Posted by ESPN.com's Sal Paolantonio
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Manning knows exactly what happened last season.
"We had a good shot at repeating. We were playing good football. And we let one slip away," he said, looking around the Giants' brand-new locker room. "We all talked about it -- the guys in this room have talked about it. We all know what's at stake here. We think we have something special -- just like last year."
But last year, that something special -- an 11-1 start -- was shot down, literally, when Pro Bowl wide receiver Plaxico Burress shot himself in the thigh and was arrested for illegal possession of a handgun in Manhattan. He was suspended for the final four games of the season.
The Giants could not beat the Eagles and exited the playoffs in the second round -- at home, no less. In the final 23 quarters of the season, with Burress at home nursing his self-inflicted wound, Manning did not throw a touchdown pass to a wide receiver.
Fast-forward to Monday's OTA, the beginning of Manning's sixth NFL season. He has a Lombardi trophy in his case. But as he hungers for another title shot, he begins 2009 without a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver.
On the first play of the morning practice, he strolled up to the line of scrimmage with that near-nonchalant gait of his and looked at the Giants' first-team offense. Burress is long gone, released by the team. Also released: Amani Toomer, who was unceremoniously jettisoned after 13 seasons in New York.
Instead, playing in the No. 1 spot was Steve Smith, the third-year pro out of USC who is moving from the slot position he occupied in 2008. On the other side was Domenik Hixon, the speedy kick returner who is being asked to assume a more dominant role in an offense that sputtered down the stretch last season.
"No Plax, no Toomer -- it feels different without those guys," Manning said, "but I like this group. It's a competitive group. It's a group that works hard. Nobody's getting any special treatment. Nobody has an ego. It's a group that cares about everybody else. It's a good group."
Indeed, it's a group in every sense of that word: Nobody stands out. In the slot is underachieving Sinorice Moss, who came out of Miami four years ago with the promise of his brother, Santana, but had just 12 catches and two touchdowns last season. Behind him is Mario Manningham, who never got traction as a rookie in 2008.
David Tyree, coming back from an injury-plagued season, rounds out the top five.
Those two picks -- a first- and a third-rounder -- might have been parlayed into a trade for Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards, a trade the Giants flirted with this spring but not could not get done.
And this is the big question that will hang over this team: Having decided not to pull the trigger on the Edwards trade (or one for disgruntled Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin), do the Giants have enough in this crop of inexperienced, underachieving wide receivers to get back to the NFC Championship Game?
"It's not exactly like starting over, but we are trying right now to get on the same page," said Manning. "I'm trying to learn their body language. I'm trying to talk to them on the field and in the huddle and in the meetings, trying to develop chemistry. You don't want any bad habits to develop."
Manning said he's got to do some things differently, too. "There is more speed on the field now, so I have to get the ball out quicker," he said.
For the first time in his career, Manning said he feels more like a coach on the field.
"With some of the young receivers and the young guys at quarterback, I'm just trying to get into it a little more with them and help them out, and it's helping me out, too, getting to down the kindergarten level of the offense and keep the basics sharp," he said.
There is particular focus and pressure on Smith, who is moving from the slot to the No. 1 spot.
"I want to play faster, be more productive," said Smith, who averaged just 10.1 yards a catch and had only one touchdown reception last year. "I'm just trying to develop something with Eli."
Smith's mere presence, in fact, the perfect attendance of the entire receiving corps, puts Manning ahead of the game from the years with Burress, who often spent the spring in Miami, working out on his own or with Jeremy Shockey, who was sent packing to New Orleans last year.
There is one guy who loves to see everybody participating -- the head coach.
"It sends the right message," Tom Coughlin said. "It tells everybody that every guy is here for the same reason and trying to help our team be as good as it can be. It is very difficult to get that done when we are not here. Guys are here working. You have the older guys sharing with the younger guys. You have that natural process. And obviously you are trying to create the team concept with everything that you do. And to have everyone here certainly helps escalate that."
But Manning relied a lot on Burress, who often drew a double-team and used his size and wingspan to convert poor throws into big plays. Right now, there is no replacement for that threat combination -- no go-to guy who can make Manning look good when he lapses into one of his frequent bouts of inconsistency.
"I don't think you necessarily need that one guy," Manning said. "You can have three or four guys step up. If one guy steps up, he will push the others, no question."
Right now, with practice in shorts and helmets, Manning is impressed by the two rookies. Hicks is clearly polished and will push to be the starting slot receiver. And at 6-foot-6, Barden looks like a nice red zone battery mate -- he better be because Barden has virtually no separation speed.
"They both catch the ball with ease, very naturally," Manning said. "When you're thinking too much, the first thing to go are the hands. And we haven't seen that with them."
But right now, both are buried on the depth
chart, trying to learn the intricacies of offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride's offense, and learning to block, which is critical when the Giants roll out a heavy dose of Brandon Jacobs, which is often.