The Giants have played this game before, with Jeremy Shockey. And they know how it ends: with a trade, lots of bad feelings and hurt egos and a poor taste in the mouth.
So that's why the Giants are trying to avoid permitting the soured relationship with DE Osi Umenyiora to pass the expiration date. Once the pillar of the team's defense, his struggles last season and his outspokenness have become symbols of all that went wrong with the defense in 2009.
"There's great respect for Osi and his ability, and I think vice versa," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said from the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in late February. "I think he wants to be here and I think he wants to be a part of our team."
Coughlin, though, stopped short of guaranteeing Umenyiora a starting spot next season, which is what the player said he wants. He doesn't want a repeat of the Broncos game, in which he was healthy but played only a handful of snaps. In many ways, it was the low point for both Umenyiora and the team in what was a haunting loss.
Umenyiora met with several Giants coaches and officials, including Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese. Coughlin wouldn't divulge what was said, but he said the tenor of the conversation was a positive one.
"I just reassured Osi our expectations for him were very high," Coughlin said. "He's an integral part of our plans and of our defensive football team. ...
"Osi is a big part of our team, and the word 'team' is critical to me. I mentioned some things about how our identity had slipped a little bit last year as the New York Giant football team. One of the things I believe in is team. I think that facet has to be brought back together before we go isolating offense, defense and special teams. We succeed as one. Osi's a big part of our team, and we expect he'll come back, work as hard as he can and be a big part of our defensive rejuvenation, if you will. Competition is a very good thing."
Right there is an interesting word. Competition is not, in essence, what Umenyiora has said he wants. He wants reassurances that he's going to get his chances to perform. But what Coughlin and Reese have said is that the position is there for Umenyiora to be earned, not given.
Coughlin was upset that Umenyiora went public with his comments before he went to the team with his displeasure, but Reese wasn't as bothered by that. For him, it's part of the game. Reese wouldn't name players specifically, but he did say he expected all his guys should come in with the right approach.
"I expect all our players to be back in the right frame of mind," Reese said. "The offseason, as you know, there's always a lot of chatter with players going into the offseason about different situations. But when we go into training camp, I expect guys to be ready to go, and I expect everybody to be in the right frame of mind so we can get back on schedule and try to field a good team and have a chance to challenge for a title."
We'll see if Umenyiora's frame of mind changes. It could be one of those subtle differences that leads to the Giants' defense being great again.
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