Amani Anxious to Return

Steve Smith has watched plenty of game film since the Giants selected him in the second round of the NFL Draft two months ago.

The traits that make Plaxico Burress "a beast" often jump off the screen. Amani Toomer's skills are less obvious, but Smith realized pretty quickly that Toomer, too, "toys" with defenders more often than not. He hasn't seen one of Toomer's demonstrations in person, though, because the Giants' all-time leading receiver has been limited to individual drills while his surgically repaired left knee completely heals.

Toomer's team-mandated limitations have given Smith more reps during "voluntary" organized team activities and minicamp practices, but the long-range goal is to have Toomer groom Smith to be his replacement. Smith admits Toomer has already been extremely helpful in the film room and on the sidelines, but everyone involved realizes that there is no suitable substitute for live action if the former Southern Cal standout is to start absorbing everything Toomer has learned throughout his 11-year career.

"Amani is really patient out there," said Smith, who will primarily play the same ‘Z' receiver position as Toomer. "He really knows the game, has a whole lot of knowledge and he uses that to his advantage."

Toomer's patience is being tested as you read this.

He feels like he is about "90 percent" healthy and wants to start testing the strength in his left knee, in which he tore the anterior cruciate ligament during a Nov. 5 victory over Houston. The Giants, however, have understandably been cautious in determining Toomer's timetable for a full-fledged return to the field.

"I think I can do a lot more than they're letting me right now," Toomer said following the Giants' final official minicamp practice last month. "But it'll all come out in training camp. We'll see what I can and can't do."

Tom Coughlin's preliminary plan is to limit Toomer to one practice per day once the Giants arrive in Albany, N.Y., where training camp is scheduled to begin on July 27. No veteran player in his right mind would complain about avoiding two-a-days, but Toomer admits that this training camp has more meaning than the last nine in which he has participated.

The 32-year-old Toomer remembers making many mistakes the last time he was recovering from a torn ACL, and he is anxious to prepare properly for the 2007 season. After surgery to repair his right ACL around the midway mark of his rookie season, Toomer stopped aggressively rehabilitating his knee once it started to feel normal. The mistake made his knee sore as training camp continued in 1997 and the physical limitations helped make Toomer's second season with the Giants largely forgettable (16 catches for 263 yards and one touchdown).

"In the beginning of training camp of my second year, I did really well," said Toomer, a second-round draft choice in 1996. "But as the training camp wore on, my knee started getting weaker and weaker and I started going downhill. So now I know what I have to do to keep my body strong and my knee strong, so I can sustain the whole four weeks up there in Albany."

It took two more years following that substandard second season for Toomer to become the go-to receiver in Jim Fassel's offense, but he has since set the franchise's all-time mark for receptions (561). That accomplishment aside, the former Michigan star isn't ready to play a secondary role just yet. The Giants have drafted receivers in the second rounds of the last two drafts and his production started decreasing the season before Burress arrived, but Toomer is intent to prove that this latest knee injury was simply an impediment, not cause to start planning his retirement party.

And in addition to remembering how to properly maintain strength in his knee, the 6-3, 203-pound Toomer has also recalled recently how much he actually loves even the most monotonous things about being a professional football player.

"I just really didn't know how much I enjoyed going out there every day, competing every day," Toomer said. "Because when you can't compete, there's like a void. So it's definitely something I'm going to have to learn how to do when I eventually retire in a couple years. But right now, I feel like I could still go and I'm going to keep on going as long as I can."

Burress, for one, hopes Toomer can keep playing at paces he set in 2005 and 2006 for as long as they're teammates. Burress realized immediately after Toomer went down just how valuable he is to their offense. Prior to their home defeat to Chicago on Nov. 12, Burress believed he'd have to "step up a little bit more" without Toomer, but left Giants Stadium that night with an even healthier appreciation for the injured Toomer.

"That first game after he went down," Burress recalled, "I went out there and I was like, ‘Man, I didn't know it was going to be this tough.' It just shows a lot about him and what respect teams have for him. … It's tough for people like me because he's one of the guys we depend on on the offensive side to go out and make plays. He's a crafty player. He's not one of the flashiest or fastest players out there, but he's a veteran, he knows how to play the game and he makes plays. I missed him more than anybody last year when he went down. So I'm just looking forward to having him back and us working together, going out and doing great things."

Toomer can't wait, either.

"It's been pretty tough, standing on the side," Toomer said. "But it's part of the game. If you play long enough, you know that at one point you're going to be on the side watching, that you're not going to be healthy enough to play. So I'm just kind of taking my lumps right now and when I get the opportunity to get back on the field I'm going to do my thing."

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