseller. The Giants satisfy the modern fan's barely hidden masochistic streak.
Contrast the Giants with their regular foils, the Patriots, who sound hubris klaxons every time they take the field. Contrast them with their Meadowlands roommates, a Jets team that provides all the tension a fan could ask for, but none of the release.
Or, contrast The Team in the Blue Flannel Suit with Wednesday's opponent, the alleged America's Team, whose owner holds the rights to one of the most recognizable international brands in the business world, yet feels the need to rap in pizza commercials. Jerry Jones' compulsion to use the Cowboys as his personal outlet for self-expression has made the team a cautionary tale. They should be uber-villains like the Patriots or baseball's Yankees, but instead have become the NFL's blustery comic relief. Every Cowboys season is a Jay Gatsby soirée, loud and opulent, unfulfilling and increasingly soul-draining. Their season-opening victory, with its slew of penalties and awful blocking, raised many questions and answered few.
Fans claim to want what the Cowboys and other teams provide -- splashy offseason moves, brash talk and free-spending, gunslinging ownership -- but these things actually produce fear and resentment. We feign distaste for the Mara family's buttoned-down leadership and Coughlin's tight-lipped discipline, but the talk-radio demands for daring trades or noisier sound bytes are just a ruse. We are naughty, naughty fans, and we love what the Giants withhold because they have proven that they will give us what we really want at the season's climax.
The Pain is No Stranger to You and Me
Make no mistake, the Team in the Blue Flannel Suit really wanted to win Wednesday night's game. It doesn't like squeezing into the playoffs every year like a mouse through a dryer vent. It wants the Playoff Giants to be the Year-Round Giants, its attention to football detail to pay dividends in September as well as February.
"We're trying to make a mark for ourselves extremely early in the season," safety Antrel Rolle said last week. After Wednesday's loss, he rejected both the "humble pie" talk ("I think we're a group of humble individuals," he said) and the suggestion that the Giants can easily brush off these early-season setbacks. "We don't hang our hats on losing, then coming back strong at the end," he said. "That's not the kind of team that we want to be."
Rolle's objection notwithstanding, it's hard to see the Giants' loss as anything but residue from their business model. The last two times the Giants lost openers, they won Super Bowls. In 2007, the Cowboys scored 45 opening-day points on a defense that would harden into a Patriots-piercing spearhead by February. A slow start is as much a concern for them as it is for the pebble that starts an avalanche. Rolle, Cruz and Coughlin said, "We have a lot of work to do" in so many ways after the game, in the same measured tones, that you could picture them sitting at desks on Thursday morning, sleeves rolled up, plodding through paperwork, Wednesday's loss another matter to be stapled, collated and filed.
The Giants even projected their cubicle image during warmups, when the PA system played songs allegedly plucked from players' iPods. After the obligatory "Iron Man" came Justin Tuck's selection: "In the Air Tonight," by Phil Collins.
Phil Collins is not pump-up music, no matter how gamely Tuck tried to air-drum along to the brief, rockin' part. It's waiting-room music. Office music. Elevator music. Music for when you have a lot of work to do. In the drone of 1980s synthesizers echoing through the Meadowlands, it was easy to picture the Giants awaiting the elevator, humming calmly, knowing that wherever they may start, they will soon be going up.