They didn't think they'd have to play the 2011 season without Terrell Thomas, one of their best defensive players. But that became reality Monday night, when Thomas, the stellar fourth-year cornerback, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament late in the first half of the Giants' 41-13 preseason rout of the Chicago Bears in New Meadowlands Stadium.
The team did not immediately announce a prognosis, but a torn ACL is normally a season-ending injury.
The postgame locker room was the scene of an unusual confluence of emotions. The players were happy about their performance and one-sided victory, sad about Thomas (and cornerback Brian Witherspoon, who suffered a knee injury of undetermined severity) and determined to play well without him in the season that lies ahead.
"You just stick your head in there and keep fighting," said Corey Webster, the starting cornerback on the left side. "I think everybody will be prepared to handle what's ahead of them, but it's a bad feeling in your stomach when you see somebody go down that has worked so hard. He put himself in good position and won't be able to display it this year."
"It's something you have try to cope with and it's time for other guys to step up," safety Antrel Rolle said. "I don't think it's something you can just replace. You have to understand that it comes with the game of football. It comes with the territory and it leaves room for other guys to step up. It's definitely going to alter our defense a little bit. But we can't hang our heads on the season. We still have a lot of football to play. I'm just praying to God that everyone stays healthy and we have to move on."
Thomas' role as the starting right cornerback will be taken by Aaron Ross, the Giants' first-round draft choice in 2007. Ironically, it was a hamstring injury that forced Ross to miss the entire preseason and first nine regular season games in 2009 that thrust Thomas into the starting lineup. Now Ross gets his job back because Thomas is hurt.
"I have to fill in," Ross said. "I was a starter when I got here. I went down, unfortunately, and Terrell stepped in and did a tremendous job. It's unfortunate that Terrell went down, but it's my job to step back in and fill the shoes."
Thomas was hurt with just 22 seconds remaining in the half. He was rushing Bears quarterback Jay Cutler when he collided with defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Thomas went down, got up briefly before laying down on the turf at New Meadowlands Stadium. After Thomas was examined on the field by the Giants medical staff, he walked off the field under his own power. Early in the second half, the Giants announced that Thomas had torn his knee ligament.
"Very disappointed in the injuries that occurred," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "That's the part of the game that just makes you shake your head. You extend the play time a little bit to take full advantage of the fact that we literally had no off-season and a very small preseason, very short preseason. So we extended a little bit of play time tonight and we did have some guys that got nicked up."
Coughlin was not inferring that he kept Thomas on the field longer than planned. Thomas was operating within the pregame plan for the defense and Coughlin thought the situation at the end of the half gave his defense a challenge it needed.
"We were going 25 to 30 snaps and that's exactly where we were, between 25 and 30 snaps," Coughlin said. "They had their ones in there; their first quarterback was in the game. We were facing a two-minute drill, which we thought would be a very good experience for our defensive team. It's one of those unexplainable kind of things. I'll have to look at it on tape, but it seemed like maybe they just ran into each other."
This is not the first time Thomas has faced this kind of injury. As a redshirt sophomore at USC in 2005, he tore ligaments in his right knee against Arkansas in the season's second game and missed the rest of the season. He returned to start all 26 games for the Trojans in 2006 and 2007.
Thomas has been one of the Giants' best and most dependable defensive players. In 2010, he started all 16 games at right cornerback and led the team in tackles (101, including 86 solo), interceptions (five) and passes defensed (21) for the second season in a row. Defensive end Justin Tuck, a two-time Pro Bowler, predicted Thomas would be in Hawaii at the end of this season.
"You never want to see that happen, especially to a guy who (means that much) to you on and off the football field," Tuck said. "(He was) pretty much emerging as one of the elite corners in this league. A young kid, that you can just tell his confidence level was tremendous coming into camp. Probably our number one corner. He's going to be missed because you don't just replace a guy like that as far as his instincts, as far as his athletic ability, as far as his knowledge of how we play the game. You can just tell, this season he was just on another level as far as that is concerned. Hopefully, he can have a speedy recovery and just wish him well in that aspect."
Thomas is the second prominent Giants cornerback to suffer an injury this month. First-round draft choice Prince Amukamara broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot on Aug. 6. He underwent surgery and is sidelined for an indefinite period.
"I kind of wanted to cry for him," Amukamara said of Thomas. "(I) definitely had that older brother feeling toward him. It definitely just sucks to see any teammate go down, but from what I saw, he's strong-minded and I know he knows everything is going to be alright. Like I said, the expectation bar just feels like it got a little bit higher, a lot higher for me. I just need to continue to stay into it mentally."
Amukamara, an All-America last season at Nebraska, has no idea when he will return.
"They haven't given me a timetable and there's no pain," he said. "I think they said from the beginning from eight to 10 weeks. But who knows? It could be shorter than that, it could be longer than that. I feel no pain, so I think that's a good sign."
The Giants, meanwhile, might need some immediate help in their secondary.
"We have to address it," Coughlin said. "We just have to make some decisions, whether or not there is anybody out there that we can bring in, and shuffle some guys around. Because of the 90 (training camp roster limit), we had a lot of corners and a lot of safeties. That number has been depleted, obviously."