The Giants report to training camp this week at the University at Albany with a mixture of pride and determination perhaps unique to a defending Super Bowl champion.
The former stems, of course, from their six consecutive victories to conclude the 2011 season, a streak that included a four-game postseason run, culminating in a 21-17 victory over New England in Super Bowl XLVI. It was their second championship in five seasons and the accompanying rewards – a ticker-tape parade, White House visit and a gorgeous gold, diamond and sapphire ring – were just as sweet as they were after the Giants concluded their improbable playoff run in 2007.
But the final surge masked what in many respects was a so-so season that left the Giants with plenty of room for improvement. They were, after all, the first team to win a Super Bowl after finishing last in the NFL in rushing yards. The Giants were outscored in the regular season, 400-394, to become the first Super Bowl winner with a negative point differential. Perhaps most significantly, they were the first seven-loss team to capture the Lombardi Trophy.
The resolve is borne from their desire to prove the real Giants are the team that played so superbly at the end of the year and not the one that stumbled so often in a 9-7 regular season.
"We're talking about getting better every second we're here," coach Tom Coughlin said. "That is the most important thing for us. We have a great challenge that our schedule provides us with, playing the best of the best, week-in and week-out, the tremendous strength of our divisional and non-divisional schedule, and the challenge of the season ahead.
"We have moved the bar up. We've raised the bar and the quality of our practices, our preparation and our play throughout the playoffs is something we can all be proud of. What I'm trying to do is to verbally, motivationally, efficiently, from the classroom to the practice field, bridge it - bridge it over to the 2012-2013 New York Giants."
The players know that treading water is not an option, particularly since their status as defending champions will make them the team every opponent most wants to beat.
"The motivation and the mindset is we have to get better," said two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback Eli Manning. "We have to become a better team, we have to become more consistent."
"When you look back at it, in the regular season, we were 9-7," wide receiver Victor Cruz said. "So obviously there are a lot of things we can clean up from a team standpoint. And offensively, we need to know the things we did wrong and learn how to change those negative things. We've watched a lot of film to try to understand those things and we're going to try to fix them."
They'll do so with a roster that has many new names after a customary offseason reconstruction. Gone from the Super Bowl team are running back Brandon Jacobs, wide receiver Mario Manningham, tackle Kareem McKenzie, tight end Jake Ballard, defensive backs Aaron Ross and Deon Grant and defensive lineman Dave Tollefson.
The new Giants include tight end Martellus Bennett, linebacker Keith Rivers, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, tackle Sean Locklear and defensive backs Antwaun Molden, Stevie Brown and Dante Hughes. Coughlin is excited about a rookie group headlined by running back David Wilson and wide receiver Rueben Randle. The Giants also have what amounts to another half draft class in cornerback Prince Amukamara, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and wide receiver Jerrel Jernigan, who played little or not at all after being selected 1-2-3 by the team in the 2011 draft.
No change has been made at the game's most important position, where the indispensible Manning begins his ninth season as the Giants' quarterback. The two-time Super Bowl MVP set franchise records for pass attempts (589), completions (359) and yards (4,933) in 2011. The yardage total was the fourth-highest in the NFL in 2011 and the sixth-highest in league history. In the postseason, Manning threw nine touchdown passes against only one interception while completing 65 percent of his throws. He is on track to break every one of the Giants' significant career passing records. David Carr, who did not throw a regular season pass last season, will again look to back up Manning. Ryan Perrilloux is the third quarterback competing in camp, although the Giants haven't carried a third quarterback on their 53-man roster since 2007.
Manning could go the entire summer without throwing to his top receiver. Hakeem Nicks broke his foot in June and his return date is uncertain. As much as Coughlin despairs when a player misses practice, the Giants will be careful with Nicks as he and they work toward getting him on the field for the September 5 opener vs. Dallas. Here's one of the biggest questions entering the new season: Can Victor Cruz do it again? The former free agent from UMass entered the 2011 season with zero career catches. He exited with 82, a franchise-record 1,536 yards, nine touchdowns and a legion of supporters claiming he deserved to be on the NFC Pro Bowl team. Cruz will likely draw more attention from opposing defenses than he did last year, particularly if Nicks is sidelined. If they are both healthy, the competition for playing time with them will be one of the most interesting of camp. The contenders include Randle, who was impressive in the spring camps, Jernigan, Domenik Hixon and Ramses Barden.
The Giants needed a tight end after Ballard and Travis Beckum each tore an ACL in the Super Bowl. They signed Bennett, who was eager to step out of Jason Witten's shadow in Dallas and show he can be a top-tier player. Ballard, who is not expected to play this season, is now with New England. Beckum expressed optimism in the spring that he will return early this season. Fourth-round draft choice Adrien Robinson is an intriguing prospect.
Six-year veteran Ahmad Bradshaw begins his third season as the team's starting and busiest running back. But injuries and the Giants' struggle to effectively run the ball contributed to him finishing last season with only 659 yards, 576 fewer yards than the career-high total he posted in 2010. Although the Giants rode Manning's passing arm all the way to a championship last season, Coughlin wants to restore some equilibrium to the offense.
"We averaged 116 (rushing yards) per game in the playoffs and we do have to have more consistency there so we have the balance," Coughlin said. "Don't get me wrong, a great quarterback is going to have the ball in his hands, but still we are a better football team when we can execute the types of things that go along with great balance, which is time of possession, ball security, keep the ball away from the other guy, don't let those great teams - the New Orleans, the Green Bays - have the ball back. So the running of the ball, the mixture of the run and the pass, the physical aspect that goes along with that concept both defensively and offensively are very important for us. That's what Giants football is."
"As an offensive lineman I think of 9-7, being 32nd in the league in rushing and getting the quarterback hit too many times," guard Kevin Boothe said. "We always have to think of ways we have to improve. Those are the things that stick out in my mind. It was great we won the Super Bowl but we have to get better. We can't perform the way that we did this past season as a whole and expect to get there again."
Boothe is part of a line that has a new look after the departure of McKenzie, who played right tackle for seven seasons. David Diehl, the line's Mr. Versatile, played left guard and tackle last season and now moves back to right tackle, where he started every game as a pro sophomore in 2004. Three-time Pro Bowler Chris Snee remains a stalwart at right guard. Will Beatty, recovered from eye surgery, hopes the sore back that kept him out of the June minicamp will not sideline him in Albany. Boothe earned the designation as first team left guard with his fine play in the postseason. Second-year Giant David Baas is a solid center. The backups include Mitch Petrus, Jim Cordle and Locklear.