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USA Today: After title in make-or-break year, Coughlin, G-men back in heat


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After title in make-or-break year, Coughlin, G-men back in heat

By Tom Pedulla, USA TODAY

If a turbulent offseason is any indication, the New York Giants are headed for a bumpy title defense after pulling one of the most stunning upsets in Super Bowl history.

The jubilation that followed an improbable playoff run and a 17-14 shocker against the previously perfect New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII has been followed by the retirement of one star, the export of another, a high-profile contract dispute and the brief imprisonment of a key running back.

Not surprisingly, coach Tom Coughlin welcomed the start of training camp and an opportunity to return the focus to the field.

"We are not satisfied with winning," he says. "We have a lot of things to improve upon, and that is the attitude that we are going to take into camp."

He might find it difficult to build that attitude, however. The locker room won't be the same without seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan, a leader in word and deed who ended his stellar 15-year career by walking away on top.

"He is a special, special player … special man," says defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, "and maybe it will take three guys to replace Michael."

The Giants are far more capable of withstanding the loss of Strahan than most clubs would be because of the imposing presence of OsiUmenyiora and Justin Tuck. While the unit might not duplicate its league-leading 53 sacks, it will have opposing quarterbacks on the run.

New York, which reached the playoffs as a wild card and closed with a league-record 10 consecutive road wins, also must find its way without a key figure on offense. Tight end Jeremy Shockey was traded to the New Orleans Saints shortly before training camp began for two draft picks.

Shockey's relationship with management soured after he broke his left fibula on Dec. 16, an injury that required season-ending surgery. The Giants thrived after rookie Kevin Boss replaced him.

Shockey did not attend the team's victory parade or ring ceremony. He stayed indoors and refused to even watch an offseason minicamp from the sidelines, leading the club to rid itself of a player who was quick to complain and whose attitude did not always match his abundant talent.

Standout receiver Plaxico Burress, a close friend of Shockey's, also added to the offseason woes that may extend into the regular season. He is dissatisfied with a six-year, $25 million contract that has three years remaining. The team responded by opening negotiations on a new deal.

As if all of this weren't enough, tailback Ahmad Bradshaw, 22, will be monitored closely after his release from Southwest Virginia Regional Jail for a probation violation. The Giants were assured that the violation occurred before they drafted Bradshaw, who led them with 208 rushing yards in the postseason.

With so many distractions, veterans such as center Shaun O'Hara are working to remind teammates of the targets that defending champions inevitably carry on their chests.

"Everybody is going to be gunning for you, being the defending champions," O'Hara says, "and we certainly have to play the part, and we have to step it up week in and week out."

New York's ability to mount a staunch title defense depends largely on quarterback Eli Manning. Yes, he excelled in the playoffs and as the Super Bowl MVP. But his performance before that was ragged. He ranked 25th among quarterbacks with a 73.9 passer rating, and his 232 incompletions were a league high.

Coughlin is confident Manning, beginning his fifth season, will grow from his postseason successes and not revert to the bad old days.

"I think there is kind of a natural presence that he has. That is the best way I could put it," the coach says. "He has brought even more to the table than he has in other offseasons, so it is good. It is all good stuff."

Manning recognizes that he is not a finished product. "I'm always working on fundamentals, working on being accurate with the ball and making my reads and trying to eliminate mistakes and interceptions," he says. "There are a lot of things when I looked at film that I need to improve on."

Manning should have time to operate the offense efficiently. General manager Jerry Reese ensured that a quality offensive line that allowed only 28 sacks will stay intact by signing left tackle David Diehl and right guard Chris Snee to contract extensions. They also cleared the way for the team to rush for at least 100 yards in nine of the last 12 regular-season games. New York ranked fourth in the league with 134.3 rushing yards a game.

But Manning is emphasizing the need for improvement, knowing that could be the best approach toward overcoming distractions and proving the Giants are not one-year wonders.

"I don't think we are satisfied," he says. "I think we are happy about last year, but we are not content with where we stand as a team.

"We know that we can become a better group of players. We can have a better season."


• Quarterback: Eli Manning entered the 2007 playoffs struggling to prove that he is a franchise quarterback. Now he is the toast of the town after a dramatic Super Bowl run. The best news for Giants fans is that he still has plenty of room to grow after throwing 20 interceptions last season. David Carr and Anthony Wright are battling for backup duties, and rookie Andr? Woodson is a long-term project.

• Running back: Brandon Jacobs, who never saw a tackler he didn't want to trample, can be one of the NFL's most devastating backs. Shifty Ahmad Bradshaw offers an effective change of pace. Cutback artist Derrick Ward provides yet another weapon and depth.

• Wide receiver: Plaxico Burress, an outstanding mixture of size and leaping ability, compares to the league's elite when healthy. Graybeard Amani Toomer still possesses a knack for making the big catch. Steve Smith should build on the promise he displayed in the playoffs. Intriguing rookie Mario Manningham, disappointing Sinorice Moss and Super Bowl hero David Tyree will fight for snaps.

• Tight end: Kevin Boss replaces Jeremy Shockey, who was traded to the New Orleans Saints after it became clear it would be impossible to resolve his differences with the organization.

• Offensive line: David Diehl should be even better after making a smooth transition to left tackle last year. The drive blocking of Chris Snee is central to the run game, and he was rewarded with an extension. Center Shaun O'Hara, left guard Rich Seubert and right tackle Kareem McKenzie are dependable.

• Defensive lineWith Michael Strahan's retirement, ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck will bear a bigger burden. Dave Tollefson also has promise as a pass rusher. Tackles Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins stand tall against the run. Renaldo Wynn offers versatility.

• Linebacker: Another strong year is needed from Antonio Pierce in the middle. Despite Strahan's retirement, former defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka is expected to spend most of his time as a strong-side linebacker. Zak DeOssie could move in if Kiwanuka mans the D-line. Gerris Wilkinson gets first crack on the weak side.

• Secondary: Corner Aaron Ross made a significant contribution as a rookie. There is every reason to think he can emerge as a top cover corner. Corey Webster excelled in the playoffs and needs to maintain that level of play opposite Ross. With the free agent loss of free safety Gibril Wilson, wide-ranging rookie Kenny Phillips has the skills to make an immediate impact there. Sammy Knight was signed to take over at strong safety. The depth is also solid.

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