CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was talk, late Sunday afternoon, of expectations not met. These shell-shocked New York Giants, in the wake of the 38-0 loss to the Carolina Panthers that dropped them to 0-3 for the first time in the Tom Coughlin/Eli Manning era, said they expected more from themselves. Even if they weren't expecting anything great.
"I thought," defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins said, "that we could at least be competitive."
A modest goal, to be sure. But the Giants' failure to meet it says an awful lot about where they are as a franchise right now. They are not an underachieving team. They are one of the very worst teams in the NFL. They might take a while longer to come to grips with that, and it's possible they never will. But from the outside looking in, it's getting more and more obvious all the time.
Yes, they are 0-3 this year and have been outscored 115-54 (an average of 38.3 to 18 per game). And that's bad, but this runs deeper. Going back to Halloween of 2012, when the Giants were 6-2 and thinking of themselves as one of the best teams in the league, they have lost eight of their past 11 games.
Sunday's loss was the third-worst shutout loss in franchise history, but it was only four points worse than the one they took in Atlanta last Dec. 16 when they still had a chance to repeat as NFC East champions. Over their past six games, the Giants are 1-5 and have been outscored by an average of 31.5 to 18.3.
This is worse than a slow start. This is an alarming, systemic trend.
"I thought that we were in a position today that we would be able to put our best foot forward," a stunned Coughlin said. "But we never gave ourselves a chance, competitively, to be in the game."
This is something the Giants like to believe never happens to them. They believe they're in every game, and that they have a chance to beat any team in the league if they play their best. For a long time, and with the help of a couple of dream Super Bowl runs, they had evidence to support this belief.
But that is no longer the case. There are too many examples, over the past 11 months, to the contrary. These Giants are a hollowed-out façade of what they once were. They have some nice-looking skill-position guys at quarterback and wide receiver and running back and defensive end. But they don't have enough good players at the key positions that would allow them to dictate the course of football games. They are heavily committed to a left tackle, Will Beatty, who played as poorly as a left tackle can possibly play Sunday and was a key culprit in the six sacks of Manning the Panthers were able to rack up in the first 17 minutes of the game.
At a time when this game, between two teams that came in 0-2, was begging for someone to take control of it, the Giants were overmatched and overwhelmed in the most humiliating way possible.
"We didn't win the physical battle against Denver either," Coughlin said, referring to the Giants' Week 2 loss. "And clearly, offensively, we lost the physical battle today as well."
The defense is getting off a bit easy here. The Giants made some nice plays in the secondary, but Carolina quarterback Cam Newton gashed them with runs on the first touchdown drive and DeAngelo Williams was able to put the game away in the second half on the ground. The Giants aren't winning enough physical battles up front on defense, either. It's just more glaring on offense.
"We are a desperate football team right now," defensive captain Justin Tuck said.
The problem is, they're not a good enough football team to pull themselves out of this mess. The Giants aren't going to suddenly start playing tougher in the trenches, because they don't have the right players with which to do it. Beatty isn't a big, mauling left tackle. He needs to be sound in his technique and win with his athleticism if he's to succeed. Sunday showed what happens when he doesn't. Right tackle Justin Pugh is a rookie. Right guard Chris Snee is on the downside. Center David Baas hasn't been what they signed him to be, really ever.
On the defensive side, Tuck goes in and out, Jason Pierre-Paul disappears and Linval Joseph is the only interior lineman who shows up in the other team's backfield. They have nothing at linebacker, at all. There just isn't enough, talent-wise, to make this redeemable. The Giants aren't going to go 0-16, but they're not going to contend for the division or the playoffs either.
"I expect everybody in that room to fight with the same passion I have," Coughlin said. "And I'll be looking hard for those who are not."
No doubt, but the path the 2013 Giants are on leads to an offseason of overhaul. Two-time Super Bowl champions will start to feel as though they're on a farewell tour. Coughlin himself isn't going anywhere -- he'll coach the team as long as he wants to coach it. But this is starting to set up as the kind of year that makes you wonder how much longer he'll want to. These Giants, because of the deterioration they've allowed to happen on their offensive line and in their defensive front seven, are on the cusp of a rebuilding project. There's no other way to view what they've put on tape for the past calendar year.
This isn't a 2013 problem. This is deep-seated, foundational rot. And the Giants aren't getting any better any time soon.