EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- This season set up as a make-or-break year for Justin Tuck, and you never know which way those are going to go. The two years the New York Giants' veteran defensive end had before this one were disappointing and injury-riddled enough to make some wonder whether he was washed up at age 30. As he entered the final year of his contract, the Giants were anticipating moving on without him in 2014 and beyond.
Tuck knew all of this, and the perception that he was finished irked him somewhat. He's an easygoing fellow for whom life has been pretty sweet, but as he readied for this season, he knew what was being said and planned, and he was eager for a chance to change the narrative.
Well, it says here he did it. And when the Giants start sifting around and looking for the corner and side pieces to their complex offseason puzzle, they should decide to bring back Tuck after all. He has earned it.
"I think everybody knows I can still play this game at a high level," Tuck said in his matter-of-fact way after picking up two more sacks Sunday to finish the season with 11, including 8.5 in five December games. "When I'm healthy, I think I'm one of the best to do it. And this year, I was blessed to be healthy."
This, Tuck insists, was the key. And the counterargument to giving him a new deal involves the possibility that he won't be reliably healthy in his 30s, or the possibility that he won't remain as motivated as he was this year to prove people wrong and get a nice, new contract. The first is legitimate, since it's football and guys get hurt. The second is possible, but what Tuck has given the Giants over nine seasons merits the benefit of the doubt.
"He played well all year," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Sunday after a season-ending, 20-6 victory over the Washington Redskins. "He did what I had wanted him to do and what he wanted to do. He was just an example, and he played hard. I thought he was an excellent example for our younger players. He practiced hard, he played well. He really kept his mouth shut most of the year. He responded well and had a very good year."
The Giants don't generally allow emotion to govern their offseason decisions, and that's good. It would be easy to fall apart as a franchise if you clung too long out of loyalty to people who helped you win championships. The decay of the Giants' roster over the past couple of seasons, however, is not due to that phenomenon. They've been good about saying goodbye to beloved champions when the circumstances or the market have dictated they should. The sorry state of the Giants' roster has more to do with draft and/or development failures than it does to poor decision-making with regard to veterans. So you can expect the Tuck decision to be a sober one, because that's the way they do it.
But even if you take emotion out of it, re-signing Tuck makes sense. Unlike fellow free agents such as Linval Joseph and Hakeem Nicks, who are looking to cash in with the most significant deals of their careers, Tuck isn't likely to stick up the Giants for the last possible buck. He has made more than enough money, and he has made it clear that he wants to be back. He spent a good chunk of his Sunday evening news conference discussing the off-the-field benefits of playing in the New York market -- the platform it offers him to do the charity work he loves so much, etc.
Relative to some of the other, thornier contract situations the Giants confront this offseason, Tuck's should be easy to resolve if both sides want the same thing.
They should. The Giants need to rebuild the pass rush, don't get me wrong. Jason Pierre-Paul has established himself as a health question with two years of physical ailments. Mathias Kiwanuka doesn't bring the same kind of explosive changeup Osi Umenyiora did in 2011 as the No. 3 in the defensive end rotation. And Damontre Moore is clearly still in the project stage. Adding another pass-rusher to the mix makes sense even if they keep Tuck. If he goes, they'll need two.
So why not just keep him? Are they going to be able to find a similarly established veteran of similar age who's coming off an 11-sack season in Tuck's likely price range? Doubtful. And if they did, they couldn't be certain that person would fit into the locker room and provide the calming leadership they already know they get from Tuck, one of their team captains. This is a player and a person they like, who has shown he can still be productive and who won't tie them into the kind of ultra-pricy, long-term commitment that would deprive them of the flexibility they'll need to deal with Pierre-Paul's situation or incorporate a high draft pick into their system.
"It's out of my hands," Tuck said of his chances to return. "I think I did the best I could do warrant being back."
I agree. The Giants should, too. Tuck wants to be back. He deserves to be back. The Giants should make this an easy and early part of their offseason plan and re-sign him.