Commentary

Awesome Osi over Super Mario? Y-E-S

If Big Blue can keep both, all the better -- but Jerry Reese knows D was key to title run

Updated: February 28, 2012, 9:35 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

It was the first post-championship buzz-kill of the new year when Giants general manager Jerry Reese told reporters at the NFL scouting combine over the weekend that the Giants might have to say goodbye to Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham -- and Manningham agreed with him that he's played his last Giants game. But the Giants are right to prioritize settling defensive end Osi Umenyiora's contract status. Umenyiora's presence is a big part of what made them unique -- and unbeatable -- in their last two Super Bowl runs.

Reese is too keenly aware of the vagaries of personnel decisions to brag about how he just had one of the great I-told-you-so seasons that a GM could have. Last summer he let All-Pro wideout Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss walk, even though they were two of Eli Manning's favorite targets. And all that got the Giants was a franchise record-setting season from overnight sensation Victor Cruz and the last laugh over the NFC East rival Eagles, who spent the offseason chasing some splashy "dream team" signings that included Smith.

Osi Umenyiora
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesGiants GM Jerry Reese is right to prioritize Osi Umenyiora (above) over Mario Manningham.

Now the Giants find themselves again bumping up against the salary cap, and they are forced to make more harsh roster decisions. But if you forget for a moment what a beautiful, acrobatic and clutch catch Manningham made along the sideline to spark the Giants' game-winning Super Bowl drive, the harsh truth is this: If you were to draw up a list of players the Giants should re-sign or give a pay bump to before Manningham, he would probably rank no higher than No. 5, at best.

Umenyiora, Victor Cruz, punter Steve Weatherford and Brandon Jacobs are all ahead of Manningham. Tight end Jake Ballard (though out with ACL surgery) is among the Giants' 21 free agents, too.

No wonder Reese demurred Saturday when asked to handicap Manningham's chances of coming back.

"I don't think it's fair to frame the odds on that," Reese told reporters at the combine. "He's a good football player and obviously players, when free agency comes around for them, they want to make as much money as possible. So we'll see how it unfolds."

Making Manningham no better than the Giants' fifth-best priority is a tough thing to write. Especially for someone (me) who thought it would've been a terrific gesture if Manning had taken the keys to that new Corvette he got for winning his second Super Bowl MVP award and lobbed them right to Manningham before they left the victory platform immediately after the game. Because as brilliant as Manning's throw was, Manningham's tightroping 38-yard catch along the sideline with two defenders about to smack him was even better.

That's the sort of sentimental gesture that would've been great to see.

But reaching for Manningham when the Giants' big-picture suggests they have a lot of other needs? No. That makes less sense.

This isn't a Steve Smith redux. That call by the Giants was tougher. Smith had already been to a Pro Bowl and had a 100-catch season when he was allowed to walk. Manningham's career highs are 60 catches and nine TDs, but he dipped to just 39 and four in 12 games played in 2011.

Coughlin has already said he believes Jerrel Jernigan can move into Manningham's No. 3 receiving slot alongside Hakeem Nicks and Cruz, and -- even more to the point -- it's already been proved that having a three-headed pass rush like the Giants used during their last two title runs makes even the best quarterbacks look ordinary and vulnerable.

Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady (three times in a row), Tony Romo and Matt Ryan are just some of the Pro Bowl quarterbacks the Giants knocked off when it mattered most. And it didn't matter if the Giants' defensive coordinator at the time was Steve Spagnuolo or Perry Fewell. It didn't matter if the three-man trio the Giants sent after people was Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Umenyiora, or Tuck, Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul.

The effect of the Giants' pass rush on opposing offenses was devastating. Every play was like roulette. Whom do you double-team when they're all coming? The sum of them is even greater than the parts.

Reese's predecessor, Ernie Accorsi, always used to say the two hardest things to find in the NFL are a franchise quarterback and linemen who can rush the passer.

The Giants have both. And there's no reason to mess with such an enviable and winning combination now.

Umenyiora has been hurt often, it's true. And next season he'll be 30. But when he came back late last season, his effect on the Giants' stumbling defense was transformative. Umenyiora came back from his latest knee injury to gouge out 5½ sacks in the last five games, just as Tuck was getting healthier too. And the Giants ran the table.

So as long as Umenyiora doesn't make some crazy demands and as long as the Giants don't insult him by telling him he has to prove himself yet again, this is a deal that should get done. And it needs to get done.

Umenyiora had his grievances against Reese and the team a year ago, and it was hard to blame him. He was underpaid after the 10.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles he caused in 2010, and when he said he wanted a raise before the 2011 season, the Giants' response -- a contract is a contract -- made him unhappy enough to file a lawsuit, allege that Reese reneged on a promise to renegotiate his contract, and threaten a long holdout. But give Umenyiora this: When he did shut up and play, he was everything the Giants could've asked for. He kept his word to leave the off-field business off the field, just as teammates like Tuck predicted he would.

And Reese has been smart enough not to hold a grudge.

So the Giants should do what they can to keep a winning combination going even if it means accepting the idea that with Umenyiora, it might always be something. And if Manningham looks around, decides the grass doesn't look all that greener someplace else after all, and decides to stay for something short of a windfall, as Brandon Jacobs is willing to do? Even better.

Who wants to risk being Jerry Reese's latest I-told-you-so?

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