ALBANY, N.Y. – David Diehl isn't concerned the Giants' running game will regress in the wake of Brandon Jacobs' departure.
"We were 32nd (in the NFL)," Diehl said today. "How can you take any more steps back?"
The man has a point. Even winning Super Bowl XLVI did not completely eradicate the sting of finishing last in the NFL in rushing yards. The Giants traditionally run the ball well and take pride in their ability to advance on the ground. As recently as 2008, the Giants led the NFL and set franchise records with 2,518 rushing yards (157.4 a game) and 5.0 yards per carry. Last year, they were last in the league with 1,427 yards (89.2 a game) and a 3.5-yard average.
"Being 32nd is devastating for us," said Ahmad Bradshaw, who led the Giants in rushing with 659 yards.
The Giants became the first team to win a Super Bowl after finishing at the bottom of the NFL rushing statistics. It's a given they'd like to repeat the first feat. And after their first training camp practice today at the University at Albany, Tom Coughlin made it clear duplicating the second is not an option.
"We're going to get a better running game coming out of this camp, I really believe that," Coughlin said.
But because of the new collective bargaining agreement, Coughlin won't be able to devote large chunks of practice time to the ground game as he might have done when two workouts a day were permitted.
"It takes a lot of time to develop that, and to be honest with you, without the two-a-days, it's a little bit more difficult to just zoom in on any one thing and stay with it," he said. "It's going to be balanced in terms of the way the practices go, but we definitely have got to rush the ball better. We rushed it down the stretch, in the last six games at the end of the year (a 114.5-yard average), better than we did throughout the whole year, but we didn't have the number of big plays from the run. It was way down. The balance factor has always been something we've been able to count on. We've got to get back to that.
"It takes practice time to get the running game going. And you don't have a morning practice, where you can say, 'We're going to devote this practice to the nine on seven, to running drills, and in the afternoon we'll pick up on the other things.' Your practices are balanced. Your attack has to be balanced. If you just pick a normal week of being up here where we practice five or six times, you may be able to have two, maybe three, nine on seven's, and even then there are only 12 plays. Obviously, that drill is stacked the other way, but that's how you make some progress, where you're coming off the ball and everybody knows what you're doing. There's nothing different about it. Nobody's going to surprise anybody. "
The Giants will try to run the ball more effectively without two players who were longtime keys to their success on the ground. Right tackle Kareem McKenzie was a free agent who was not re-signed. Diehl, who played left guard and tackle last season, has moved back to right tackle, his position in 2004. And Jacobs, who rushed for 4,849 yards and a franchise-record 56 touchdowns, is now with the San Francisco 49ers. Last year, Jacobs rushed for seven scores but averaged a career-low 3.8-yards carry.
"That's a tough thing as a running back," Bradshaw said of the team's run production. "I've been a big part of it. We just have to look forward to this year. I'm doing a whole lot better. Upfront, you know, all together as an offense. I think it will come."
Without Jacobs, D.J. Ware, Da'Rel Scott, Andre Brown and first-round draft choice David Wilson are vying for playing time behind Bradshaw.
"We have a lot of great backs," Bradshaw said. "(The other backs) can help me as much as they can and I'll just do my part and help them."
It would be easy to point to injuries as a reason the run game declined. Bradshaw missed four games with a foot issue and Diehl (hand), guard Chris Snee (concussion), center David Baas (burner, knee headaches) and tackle Will Beatty (eye) suffered ailments. Only Diehl played in every game.
"There are no excuses," Diehl said. "Toward the end of the season and in the playoffs, we got the run game going strong. You can say that there were guys moving around, different things like that. But you never make any excuses for anything. I know as a group we're making a collective effort, all of us, to make it a strength."
Bradshaw insists the foot and ankle problems that have plagued him for several years are in the past.
"I feel great," he said. "Honestly, I've always said I've felt better, but this year I feel great - more than any year I've played in the NFL."
The Giants have one of the NFL's best passing attacks with Eli Manning throwing to a group of receivers that includes Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. If the ground game becomes more productive, opposing defenses will have few good options against the Giants.
"We want to take it in the opposite direction," Diehl said of the ground game. "Everything we're thinking about is moving forward and making sure that we make that a strength of our team. Like I said earlier, we have so many threats on the offensive side of the ball out there at wide receiver and most importantly with our quarterback. If we get our running game going like we know we're capable of and get it to the top of the league like we're working to do, our offense is going to be one of the best in the league."