Commentary

Justin Tuck has regained focus

After struggling in 2011, Justin Tuck has learned lessons and rededicated himself

Originally Published: July 20, 2012
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

DEL MAR, Calif. -- New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck has his head on straight this season. That much was apparent as he leaped over massive logs and bounced off thick stumps buried in the ground behind Torrey Pines High School recently.

Last year, Tuck let the offseason get away from him, leaving him surprisingly unprepared for what turned out to be a Super Bowl-winning season. That's not happening this time. When the Giants head to training camp next week, their defensive leader should be the most focused of the bunch.

Some of that motivation might have something to do with Tuck entering the final year of his contract. More of the impetus, though, comes down to simple pride. Tuck built himself into a Pro Bowl player by proving doubters wrong and overcoming continual setbacks. The struggles he faced last season -- when he grappled with injuries that resulted in long stretches of ineffective play -- left Tuck wondering how his mojo could vanish so quickly.

The answer wasn't hard to find. Tuck needed to rededicate himself in exactly the way he has this offseason. He has spent the past three years coming to Southern California to work out with noted trainer Pete Egoscue and his staff. Never has he come with such a determination to prove what he can do on a football field.

The lesson Tuck learned last year: Don't take anything for granted.

[+] EnlargeJustin Tuck
AP Photo / Jim MahoneyAn unusual offseason hurt Justin Tuck in 2011, when he struggled to stay healthy.

"I definitely didn't work as hard as I should've last year," Tuck said in an interview for a fall episode of ESPN's "E:60." "The lockout was going on. I took a trip to Africa. There were some things I did in the past that I didn't do last summer."

It's important to note here that Tuck's workout regimen with Egoscue's trainers isn't the conventional offseason approach. Athletes grind through most of the drills behind Torrey Pines High, whether they're attacking a grueling obstacle course known as "The Patch" or trying to survive 500 yards of uphill sprints that end with a ridiculously steep incline called "Puke Hill." Tuck has a chiseled 6-foot-5, 270-pound frame. He hasn't touched a weight in three years.

It's not surprising that Tuck lost some focus last summer. Many players fell into that trap as the lockout dragged on before ending abruptly in late July. What was stunning was how hard it was for him to make an impact as the year progressed. He was named a team captain for all the obvious reasons: character, productivity and reliability. But those weren't the qualities people were focusing on when the Giants were trying to make a late-season playoff push.

Tuck battled through injuries to his neck, groin and shoulder (which required postseason surgery). He missed four games and produced the fewest sacks (five) in his four seasons as a full-time starter.

"I wanted to be out there," Tuck said. "But I'd go two or three games and just get a half sack. I started to wonder why I was playing when there were other people who could do a better job. There's a difference between playing hurt and playing injured."

Unfortunately for Tuck, leaders don't get to think that way. They definitely don't get that option in a city as vicious as New York. When you're the heart of the defense, nobody is going to cut you any slack. Even a former teammate, ESPN analyst Antonio Pierce, questioned whether Tuck was laying everything on the line for the Giants.

It would be easy to forget all that now that Tuck has two Super Bowl rings in his career. He was huge in the postseason again, especially when he produced a sack and a quarterback pressure that led to a safety in New York's Super Bowl win over New England. The reality is that Tuck should never blow off last offseason as an aberration. The fact that he is even more driven this year proves how much he has learned.

It's fairly common for Super Bowl heroes to write books or soak up their celebrity in the months after their victory. Tuck isn't interested in any of those trappings. He even likes the idea of training in California because of the anonymity he enjoys on the West Coast. "Nobody knows who I am out here," Tuck said. "It feels like you're getting away from football."

Tuck has even sought motivation in the preseason predictions that typically appear around this time of the year. He has heard people say the Giants won't even make the playoffs. He senses a growing sentiment that Dallas and Philadelphia are more dangerous championship contenders. The general consensus, as far as Tuck can tell, is that New York's Super Bowl run last season was a fluke. The Giants just got hot at the most opportune time.

Of course, all players think they're underestimated or disrespected at some point. The difference in Tuck's irritation is that he seems to be searching for every last edge to push him this year. He already has earned nearly everything a player could want, individually and with his team. Now he's placing personal redemption high on his list of priorities.

That explains why Tuck isn't stressed about earning a new deal or too hard on himself about the mistakes of the past. He lost a little focus and paid dearly for that decision. It won't be the last time an NFL player faces complacency. It will just be the last time we hear it associated with Justin Tuck.

Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.