What kind of season has Justin Tuck had?
"I can remember going into the training room and getting treated for five different things in one day, at one time," Tuck said today.
It has been a painful season for the Giants' two-time Pro Bowler and defensive captain. He suffered a stinger in the preseason and missed four of the first six regular season games. Tuck has had toe, groin and shoulder ailments that for several weeks forced him to miss practice or be limited when he did work.
"I've never played a year where I've had consistent injuries, hurt in this game, couple games later, I'm good to go," Tuck said. "But it just seemed like this year when one thing got hurt, I would play a couple weeks with that, fight through that, by the time that was good, something else would go. So it's been an uphill battle all year."
As a result, Tuck was not as dominant as he's been in the past. After finishing with double-digit sack totals three of the previous four seasons – the exception was 2009, when he played most of the season with an injured shoulder – Tuck totaled 5.0 sacks in 2011.
"I'm not worried about it, honestly," Tuck said. "It's funny, Dave Tollefson and I were talking about it earlier this week and he and I were (tied for) third on the team in sacks. I give him that. I told him that I played two games this year, maybe one that I was healthy. But it's not about sacks. I know we get caught up in that, the Pro Bowls, things like that, you want to be known as one of the greatest of the game, but it's about winning and we're winning right now, so I'm happy."
The sack numbers didn't bother him, but falling short of his capability did. Tuck was at his lowest a month ago today, when the Giants lost at home to the last-place Redskins. Although he had seven tackles, Tuck thought he wasn't helping and leading the defense as he had in the past. So he decided to ignore the injuries and just play. Heart-to-heart talks with Tom Coughlin reinforced for him his value to the team and his ability to contribute despite the aches and pains.
Tuck is still hurting, but now, "I'm putting it out of my mind better," he said.
It's made a big difference. Tuck had five tackles, two quarterback hits and consistently pressured Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers as the 11-7 Giants defeated Atlanta and Green Bay to advance to the NFC Championship Game Sunday against the 14-3 49ers in San Francisco.
Always a highly-respected figure in the locker room, Tuck has drawn plaudits from teammates and coaches for setting aside his pain and stepping up for the team.
"Me and Tuck are pretty tight," Tollefson said. "I consider him one of my best friends, and I've always had a huge amount of respect for him, not just for the situation he's going through now, but the type of man that he is. I know he's a great father, a good husband, but onto this subject, really he's the captain. And that's why he was voted captain, because of his mental toughness and his ability to really put the team before him, and I think that's what he's done the second half the season, really exemplified that."
"I don't think anybody in here is at 100 percent at this point in the year," linebacker Michael Boley said. "A lot of us play hurt all the time, but he's been through a lot this year, with injuries up and down. Whenever you see somebody throughout the course of the year constantly battling injuries, battling injuries, and they're still in there fighting, you can't really be like, 'You know what, he's hurt, he can't do that, he can't do this.' You have to tell him, 'We appreciate everything you're giving, because you're giving us everything you've got.'"
Tuck is very appreciative of the support. At the same time, he admits his physical ailments have taken a psychological toll.
"It troubles you a lot," he said. "You lose a lot of sleep thinking, especially when a lot of guys look at you as going out on the football field and giving your all, and when guys didn't really know how banged up I was, guys were looking at me like, 'Justin, we need a play here. We need to do this.' I'm accustomed to being banged up. But I'm also accustomed to healing and moving on. This year there wasn't any moving on, it was kind of just stagnant. So you start thinking, 'Am I getting old? Am I losing this part of my game? Is this going to have to change, is that going to have to change?' Things like that start creeping in your mind and before long you've talked yourself out of any plays you're ever going to make."
He got over the hump and back to being the Justin Tuck his teammates have seen for most of his seven NFL seasons by taking a hard look in the mirror and taking counsel from his head coach.
"I like the adjustments that he made," Coughlin said. "He just decided that he is not going to allow any more distractions from the standpoint of the hurts. He has made that decision and he has stuck with it and I think it is a very smart move and he has been very productive since doing it."
Tuck said one conversation with Coughlin had a particularly meaningful impact.
"He told me basically I can help this team in a lot of ways," Tuck said. "He said my influence on this football team is greater than I think it is. A lot of times for me personally, I try my best to be as humble as possible, knowing that we all have talents. But at the end of the day, I really don't think I have that big of an effect on other people, until you hear other people say it. I guess I'm kind of naive in that regard.
"But to hear Coach Coughlin say it and put it in perspective means that I don't have to be out there getting sacks and bowing to the crowd and things like that to make a difference on this football team. I realized that, and realized that I've seen a lot of times where guys get older and still were out there showing leadership in how they worked, and how they went around and told guys what they saw, and things like that. So it went a long way to help me."
A week after the Redskins game, Tuck had four solo tackles, including a sack, and knocked down two passes in a season-turning victory over the Jets. A week later, he sacked Tony Romo as the Giants defeated Dallas to clinch the NFC East.
"I think it was a lot of things," Tuck said of his turnaround. "Coach Coughlin's conversation, I've had conversations with several players. Being home by myself looking in the mirror. There have been a lot of things that have, I guess, pushed me to just say, 'Just go play football and whatever happens, happens.'
"I think it was important for me to just say to myself, 'You know what, whatever percentage I can go out there and help the football team, do that. And at the end of the day, that's what it's been all about."