Giants top rookies can only learn from Cowboys schooling

What? Did you think they were going 17-0?

After the feel-good 2-0 start, a lot of you thought the Giants were headed for at least 4-0. You know who you are. And that’s OK. No shame in that.

Why not? The Giants began the season with the upset road win over the Titans, the 2021 AFC No. 1 playoff seed, and then held serve at home against the Panthers at MetLife Stadium.

The Cowboys were next and figured to be easy marks without Dak Prescott on Monday night at MetLife. Next will be the perpetually mediocre Bears on Sunday.

The prospect of an unimaginable 4-0 start began to dance in the heads of some Giants fans right up until the point at which Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence took rookie right tackle Evan Neal, the seventh overall pick in April’s draft, prisoner in the first half with a pass-rushing performance right out of the Lawrence Taylor how-to handbook.

Thoughts of beating up on the Prescott-less Cowboys offense danced in the heads of Giants fans, too, until Dallas backup quarterback Cooper Rush played like Earl Morrall, thanks in large part to an invisible Giants pass rush.

So much, too, for Giants rookie edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, the fifth overall pick in the draft, wreaking havoc in the Dallas backfield. No one even knew he was on the field.

Playing in his first NFL game, Thibodeaux looked like a player, well, playing in his first NFL game. His stat line — one tackle, one tipped pass and zero quarterback pressures — was evidence of that.

Giants defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux fights through a block by Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Tyler Smith.
Bill Kostroun

Listen, Neal and Thibodeaux are more than likely to be fine. They can’t get worse than they were on the big stage Monday night, right?

But we’ve been living in a recent era in which denouncing former general manager Dave Gettleman for his poor drafting and the mess he made out of the salary cap with irresponsible high-priced free-agent signings (see: Kenny Golladay) is in vogue.

And with good reason.

So, it’s only fair to point out that the top two picks in the first draft class orchestrated by newly hired general manager Joe Schoen — Thibodeaux and Neal — have gotten off to dodgy starts.

It’s way, way, way too early to make an assumption that those two players are not going to grow into productive, potential stars for the Giants, players who justify their respective draft spots. But Monday night was not a good look.

What was a good look was Neal, showered and dressed in street clothes after the game, dutifully waiting at his locker to speak to reporters when they were let into the locker room.

Neal, who was clearly disgusted by his performance, was accountable and measured as he patiently answered repeated questions about what went wrong against the Dallas front that both confused and beat him.

Giants offensive tackle Evan Neal walks off the field after the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Giants.
Bill Kostroun

That kind of accountability, something that’s a core of head coach Brian Daboll’s program, is a good sign. Neal will be better for what happened Monday night, and being better begins with how he handled himself after the game.

“There’s growing pains,’’ Daboll said Tuesday. “I would say it’s not just Ev, which he got beat a couple times on the edge by a pretty good player. There was a lot of things we could have done better protection-wise after going through it — whether it’s the chips, the [running] backs, one-one-ones against the blitzers, the inside movement, the games inside.

“There was quite a bit of things. But Evan’s a diligent guy. We’ll work on improving him and try to be better next week.’’

Asked about the ineffectiveness of Thibodeaux, in his NFL debut, and second-year linebacker Azeez Ojulari, who was playing his first game this season, Daboll credited the Dallas offensive line.

“They did a good job of blocking us,’’ he said. “[Thibodeaux and Ojulari] were on their pitch count. I thought they gave good effort. Thibs’ first game as a pro, [he] did some good things, but some things we definitely need to get better and work at.’’

Even at 2-0, there were a lot of things the Giants needed to get better and work at — and they took a step back against the Cowboys.

Now Daboll will face his next new challenge as a first-time head coach: Dealing with defeat.

His message to the team Tuesday?

“The same that it’s been since I started: Be consistent,’’ Daboll said. “It’s never as good as you think, never as bad as you think.’’

The Giants weren’t as good as some wanted to think when they were 2-0 before facing Dallas. And the good news is that it’s likely that Neal and Thibodeaux won’t end up as bad as they looked Monday night as they move forward to the next game.