Toomer continues to star in relative anonymity

At least the Giants appreciate what they have in Amani Toomer.<BR><BR>

Around the NFL, Toomer may not be considered one of the game's best receivers, but the Giants clearly would beg to differ.

"I don't understand why he's not known as one of the best," CB Will Allen said. "I think he's better than all of them. He's big, physical and he runs the routes. He's going to come up with the big, tough catch. If we were playing a game of pick-up, I'd pick Amani 20 times out of 20."

"Amani's one of the top in the league," RB Tiki Barber said. "I'd definitely put him in the top five, especially since he's been so consistent the last four years. If you throw a ball up to him, he's going to catch it. He's mastered the art of leverage, and positioning, and getting away with push-offs."

During the last four seasons, Toomer has mastered the total art of receiving, averaging close to 80 receptions and more than 1,000 yards a year. That might not put him at the very top of the receiving charts, but it was enough for him to pass Hall-of-Famer Frank Gifford on Sept. 15 to become New York's all-time leader in receiving yardage. Gifford's mark of 5,434 yards was topped during New York's Monday Night Football contest against Dallas. Heading into last Sunday's matchup with Miami, Toomer boasted 5,533 receiving yards.

Yet, when the Pro Bowl ballots go out and the Monday morning office water cooler discussions heat up, Toomer rarely gets any pub.

"He's a great receiver," Gifford said. "Given a little time, he might be considered one of the best. You have the loudmouth out in San Francisco (Terrell Owens) and Randy Moss. They're two extraordinary physical talents. The Giants don't use Amani the way they use those guys."

Toomer's position coach agreed.

"I consider him to be among the game's best," Jimmy Robinson said. "But because of how we spread the ball around, he's probably not going to catch 100-120 balls. That's when people start talking about the Pro Bowl.

"We have to get him in the end zone more. More touchdown catches would help him there. If we get him into the double-digit touchdown area, maybe people will start taking more notice."

As for Toomer, he said he'd love the recognition, but realizes it's out of his control.

"If I get the respect of my teammates and the people who play against me, that's really all I can do," said New York's second-round pick in 1996. "Sure it bothers me, but it's nothing I can achieve by myself.

"I've never been a numbers guy. Numbers are for people who don't understand football. It's a way that you can match people up. But someone could have great numbers and not be that good. To be a complete player, you have to be able to do all kinds of things. You have to catch the ball, but there's so much more to the game that you have to do to go above and beyond."

Toomer almost took himself out of an opportunity to achieve greatness. He points to one moment of adversity that snapped him into becoming one of the game's hardest-working players.

During Jim Fassel's first year at the Giants helm, 1997, New York surprisingly captured the NFC East title and earned a home playoff game with Minnesota on Dec. 27. The Vikings pulled off a stunning comeback to take a 23-22 lead with 10 seconds to play. Toomer will take it from here.

"We had a chance to throw a Hail Mary so I ran out on the field to see if I could help win the game," he said. "The coach pulled me off the field and put in Jason Sehorn. When all the chips are down, that's when you realize what people think of you. I realized they really didn't think I could do it. They'd rather someone who doesn't even catch balls or play receiver."

So Toomer did a little soul-searching and came back the next season a better player and a better man. He started working with a personal trainer; he took up Kung Fu. He basically started pushing himself during his free months for the first time.

"I had heard all the stories that I was going to be released," the 29-year-old said. "I decided I wanted to get myself to be the kind of receiver that I thought I could be, whether it was here or not.

"That really helped me turn the corner. The more you put into it during the offseason, the less likely it is that you'll give up during the season. You say to yourself 'I didn't put in all this time to not have it pay off.' That kind of makes it impossible for you to give up."

Now Toomer has opposing defensive backs wishing they could give up. Champ Bailey is known as one of, if not, the best cover corners in football. Toomer's taken him to school the last couple years, including on Sept. 21 when he toasted Bailey for a 54-yard TD grab.

The 6-3, 208-pound Toomer appears to be the total package.

"Obviously he can run," Allen said. "He's beaten Champ two years in a row. But he thinks about what the defensive back is seeing. He doesn't just run the route. He tries to set the guy up all the time."

"I don't know if (he has) a weakness, I really don't," Fassel said. "Amani is such a great vertical receiver; he has an uncanny knack for catching the ball when his body is in funny positions where you don't see other guys make those catches.

"I think he is (among the best). I definitely think that he is; I think he has proven that. He is more than that, he is a team player; he blocks well, when we need him to make a big play, he makes them. He catches the ball, he is consistent, he doesn't play bad and then good and then bad and then good, and that is from a coaching perspective. But if you just look at the pure numbers, he is still in the top group."

But apparently it's strictly numbers that keep Toomer out of the league's elite fraternity of receivers.

"He has good speed, he's a big target and he works extremely hard," WR Tim Carter said. "He's definitely a Pro Bowl-caliber player. I definitely don't think he gets the attention that he deserves as a top-rated receiver."

"He's not a sexy, flashy receiver like some of these other guys," Barber said. "He's not outspoken like Owens. He's not demonstrative in the end zone. He just does his job and goes about his business. Unfortunately that's boring to some people, but to us it's lovely. We love the way he plays and how he's always consistently making plays to help us win."

Quarterback Kerry Collins and Toomer have grown together during the last several years. Collins wouldn't trade number 81 for anyone.

"He's definitely top five," Collins said. "I see him; I see what he does. He just causes problems for people."

"I know how important acceleration out of a cut is and he really has that," Gifford added. "He has good concentration; he'll catch it in a crowd.

"But most importantly of all, Kerry really likes to go to him. If you ask him, he'll tell you every time where Amani is going to be. Amani works every time, every play. I watch him and see that he's a very hard-working guy."

As WRs coach, Robinson sees first-hand Toomer's dedication on a daily basis.

"He's so competitive," he said. "He takes such pride in his performance. It's really important for him to play well. He never takes a down off. He's just a fierce competitor.

"I don't see anyone in the league doing any more consistent a job than Amani does. He's just a guy that does not want to be denied."

And he hasn't been, continuing to smash Giants receiving records along the way.

"Right now, I'm not even thinking about that type of stuff," Toomer said. "But in the future when I look back at my career; when I think of how many people have played here and the Hall-of-Famer that held the yardage record before me, I'll really be proud of that."

Until then, Toomer will just continue to prove his naysayers wrong.

"One of these days I'll get my just due."

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