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Giants lurking beneath headlines


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by John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki Updated: August 21, 2008, 10:22 PM EST 56 comments add this RSS blog email print Try to remember last summer when most of us, particularly ex-teammate Tiki Barber, were describing the many so-called flaws of Eli Manning. Those criticisms actually stretched deep into December, while this training camp another curious development has enveloped the New York Giants.

After beating the evil empire, the New England Belichicks, to win this proud franchise's third Super Bowl, many would have predicted a glaring spotlight to arrive in Albany when the champs came to town. But in this summer of Favre, the Giants opened camp sailing under the national radar while their biggest rival, the Cowboys, were prancing and preening on the Hard Knocks docudrama. In the end, the G-men actually became the second football story on New York's back pages when Brett arrived to quarterback the Jets.


Let me tell you, these Giants actually enjoy this lack of attention. They seem to perform better with a chip on their shoulder. They were booed at home last season, where they lost five games only to redeem their season by becoming road warriors, reeling off 11 straight wins.


"I don't know if Favre made the right call, but I know (his story) has really made a lot of people not really care about us," Giants running back Brandon Jacobs said. "Then last night I had to watch the Cowboys on Hard Knocks, and they all look like they are auditioning for roles in Hollywood. All I know is that this organization would never allow those (HBO) cameras in here, and I'm happy about that."


This doesn't mean that the Giants don't have some issues. They recognize that everyone will be gunning for them, plus they reside in the NFL's most-competitive division. Statistically, the AFC South was better last season, but the NFC East is tougher because the champs reside there with everyone else's favorite, the Cowboys. The Eagles and Redskins aren't chopped liver, either.


Even with the departure of Michael Strahan to the Fox studio and tight end Jeremy Shockey to the Saints, the Giants believe they enough pieces to repeat. Like last season, there is a quiet optimism and confidence.


"I can remember telling Osi (Umenyiora) toward the end of the Patriots' game (the one the Giants lost in the Meadowlands), not to worry," defensive lineman Justin Tuck said. "I told him we'd get another shot at them in Arizona. I honestly thought that because we played so vanilla on defense in that game."


One of the Giants' biggest advantages against the Patriots was the ability of their front four and Tuck in particular to apply constant pressure on Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. Tuck had two of New York's five sacks. In the 16-0 regular season, Brady was sacked only 21 times.


Of course, Strahan's presence was one huge reason why it worked.


"Once he got here (Strahan missed training camp), Michael did everything you want a veteran leader to do," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "He was helpful in the meetings with the younger guys and he played at a high level. He was a very good leader. When camp started this summer, he left a really nice message on my cell phone."


Tuck said that Strahan showed him the ropes when he came to dissecting traits in opposing offensive linemen.


"He just knew so much and I am grateful he was willing to pass it on," Tuck said.


If Favre can play, so can Strahan. He simply wants a new career, plus it's always better retiring on top.


The Giants allowed 80 points when starting 0-2 last season. But it was basically getting used to new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme while getting used to one another.


"We knew the talent level was there," Tuck said.


On offense, the loss of Shockey means the loss of an emotional leader. But although Manning won't admit it, Shockey also brought negative energy to the huddle. He always wanted the ball and screamed and pouted when the offense didn't go his way. Because Eli was more of a cerebral leader and not highly vocal leader, Shockey often proved to be a distracting influence. Eli won't miss that part; however, the Giants will miss his ability to block and make big plays.



The Giants may miss Jeremy Shockey's on-field skills, but won't miss the drama. (Sean Gardner / Getty Images)


None other than Giants GM Jerry Reese praised Shockey's blocking skills to me. But Jeremy had to go because he simply couldn't grasp that the Giants won a championship without him. He was in a Super funk.


Kevin Boss, whose 45-yard catch-and-run was a Super highlight, is the new starter although he doesn't block like Shockey. The best blocker in New York's tight end group is Michael Matthews, but he doesn't catch as well as Darcy Johnson, who missed all of 2007 with a knee injury. Because of that injury, Johnson has looked tentative this summer and currently is in danger of missing the cut.


How young is this group?


"I tell people that none of them can rent a car," said position coach Mike Pope, "because none of them are old (25) enough."


But the strength of the Giants remains on offense, where the offensive line had only one starter miss a measly game all year, where Eli is more confident and where Brandon Jacobs continues to rumble and out-weigh defenders like Tuck, Osi and middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, the man most likely to assume Strahan's leadership void.


About the only headache has been Plaxico Burress, who has spent much of camp complaining about his ankle, his new orthodics and his lack of a new contract. The Giants claim they will give Burress some new money, cognizant of big-time production last season, just not Randy Moss' and Terrell Owens' money. It's a dilemma because the Giants wouldn't have won it all without Plax. Remember those 11 catches for 151 yards in frigid Lambeau last Jan. 20?


The secondary should be younger and faster. First-round pick Kenny Phillips looks like an immediate starter at free safety. A big-time hitter at the U. of Miami as a down-in-the-box safety, Phillips has speed to roam and typical of most Giants, has a chip on his shoulder because every team in the league passed on him. The Giants had him rated as a top-15 player on their draft board, regardless of position.


The biggest improvement at the end of last season was that cornerback Corey Webster started playing like a veteran. Webster and Aaron Ross give the Giants two quality cornerbacks to go with young safety James Butler, who Coughlin continues to point out led his defense in tackles in Super XLII. New York has old-timers like R.W. McQuarters, Sammy Knight and Sam Madison for quality depth.


"You always want to get better," said center Shaun O'Hara, "but we go into this season realizing what we accomplished last year. That has given us a confidence level that maybe we didn't have in the past. We're not a team that is going to coast, either. We will push each other to get better because most of us know you simply can't say, 'Well, we're going to win this game or that game.' "


The expectations, though, remain the same.


"We're all happy that we won a Super Bowl," Tuck said, "but I look at my hands and I have nine other fingers that could use a ring. I think we're all still hungry to prove last season wasn't a fluke."


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