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These Giants thrive on adversity

10/12/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
The New York Giants can't stand prosperity. The Super Bowl parade through the Canyon of Heroes had barely ended when adversity came knocking again.

One of the intriguing subplots to the Giants' remarkable Super Bowl run was the fact that quarterback Eli Manning flourished without Pro Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey in the huddle. The Giants dismissed this as purely coincidental in public, but behind closed doors, they realized that Shockey's immense talent was no longer a match for his immaturity.

When Shockey showed up at a mandatory minicamp in the offseason and engaged general manager Jerry Reese in a shouting match, coach Tom Coughlin simply used it as another opportunity to drive home the team concept to his players. There's something about a Super Bowl ring that seems to do wonders for a man's credibility and his pocketbook. Shockey was soon traded to the Saints, and the message was clear: No one's bigger than the team.
As the Giants (4-0) prepare to take the national stage against the Browns on ESPN's "Monday Night Football," they've been dealing with more adversity. The problem for the Browns, apparently one of the league's most confident 1-3 teams, is that the Giants seem to function best when they are faced with distractions.

Over the past couple of seasons, they've dealt with Tiki Barber's long goodbye, Michael Strahan's indecision, Coughlin's job status, Osi Umenyiora's season-ending knee injury, and most recently, the suspension of star receiver Plaxico Burress.

So what gives? Why does this team seem to be at its best when the distractions mount?

"Sometimes adversity can be a good thing," defensive end Justin Tuck told me via phone Saturday. "Adversity makes you lean on the guy next to you even more. When Plaxico was suspended, we just leaned on [Domenik] Hixon a little more. It's almost uncanny with some of our guys. We have strong pipes when it comes to handling pressure. And we don't bust our pipes.

Tuck embodies the team concept that Coughlin preaches. He's very respectful of what Strahan accomplished, but he was unfazed by the prospect of replacing him. And he didn't flinch when the team's lone Pro Bowler from last season's Super Bowl team, Umenyiora, went down with the knee injury.

"I knew we had a lot of talented players around us," he said. "You put some of those guys on other teams and they would be marquee names."

Tuck rattled off the names of five teammates and how many sacks each of them have. He talked about how Strahan and Umenyiora wouldn't have been as successful without their teammates.

"We like to spread the wealth," he said. "The reason we beat people down in the fourth quarter during the playoffs last year was because we were barely getting 30 plays apiece. We were all fresh."

One of the reasons Coughlin has earned so much respect in the locker room is his willingness to make tough decisions. Tuck said the fact that Coughlin was willing to risk losing one of his best players in order to enforce a team rule will have a lasting impact.

"He put a rule down and there were no exceptions," Tuck said. "It could've hurt our football team, but it was important to our coach and it showed how much trust he had in the rest of us."

Faced with a similar decision this past week in Dallas, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones took the easy way out. He talked about how Adam "Pacman" Jones had lost the benefit of the doubt, and then he gave it to him following one of the most efficient internal investigations in recent memory. Is it too simple to say that's why the Giants are going for a Super Bowl repeat and the Cowboys are trying to win their first playoff game since 1996? Probably so, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

Tom Coughlin, the master of the motivational T-shirt, was hard at work coming up with a new phrase last week. Before the 2007 season, he issued T-shirts that read, "Talk is Cheap. Play the Game."

Last Wednesday, Giants players found red T-shirts hanging in their lockers that said, "Team First. Team Last. Team Always."

Early in the week, Coughlin had called his players over after practice and used those words in his message. Much like his mentor Bill Parcells, Coughlin is constantly looking for that motivational edge. During training camp, he used Michael Phelps as a source for inspiration and one of his T-shirt slogans came from a book on Abraham Lincoln that he read over the summer.

You start to wonder if the Giants would know how to react to a couple of months of harmony. Would the lack of distractions cause them to lose that edge?

"I would love to go the entire year and just talk to the media about the game," Tuck said. "But something tells me that's not going to happen here."