From the first day he took the reins of a football team 42 years ago, Tom Coughlin has forcefully and ceaselessly promoted the concept that every player on a football team can be called upon at any time. And it is often players who toil in the background that play a vital role in determining the success of their team when they are called to the big stage.
It happened to the Giants last night in Charlotte. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw and wide receiver Hakeem Nicks were unable to play because of injuries. That's a combined 7,447 yards from scrimmage that stayed in New Jersey. Third receiver Domenik Hixon (923 career yards) was also sidelined.
Their places were taken, respectively, by Andre Brown and Ramses Barden, who entered the game with 287 combined yards from scrimmage.
But instead of wilting in the spotlight, the two young players personified Coughlin's "next man up" belief. Brown rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes for another 17 yards, while Barden had nine receptions for 138 yards – that's a combined 268 yards – as the Giants pummeled the Carolina Panthers, 36-7.
"That's what it's all about," Coughlin said today. "We were able to turn to some guys who were very anxious for their opportunities. They had put themselves in position where they prepared well. You never know when it's going to come, and it did come for a couple of guys last night, and they responded very, very well. It does reinforce that team concept and it's a great example for everyone that's sitting in that room that preparation and opportunity meet, and you're going to get a chance at some point to prove what you can do. I thought it was an outstanding example for everybody."
Brown and Barden each waited a long time to prove they could be productive NFL Players. The former was selected by the Giants on the fourth round of the 2009 NFL Draft. In his first training camp, he ruptured his Achilles tendon and missed the entire season. In the next two years, he was waived a total of eight times by five different teams, including twice by the Giants, and had two rushing attempts for minus-1 yard. He spent the entire 2011 season on the Giants' practice squad.
This summer, Brown finally made the final roster. When Bradshaw hurt his neck last Sunday vs. Tampa Bay, Brown stepped in and rushed for 71 yards. His first NFL touchdown was a two-yard game-winner.
Last night, he ran for 31 yards on his second carry and finished with a 5.3-yard average on 20 attempts. And to make his night even better, the North Carolina native had a contingent of family members and friends watching him from the stands.
Brown admitted today he wondered if his chance would ever come.
"I'll probably say around the first time I got cut and then the second time and the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh…so yeah," he said. "(I) always was dreaming about it, but for it to finally be here, I just don't want to let it go. So I'm going to continue to work hard and that's what got me here and that's what I'm going to continue to do."
Brown took it hard when he was released last year, but now considers himself fortunate that he had a chance to spend a year on the practice squad. Several teams with openings on their rosters made overtures to him, but he decided to stay here.
"I took it as a redshirt year, to be honest with you," Brown said. "Sitting in there, hearing the questions, taking the tests, it really helped me understand concepts and defenses and stuff like that. It really helped me out a lot. It kept me humble. It kept me wanting to go out there and work hard and do everything that I could do and I'll say it wasn't a setback, it was a step up. It's pretty good for me."
Now that he's hit the big time, Brown isn't about to rest on his laurels.
"I've still got a lot of improving to do, couple of assignments, couple of holes I missed, but I'm going to grow," he said. "I'm going to continue to learn, relentlessly chasing perfection. That's what my coach told me to do."
Barden was also selected in the 2009 draft, 44 spots ahead of Brown (in the third round). In his first three years, injuries or an inability to jump over other receivers on the depth chart limited him to only 17 games and 15 receptions. Barden was inactive for all four 2011 postseason games. He has yet to score an NFL touchdown.
But there he was last night, getting open time and again on the Bank of America field. Barden caught a 23-yard pass, a pair of 21-yarders and a 20-yarder.
So how gratifying was it?
"Words can't describe," Barden said. "Obviously, it's not everything I wanted. There are some plays I want back and there's more I want next week and the following. I'm not easy to satisfy, but it's definitely an okay start for me."
It was so good that on the sideline near the end of the game, Barden approached Eli Manning and embraced him. Manning had spoken to the offense at a walkthrough yesterday morning and expressed confidence in the untested players.
"I just wanted really to express my appreciation and gratitude for Eli's trust and faith in me throughout the game to keep coming my way," Barden said. "I'd like to think that if he's going to give me a chance, I want to do my best to carry or help him achieve what he's trying to achieve. So if we're moving the ball down the field and he trusts me enough to throw my way, then I need to do my job and come down with it."
He did that and more last night. And when Nicks and Hixon rejoin Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan, the Giants will have a deep and talented receiving corps. And with Bradshaw, Brown, David Wilson and Da'Rel Scott, the same can be said of the running backs.
"I think it just adds to our depth, it adds to our strength as a team to know that regardless of the position, there's depth there," Barden said. "If somebody goes down, we can fill in or you can game plan for another person. There's different ways to attack different defenses and force them into making some tough decisions on double teams and who they might bracket or where they're going to show their attention to, so that's really what I hope I can bring to this offense."
Brown and he are off to a delayed but very good start.