Nobody saw Michael Vick coming. The Giants could not possibly have stood there, in early September, and said to themselves, "Well, in Week 15, we're going to be looking like a pretty sure thing to make the playoffs, but then Mike Vick is going to haul off and beat us by himself in the second half of a home game." Vincent Vega might have called it a freak occurrence, Jules Winnfield an act of God. Regardless, it was something no one could have foreseen.
The NFL season is fraught with such events, for every team. No matter who you are or how much you prepare, there will always be events for which you can't plan, surprises over which you have no control but which can nonetheless decide your season. That's why the key is to know what you can count on. And that's why Ahmad Bradshaw may be the most important part of the New York Giants' 2011 season.
All indications are that the Giants will sign Bradshaw once the lockout is over, even if it's unclear what form that signing will take. Depending on the structure of the next collective bargaining agreement, Bradshaw could be an unrestricted free agent or a restricted one. So the Giants don't know whether they can get away with a one-year tender or whether they'll need to give Bradshaw a long-term contract. And if it's to be the latter, they don't know how much it's going to cost.
Fact is, though, they need him. They can't get by with Brandon Jacobs as the starter for a full season anymore. And if Bradshaw were to go elsewhere, any free-agent back they got to replace him (think DeAngelo Williams) surely would have more wear on him than Bradshaw does. Bradshaw is a player of special abilities. The Giants are aware of this, and because of their familiarity with him and the unique value he has to the organization, it's likely he'll end up getting as much from them as he would get on the open market, if not more. It remains unclear whether they can afford to keep both Bradshaw and Jacobs, especially if they're in the free-agent linebacker market and with the offensive line depth they'll soon need. But Bradshaw appears to be the priority and should be.
More than that, though, the Giants need to be able to count on Bradshaw. They need to know he can handle a starter's workload for a full year without breaking down with the nagging injuries that defined the first few years of his career. They need to know he's going to be able to carry the ball without fumbling at inopportune times. They need to know that, on days when Eli Manning doesn't have it or if the receiving corps is banged up, they'll still be able to fall back on a reliable running game the way they have in their great seasons of the recent and distant past.
Bradshaw is the key to all of that. You could, in some ways, call 2010 a breakout season for him. He rushed for a career-high 1,235 yards. He caught 47 passes. He started all 16 games, and his 276 carries were the 10th-highest total in the league. If whether he could stay healthy was one of the lingering questions about Bradshaw heading into 2010, he answered it beautifully.
But he was also benched in favor of Jacobs when fumble problems reared their head. He fumbled seven times and lost six of them, the latter figure tied with Jay Cutler for the highest in the league. As brilliant as Bradshaw was when the ball was in his hands, Tom Coughlin and the Giants' coaching staff just couldn't stomach the frequency with which he failed to keep it there. So the Giants were left with a dilemma -- one of their most exciting and productive offensive players couldn't be on the field as often as they wanted him to be because he was too unreliable.
This has been the Giants' problem over the past two years -- the unreliability of the things on which they used to rely. In 2009 it was the collapse of the defense, as well as the running game, that did them in. In 2010, injuries to the offensive line caused problems, as did special teams, and the running game lingered as a nagging concern. Make no mistake, the 2010 Giants were a fine statistical rushing team. Only five other teams in the league ran for more yards and only six ran more rushing plays. But as much as they ran the ball, the Giants' coaches were never able to cross the running game off their list of week-to-week concerns.
Ahmad Bradshaw, assuming he re-signs, stays healthy and continues to grow the way you'd expect from a brilliantly talented 25-year-old athlete in a great environment, can fix that. The Giants know how good he is. They like his makeup and his personality. They know he wants to be great and that he can be. All they need now is for him to be reliable, week-in and week-out, for a whole season. If he can take the next step and be that, then the Giants will be much better equipped to handle all those surprise occurrences they can't control.