Foolish Giants should know no Tiki means no W

Every so often, the Giants forget about Tiki Barber. Happens just about every season, sometimes twice. The memory loss doesn't last long and soon enough Barber is back doing what he does best, which is fuel the Giants offense better than anyone else.

Maybe these lapses are understandable. As well-spoken as Barber is, he doesn't say much in and around the locker room, he's not a rah-rah guy in and out of huddles and the next ripple in the water he causes will be his first. He can slide in and out quickly enough, doesn't announce his entrance or his exit and doesn't preen or do the other outrageous stuff that gets one noticed.

On second thought, maybe these lapses are unfathomable. Barber is the franchise career-rushing leader, he's surpassed the lofty goals set for him, achieving more season after season than even the Giants expected. He evolved into someone believed to be able to complement an offense into a player the Giants have built their entire attack around. Yet every so often, the Giants veer from their grand design and push Barber onto the backburner. Invariably, all it takes is a jarring loss to shock everyone back to their senses and soon enough Barber is back at the hub of an offense that always purrs along more comfortably with him as the centerpiece.

There the Giants were again, coming out of their bye and engaged in a tussle with the Cowboys at Texas Stadium, and everything was out of synch. One of the certainties of football life is that the Giants will struggle after their week off and this was the case once more.

On the game's first play, Barber got the call and gained four yards, which is considered a positive play for the offense. Two pass plays followed, netting a total of two yards, and the Giants punted the ball away. So it went for nearly the entire game, with the Giants going a miserable 1-of-11 on third-down conversions and Barber treated more like an afterthought than a marquee attraction. The Giants awakened too late to prevent a 16-13 overtime loss to the Cowboys and afterward, Barber felt too physically fresh for his liking. He averaged a robust 4.6 yards per carry yet he had only 14 rushing attempts. No wonder he admitted he felt "sickened'' with the way the Giants with all their offensive talent could look so rotten and waste an opportunity to win an important NFC East game.

On paper, Barber's start to the season is nothing to worry about. In the first five games, he had 88 rushing attempts for 397 yards and three touchdowns, which stretched out over an entire season translates into 282 carries for 1,270 yards and 10 touchdowns. Not up to the record-breaking standard he established in 2004 (322 carries, 1,518 yards, 13 touchdowns) but certainly acceptable, considering the improved play from Eli Manning at the quarterback position.

On a team with Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress, Barber isn't the only one who commands the ball, but he's the main man in the running game and history has shown that the more he gets it, the better the Giants operate. Even if sometimes they forget that.

"It's easy on Monday to look back and say we should run the ball more,'' coach Tom Coughlin said.

Quite easy. Also fairly obvious. On an afternoon when Manning clearly had no rhythm and his receivers were having a tough time getting open, Barber was the Giants' best option.

"I think we all would agree we would have liked to run the ball more,'' said center Shaun O'Hara, speaking for himself and the entire offensive line. "After watching the tape the coaches and players agreed we need to use the running game a little more.''

The success Manning had firing the ball around against the Chargers and Rams no doubt deluded the Giants into thinking they could take to the air whenever they pleased. You would think they'd know better.

"Everybody loves a great passing game,'' Barber said, "but it's not what wins football games. What wins is balance.''

You always know when Barber is frustrated. In Dallas, he slammed his helmet to the turf after yet another three-and-out by the offense. He spoke in clipped, terse sentences immediately following the game and the next day would not engage in a Give Me The Ball campaign. He called such talk "a slippery slope'' and insisted "I decline to step on that one.'' He did say, "It's not a blow to my ego because all I want to do is win. But I'll say this ... they're paying me a lot of money to carry the ball 14 times a game.''

Anyone sensing impatience would be correct. There's no time to waste for Barber, who at 30 years old sees the light at the end of his playing tunnel. The contract extension he recently signed runs through the 2008 season and he figures that will be it for him. It's been his desire to go out maintaining a place of prominence within the offense.

Earlier this season, the Giants faced the Rams and Barber had his best game, rushing for 128 yards. He did it in front of the Rams' Marshall Faulk, the running back he emulates most of all.

"He's a do-everything back, and that's what I fashion myself as,'' Barber said. "Last year he recognized the team was looking for a different guy and he was accepting of that. You have to commend the guy who sacrifices his ego for the benefit of the team.''

Faulk is now a part-time player. "I can't say I never want to be in that kind of role,'' Barber said. "It obviously happens if you want to keep playing, you know in your heart you're not the athlete you were and you're man enough to say that then you can do that. I don't know what's going to happen in my career. We'll see.''

At some point, Barber may accept a diminished role for the good of the team. But not now. Not yet, as long as the Giants don't forget about him.

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