*Giants players discuss the lofty goals facing the team as Training Camp gets underway: *
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants refused to play the "see no praise, hear no praise" game when they reported today to training camp. They are well aware their 11-5 regular season and playoff appearance in 2016 created high expectations for the coming year among the NFL public and media. The players embrace those opinions, while tempering them with the realism that success must be earned.
"I think this is the best team we've had on paper," said guard Justin Pugh, who is entering his fifth season. "But at the end of the day, if you have a team on paper, that's not going out there and winning games on Sunday. We have to go out there and put in the work and go out there and produce."
"We don't come here just to be subpar, we come here to perform at our highest level," defensive tackle Damon Harrison said. "If everybody does that, then I'm sure we'll win some games. But as far as predicting wins and losses and, you know, Super Bowls or bust, I don't think anyone is here for that."
The Giants received a painful reminder how quickly fortunes can change at the end of last season. They won three of their last four games and entered their NFC Wild Card Game in Green Bay off a victory in Washington. But they were bounced out of the tournament by the Packers in Lambeau Field, 38-13.
"You got to move on from it, but you also have to keep it in the back of your mind," said second-year wide receiver Sterling Shepard. "If you keep that feeling, you're not going to want it again, so you have to take the steps necessary and practice and everything to prepare for the season."
Although every season is a separate and distinct entity, the Giants believe they can continue to build on their 2016 success. On defense, that confidence is borne from continuity, while on offense it's the arrival of newcomers that has everyone excited.
The Giants lost just one full-time starter, tackle Johnathan Hankins, from a defense that allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL. Robert Thomas, Jay Bromley, and second-round draft choice Dalvin Tomlinson will be among those competing for the starting job. The other starters are Harrison (a first-team All-Pro last season) and ends Olivier Vernon (second team) and Jason Pierre-Paul (a two-time Pro Bowler). The secondary is widely considered one of the NFL's best.
"It definitely helps a lot," second-year cornerback Eli Apple said of the defense's many returnees. "I think it helps with our chemistry, being comfortable with each other, and knowing what we expect from each other as football players and people. I think that's going to really be beneficial for us during the season. Just building off what we did last year and just continue to just grow up as a defense."
"(We) just (want) to improve, man," Harrison said. "We're not going to sit here and talk numbers or chase numbers. In this league, things can go really good or really bad if you're chasing something that's not the same as every other guy that's on the field. So, I don't think (we want to do) anything other than improving on what we did last year."
The Giants scored 310 points last season, a 110-point decline from 2015. They believe the offense can be more productive this season with veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall and tight end Evan Engram, the team's first-round draft choice, joining Eli Manning, Odell Beckham, Jr., Shepard, and running backs Paul Perkins and Shane Vereen.
"I'm excited with the type of guys we have, the character we have in the room, the coaches that we have," Pugh said. "I think top to bottom this is an exciting team, and once you've been to the playoffs and know what it's like and get that taste and know how good those teams are. We've beaten the teams that have been in the playoffs, so I think that's where we get this confidence."
Pugh and his fellow offensive linemen know they have received the sharpest scrutiny. The group received much of the blame for the offense's struggles to both score points and run the ball last season. And it's possible that the same five starters will return this season – center Weston Richburg, guards John Jerry and Pugh, and tackles Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart (Flowers, Richburg and Jerry started every game a year ago).
Asked what the biggest difference will be this year, Richburg said, "Another year of maturity. We've been together all last year, and then looking into this year, we've got the same guys there. I think one of the biggest things that helps an offensive line is continuity. So, we're going to try to take that continuity, stay healthy, and make sure we're all playing together as much as we can."
"We have more experience playing with each other," Pugh said. "I think growing pains (will help the line improve). I think some of it is we didn't play well enough, so you learn from that. I can speak personally from that. Going from my second year to my third year, I got embarrassed out there sometimes and coming back with that drive, that determination, to go out there and prove myself that I do belong in the NFL and I do belong in this league. That drives me to this day. So, I think a lot of guys, you have to look in the mirror and say, 'I wasn't as good as I needed to be last year,' and that starts with me personally. I got to be better. I got to stay healthy. I can't miss five games. That's something that I'm looking forward to going out there and playing all 16 games this year. I'm looking forward to our year to be successful, to do well."
He, and his fellow players, can make the same statement about the entire team.