EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - This is the way dynasties start. A team wins the big one when it's not supposed to, then continues to win, defying the odds in one way, shape or form.
A chip grows on its shoulder, a chip that belated praise can not penetrate. The team eventually gets its due but ignores it. It's us against them, and praise is seen as just the latest plot to unnerve that.
The players, in a short amount of time, change from cute underdogs to imposing favorites: to a team that wins important games without key pieces, and without playing to its potential.
"I don't know if it's just being in New York or what causes it, but it seems there is always something going on here, always there's a distraction," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said yesterday, 1 day after star receiver Plaxico Burress was suspended for the season for accidentally shooting himself in a New York nightclub with a gun for which he had no permit to carry.
"We have had our share of them. And I think myself, the players, the coaches have learned how to cope with them and how to deal with them and how to not make a distraction bigger by what you say and what you do . . . "
That was the essence of Tom Coughlin's pep talk to the Super Bowl champion Giants last summer, the essence of what he said to them yesterday. With Antonio Pierce still under investigation for his part in the incident, the Giants coach reminded them of all they had already been through, all the retirements and holdouts and in-house criticisms that had sabotaged runs of recent past.
Less than 2 years ago Coughlin was thought to be done as this team's coach, undercut by some of the stars that, it was assumed, the Giants would be winless without.
Jeremy Shockey. Tiki Barber. Michael Strahan.
Two seasons ago, Strahan's divorce overshadowed any talk of next week's game. Two summers ago he held out - unsuccessfully - for a new contract. Only this summer Burress did the same successfully, allowing, as Manning pointed out yesterday, for his replacement Domenik Hixon, to get plenty of preseason playing time.
Just over 12 months ago, in late November, the team's first-year general manager, Jerry Reese, described Manning, his franchise quarterback, as "skittish."
"You have to concentrate on your job and your football," Manning said. "The less you say, the better you are. Just don't make things worse. I think that's how we've tried to deal with things and how we have gotten better. By not making distractions affect our play and affect how we go about things."
Yesterday's first day back after the suspension of Burress brought a mature and measured response from the team that has rather quickly, through some great drafting and developing, become the NFL's newest gold standard, the one that might replace the Patriots and bypass the Eagles. Coughlin came out first, read a detailed and compassionate statement about the end of Burress' season - and likely career - with the Giants.
He used two words when he spoke to the team about it:
"One, disappointment," he said, "And two, sadness."
Six players followed him to the podium throughout the day, answering or dodging questions about Burress' plight, and the team's collective psyche, and most significantly, their own safety in public.
Just days before the Burress incident, Giants receiver Steve Smith was held up at gunpoint outside his home in suburban Clifton, N.J. No Giant, including Smith, was willing to speculate whether that played into Burress' decision to carry an unregistered firearm into the Latin Quarter nightclub Friday night. But defensive lineman Mathias Kiwanuka, when asked if athletes had to be extra careful in public said, "there is definitely a huge target on your back. You can't just say that it doesn't exist and try to pretend like the problem isn't there. The question is how you go about handling it?"
The problem, he went on to say, is that your non-football friends don't always have the same targets. "Sometimes we get caught up in just trying to be a regular guy," he said. "It is said that athletes think that they are above the law or above other people. But it's when you try to come down to everybody else's level, that you can find yourself in trouble real fast."
Burress is 31. Kiwanuka is 25, a third-year pro, part of an incredible string of good drafts by the Giants over the last few years. Having missed last year's Super Bowl experience due to injury, he's an argument for why this could just be the start of an NFL dynasty. The Giants just keep plugging holes with good or better players, keep finding their calm among chaos.
"A normal day," Justin Tuck said after yesterday's practice. "There really wasn't anything different. We went about our business as we would have if Plaxico was here." *
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