Donnell can’t forget fumble that doomed Giants vs. Cowboys

LARRY W. SMITH/EPA Larry Donnell’s second-half fumble helps doom the NY Giants in October loss to the Cowboys.

He’s relived the play hundreds of times on video, maybe a thousand more times in his mind. He can tell you everything he did right and everything he did wrong, how, with one mistake, he cost the Giants a win over a bitter rival.

But whenever Larry Donnell watches the tape of his critical fumble last month against the Dallas Cowboys, he manages to see something new. And on Friday afternoon, during a final tape session with the other Giants tight ends, he happened to notice exactly how close he was to a first down, how close he was to keeping a fourth quarter rally alive against the rival Cowboys in Dallas last month.

He saw himself catch Eli Manning’s third-and-8 pass deep in Giants territory, lunge forward, spin and get the ball jarred loose. But before the half-spin, he insisted, he saw himself gain enough yardage for a first.

“I was actually like two yards short of the first down when I caught it,” he told the News. “I caught it and when I tried to go upfield… exactly when they ripped it (the ball) out is when I would have had the first. It sucks.”

It was the play that turned a potential Giants comeback into an easy Dallas win, the most grating mistake in this breakout season for Larry Donnell. And when those same Cowboys visit MetLife Stadium on Sunday night, Donnell will be chasing redemption, aiming to erase the feeling of regret that hasn’t left him since Oct. 19, when his turnover turned a one-score game into a 31-21 loss.

He flashed back to that game. Again.

“Big game against the Cowboys, we’re down I think one touchdown (28-21),” he said. “We’d started moving the ball. We had a chance to win it. I slipped up, wasn’t doing the right things when I should have been holding onto the ball.”

“You want that opportunity,” he added. “In life, you don’t always get second chances. But this is another chance to show my team that I’m past that and that I’m making plays for them.”

Only Donnell is questioning Donnell in New York, where he’s made mistakes but still has been one of the few bright spots on a team that’s in a five-game tailspin, stuck with a 3-7 record that’s tied for second-worst in the entire NFC. For all the “We’re Still Alive” rhetoric from Antrel Rolle and Jason Pierre-Paul, these battered and too-easily-beaten Giants are playing the first of six meaningless games on Sunday night, a death march that will last this entire holiday season.

But Donnell has come from nowhere to emerge as a red-zone weapon and a big-play tight end — and maybe the Giants’ first long-term solution at the position since the days of Jeremy Shockey.

With a team-high six TDs in 10 games, Donnell is on pace to break the team record for touchdowns by a tight end (9, held by Aaron Thomas in 1967 and Joe Walton in 1962), and in Week 4 in Washington, he became the first Giants tight end since Walton to score three TDs in a game. With 44 catches already, he has an outside shot at challenging Shockey’s team-record of 74 grabs by a tight end, set in 2002.

Donnell knows all those stats, mostly because friends and family and journalists love to mention his meteoric rise. But he also sees so many mistakes offsetting his otherworldly athleticism. The fumble wasn’t his lone mistake in Dallas, he pointed out; there was an earlier fumble, as well as a handful of missed run blocks.

For all his receiving prowess, Donnell believes he’s been part of the problem for the Giants run game that’s averaging an embarrassing 3.7 yards per carry.

“One time, I was supposed to come tight out of a double team, nothing but daylight for my man Dre (Andre Williams),” he said, recalling a blown block in that first Cowboys game. “Dre had a chance to run, but I came too wide.

“I want to be a complete tight end,” he added. “It’s one thing to be able to catch the ball, but then I have to come out of the game and they put Dan (tight end Daniel Fells) in because he knocks guys on the ground (as a blocker). I need to get better.”

Donnell hopes to show off more progress on Sunday night. He’s spent weeks learning blocking techniques from Fells, a seventh-year vet who has emerged as his mentor, and he’s gradually adjusted to increased defensive attention; after two games with less than 30 yards, he had 54 yards and the Giants’ lone TD in last week’s loss to the 49ers.

Most importantly, he hasn’t fumbled since the play that haunts him, has spent the last month pretending that the ball is his 4-year-old daughter, Zarri, on every reception.

“It’s like my wife says, hold onto that ball like you hold onto your daughter,” he said. “Every time I get that ball, put a little smiley face on it, make sure I hold onto it.”

Now, he just needs a new memory against Dallas to replace the old one.

“It leaves a sour taste in my mouth every time I see it,” he said. “I need to make another play.”

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