AS THE Giantshave discovered, there are at least two ways a star player can react when he'sforced by injury to miss his team's championship run. One is to spend his timeoff the field compiling a list of grievances about everything from his role inhis unit's scheme to the fact that his team didn't pay for his plane ticket tothe Super Bowl—and to become so embittered that the club is left with littlechoice but to trade him for two draft picks just before the start of trainingcamp. Call it the Shockey way.
Then there's theKiwanuka way. Linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka fractured his left fibula last Nov.18, one month before tight end Jeremy Shockey, who's now a Saint, suffered anidentical injury. Like Shockey, Kiwanuka struggled to come to terms with thefact that the Giants won Super Bowl XLII without him. "It was a veryemotional experience," Kiwanuka says. "I couldn't have been more proudof being a part of this team, but it was heartbreaking not being out there forwhat would have been the biggest game of my career."
Unlike his formerteammate, however, Kiwanuka, 25, channeled that emotion toward somethingconstructive. The Giants had converted the 6'5", 265-pound defensive endinto a strongside linebacker before the 2007 season, and both he and generalmanager Jerry Reese admit he struggled at first. "When you've played withyour hand on the ground your whole career, then you back up and stand up, it'sa tough adjustment," says Reese. "Early on you could see him way out ofposition, overrunning things." Kiwanuka—whom teammates call simply Kiwi—wasjust beginning to get the hang of his new position when his leg snapped in agame against the Lions. Rather than sulking, Kiwanuka exploited his recoverytime to master the intricacies of his new position. "I watched all the filmI could," he says. "I wasn't walking. I wasn't doing anything [else].There's no doubt I've improved."
That was readilyapparent at Giants camp in Albany, N.Y., particularly in pass coverage.Sharpened by film-room study, Kiwanuka's awareness of where he should positionhimself is now allowing him to use what coach Tom Coughlin jokingly calls his"27-foot arms" to knock down passes as far as 35 yards downfield.Coughlin singled Kiwanuka out for praise after several sessions.
August 31, 2008
The pass-rushingskills that made Kiwanuka the final pick of the 2006 first round looked asformidable as ever in camp—and his contribution on that front will be essentialnow, with the retirement of Michael Strahan and the season-ending knee injurysuffered by Osi Umenyiora on Aug. 23; those two defensive ends combined for 22sacks in 2007. On passing downs Kiwanuka will most likely join defensive endJustin Tuck on the line in coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's attacking system.
As the linebrings the pressure, the secondary should be waiting to take advantage. There,Spagnuolo has a new toy to play with in rookie Kenny Phillips, the Miamiproduct who looks poised to continue the school's tradition of producinggame-changing, Pro Bowl safeties (see: Ed Reed and the late Sean Taylor). TheGiants felt like Ralphie Parker on Christmas morning when Phillips fell to themat the end of the first round. He looks significantly bigger than his listed6'2" and 210 pounds, and he drew nothing but raves in camp for his play inpass coverage and run support. While he might not start Week 1, Reese says,"he should be a big-timer for us."
The Giants wonone of the most improbable championships in NFL history last season, when ahost of formerly unheralded players became big-timers. They'll need more of thesame in 2008, from the likes of Kiwanuka and Phillips. A schedule that's fairlysoft through the first two months of the season should help propel New York toa wild-card spot. And as the Giants showed last season, after that anything canhappen.
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH TOM COUGHLIN (103--89 in NFL), fifthseason with Giants
SACKS 5 1/2
SACKS 4 1/2
2007 RECORD 10--6NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 4/21/16 DEFENSE 8/11/7
4 WASHINGTON (T)
14 at St. Louis
13 at Cleveland (M)
19 SAN FRANCISCO
26 at Pittsburgh
9 at Philadelphia
23 at Arizona
30 at Washington
14 at DALLAS
28 at Minnesota
NFL Rank: 15
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .520
Games against playoff teams: 6
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
NOW AT SI.COM SI VAULT
EXCERPTED FROM SI
February 2, 1987
NOBODY EVER goes 22 for 25 in a game like the SuperBowl, not in this era of sophisticated defenses, of shifting zones and blitzesand mixed coverages. But let's say there's a quarterback who deserves thismythical kind of day, who has spent eight years being hammered by adversity andinjury, who has heard the boos of the New York fans, a quarterback like PhilSimms.- Paul Zimmerman
Free access to all GIANTS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Giants' units.
Manning will build off playoffs; expect bigger and better things.
Deep and talented unit with Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.
Led the NFL in drops in '07; need consistency around Burress.
Jeremy Shockey's exit hurts pass game; Boss must progress.
Not many household names, but deep unit can block and protect.
Foundation of Super Bowl run must plug major holes.
Pierce is a difference-maker, team leader and coach on field.
Rookie Phillips's emergence would add speed and youth.
Postseason run proved Tynes can make tough kicks.
The shifty, 5'9" 198-pounder, who came out ofnowhere to make a dynamic contribution to the 2007 title run, is an idealcomplement to power back Brandon Jacobs. "He doesn't look at the [tackler]in front of him," says G.M. Jerry Reese of Bradshaw, "but at the nextguy, because he's confident he'll make the first guy miss."