ALBANY, N.Y. -- As part of the grueling offseason program run by University of Miami strength coach Andreu Swasey, a gut-busting regimen that about two dozen NFL veterans participated in this year, players are forced to slog through a sand pit in the sweltering South Florida heat.
So it shouldn't have been all that surprising when New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey, an unabashed devotee of Swasey's unusual conditioning methods, spoke at training camp last week like a guy ready to emerge from a morass of sorts.
"I had 60-something catches last year," Shockey said, "and it felt like 10 … All I know is, it's got to be better than that."
Only a half-dozen NFL tight ends had more receptions than Shockey's 61 last season. And that total was just 13 receptions shy of the career best Shockey posted as a rookie in 2002, and was an increase of 27 percent over 2003, when he hauled in 48 in a disappointing year truncated by a knee injury.
Those 61 catches were good enough to lead the Giants, who didn't have a wide receiver with more than 51 receptions. But they clearly weren't good enough for Shockey, who also registered a career-best six touchdown grabs, two more than he had in his first two seasons combined.
And so the three-year veteran is looking for more in 2005. And the Giants, hoping to upgrade a passing attack that rated No. 26 in 2004, certainly are looking for lots more.
"He's a guy who can allow us to control the middle of the field with the pass," said wide receiver Plaxico Burress, the Giants' most obvious upgrade to the passing game, and one of the players who also worked in Swasey's conditioning program this year. "There just aren't a lot of tight ends in the league with his skills as a receiver."
Remember, Shockey was supposed to be the guy who redefined the tight end position. Scouts spoke of him in terms of awe generally reserved only for Kansas City tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Heck, when Shockey entered the league, San Diego's Antonio Gates was still dunking basketballs, not running past overmatched safeties, and Cleveland's Kellen Winslow was Shockey's backup in the Miami program. The Vikings' Jim Kleinsasser was playing more at fullback than tight end, Atlanta's Alge Crumpler and Baltimore's Todd Heap had barely established themselves as starters, and the Packers' Bubba Franks was struggling to assimilate the nuances of the pro game.
Shockey immediately established himself as a force, with 74 catches for 894 yards and two touchdowns, and earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie. He had 10 outings in which he caught at least four passes, two games with double-digit receptions, 49 catches for first downs and 16 receptions of 20-plus yards. While it's not like Shockey has tanked in the two years since that debut season, his play hasn't quite reached the same standards that he established for himself as a rookie.
Too often over the past two seasons, awe was replaced by Aw!, as Shockey went through stretches of inconsistency.
There were lapses of concentration during which he dropped too many passes. And lapses of judgment, as well, when his runaway candor might have been better kept under wraps. It was as if the Giants tight end, stoked in part by a media machine that egged him on, too often tried to be Jeremy Shocking. The frustrations of not quite measuring up, not so much to what others expected of him but more so to what Shockey demanded of himself, certainly spilled over.
"In the past couple years," Shockey said, "if I dropped a pass in practice, I'd literally try to bite my tongue off. I'd be so bent out of shape. If I make a mistake [now], if I miss an assignment, if I drop a ball, I don't want to keep beating myself up over it. I'm going to be 25 soon. I'm getting to be an old man. I've only got a couple good years left in the game."
Shockey actually turned 25, an incredibly callow age for a player entering his fourth year as a starter, on Thursday, two days after making those remarks. Most observers who have seen him in camp this summer, including the New York coaches, would argue his contention that his productive years are dwindling. A point with which no one will disagree, though, is that Shockey seems to have rededicated himself to achieving the greatness predicted for him when the Giants used the 14th overall selection in 2002 to grab him.
There were times, for sure, when coach Tom Coughlin would have preferred that his tight end be working in the team's offseason conditioning program, rather than training in Miami. And second-year quarterback Eli Manning had the temerity to phone Shockey during the offseason and suggest the tight end join the Giants' workouts so the pair might gain more synergy. For the most part, however, team officials seemed to understand Shockey is a different brand of player, and no one dared suggest he wouldn't report in shape.
Which is precisely what Shockey did.
There are plenty of reasons, including injuries, for the relative inertia of Shockey's career over the past two years. The Giants have hardly been a model of stability at quarterback, there was a coaching change, with Coughlin succeeding Jim Fassel, and Shockey himself didn't seem nearly as challenged to prove himself, tight ends coach Mike Pope said.
"The first couple years, he was trying to figure out how to be a pro player and he was challenged every week by other good players, and he [stepped up to] that challenge pretty good," Pope said. "Last year, he felt like he knew [more] about the league, and about the guys he was playing against. I think when he didn't succeed, his frustration level caused him to make a bad play, and then maybe another one after that, because he was still reliving the first [bad] play."
His wild swings in consistency have brought Shockey heavy scrutiny from the same fans and media types that once fawned over him. But two years of doubts now seem to have coalesced into determination to get back to being Jeremy Shockey, the guy who was supposed to set the tone at tight end and not just be part of the trend, once again.
Coaches, teammates and club officials agree Shockey has matured this summer. The long golden locks that once dangled below helmet level are long gone. His concentration on the field is better. The outrageous, politically incorrect statements apparently are limited now to locker room banter.
And Shockey, who often seemed to fight the ball the last couple years, wants it coming his way more than ever now.
"I didn't get drafted to be a blocking tight end," Shockey said. "I didn't get drafted to be in a fullback position to [be lead blocking] on linebackers. No one works harder than this staff to get its personnel the ball. And I know they are going to try to get me the ball this year."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.