EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Oh, nothing beats NFL training camp for tickle-your-funny-bone, feel-good stories about players you hope will be great. Just Thursday, here at New York Giants camp, they were telling stories about defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and how awesome he's feeling out there. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said Pierre-Paul is out running routes before practice against his old Fort Scott Community College teammate, speedy Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams, and having just a big ol' time with it.
"He's having fun again in football," Fewell said of Pierre-Paul, who had 16.5 sacks in 2011 but has just two in the Giants' last 23 games. "He can't cover Jacquian, but he's having fun playing the game again. And when he's got that smile on his face, then he'll get that hunger in his eye in the week as we prepare for games, and I think you'll see him perform the way he can perform."
Sure. Sounds great. Personally, I kind of think so too. But it sure has been a long time since Pierre-Paul played like the player everyone seems to know he can be. He had back problems in 2012 and back and shoulder problems last year and obviously wasn't himself. He says he feels fantastic now and expects to dominate. To "shut some people up," as he put it, somewhat oddly, during minicamp. And it all sounds feasible and fantastic.
Thing is, watching him play the few snaps he played Sunday night against the Bills, I didn't see it. Did you? I saw him get handled one-on-one by a tight end, Chris Gragg, at one point in the first quarter. I'm out here daily watching Will Beatty handle him in practice. And I know as well as you do that none of this stuff counts. But if the point is that Pierre-Paul is having fun and playing free and easy, wouldn't you think you'd see him flying through the line and getting somewhere near the quarterback on a regular basis? There were early practices in which we saw that, but it hasn't been happening much over the past week or so.
The flip side of the fresh hope for a healthy Pierre-Paul is the possibility that his 2011 form doesn't come back. We can all believe and assume it will, since he's still only 25 and my goodness how can you be as great as he was at 22 and then just have that disappear. But this is very difficult, this game Pierre-Paul plays for a living, and until we see him deliver on all of this talk, we'll have to wonder whether he'll get hurt again, whether the drive he had to be great in 2011 will ever truly reappear, whether any number of possible circumstances might conspire to prevent him from dominating the league ever again.
As I said, I'm betting the other way. I think Pierre-Paul rebounds from his health issues and again plays like one of the best in the league at his position. But I kind of thought the same thing with Hakeem Nicks last year, with no reason to doubt him, and we all know how that worked out. Sometimes, the guy you think is going to do it just doesn't do it. For whatever reason.
"JPP is a special player," Fewell said. "We need for him to be special."
That there is plain fact. The question, though, until we see it happen, is whether Pierre-Paul can be that special player again.