Wideout left out?

It had to happen, even if by mistake. A defensive back falls down. The game is decided and the defense has fallen asleep. The ball is deflected and winds up in his arms. A play is executed to perfection and the pass finds its way into the end zone. Venus and Jupiter align with Mars.

It had to happen because it always does. Right?

Not always. That Ike Hilliard played in all 16 games for the Giants, that Amani Toomer played in 15 games, that neither one of the starting receivers managed to score a single touchdown all season was the statistic of the year. There are loads of incriminating numbers and evidence as to why the Giants finished 6-10 in Tom Coughlin's first year as the head coach. Turnovers. Penalties. Short-yardage. But does anything state the case as loud and clear as the fact that these two veterans, with a combined 17 years in the NFL and 64 touchdowns, could go play after play, game after game, month after month and finish up an entire season without once hauling in a scoring pass?

Toomer had 51 receptions this season, his lowest output since he became a starter back in 1999. Hilliard had 49 catches, playing in all 16 games for only the second time in his eight-year career with the Giants. In the AFC, the top 26 pass-catchers all managed at least one touchdown. In the NFC, the top 20 in receptions all had at least one scoring catch. Teammates combining for exactly 100 catches without scoring a touchdown is unheard of, an historic lack of production at a position that is almost always measured first and foremost by production.

Is it any wonder that when the Giants sit down and draw up their most-wanted list for the 2005 season, a speed receiver will be one of the priorities? Tim Carter and Jamaar Taylor fit that description but both are coming off injury-filled seasons.

Hilliard came the closest to scoring, as he was tackled at the 1-yard line after a 15-yard reception against the Steelers. Tiki Barber ran it in for a touchdown on the next play. The starting receivers never got that close again.

Deciphering what this means can be a time-consuming job. The easy answer is that after many years of service, Toomer, 30, and Hilliard, 28, are on the downside of their careers and cannot function the way they used to. There is probably some truth to that assessment but there is no way both players have fallen off so dramatically that neither is a useful player any longer.

"I don't think they are at end of their careers,'' general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "I think that they both have productive years ahead. That is an area we have to be concerned with but I don't think that their careers are over.''

Toomer and Hilliard will both argue long and hard that their failings had more to do with the sorry state of the entire passing attack than any individual breakdowns they may have experienced. Kurt Warner attained a quarterback rating of 86.5 in his nine starts but clearly he was learning a new system and was never fully comfortable. Toomer midway through the season strained a hamstring and battled through the injury until he finally gave in and sat out the last game of the regular season. When Manning replaced Warner, it was Passing Game 101 for the entire team, with the rookie learning on the fly and mostly falling flat on his face in the first four games he started. Manning endured the typical painful early lessons before he finally started to get it right in the last three games of the season, culminating with a three-touchdown performance in a 28-24 victory over the Cowboys that finally ended a dreadful eight-game losing streak.

There doesn't seem to be any way the Giants bring both Toomer and Hilliard back. Coughlin presumably likes Hilliard's locker room presence and no-complaint approach. Coughlin also presumably grew fed up with Toomer's extended bad mood throughout the season. Toomer's 2005 salary is $1.99 million and cutting him would result in a salary cap hit of $5.7 million. Hilliard will earn $1.5 million and the salary cap cost of cutting him would be $3 million.

"I'm not even gonna talk about next year,'' Hilliard said politely but firmly on the day the Giants cleaned out their lockers and parted ways. "Right now I'm under contract, that's all that needs to be talked about. The stats speak for themselves and it's up to you guys to evaluate that situation however you want to evaluate it.''

Toomer got into a verbal scrap with Joe Benigno, his co-host on a weekly radio show, when Benigno casually said Toomer was in the second-tier group of receivers in the NFL, behind the elite players such as Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison. In Toomer's view, it is the system that defines those players. Toomer feels if he played for the Greatest Show on Turf Rams he'd put up similar numbers to those amassed by Isaac Bruce. Clearly, Toomer has a high regard for his ability.

When the Giants were mired in their eight-game skid, the search was on for someone, anyone to make a play. "I think we're in position to make 'em, it's just not happening,'' Toomer said at the time. "As far as not being good enough, I don't think anybody would be in this locker room if they weren't good enough.''

Hilliard also believes he can provide more than he gave the Giants this season. He doesn't believe he's washed up.

"I'm only 28, man, don't come at me with that,'' Hilliard said. "Granted, I've had seven surgeries but none of them are putting me in a situation where they're gonna slow me down. There may be some family members that want me to consider it but it's not happening on this end. I still love the game, love to compete, and that's what it's all about. I want to play four, five more years, ultimately that's not up to me.''

It's up to the Giants. For one of these longtime Giants, the ride will likely be over sometime soon.


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