Hold on tight

Back in the good old days, the Giants had a plan to preserve Tiki Barber. <BR><BR> Of course, they also had an offense with more going for it than the motion created by the churning legs and strong heart of one of the most dynamic halfbacks in their history.

Jim Fassel loved to talk about keeping Barber strong for the long, cold days of December. At first, he looked to delegate carries to Ron Dayne, until Dayne was banished for the 2003 season. Then he thought about making Delvin Joyce and Dorsey Levens usable options. That didn't work out, either.

Meanwhile, the ball ended up in Barber's hands 720 times during the last two seasons.

This is a new time and Tom Coughlin, desperate to establish a consistent ground attack, has never had the inclination to let up on Barber. And how could he? In his eighth season, Barber has essentially been the team's offense, perhaps the most versatile, productive back in the league.

"All I can do is do what I do best," Barber said. "That's what I focus on. I'm not a very vocal leader in the locker room. I lead by example in how I carry myself and how I prepare. Every now and then I'll give nuggets of advice. That's the only way I know to communicate my ideas about how to win."

Of course, the wear has begun to take its inevitable toll. A few days before the Giants left for Washington, Barber stood in front of his locker with bandages covering a large, stitched gash on his left leg, the result of an injury suffered against the Eagles. One week before, his head slammed into the turf being tackled by the Falcons, an impact that temporarily rang Barber's bell.

But he's just kept moving forward, striving to prove something more to himself and his teammates. To Barber, knowledge is strength, strength is fuel.

It's the credo of his life, why he cares so passionately about what he does, the reason he embraces being a professional athlete in New York City like few the place has seen. Places to see, people to meet and opportunities to take advantage of. Barber is about touching the bases with equal enthusiasm.

"There are certain guys who seem to embrace what New York is all about," Kurt Warner said. "He gets the big picture, understands the opportunities that are here to take advantage of. He understands that his career and his life are so much bigger than football. He's ridden the waves through the highs and lows. He knows his environment, understands the people and the ebbs and flows of his situation."

But after last season, Barber also knew his career had run into a large New York pothole. His second consecutive 1,000-yard season, the third of his career, was overshadowed by his inability to hold the ball. He fumbled nine times on 347 touches, far too many for a halfback. He was blistered by reports accusing him of placing too much emphasis on his wide variety of off-the-field pursuits.

But even more significantly, his reputation for dependability, so carefully crafted under Fassel, was at real risk when Coughlin took over. To Coughlin, hardly the sentimental sort, Barber was just another small back with a big problem and he wasn't about to cut him any slack.

"I've always admired Tiki from afar," said Jerald Ingram, the Giants running backs coach. "But it was clear that in the past he was thinking about making that extra yardage, and a lot of his fumbles came on second-effort plays. All we did was sit him down and say, ‘We know you want to be the best leader you can. And the way you do that is by taking care of the ball.' "

So in the midst of his career, having just turned 29, Barber set out to reinvent himself. And the process has proven a spectacular success.

"That's the beauty of this league," Barber said. "That's the beauty of life. I've accomplished so much. I've done so much. I haven't surprised myself. I set goals and I strive to meet them. There's no question about what I had to do. I had to hold onto the ball and I've done it. I take a lot of pride in working hard to correct my mistakes. It's paying off for me this season so far."

Barber submitted to an intense workout program with a personal trainer than toned and strengthened his body. Within weeks, working out four days a week, he improved his military press from 190 to 300, his dead lift to 295 to 500. His hamstrings grew larger and stronger. And with the size came new and improved stride and grip. He holds the ball closer to his chest and more upright. And in 264 touches (224 carries) prior to last Sunday's game at Washington he'd fumbled the ball only once – and recovered it himself.

"I have seen him over the course of his career play effectively for an entire season as a premiere runner and utilized to the fullest extent in terms of receiving and coming out of the backfield as a screen back and as a runner," Coughlin said. "So, I am well aware of his career and what he has accomplished. I think the negatives of last year have been well pointed out. So I felt like if we could get back on track, correct some of those things, then that would give Tiki the opportunity to be the kind of player that he is. And obviously he is doing a very, very good job."

Barber is on his way to his first Pro Bowl. He went to Washington leading the NFL in total yards with 1,641. Until the Falcons and Eagles shut him down, he had scored a touchdown in seven straight games, the first Giant to do so in 51 years. And he already has eight 100-yard games this season, the most in the league and in team history. His 21 100-yard games are also the most in team history.

"More than anything else, I've come away impressed with how versatile Tiki is," Warner said. "I knew he was a good runner, but I don't know if I completely understood his toughness in the running game, his ability to make a difficult yard, and his ability as a pass protector. The whole package has impressed me. People say that he's small, but there isn't anything on the football field that I don't think he can do. He catches the ball well, runs well in traffic with great vision."

Barber attributes much of his success to learning to trust his instincts and allowing his reconfigured body to take him places he's never been before.

"I needed to stop thinking all the time and just react," Barber said. "It's working out for me. And I knew if I could solve my fumbling problem, the rest of my ability would shine."

The combination of Barber's speed and leg strength has also turned him into a tough tackle.

"The way to tackle him is to try and hit him in the chest and get him on the ground," Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said before the Bears-Giants game Nov. 7. "He runs hard. I've seen him run over a couple of people. And he has great vision. He sees a lot of holes and there's now a lot of different places he can go with the power [running] scheme they use. He's pretty much finding every gap and hitting hit."

And now, finally, his name is being mentioned along with the greats of the league.

"Marshall Faulk is the best I've ever played with," said Warner of his former Rams teammate. "I've never seen a player like him and I don't think I ever will. He understands the game as well as any player I've met who isn't a quarterback. But would Tiki have been successful in our offense? No question he would have."

In the meantime, Barber continues to pursue Rodney Hampton's team record for career rushing yardage (6,554). He needed just 344 yards to surpass him before the Redskins game.

Providing Coughlin doesn't wear him out, he could do it before the end of the season.

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