Saturday July 26th, 2008

ALBANY, N.Y. -- On the first morning of the first day of their first training camp as defending Super Bowl champions in 17 years, the New York Giants seized upon a familiar and yet strangely incongruous role for themselves: That of an disrespected underdog, determined to prove the doubters wrong.

Uh, hello. Didn't we just do this? Maybe six months or so ago? And is it even logical, not to mention legitimate, to label the team that won it all last season an "underdog'' as it opens its title defense? Don't you kind of forfeit any claim to that underdog stuff shortly after they throw you a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan?

This much is for certain: Some Giants seem intent on defending themselves as much as they do their championship. You'd think Super Bowl rings would have proven to be a nice counter-balance to the chips on their shoulders, but apparently not. More than a few of the players I talked to Friday morning at University at Albany reported to training camp with regulation-sized 2007 chips intact.

"I think underdog role is still on the Giants, even with everything,'' New York middle linebacker Antonio Pierce told me, standing just outside the team's training camp cafeteria. "It just doesn't make sense. But you see it, from rankings to predictions to why they'll fail. It's always about why they'll fail instead of why we'll succeed.

"Nobody's saying nothing about us. All of a sudden we're picked third (in the NFC East). Philly's going to win the division and Jason Taylor's on the Redskins. We're not the hunted, we're still the hunter. But it's beautiful. It's beautiful. The script's been written just alike it was last year. All we've got to do is respond.''

Pierce could have been talking about me rather than just to me. All offseason I went back and forth on the Giants and their chances to come anywhere near repeating their Super Bowl success of last season. Before their playoff run, New York to me had a well-deserved reputation of a team that absolutely could not stand prosperity. As soon as the good times started to roll for the Giants in recent years, you could categorically predict that something, some sort of adversity, controversy, or self-created problem, was about to crop up and put an end to all of that. It was a reliable as the coming and going of the tides.

So I understand the tendency to look at these Giants and see a great story as the 2008 season dawns, but not necessarily a great team. They sure were memorable, those '07 Giants. But are they durable as defending champions? I'm still in the dubious category, and my theory on the whole matter can be explained thusly:

New York ended last season with a magical and historic Super Bowl run. But magic of that monumental degree can almost never be reproduced, and the mojo inevitably fades. Just ask the Colorado Rockies, whose late-season and playoff magic of last September and October has amounted to nothing but a huge sub-.500 letdown in 2008. Rockies fans must be asking themselves this year if it was all just a dream and never really happened?

Will that same sort of scenario play out for the Giants this year? I'm not saying it will, but I am saying it could in the ultra-competitive NFC East, where it's a very short trip from 10-6 to 7-9. And that's with the acknowledgement that New York has a bevy of talent on its roster and quality coaching at its disposal. I could see the Giants struggling to get back into the NFC playoffs this season, just as they have had to fight tooth and nail to make into the postseason the past two Januarys.

"(The doubts are motivation), absolutely,'' Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said. "That's kind of where we were last year going into the (Super Bowl). Nothing's changed except we've got these big shiny rings on our fingers. We did win last year, and obviously no one is counting on us being in this race again. But that's OK. I like being the underdog.''

Magical 2007 season or not, the defensive-led Giants aren't buying into the notion that their road warrior playoff run and upset of the undefeated Patriots made them a onetime wonder that can't possibly repeat. Dominant defense is no fluke, and New York has that going for it. That's kind of magical in and of itself.

"I've never seen David Copperfield step foot on the football field, so I don't know what magic is,'' said Pierce, ever the quote-meister. "But yeah, that's what everyone thinks. That it was magic. And once you get everyone saying that, everyone rides with it. But every season's different.

"The truth is I hope we don't reproduce the season we had last year, because we were 0-2 last year and we were getting booed at home half the time. I don't want that to happen again.''

Giants coach Tom Coughlin is tapping into his club's underdog mentality once again, at least to a degree. Last year's camp T-shirt message was: "Talk is cheap. Play the game.'' This year: "Talk is cheap. Never satisfied.'' But Saturday morning at camp he told me he doesn't want his team too caught up in the notion that it must prove last year's championship was no fluke.

"Right after the Super Bowl, the power ratings came out and they we were sixth, seventh, eighth, whatever,'' Coughlin said after the close of New York's third practice session of camp. "But the idea there is we don't really have to defend ourselves. That's what happens sometimes. People back you into the corner, and that's not the position I want our guys to take. Just play. Just go to the field and play.''

Not everyone in Blue however is eager to convince the skeptics who linger, and that line seems to start with Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning. Why not keep playing the underdog card, given how superbly the Giants utilized it last season? What if New York's locker room is temperamentally disinclined to front-runner status?

"I don't mind going under the radar,'' Manning said. "If we're not the team to beat, or if we're not expected to be the best team next season, it doesn't bother me. This team knows what we accomplished last year. We also know we've got to become a better team. We've got to work on being more consistent and playing at a high level week in and week out.''

Will the magic return for New York this season, or did it run its natural but happy course with the conclusion of that early February confetti shower in University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.? There are doubters, of which the "underdog'' Giants are well aware.

"Can we harness what we did in the playoffs and extend it out for the whole season? That's the challenge for us,'' said New York veteran receiver Amani Toomer, nicely summing up the crux of the issue. "We know we have the pieces in place. So I think if we can find a way to kind of get our mojo back, so to speak, and start another run, we'll see where the talent and the team emphasis can take us this season.''

• Speaking of echoes of 2007 in Giants camp, No. 1 receiver Plaxico Burress isn't practicing again. Burress has missed the team's first three workouts in camp due to an ankle injury, even though it was just Thursday that Coughlin said Burress would be practicing once a day. Speculation immediately centered on whether Burress's ankle problem was connected to his desire for a new contract -- see his refusal to work out at a June mini-camp in protest of the pace of negotiations.

In reality, while Burress is trying to get the Giants to rip up the final three years of his contract and pay him somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 million a year (and agent Drew Rosenhaus was in Albany Friday), he's also trying to ease his way through camp in an effort to get to the regular season as healthy as possible. Burress basically didn't practice at all last year, when he dealt with that lingering ankle injury that refused to heal.

Stay tuned, folks, because while the Giants are pretty darn distraction-free in Albany this year (no Tiki, no Strahan, no Shockey), Plax's state of mind is the one potential landmine that the defending champs have to be aware of.

• The Giants' attempt to resurrect the career of quarterback David Carr isn't off to much of a start. Carr, the former No. 1 overall pick in 2002, was placed on the non-football injury list at the start of camp on Thursday, due to a foot strain he suffered working out last week. The Giants signed Carr this offseason as competition for veteran backup Anthony Wright, and then drafted Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson in the sixth round.

Until Carr gets on the field, you can't really say his battle with Wright has begun, but I couldn't help but notice how Coughlin phrased things when I asked him about the backup QB battle Saturday.

"It's right there for David, but he's got to get out there,'' Coughlin said. "We're trying to get him back to what he was. He's very smart and he's picked this (offense) up well. But Anthony's playing pretty well too. He's playing pretty good.''

That sounds like Wright is No. 2 for the time being, with Woodson likely being developed in the No. 3 role. Carr came to New York because of his relationship with Giants quarterback coach Chris Palmer, who was his offensive coordinator his four seasons in Houston (2002-2005). Palmer told me his challenge with Carr is to break him of the habit of trying to escape the pocket at the first sign of a different color jersey. Carr is basically shell-shocked after being sacked a whopping 249 times in his five-year Texans career, and his one-year tenure in Carolina last season ended dismally with a 58.3 passer rating in six games.

Carr's issue is that he has gotten so skittish in the face of any pass pressure that he takes off at the slightest provocation, and then his throwing mechanics are affected by his being in run-for-your-life mode. It could be a very tough habit to break, although Palmer did point out that Carr completed 68.3 percent of his passes in 2006, his final year as Houston's starter and his first in head coach Gary Kubiak's offense.

"David has had a tough experience so far, but he's obviously got the skill set, because he was the first pick in the draft,'' Giants general manager Jerry Reese said Saturday. "But it's between his ears right now. He's got to rebuild some confidence and have some success, and then he'll start to feel better about what he's doing.''

• At one point in Friday afternoon's Giants practice, I looked up and saw Carr (2002) and Eli Manning (2004) flanking Palmer. They are just two of the four quarterbacks drafted first overall who Palmer has worked with in his career. He was quarterbacks coach for Drew Bledsoe (1996) in New England on Bill Parcells' staff, and the Browns head coach when they took Tim Couch No. 1 in 1999. Throw in Cleveland defensive end Courtney Brown in 2000, and Palmer has experience coaching five No. 1's.

• After watching Woodson in two camp practices, I can say confidently that he throws a very pretty spiral, but the Giants are going to have to work on his throwing motion and the time it takes him to get rid of the ball. He seems to be in the full wind-up most of the time, and he's going to find that the window to deliver the ball in the NFL is much tighter than the one he's used to from college.

• If you thought Jeremy Shockey was happy not to have to deal with the circus that his presence at Giants training camp would have created, imagine how Coughlin and Reese feel. Relieved doesn't do justice to the look that crossed their faces when I asked them about New York's trade of its veteran tight end to New Orleans earlier this week.

"We wanted it to work and we tried to make it work,'' said Reese of the Giants' relationship with the irascible Shockey. "We went to the 11th hour to try and make it work. But after all things were considered, we thought it was the best decision for Jeremy to move on and us to move on.''

• Second-year tight end Kevin Boss has quickly become the people's choice at Giants camp. New York's fans have really embraced Boss, shouting his name whenever he's within, well, shouting distance. I'm getting the distinct feeling the Western Oregon product has emerged as the anti-Shockey, a no-nonsense, team-first type who is now going to earn the starting role in Shockey's absence. Boss, who has great hands and seems to catch everything, gets an ovation in camp for anything tougher than buckling his chin strap.

As for Shockey's new NFL address, ex-Giants teammate Justin Tuck still can't quite wrap his mind around it. Maybe because the notion of calling Shockey a Saint has never been thought of before.

"I saw him last night on TV in that white and gold jersey, and it didn't look right,'' Tuck said.

• Which Giants Super Bowl hero just completed the greatest offseason that he'll ever have in his NFL career? That would be New York receiver David Tyree, he of the patented ball-against-the-helmet game-turning catch in last February's big game.

Tyree underwent offseason knee surgery and has been placed on the Giants' physically unable to perform list, so technically his 2008 season has yet to begin. But if there was ever a better six months to be David Tyree, I'm not sure when that could have possibly been. Don't know if he even drinks, but if he does, there's no way he ever bought for himself this offseason.

"In a lot of ways, yeah, it was great,'' Tyree told me. "But I'm nursing an injury, so it's like a blessing and a curse at the same time.''

• It's early, but Eli Manning is already sharp. When reporters tried to coax him into commenting on whether he thinks Burress' early camp ankle injury is really about his contract dissatisfaction, Manning evaded the question just as deftly as he escaped from all that Patriots pass pressure in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.

"How do you know it's an ankle and not a contract thing,'' a reporter asked. "I don't know anything,'' Manning said, in that southern drawl of his. "I'm just hoping for the best.''

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