ALBANY, N.Y. -- The New York Giants are going through an identity crisis. Just when we had them pegged as a perennial playoff team, they went out and lost eight games in one season.
There are plenty of players on the roster who own Super Bowl rings from the '07 season, but some of them also took the field in disgraceful losses to the Panthers and Vikings to close out '09. Coach Tom Coughlin seemed invincible two years ago, but it's not a stretch to say that his job's on the line heading into this season. Co-owner John Mara has suggested that's not the case, but it's hard to envision Coughlin surviving another .500 season.
The good news for Giants fans is that Coughlin's been here before, and he's come out on the other side. He told me Monday that two books he read over the summer -- a biography of Harry Truman and a remarkable story involving four Navy SEALs -- have had a profound effect on him. He'll spend the next three weeks in training camp attempting to inspire his players to be "uncommonly good."
"I don't remember anyone saying I was on the hot seat when we were 5-0," he said Monday. "But believe me, the most intense pressure comes from within. The outside stuff doesn't affect me."
Coughlin has personally challenged veteran players such as defensive end Justin Tuck to get out of their comfort zones and take larger leadership roles. He also brought in fiery defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to create more energy on the practice field. The former Bills assistant can be heard from across the University at Albany campus shouting at his players and he even tried to throw a block for cornerback Corey Webster during an interception return Monday.
"With our group of players, a coach has to do something phenomenal for us to wholeheartedly follow you," Tuck told me Monday. "[Fewell] had to win our trust. But every day, he shows us how much he loves the game with his actions. And when you see a guy with that much energy, it's hard not to get behind him."
Shortly after Fewell was hired, Tuck stopped by his office to say hello. When he walked into the room, he said Fewell grabbed a marker and started drawing plays on the board.
"He went through a bunch of different scenarios and then asked me how I thought they might work this season," said Tuck. "I got more and more excited as he talked about all the possibilities."
Tuck didn't want to give too much away, but he did disclose that one of the scenarios involved him and Osi Umenyiora both playing linebacker at the same time. But keep that confidential if you would.
THREE HOT ISSUES
Osi Umenyiora is in a battle to regain his job as a starter.
1. What happens if Osi Umenyiora doesn't win back his starting job? For the first two days of camp, Umenyiora was all smiles. He's only practicing once a day in order to manage his hip injury, but he doesn't think the injury will keep him out of any games. Umenyiora's a prideful player who felt humiliated by losing his job to Mathias Kiwanuka last season.
The good thing is that Fewell's going to be up front with all of his players and let them know where they stand. Coughlin remembers how the Giants came at teams with waves of pass-rushers in '07 and '08. Tuck, Umenyiora, Kiwanuka and first-round rookie Jason Pierre-Paul have the talent to be a special group. But last year players along the defensive line started trying to do too much individually and didn't play as a unit. I don't see any circumstance where Umenyiora embraces a reserve role, so that will put the coaching staff in an interesting situation. My guess is that Umenyiora meets the challenge and wins back his job.
"Osi's in for a fight because Kiwi's not going to back down," said Tuck. "Those two are going to push each other and I think that's a good thing."
2. Is former second-round pick Will Beatty ready to take over at left tackle?
Coughlin and general manager Jerry Reese love creating competition and it's going to be interesting to see if David Diehl can hold onto his left tackle spot. The good news for Diehl is that he's going to end up starting on the offensive line no matter what happens in that competition. Coughlin's going to do whatever's best for the team, and I think that will ultimately be Beatty at left tackle and Diehl at left guard. Beatty, a second-year player, has shown a lot of quickness in the first three practices of training camp.
It won't be a completely smooth transition, but I believe he has the athletic ability and size to succeed at left tackle. The Giants have had a lot of continuity along the offensive line, but that won't keep Coughlin from pulling the trigger on a move. In talking to Reese, I get the feeling he's enjoying this competition quite a bit.
3. Can the Giants re-establish the running game?
A healthy Ahmad Bradshaw could see more carries in 2010.
Of all the things that went wrong last season, the lack of a consistent running game might have been the thing that disappointed Coughlin the most.
The Giants went from the No. 1 rushing team in the league in '08 to a No. 17 ranking in '09. They averaged almost a full yard less per carry in '09, which put too much pressure on Eli Manning and the passing game.
Tiki Barber told me early last season that he'd advised Brandon Jacobs to learn how to protect his body more on runs. It may have been solid advice, but Jacobs appeared tentative in '09 and began to doubt himself as the season unfolded. If he looks tentative early in this season, I believe a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw will be prepared to take over as the featured back.
I've been impressed with how quick and decisive he's looked in camp. And Andre Brown appears to have regained his speed after missing last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Brown should be a good change-of-pace back and he has soft hands that could make him a decent option on third down.
I think the most pleasant surprise so far is the Giants appear to have a ton of competition at cornerback. Aaron Ross missed so much time last year because of hamstring issues that he sort of faded out of the picture. Now, he's getting his hands on lots of footballs and he's regained that quickness that we saw a couple seasons ago. The problem for him is that Terrell Thomas and Webster have both been excellent in this camp. Webster was a disappointment last season, but he's been one of the best players in camp through three practices.
It's hard to give up on someone after three practices, so I'll go with an injured player in safety Kenny Phillips. He has an excellent attitude, but the fact that he's on the physically unable to perform list isn't a great sign. He was on the verge of stardom before a serious knee condition required microfracture surgery. The Giants brought in plenty of insurance for Phillips this season, but it would be really disappointing if he's not able to make a full recovery.
Linebacker Keith Bulluck (53) has looked comfortable in the early stages of camp.
If you think the Giants are going to slowly bring along Pierre-Paul and Linval Joseph, think again. They want Joseph breathing down Rocky Bernard's neck this season. And so far, Joseph's done a tremendous job soaking up a lot of information. But when Coughlin's standing a few feet away, Joseph had better know when he's supposed to be in a drill. Reese told me Monday afternoon that Pierre-Paul and Joseph have to help out immediately.
I thought former Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck would look a little stiff since he hasn't done any live scrimmaging since his ACL surgery last December. Instead, he's moved around really well and seems to be comfortable in Fewell's defense.
Second-year tight end Travis Beckum's going to get every opportunity in the world to contribute, but it's not good to flat-out drop a ball when Rhett Bomar threads the needle in team drills.
Defensive end Dave Tollefson is one of those steady players who refuses to go away. Nothing flashy, but he's relentless in pursuing the quarterback. I noticed that he's added a little inside spin move to his game. Some of the young offensive linemen haven't known what to do with him.
Sixth-round draft pick Adrian Tracy is a fish out of water at linebacker. The former William & Mary defensive end has some athleticism, but he could use a redshirt (practice squad) year.
Former Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty is in remarkable condition in this camp. Even Coughlin marveled at how Canty breezed through sprints. Canty has some close friends with the Cowboys (Jay Ratliff, Stephen Bowen, Jason Hatcher) and he'd like to send a message that Jerry Jones made a mistake in letting him walk.
I've given up trying to cut Sinorice Moss. I already have him on my 2013 projected Giants roster. It's crowded at receiver again, but the little guy won't go away. And he had a really nice day Monday.
If Ramses Barden ever finds a way to take his practices to the games, the Giants will have a remarkable weapon in the red zone. Manning told me Monday that Barden has won him over. He has some Plaxico Burress-like tendencies -- and I'm talking about the good tendencies. Even when he's covered, Barden has a knack for making catches. He's just an enormous target.
Reese refuses to give up on linebacker Gerris Wilkinson. The former Georgia Tech player has teased the Giants with his athleticism, but his career has been hampered by injuries and inconsistency.
Fullback Madison Hedgecock has a little competition in rookie Jerome Johnson. Hedgecock drops way too many passes. If Johnson shows anything in the passing game, this thing could get interesting.
I don't know if he'll hold off Bulluck, but middle linebacker Jonathan Goff looks so much more confident to me in this camp. He's doing a great job communicating and he's done a nice job in coverage.
Clint Sintim went through some growing pains last season, but he looks the part of a starter now. He hasn't let any of the Giants' misdirection plays fool him.
Either Antrel Rolle is really, really good at safety or I spent too much time watching C.C. Brown and Aaron Rouse chasing cars last season. I think Rolle's an excellent fit for Fewell's defense. If Phillips can return to form, he and Rolle could be one of the best tandems in the league. Deon Grant was a good pickup because of his durability. He just doesn't miss any games, and the Giants need more of those players.
I know Steve Smith had a breakout season, but Hakeem Nicks looks like a No. 1 wide receiver to me. I thought it was telling that he was the one receiver whom Manning asked to join him at the Manning Passing Academy. Those two are putting on a show early in camp.