A year ago today, the Giants were 6-3 and preparing to play a Sunday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Justin Tuck had started all nine games, was second on the team with 44 tackles (27 solo), tied for second with 4.0 sacks and tied for the team lead with 18 quarterback hits, plus he had a forced fumble and an NFL-best four fumble recoveries. About a month after that Eagles game, Tuck was selected to play in his second Pro Bowl.
Today, the Giants are 6-3 and preparing to play a Sunday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Tuck has played in only five of those games, with four starts. He is 15th on the team with 10 tackles (eight solo), tied for fifth with 2.0 sacks, he has five quarterback hits and he has neither a forced fumble nor a fumble recovery.
At his weekly meeting with reporters this afternoon, Tuck stood in front of his locker in the Timex Performance Center and offered a harsh appraisal of his 2011 performance.
"I'm not a very good player right now," Tuck said. "It's frustrating because I do look at myself on film and I don't like what I see. It's not the effort. I feel like I'm putting forth the effort, but it's just some things are not allowing me to play my style of football."
Moments later, Tuck assessed his performance by saying, "I do suck."
No player likes to use injuries as an excuse and Tuck did try to block that specific road – "The more y'all ask me about my injuries, the more I'm going to figure out clever ways of not answering them" – but the fact is he has been hurt this season. He suffered a neck injury in a preseason game against the Jets on Aug. 29 and later a groin injury. Tuck missed the season opener in Washington, ending a streak of 64 consecutive regular season games played. He played in two games before missing the next three. Tuck has played all three games since the bye.
"It seems like I'm working my way back in," Tuck said. "Obviously, I'm not having the year that I've normally had. It's just part of it. Sometimes you're going to have some things that are acting up on you and it's not going to allow you to do the things that make you a good football player. That's neither here nor there. You just go out there and try to continue to work to help this football team get wins."
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said Tuck's self-criticism is too harsh.
"Obviously he was playing at a high level in the preseason before his injury," Fewell said. "Has he been able to jump back on the bicycle and ride as fast as we want him to ride? No, but I think it is coming. He is always more critical of himself than anybody us. He wants to improve and get better and he will get better. It takes time."
Tuck is dealing better with the disappointment in his own play because the Giants are in first place in the NFC East.
"It's frustrating, but at the end of the day, wins take care of all of that," Tuck said.
But that doesn't mean he's lost his desire to be a dominant defensive end. Tuck has tremendous pride and he would never settle for the production he's delivered thus far. Because he missed a quarter of the season, he can't realistically expect his numbers to match those he posted in 2010. But he thinks they should be better than they are.
"That's the selfish part of being the athlete, but the thing that keeps me going and I'm happy about is we're playing well," Tuck said. "Regardless of what I do personally, we keep winning, I'm fine. … The only thing that matters in that football game is if we have more points than they do, just like when you come in here and you're hurting. On days when you lost, those injuries feel a whole lot worse than on days when you win. I guess the same can be considered when you talk about how you're playing individually."
In the Giants' loss last week in San Francisco, Tuck had his hands on Alex Smith on one play, but the San Francisco quarterback escaped. Perhaps Tuck's perspective would be different had he completed the play, particularly since he was credited with zero tackles and one hit.
"It's more than that," Tuck said. "I've had games where stats have been great and I played like crap and vice versa.
Tuck conceded his angst results not just from stats.
"I'm not me," he said. "I'm not."
Is it because he's cautious on the field due to the injuries?
"Not until I have an episode in a game, which I haven't had in a few weeks," he said. "But you get some things where you watch on film and you see yourself being put in that position and you feel a little tug here or there. I don't know. I try not to play cautious. I think I'm not playing cautious.
"It's not that I'm afraid to do things. It's just some things I can't do. It won't allow me to do it."
Even without Tuck playing up to his normal standard, the Giants are getting strong play from their defensive ends. Second-year pro Jason Pierre-Paul has 9.5 sacks. Two-time Pro Bowler Osi Umenyiora missed the first three games recovering from knee surgery, but he has 7.0 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Fewell said Tuck is helping the other defensive linemen succeed and because of that, is unnecessarily harsh in his self-evaluation. Fewell said Tuck's value extends far beyond tackles, sacks and hurries.
"He draws a lot of attention when he is down in that three technique (tackle) playing over that guard," Fewell said. "He draws a lot of attention when he is at end and people have to worry about him in the run game. He did an excellent job for us in the run game against San Fran. He has taken some the burden off of JPP as far as playing some of the number of plays and JPP can play fresh and all of our ends are fresh. We have plans to do some things with him to move him around from guard to defensive end. Having that flexibility for our defense is a plus, a big plus. He is being self-critical that he is not having five, six or seven tackles and three or four sacks but I think that is what he is talking about more than anything."
Tuck concedes he means more to the team than his numbers suggest. He is, after all, in his second season as the Giants' defensive captain.
"The biggest thing for me is whatever position the coach wants to put me in to help this football team win, I really don't care," said Tuck. "I think that can go a long way to helping a football team win. Like you said, numbers are ego. A lot of things that players can do on a football field to help a team win don't show up on the stat sheet. For me, man, I can sit around here and mope around talking about I suck, but at the end of the day I'm still out there helping a football team win."
Despite his dissatisfaction with his play, Tuck believes he can rally and regain his standing as one of the NFL's most dominant defensive ends.
"I do, obviously," he said. "I wouldn't come here and work every day if I didn't. It's getting better. It's just not getting better as fast as I want it to be. That's the frustrating part of it. We still have seven games left so we'll see."
Fewell is also confident the best in Justin Tuck will soon emerge.
"He just wants to make plays," Fewell said. "He is not making as many plays since returning or a year ago or when we were playing last year or when he played earlier in the preseason. I think it will come, I really do. He made a comment to me saying he had to get good again and I said, he just has to practice. This has been his second week of really practicing at full tilt for us. It will come. Justin is a gifted player."
He's eager to again play like one.
*Left tackle Will Beatty did not practice today because of a back issue.
"Beatty's back was bothering him so we decided to get him off his feet so that we didn't have any issue with that going forward," Coach Tom Coughlin said.
Coughlin is hopeful Beatty will work tomorrow.
Also missing practice were running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and linebacker Michael Boley (hamstring).
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