SI.com has dispatched 10 writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. For the complete schedule of postcards, click here.
On the campus of the University at Albany, which might not technically qualify as sprawling, but starts to seem that way when you have to make the 15-minute walk between the Giants' practice field and media center five times in a single day, as did this car-less reporter. Still, it's hard not to get caught up in the good cheer that imbues Giants camp this year, in the wake of their stunning Super Bowl triumph. "I've never been thanked more in my life," says center Shaun O'Hara, and the team's fervent supporters have also impressed middle linebacker Antonio Pierce. "There are so many more fans here than ever before," he says. "They're here early in the morning, they're here in the afternoon."
Even Tom Coughlin has gotten into the spirit. Coughlin famously committed to lighten up before last season; but here in Albany last summer, with the guillotine dangling above his neck, he chafed at the daily barrage of questions about Michael Strahan's whereabouts. This year, with a ring on his finger and a contract extension in his pocket, he seems happy to address all queries, no matter how inane. "First time I have ever heard a question like that," he said brightly to a reporter who asked about some procedural element of autograph night. "Congratulations!"
Still, the Giants say they're well aware of the possibility of a Super Bowl hangover, especially as the franchise missed the playoffs the season following each of its previous two championships. Says O'Hara, "The atmosphere's different, but we're still here in Albany for one reason: To put our noses to the grindstone and go to work."
1. The secondary's huge. I spent several moments observing what I assumed to be the Giants' linebacking corps huddled up next to the practice field -- until I realized the group was actually the team's secondary. These guys are monsters (only cornerback Sam Madison is under 6 feet), but the most physically impressive of them all is safety Kenny Phillips, the team's first-round pick out of Miami. He's listed at 6'2, 210 lbs., but he's surely bigger than that now, and the team's thrilled with how he's played so far. The Giants devoted a significant amount of their off-season resources to upgrading the secondary -- they also drafted USC cornerback Terrell Thomas in the second round and signed free agent safety Sammy Knight. They ranked 11th in pass defense last season, but that ranking was somewhat misleading, as the secondary was helped considerably by an unstoppable pass rush. Now they've got a big, fast and deep unit, which should perform well in a division that boasts only one opposing receiver who matches them physically, Terrell Owens.
2. The Giants will miss Strahan. But not that much. The Giants are completely confident there will be no Favre-ian flip-flopping for the league's fifth all-time sacks leader: He's retired for good. And while he played at an extremely high level for a 36-year-old last season, the Giants' pass rush, which led the NFL with 53 sacks, remains strong. Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck (the latter of whom should have probably joined the former at last year's Pro Bowl) should constitute one of the best tandems of ends in the league, and they'll be supported by a still-effective Fred Robbins and the up-and-coming Barry Cofield and Jay Alford, whose sack of Tom Brady with less than a minute left in the Super Bowl was one of the most important (yet somewhat forgotten) plays of the game. And Mathias Kiwanuka, who was playing the best football of his career when he was injured last November, is back at full strength. More on him below.
3. Plaxico's actually hurt -- so he says. Plaxico Burress was adamant in a meeting with reporters that his right ankle is legitimately sore (although he says it's a different malady than the one that hampered him last year), and that he's not pulling a ManRam-like contract-related ploy. "Y'all know me," he said. "If this was about my contract, I wouldn't be here. I'd be sitting at home right now." I'm guessing that Plax will be healthy enough to play on Sundays, but not healthy enough to play much during the week -- which would be fine with the Giants, if he can repeat last season's 1,025-yard, 12-touchdown performance.
Not many to choose from here, as the veteran safety Knight, who is tied with Champ Bailey for third on the active interceptions list, amounts to the Giants' only significant off-season acquisition. This will be the hard-hitting Knight's 12th NFL season, and he hasn't missed a game since 1998. However, he's played in only five playoff games, and he says that's inspiring him in camp, particularly when he sits with his new teammates in the UAlbany cafeteria. "When you see that guy sitting next to you, that ring blinding you when you're eating lunch, it makes you hungrier," he says. "I feel hungry. I see the joy these guys have on their faces, and I want that feeling."
A 10-6 record is a definite possibility. I believe the Giants will go 3-3 in the NFC East (sweeping the Eagles, splitting with the Redskins, and dropping both games to the Cowboys), as they did last season, and will then beat up on a relatively weak slate of non-divisional opponents. The only true tests appear to be road games against the Browns (Week 6), Steelers (Week 8) and Vikings (Week 17). New York could lose that Browns game and still start the season 5-1 -- with wins over the Redskins, Rams, Bengals, Seahawks and 49ers. It's not too far from there to a Wild Card berth (I expect the Cowboys to repeat as NFC East champs), and we all know what can happen if this team gets hot in the playoffs.
Defensive end-turned-SAM linebacker Kiwanuka flew around the practice field, looking both faster and more muscular than ever, eight months after fracturing his left fibula in last season's tenth game. At one point, the 6'5", 265 Kiwanuka knocked down a pass 35 yards down the field. Kiwi admits to being a little stiff at linebacker at the beginning of last season but was really starting to get the hang of it when he snapped his leg. He spent his recovery time watching film to get the position down cold, and it looks as if it's paid off: Coughlin has singled him out for praise after several sessions already, and he's been one of the best players on the practice field. "I knew it was going to be a matter of time before I got to this point," says the ever-thoughtful Kiwanuka, "but now I'm feeling comfortable in practice, and the next step is transferring that to the game."
• The otherwise nondescript wide receiver Michael Jennings certainly made it easy for fans and reporters to identify him when he's not in uniform: He has his uniform number, 15, ornately shaved into the side of his head. Makes it that much more likely that fans will go up to him and ask, "Hey, why'd you drop that perfect 40-yard bomb from Andre' Woodson on the practice field this morning?" or to compliment him on his team headshot, in which he's sporting a gleaming gold grill.
• I see where SI's fantasy guru, David Sabino, has Brandon "Big RB" Jacobs ranked 18th among running backs in the magazine's fantasy football preview. I'd normally never question Sabes' sagacity -- he's taken me to school in a number of fantasy dealings in the past -- but I must object here. Yes, the Giants have Ahmad Bradshaw and Derrick Ward ... but all indications are that Jacobs is going to be the workhorse, and will certainly get the ball at the goal line. I think he's no lower than a second-round pick -- and, if he manages to stay healthy, will be a top-10 performer.
• Last summer the team wore shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "TALK IS CHEAP -- PLAY THE GAME," in reference to the various contretemps that had distracted them over the previous months. I'm not sure if they had new shirts made up this year, but in any event, team PR guru Pat Hanlon took matters into his own hands. "AGAIN!!!," he wrote in Sharpie beneath the slogan on last year's model. Just another example of the stellar work done by Hanlon and his colleagues, Peter John-Baptiste and Avis Roper.
• I can't believe I've gotten this far into a Giants postcard without typing the names "Eli Manning" or "Jeremy Shockey." In Manning's case, it's a sign of how far he's come as he enters his fifth season: The feeling around Giants camp is that you now know what you're going to get from Eli, and it's going to be just fine, and that, for once, there are other things to worry about. As for Shockey, who seemed to have spent his time recovering from a broken left leg compiling a list of grievances and is now a New Orleans Saint? He seems to have been forgotten pretty quickly around these parts.
• One more sign of how chilled out Coughlin has gotten? In 85-degree heat the other day, the president of the University at Albany extended Coughlin's press conference by several minutes in order to present him with a gift from the school: A sculpture of a Great Dane (the University's mascot), about 4 inches in height. It was the work of a person whom the president assured Coughlin to be a "world famous animal sculptress." Coughlin couldn't have looked more delighted.