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Let the Battle Begin


Okay, it's only been open for one season. But Steve Weatherford certainly distinguished himself there in the second of his two years with the Jets. The Giants yesterday signed the six-year veteran to compete with incumbent second-year pro Matt Dodge for the punting job.

In eight games in the stadium last season, Weatherford had 48 punts for a 44.1-yard gross average and a 40.5-yard net average. He had just three touchbacks and placed 27 kicks inside the 20 – more than three a game.

"If I wasn't as successful last year in the new stadium, I may have reconsidered coming back to New York," Weatherford said today during a training camp break at the Timex Performance Center. "But I enjoy it, I like the challenge. Obviously, you're not going to put up gigantic numbers here. But at the same time, it's a head-to-head battle and if I can get my team a slice of advantage in field position with the net punt or putting the ball inside the 20, I think that's all the coaches are looking for. If you can win the head-to-head punting battle, that's really how well you play. Because if it's five degrees outside with 30 mile an hour winds, you're probably not going to average 50 yards a kick."

As a rookie, Dodge's home-game totals were 36 punts for a 42.9-yard gross average and a 32.9-yard net average. He had six touchbacks and 10 balls inside the 20. Dodge also had one punt blocked.

Dodge has a strong leg, but last year he absorbed criticism for being inconsistent (as most rookies are) and for kicking a line drive that Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson returned 65 yards for the game-winning touchdown on Dec. 19. The 2010 seventh-round draft choice did not have competition in his first training camp. Now he's in a head-to-head duel for his job.

"I was excited," Dodge said of Weatherford's arrival. "It would be foolish to think that he was not going to get signed and when you look at the people who were available and the year he had in the exact same stadium. To be shocked would be dumb on my part. I was excited for the chance to go up against easily one of the best punters in the league. I'm excited to get it done."

Dodge believes Weatherford's presence and the impending competition will improve his own play.

"That's truly the only way, if you want to be successful, to look at it," Dodge said. "Any great competitor, anybody out here, if you're given the job right away, it's not as good as when you win it. When you know you have somebody you're going up against somebody, it's just that incentive to do better. You have to perform because somebody is right there trying to get the same job you are. I think it's exciting. I couldn't sleep at night. I had everybody calling me, telling me about it. I was just tossing and turning in anticipation to get out here yesterday. It's awesome."

To Coach Tom Coughlin, one of the benefits of having a larger training camp roster is the ability to bring in an extra punter.

"Best word is that, competition," Coughlin said. "Any time you can create that, you are going to be better off for it. Sometimes the numbers don't allow it, sometimes they do allow it. I would hope that one thing that would be in the new CBA was 90 (players) every summer. You'd be surprised what the difference between 90 and 80 is when you're putting a roster together for summer camp."

Dodge had an uneven rookie season after the Giants selected him on the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft. He punted 72 times and his gross average of 44.8 yards placed him ninth in the league. But his 34.3-yard net average was 30th. He twice dropped the ball as he went to kick it and was replaced as the holder on placekicks after four games. And Dodge's punt to Jackson was the season's most infamous play.

Weatherford can empathize with Dodge at the same time he competes with him.

"I'm here to win and I'm going to do anything I can to help this team win," he said. "If that means punting the ball out of bounds, I'm going to do what I'm told. I'm sure Matt tried his best to do that. But it's a tough place to play and the weather conditions aren't always easy. Obviously, there are no excuses. At the same time I've been playing at a high level for a long time and I'm ready for the challenge.

"Matt's a very talented punter. He's young, very raw and he has a good upside. But I'm here to compete and I'm here to help this team win."

Dodge was not discouraged by the roller coaster ride he took as a rookie.

"I'd like to say that I had some good games and obviously, I got a lot of flack for some punts," Dodge said. "And believe me, I wasn't going home (saying), 'Well, I thought that was a good punt.' I'm just as tough and critical of myself, but overall, I think I carried myself well and learned a lot. I couldn't ask for a better rookie year as far as learning experience and character building, stuff like that. If it was a great year, I think I'd be in the same spot as I am now. But everything that was thrown at me and everything that I went through, that makes you a better man."

Weatherford is far more seasoned. He is a six-year veteran who has played for New Orleans, Kansas City and Jacksonville as well as the Jets. Weatherford has 363 career regular season punts for a gross average of 42.9 yards and a net average of 36.9 yards. He has never had a punt blocked and has placed 114 kicks inside the 20-yard line.

Last year with the Jets, Weatherford tied an NFL record by leaving 42 punts inside the 20-yard line, a stat that has to appeal to Coughlin. He had a 42.6-yard gross average and a 38.1.-yard net average on 84 punts.

Despite his and the team's success, Weatherford "felt like it was just time to move on." But he didn't want to move far.

"This is the team that was number one on my list," Weatherford said. "Sure, it's a lot easier to play in a dome and the Houston job was there. Jacksonville, Chicago – these are all teams that I spoke with. But this is a just a great fit for me. I love New York. It's a great franchise.

"My wife loved New York … I really like the coaching staff here. I feel like this is a really good fit and I can do well what they like. I know that Jeff Feagles is a Hall of Famer here and I tried to model myself after him in the younger years of his NFL career. I think I have watched enough film of Jeff to make any of you guys puke, but I am definitely prepared for the challenge."

Coughlin was asked if Weatherford's experience in the stadium factored into the decision to sign him.

"I think, just the quality, the way in which we looked at him – his career versus some of the other people that were out there," Coughlin said.

Weatherford will find one significant difference wearing blue in the stadium. He will no longer have the freedom to run out of punt formation, as he did three times in the previous two seasons.

"Leeway, that's the word right there," Coughlin said with a smile. "He won't have that here."

"I would guess there's probably not going to be much of a green light for me," Weatherford said. "But anytime they want me to do something like that – if I can help the team in any way – whether it be throwing a pass or running, whatever they need I'm happy to do. The more you can do, the more valuable you are to the team. I'm ready for anything."

*Defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who reported to camp yesterday, had his physical this morning, but Coughlin does not know if the two-time Pro Bowler will practice this evening. Umenyiora was scheduled to be examined by team physician Russell Warren.

"I doubt that he will be cleared to practice this afternoon, although I'm purely speculating," Coughlin said. "Until we get all of that in order, we'll just continue to practice in the manner that we have."

Coughlin wasn't specific about what might keep Umenyiora off the field.

"There's been issues over the years," he said. "The hip that Osi's had, for example, includes, probably, Dr. Warren coming in and talking with him."

Coughlin was clearly pleased by Umenyiora's arrival.

"I think one of the good things that occurred yesterday was that Osi and (general manager) Jerry (Reese) had a chance to talk. I think something good came out of that."

*Coughlin didn't seem to have a strong opinion about Plaxico Burress' decision to sign with the Jets. The former Giants receiver visited with the coach on Friday.

"As we said when we first started talking about this again, I was very happy to have an opportunity to sit and talk to Plax," Coughlin said. "We were interested in him. He chose to go elsewhere. Our concern in the very beginning, when he was released (from prison), was that he would have a chance to get back with his family, establish some type of normalcy in his life, be with his kids – that type of thing. He's taken, obviously, steps in the right direction. He came to see me, which couldn't have been easy for him. Our conversation was very good. It was very sincere. It was very open. His decision was to go elsewhere. It sounded like a bigger guarantee. I don't know all of the facts about that. That's what happens in this business. His decision was made and again, we wish he and his family well."

*Coughlin was pleased with the execution in yesterday's initial camp practice.

"We didn't put the ball on the ground last night, we didn't have any false starts," Coughlin said. "We didn't have any issues along those lines, which you would normally associate with how long we've been out of practice, with being with each other. I'm hoping, since I just stuck my foot in my mouth, we're not saving it up for this afternoon."

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