Wideouts left out

Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard have been pillars of the Giants offense since 1999, bookend receivers with diverse characteristics and skills that have combined to make the team's passing game potent.

So it's been impossible not to notice how little they've been asked to do or able to contribute this season to a team that could benefit from their help.

"It's not the system," Tom Coughlin said. "It's a product of us not having a whole lot of success passing and there are many reasons for that."

Coughlin has spent the last six weeks trying to identify the reasons and solve them. Obviously, the task is much more complicated than anticipated, a likely mix of Eli Manning's inexperience, protection problems along the offensive line and the difficulty some have had accepting the differences in the new system he and John Hufnagel, the rookie offensive coordinator, have tried to install.

"I don't know what else to do except go back and work my butt off," Jeremy Shockey said. "The team is going to do the same thing. The offense has to be tired of being the weak link on this team. We need to do whatever it takes to win. I don't like to be the weak link. I've never been on a bad offense in my life and I don't plan to start right now. This is going to change."

In the meantime, Toomer and Hilliard stand around and wait.

"I don't see anyone getting frustrated or complaining," Manning said. "We have a lot of skill on the offense, a lot of playmakers in Amani, Ike and Shockey and they want the ball. They are used to getting the ball a lot and they haven't had that this year. Some of that is on me. When we have opportunities to get them the ball, it's up to me to put it in their hands."

Prior to playing the Ravens, they had combined for 82 catches in 12 games. Derrick Mason of the Titans and Joe Horn of the Saints led the NFL before last weekend's games with 76 each. They were just two of the 40 players in the league with more catches than Toomer (44), who was second to Shockey (47) on the team. Hilliard had only 38.

There's more: Toomer and Hilliard had 100 receptions after only 11 games in 2003 and Toomer has caught at least 72 in each season since 1999, including a team-high 82 in 2002. He's also had at least 1,054 receiving yards in each of the last five seasons.

But the most startling aspect of their season has been the lack of touchdowns. Both went to Baltimore looking for their first of the season. Toomer had 36 touchdowns in the last six seasons. Hilliard has had 27.

"It's tough to get through, but you need to look at the circumstances," Toomer said. "I have had 1,000-yard seasons, but it wasn't totally because of me and it would be naïve of me to believe it was. The supporting cast needs to be there, but I'm happy for that time and happy I was able to do the things I did. Now it's more of a challenge.

"We know there's a lot going on with the offense, not just with the receivers. There's not one real group that's doing their job as well as they like. It's a team game and the team is struggling. And when the team is struggling, you're going to take a closer look at all of the individuals."

Toomer has been hampered with a hamstring injury that's made effective route running somewhat challenging. His 48-yard catch in the final three minutes at Washington Dec. 5 was his longest of the season. In each of the last five years, he's had at least one catch for over 50 and has had scores from 82 and 77 the last two years.

"I've been limited the last couple of weeks and that's hurt," Toomer said. "But I feel like every time I run a route you've got an opportunity to do something with it. And at times this year I have and others I haven't. It's a frustrating situation. There's no doubt about it. The only positive thing is we have time to do it."

Hilliard's lack of production has been even more apparent. Traditionally the team's big third-down threat, he did not make a catch against the Eagles Nov. 28, just the second time in his career he's been shut out.

"It's frustrating when you don't do things as an offense. You need to go out and believe you can be successful on every play and every drive. We both know what we've been able to bring to the table. We feel like we still can do it," Hilliard said. "But I'm not getting into personal or individual things. I'm not a selfish person. I don't get off on why they don't throw me the ball. I'm not going to throw tantrums. We have been and always will be concerned about getting wins here.

"I don't believe I've ever presented the idea that I'm concerned with personal goals during my career. I really don't care how many balls I catch, how many touchdowns I have. What I want to do is contribute to a victory and it's obvious I haven't been doing enough to make that happen."

Their teammates understand something is not right. Tiki Barber, in the midst of his finest season and so dependant on a complementary passing attack to open his gaps, can't believe what he's seen.

"We have to make it better. It's our job to do it. They don't pay us to sit here and concede losing," Barber said. "What's happened with Amani and Ike is very shocking to me. They are dependable and effective receivers and we have done nothing to get them going."

At some point, Coughlin and Hufnagel may be forced to compromise their logical desire to run first and throw later. More than anything, Coughlin is a guy who cares about controlling the line of scrimmage.

"The continuity and consistency are just not there," Coughlin said. "Nobody works harder than John Hufnagel. Obviously, there aren't many results now so everything comes under scrutiny. That's the nature of the business. But what I tell the player is, you've got to fight. It's not easy, but don't let anyone break your spirit."

Toomer and Hilliard seem willing to buy into the philosophy. But sooner or later, their teammates will have to make their situations better, too.

"We're in the NFL for a reason," Luke Petitgout said. "The league prides itself on good teams finding a way to win. It doesn't matter who is in there. We need to step up and stop embarrassing ourselves."

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