The opening of the NFL season begins a journey into the unknown for each of the league's 32 teams. They all start confident or hopeful, but the players and coaches on any team can't be sure how their team will perform until the ball is kicked off.
The 2011 Giants who will begin their season against the Redskins Sunday afternoon in Washington are perhaps the NFL's foremost mystery. Yes, they were 10-6 a year ago. And they have a head coach, Tom Coughlin, entering his eighth season on the sideline, and quarterback, Eli Manning, who will make his 104th consecutive start, by far the longest among active players at his position. The Giants also return such mainstays as Justin Tuck, Brandon Jacobs, Chris Snee and Corey Webster.
But while much has stayed the same, significant change has been the real constant since the post-lockout NFL opened for business on July 26. Some of the changes were initiated by the Giants. But so many more were out of their control.
The news on offense has been departures, on defense it's been injuries.
The Giants have had to replace four offensive starters after releasing longtime linemen Rich Seubert and Shaun O'Hara, and tight end Kevin Boss (Oakland) and wide receiver Steve Smith (Philadelphia) signed elsewhere.
On defense, no one left voluntarily. But the unit has lost six players to season-ending injuries, including middle linebacker Jonathan Goff, cornerback Terrell Thomas and defensive tackle Marvin Austin, the team's second-round draft choice. In addition, one two-time Pro Bowl defensive end (Osi Umenyiora) is out after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery and the other (Tuck) practiced today on a limited basis and is listed as questionable with a stinger he suffered in a preseason game. Oh, and cornerback Prince Amukamara (foot), the team's top draft choice, is also currently unavailable.
"It is unfortunate, but it is our game," Coughlin said. "It is unfortunate that these guys have gone down. There is no question that there are a number of defensive players that have gone down. There are a number of defensive players that we were counting on that are not going to be with us and you can't hide that fact. We have what we have and we are going forward with it."
"That's part of football," Manning said. "It's going to happen. Our concern is getting ready for Washington. You can't worry about who's out there and who's not. You have to trust the guys that are out there and go out there and do a great job. You game plan, play hard, and find a way to win."
Devising the game plans under these circumstances falls to offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and his defensive counterpart, Perry Fewell. Both coaches are creative and experienced. And both are determined that the Giants' journey will be a continual ascent, despite the losses to their units.
"We put in a good package and other guys are going to step up and help in running that package so we won't be limited," Fewell said. "We put together a great package to win the football game.
"We are just going to take it one game at a time. The guys have been doing a nice job in the classroom and in our jog-throughs and absorbing the information that we have. They are excited about what we are doing. To say I haven't modified a few things, oh yes, but we've got a nice package going into the football game."
The players have bought into the message. They are not concerned with the injuries or worried about teammates who can't suit up. The defense is focused only on stopping the Redskins and winning the football game.
"As a defense, we don't care what's going on, we don't care if there's a sudden change on the field – our job is to go out there and stop the opposing team's offense," Webster said. "It doesn't matter where they are, whether we punted the ball and they're backed up at the two-yard line or they got a turnover and they're starting in good field position, our job is to go out there and stop them. We try to keep it as basic as we can.
"Obviously, we hate to have injuries. You hate to see one of your brothers who has been working hard go down. But it's a part of the game. And it gives other guys, younger guys the opportunity to play and step up. We've done a good job staying on course and preparing the way we're supposed to."
Perhaps the most important young player this week will be rookie Greg Jones, a sixth-round draft choice who will step in for Goff at middle linebacker. Fewell won't say if Jones will call the defensive signals, but the youngster from Michigan State will almost certainly be a key player in his first NFL game.
The coaches and players have said all week they have confidence in Jones, who led the Spartans in tackles in each of his four college seasons.
"I know he's a physical football player that loves to play, wants to do right, that will spend the time and the energy," Coughlin said. "We all understand that he's going to make mistakes. Hopefully they are going to be mistakes that the other guy doesn't capitalize on."
"He is a little nervous," Fewell conceded. "He is excited to play the football game. We like him for the future but the future is now. We have a lot of confidence in him going into the football game."
If Coughlin is a little nervous about starting a rookie in the middle of the defense, he knows exactly how Jones can allay his fears.
"If he runs through the line of scrimmage and splatters the running back and steals the ball and runs in the end zone, I will be real happy," Coughlin said.
In addition to the players mentioned above, the Giants lost backup linebacker Clint Sintim (knee) and cornerbacks Bruce Johnson and Brian Witherspoon.
Despite the loss of key players, Fewell is steadfast in his belief that the Giants' defense can be one of the five best in the NFL.
"No question about it and I still believe that we have a chance to be a very solid defense," he said. "Some guys have to assume some different roles and we are doing a good job of trying to fit those pieces into place. Now how fast those pieces will develop for us, we will find out on Sunday."
Much will also revealed about the new-look offense, perhaps most notably on the line, where center David Baas and left tackle Will Beatty are the newcomers. David Diehl has returned to left guard and Snee and Kareem McKenzie remain at right guard and tackle, respectively.
"I think we're getting better, there's no question," Gilbride said. "As you would expect, it would take a little bit of time to get the cohesion and coordination that we had at one point. We had five guys that stayed together for a number of years. There's some physical ability up there. I think there's the same type of pride and intellect. I think eventually they will be very good. Hopefully this game they will be good enough. Until you go out and play for real, play for 60 minutes, it's hard to project. But I feel confident."
"We did a lot of good things and really have come a long way in a short period of time," Snee said. "All the concerns over incorporating two new guys, I think the guys know what they're doing. Now we just have to go out on the field and do it."
The offense has not been immune to the injury bug. Tight end Travis Beckum, who with Jake Ballard was expected to help fill the void left by Boss' departure, left practice early today with a tight right hamstring and is listed as questionable. "I'm just hoping for the best," Beckum said. "I'm hoping it doesn't turn into something big."
Domenik Hixon is expected to join Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham in three-wide alignments.
Gilbride would have preferred more practice time to integrate all of his new components, but the lockout made that impossible. Gilbride said the loss of offseason OTAs was "significant."
"You're trying to replace four guys who were very much an integral part of what we were doing," he said. "And not to be able to go out and practice with these young guys, these new parts, these replacements and get them up to speed, not that they would be as far along as the guys we lost, but get them far enough along that you could win and watch them continue to grow and evolve. They're getting better. They're getting better, but you did it without spring, without all of the time that you normally get. It hurts. There's no question it hurts. It hurt us significantly on offense, trying to teach the intricacies of each play. You just hope you've progressed enough that you're able to go out and win."
With all of the changes they've made, voluntarily and otherwise, that remains the only salient point. The Giants need to win the game and start the season 1-0.
*Tuck worked on a limited basis after sitting out practice yesterday. He had also worked on a limited basis on Wednesday.
"I am sure he was still cautious but he went out and played," Coughlin said. "We were in shells so it was a lot of hand-to-hand contact but that was about it. He did go out and he did practice and he did run around. He took his snaps.
"He is beyond a certain point and obviously and hopefully he is going to continue. A lot will depend on tomorrow because when you run around full speed, you are not aware. It will be good to see tomorrow."
*The Giants concluded their 2010 season with a 17-14 defeat of the Redskins in FedEx Field. This is the first time the Giants will begin a season vs. the same team against whom they ended the previous season since 1995, when they lost to Dallas after beating them in the 1994 season finale. Both games were in Giants Stadium.
*The Giants have faced the Redskins 156 times in the regular season since their first game in 1932, making this their most frequently-contested rivalry. They lead the series, 91-61-4. The Giants have won six consecutive games against the Redskins, their longest winning streak over Washington since they won six in a row from 1993-95 and their longest streak vs. an NFC East opponent since they defeated Philadelphia eight consecutive times (plus once in the playoffs) from 1997-2000. The Giants have won nine of their last 10 games against the Redskins. In addition, the Giants have won their last five games in Washington, the first time in their history they've won five consecutive road games against one opponent. In 2010, they swept the season series for the third consecutive year, winning 31-7 at home on Dec. 5 and 17-14 in the season finale in FedEx Field, where they are 8-5-1. The Giants have swept the season series with the Redskins 30 times.