Back in action

Jim Fassel's fate had already been determined during the Giants' December disaster, which in itself was enough to trouble Luke Petitgout.

The team's offensive output definitely dwindled with Petitgout out of the lineup. And like lots of other injured Giants, their left tackle couldn't help but feel like he would've been able to help prevent Fassel's firing had he been healthy all season. The uncertainty regarding his own professional future only worsened Petitgout's holiday mood.

The Giants placed Petitgout, who missed their final five games due to a disk condition in his back, on injured reserve on Dec. 18. "Last season was just pretty much a debacle," said Petitgout, who had made 48 consecutive starts prior to the 2003 season. "It started off on a good note, it went downhill and we couldn't stop it. So not being able to play didn't help. It added to the misery."

Ten months after signing a six-year, $30 million contract extension that included a $10 million signing bonus, Petitgout was contemplating risky surgery suggested by a back expert. The procedure was not guaranteed to correct Petitgout's problem, thus the Notre Dame alum ultimately took the advice of a second specialist. The 28-year-old offensive lineman instead underwent treatments to sooth the discomfort and avoided any physical activity for five weeks following his final treatment on Christmas Eve.

"If I would've gotten (the surgery), it might've been all right," Petitgout said. "But it might not have been all right. I just didn't want to get cut if it wasn't definitely necessary. If I get hurt again, then probably I'll need it."

Though they've made upgrades all along their offensive front, depth improvements that would probably prevent them from starting an overmatched rookie like Jeff Roehl at left tackle, the Giants cannot afford another long-term injury to Petitgout. The sixth-year veteran's value might never be higher for the Giants. Come Sept. 12 in Philadelphia, he'll be responsible for protecting the blind side of either a seemingly fragile former league MVP with a history of concussions or a heavily hyped rookie trying to establish his confidence.

Kurt Warner, whose blind side was protected by perennial Pro Bowler Orlando Pace in St. Louis, is eager to begin building a similarly prosperous professional relationship with Petitgout.

"Just getting to know Luke a little bit," Warner said, "and from what I've heard about him, it's a situation where I'm not real worried about it. I think he's going to be as solid as we're going to have and really do a great job for us."

Coincidentally, it was the Giants' season-opening game against the Warner-led Rams in which Petitgout's problem began last season. Petitgout felt a "pop" in his back while blocking for an extra point attempt after the Giants scored their first touchdown of the season. He was carted off the field, missed the Giants next game against Dallas and never really recovered because the condition required rest that just isn't offered during the season.

Despite having to adjust to a contrasting coaching staff, a different offensive system and numerous new teammates, Petitgout has felt much more comfortable as July 29, the starting date of Tom Coughlin's first training camp, approaches. The 1999 first-round draft choice hasn't aggravated his back since resuming workouts in early February. The 6-6 Petitgout feels stronger, too, because he weighs about 310 pounds, 20 more than he was when he entered last season after adhering to a nutritional program.

"I've felt real good," Petitgout said. "I'm trying to get back to the level I was playing before I got hurt originally. I'm just working on that and getting my conditioning back. I'm heavier this year and it's taken a little bit of time, just to get the feel of things and get adjusted to the new line and the new plays. There's a lot of stuff being thrown at us right now. New coaches, new schedule, everything. But it's going well. I'm enjoying it."

The proud Petitgout didn't necessarily enjoy the thought of the Giants choosing celebrated Iowa left tackle Robert Gallery in the NFL Draft on April 24. Speculation swirled before the draft that the team's decision-makers wanted to take the unusually gifted Gallery, commonly compared to Tony Boselli, a Coughlin favorite in Jacksonville, and push Petitgout to right tackle.

"It was really out of my hands, out of my control," said Petitgout, who switched from right tackle following the 2001 season. "I was just like, ‘Whatever happens, happens.' I didn't think that a rookie was just going to come in here and take my job. He played left tackle in college, but my thing was if they did get him they would just see who was better. There wasn't a guarantee I was going to move or anything like that. I think they got who they wanted in the end, so it was all speculation."

Even with a healthy Petitgout entrenched at left tackle, there is still instability elsewhere along the offensive line. It still is not clear when valuable left guard Rich Seubert, who broke three bones in his right leg last season, will be healthy enough to return to play alongside Petitgout. Highly regarded rookie Chris Snee, a second-round draft choice out of Boston College, could be Seubert's substitute. If Seubert's back for the season opener, Snee could start at right guard, with second-year player David Diehl shifting to right tackle to supplant Ian Allen.

Whichever combination Coughlin chooses, Petitgout figures the unit will be better than it looked late last season. The Giants allowed 22 sacks in their first 11 games in 2003, in 10 of which Petitgout played. Without him, the Giants yielded 11 sacks in those last five games.

"What happened last year, I don't even think about it," Petitgout said. "We had a bad year and because of it we had a lot of changes. But we're moving forward."

* Since Tom Coughlin makes his assistant coaches off-limits to the media, OL coach Pat Flaherty was unavailable to comment for this story.

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