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Mike Reiss | Football Notes

A Giant challenge awaits

Can they script sequel to 'fairy-tale' ending?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / June 1, 2008

Maybe it was the road they traveled to win Super Bowl XLII - how they caught fire at just the right time after an up-and-down regular season - that has contributed to the feeling that the New York Giants aren't likely to repeat in 2008.

Giants players seem to have picked up on the vibe. They sense a lack of respect among prognosticators, but general manager Jerry Reese indicated it isn't such a bad thing.

"I do think we've gotten a lot of credit but, obviously, some people are thinking it might have been a fairy-tale season, or maybe the quarterback is not that good, or the defense is not that good," Reese said Friday, the day after the Giants received their sparkling Super Bowl rings in a Manhattan ceremony.

"It probably helps us with people saying we're not better. It gives players an edge, a chip on our shoulder to prove we're a pretty good football team."

Reese agrees that the Giants benefited from great timing, putting it together as a complete team - offense, defense, special teams - when it truly counted. No team played better down the stretch.

The performance underscored what Tom Brady has said when reflecting on the Patriots' Super Bowl runs: The real season starts after Thanksgiving, and the goal to that point is simply to stay in contention.

The challenge for the Giants now appears to be twofold. Can they duplicate their impeccable timing? And how will they respond to the "defending champion" label that Reese said might as well be a bull's-eye.

Unlike some past Super Bowl champions, the Giants have not suffered major personnel losses.

The big hits came when starting safety Gibril Wilson signed a big-money deal in Oakland, starting weak-side linebacker Kawika Mitchell departed for Buffalo, and top backup linebacker Reggie Torbor inked a contract in Miami.

And, of course, the question remains whether defensive end Michael Strahan will return for a 16th season; but even if he retires, few teams can call on a player the caliber of Justin Tuck (6 tackles, 2 sacks in the Super Bowl) to fill the void.

In adding to the foundation of his championship team this offseason, Reese focused mostly on defense.

Veteran Sammy Knight was signed as insurance for Wilson. Knight, 32, will likely open the season starting alongside returnee James Butler, but second-year man Michael Johnson and 2008 first-round pick Kenny Phillips - who could be a steal at the No. 31 spot - might alter those plans with strong performances.

Reese said second-round pick Terrell Thomas (Southern Cal) is focusing solely on cornerback. Some clubs viewed Thomas as a safety, but Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likes "long-armed guys who can put their hands on receivers and slow them up," so the 6-foot, 202-pound Thomas will compete for time there.

At the weak-side linebacker spot, Reese said it's third-year player Gerris Wilkinson's job to lose. Wilkinson appeared to break through in the regular-season finale last year against the Patriots, playing in place of the injured Mitchell. Veteran Danny Clark was also signed and has experience at all three linebacker positions in the Giants' 3-4.

Former Boston College star Mathias Kiwanuka, coming off a broken leg that shortened his 2007 season to 10 games, will remain at the strong-side linebacker spot for now, while also playing as a pass-rushing end on third down.

"He gives us a lot of flexibility," Reese said. "We've seen a lot of progress from him there, but at the same time, if Strahan decides to retire, he could still be moved down [to end]."

On offense, there was little turnover, just some lingering questions about tight end Jeremy Shockey, who broke his left leg and missed the Super Bowl run. The Saints inquired about acquiring Shockey, but Reese said he expects Shockey to return as the starter.

The offensive line, which was especially impressive in the Super Bowl, returns intact at the starting and backup spots. Look for third-year man Guy Whimper to make a run at the left tackle job that was admirably held down by David Diehl last year.

Looking for a player to emerge on offense? Sinorice Moss isn't a bad choice, as Reese expects the 2006 second-round pick "to really come on this year."

As for his personnel philosophy, Reese said, "I always look back to Bill Walsh and how he built his teams [in San Francisco], trying to create competition at every position."

Same old winning attitude

When the Colts gathered for a recent minicamp, Tony Dungy did what most head coaches do this time of year: He took a pulse of his club's mind-set. Based on where the Colts are in their team-building mode, with most key veterans returning and only some minor roster tweaks, Dungy was looking for signs of complacency.

"I think we have to be a team that doesn't get tired of doing what we've done," said Dungy, who has led the Colts to 12 or more wins in each of the last five seasons (an NFL record) and is now one year removed from a Super Bowl victory.

"So often you get to that point where you think, 'We have to change, we have to do something different, we have to create a different way of life,' but how we've won is by building on what we do and not getting bored with that," said Dungy. "If we do that, I think we'll be in good shape."

Of all the questions facing the Colts, Dungy believes the biggest is "how are we going to respond to the disappointment of not winning last year, and will we come back to work?"

Of course, it helps when the hard-working Peyton Manning is the quarterback, but Dungy said it's more than just Manning. Having a kicker like former Patriot Adam Vinatieri has also helped set a positive, hard-working tone.

"Being around him the last two years, you appreciate him that much more," said Dungy. "You knew he was a clutch kicker, knew the reputation he had, but being around him day in and day out, how he approaches his craft, and how he interacts with the guys and how important winning is to him, he's a pretty special guy."

This game of tag has turned into hide and seek

If Nnamdi Asomugha played for a 14-win team instead of a four-win Raiders squad, his situation would surely be garnering more attention.

Perhaps one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, Asomugha and the Raiders have reached a contract impasse that has kept him away from the team this offseason. A first-round draft choice in 2003 out of California, Asomugha was assigned the franchise tag by the team, restricting his ability to fully experience the free agent market.

So while players such as receiver Chad Johnson (Bengals), defensive end Jason Taylor (Dolphins), defensive end Paul Spicer (Jaguars), and linebacker Brian Urlacher (Bears) have garnered attention for their lack of presence at recent team activities, Asomugha has flown under the radar.

That also could be attributed to Asomugha's approach, as he's taken the anti-Asante Samuel route. Remember when Samuel was spitting fire as the Patriots' franchise player last year, at one point threatening to sit out the season? Asomugha indicated that isn't even on his radar.

"I don't plan on missing the season, that's something that has never gone through my head," he said. "This is what I do for a living. What I'd like is for something to be worked out on a long-term deal, and we'll continue to try to do so until we've exhausted all our time."

Based on the Raiders' already exorbitant offseason spending - including what could be a $70 million deal for cornerback DeAngelo Hall, acquired in a trade from Atlanta - it's unlikely that Asomugha will be playing for anything but the one-year, approximate $9.8 million figure as an exclusive franchise player.

While players generally prefer long-term deals with up-front bonuses, Asomugha certainly realizes that $9.8 million is still a nice haul, and he could potentially cash in with a long-term deal in 2009.

In the meantime, Asomugha continues to do some classy off-field work, most recently taking a group of eight teenagers from an Oakland youth center on a college tour through Boston and Providence. Stops were made at MIT, Harvard, the Berklee School of Music, Boston University, and Brown University. Another highlight was taking in the Celtics' regular-season finale, when Oakland native Leon Powe had a big night.

"The biggest thing was exposing them to different ways of life, and in this case, college life," he said.

Etc.

The Bear facts
Beware of the nine-year deal. That seems to be the underlying message in the contract disagreement between linebacker Brian Urlacher and the Bears. In 2003, Urlacher signed a nine-year contract worth up to $57 million, but as player salaries have exploded in recent years, Urlacher has become unhappy that he's locked in for another four seasons. In one sense, Urlacher's camp makes a fair point, noting that NFL salaries aren't guaranteed, so the contract length has little meaning. Yet Urlacher can't have it both ways. By signing the nine-year deal and receiving almost $19 million in bonuses and guarantees in '03, he sacrificed leverage for the future, putting the ball squarely in the team's court.

Defensive rock stars
Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz promised members of his unit that he would acknowledge their accomplishments if they played in more than 90 percent of the team's snaps. Schwartz followed through last week, painting sledgehammers in Titans blue and white and handing them over to linebacker Keith Bulluck, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, and cornerback Cortland Finnegan as recognition for being defensive ironmen. Finnegan, in particular, has turned out to be a steal as a seventh-round pick out of Samford in 2006.

Trying to cover Glenn
The Cowboys and receiver Terry Glenn are at odds on how to proceed with his surgically repaired right knee. The team is holding Glenn out of all workouts until he signs a $500,000 injury settlement. That way, the team isn't on the hook for his $1.74 million salary if the knee keeps him out for the season. But Glenn, who missed 15 games last season after undergoing two arthroscopic surgeries, is balking. Glenn would seemingly be wise to hold his ground, as he's in the control position because of the Cowboys' shortage at receiver.

Trouble getting up to speed
It's too early to push the panic button, but Jerry Porter hasn't exactly gotten off to the smoothest start in Jacksonville. Porter, who signed a six-year, $30 million deal to add speed to the Jaguars' receiver ranks, has been saddled with Achilles' and hamstring injuries as he tries to learn a new system.

Rushing to their aid
Packers defensive end Aaron Kampman, one of the NFL's top pass rushers, said he's been careful not to use his status as a professional football player for personal gain. But after seeing the devastation inflicted by a tornado in his hometown in Iowa, and having his 81-year-old grandfather injured, Kampman sprang into action last week to help organize relief efforts. "When you can do something like this where you get a chance to really help some people that you care a lot about, you feel like you have been put in a position for a certain reason," he told reporters in Green Bay.

Depth receptions
One area on the Patriots' roster to watch for potential additions is running back, as the club recently visited with free agent Kevin Jones (Lions) and had Samkon Gado (Dolphins) in for a tryout. Representatives for both players confirmed the visits, which are likely designed as a security measure if veteran Sammy Morris experiences any setbacks in his recovery from a sternum/clavicle separation.

Extra points
Two quarterbacks with New England ties will look to emerge north of the border, as the University of New Hampshire's Ricky Santos signed with the Montreal Alouettes, and Boston College's Quinton Porter has hooked on with the Hamilton Tiger Cats . . . Veteran running back Larry Johnson, who returned to the field last week after having recovered from a foot injury that sidelined him for the final nine games of last season, seems to be taking on more of a leadership role in Kansas City. He requested that the locker of rookie running back Jamaal Charles be placed next to his, so he can take him under his wing . . . After Browns cornerback Daven Holly suffered a season-ending knee injury, the team last week moved quickly to sign veteran Terry Cousin, who is projected to play in the slot as a third corner. The Browns might not be done looking for help in that area, however.

Did you know?
At $46.26, the Buffalo Bills had the lowest average ticket price in the NFL last season, according to a survey conducted by Team Marketing Report.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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