- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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There's a way for the New York Giants to sell this, and they have plenty of fans who will buy it. It goes like this: Sure, Justin Tuck had 11 sacks this year. But six of them came in two games in December against a Redskins team that had quit, and where was he the two years before that? He woke up in time for the Super Bowl run at the end of the 2011 season, but this 31-year-old Tuck is not the 26-year-old Tuck, and hasn't been for a while. Jason Pierre-Paul is going to need a contract sometime in the next 12 months, Damontre Moore is a talent and Mathias Kiwanuka is still around. There are other needs, and the plan is to get younger.
So while Tuck's free-agent departure is jarring (The Raiders? Really??), the Giants have a way to spin it if they so choose. Just don't mistake this for something it's not.
Two years and $11 million for a 31-year-old pass-rusher with two Super Bowl rings who had 11 sacks last season is not an outrageous deal. The Giants had enough cash and enough cap space to match or beat it if they wanted to, and they didn't. They made a conscious decision to move on from a franchise icon as they work to rebuild a decaying roster with younger players so that last season's 7-9 record doesn't become a long-term trend. Tuck wanted to be back. The Giants didn't want him back. So they part.
The decisions are not easy, and must be cold. Jerry Reese and the Giants have a solid track record of knowing when to cut the cord on beloved, championship-winning players, but I'm confident this wasn't an easy decision for them to make. Tuck will be a Ring of Honor Giant, a guaranteed standing ovation every time he comes back, a New York sports legend. Saying good-bye to that cannot be easy.
But that's not all the Giants are saying good-bye to as Tuck leaves for Oakland. There is a lot about who Tuck still is -- on top of who Tuck was -- that will be very difficult for the 2014 Giants to replace.
Tuck is a pass-rusher, sixth all-time in Giants history with 60.5 sacks, but he's about more than sacks. He's the defensive end the Giants would move inside to play defensive tackle on passing downs because they knew he was willing and able to wrestle with guards and centers while someone like Pierre-Paul or Kiwanuka or Osi Umenyiora got to race after the quarterback. He's the defensive end who can set the edge against the run -- a rare trait, tough to teach, tough to find, tough to get sack-hungry young rushers to prioritize. He's the defensive end who will check a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage to knock him off his route before he heads into the backfield to do the things that show up in the box score. Even when the sacks weren't there, he was still these things for the Giants, and his fellow players knew it and loved him for it.
Which brings us to the other huge thing that leaves with Tuck: Strong, high-character leadership. It's no accident that the Giants put Pierre-Paul's locker next to Tuck's. They did it because they wanted Pierre-Paul to learn as much as possible, if only by osmosis. They wanted Tuck to be right there when Pierre-Paul had a question, for Pierre-Paul to have a front-row seat to watch Tuck carry himself as a professional in team meetings, in media interviews, while suiting up for practice, while studying his playbook ... all of it. And Pierre-Paul wasn't the only one in that room who looked at Tuck with reverence. Kiwanuka did, too. Antrel Rolle counted Tuck among the influences that helped him rise to the level of co-captain. Tuck was the other co-captain on defense, a no-brainer election every year.
One Giants player told me this week, when we were talking about Tuck's situation, "Leadership is big. I don't know if you can replace a guy like Tuck." The Giants have decided to try to find out. They are turning a great big page here and hoping things in their locker room work as smoothly on the other side of it as they did on the side that had Tuck.
I think, if you're a real Giants fan with an appreciation for what the Tom Coughlin-era team has accomplished, this has to be a tough bit of news to take. Tuck should and likely does hold a special place in your heart for all he's meant to the team, the fan base ... heck, the community. He's been as visible and active in local charities as any player in the market. So you and the Giants are welcome to talk big and tough about how it was time to move on, or how Reese always gets this right, or how Tuck's going to be miserable winning five games a year in Oakland. And you might well be right about all of it.
But that doesn't mean it's not worth taking a moment to think about what the Giants really decided to let go of Thursday, when they decided to let Justin Tuck walk out the door.
2dDan Graziano and Adam Caplan