Merely a shadow…

You know you need to be there by 1 p.m., sharp, and if you're not, you risk missing the start of the meeting. You've done the drive quite often during the past 14 years. You know the route, the speed traps. The directions are ingrained in your memory.

You know you need to put aside at least one hour for the trip to arrive with plenty of time to spare. This time, however, you allot a mere 15 minutes and, quite predictably, you get to your destination far too late, not really ready for your presentation, not nearly as prepared as those around you. You have let the company down.

Welcome to the world of Michael Strahan, the famous member of the New York Giants who held hostage the training camp spotlight this past summer without ever stepping foot on campus of the University at Albany. It was Strahan who decided to stay away, to miss every single camp practice and all four preseason games. It was Strahan who put his name to an open letter addressed to the fans of the team, explaining his difficult decision-making process that kept him out of camp and kept him in his new home in sunny Southern California. It was Strahan who said he was seriously considering retirement and it was Strahan who insisted that his "break,'' as he called it, was never about the desire to extract more money from the Giants as the holdout reached an unmanageable 36 days.

And, lest we forget, it was Strahan who seven days before the season-opener in Dallas finally made his way to Giants Stadium, fully knowing that all he would get was four full practice sessions before he took the field at Texas Stadium. It was enough time, Strahan insisted, to get back to work, get out the kinks, shake off the rust and assume his rightful place at left defensive end within the Giants offense.

It worked out that way but that doesn't mean Strahan did not miscalculate. Sure, he started against the Cowboys and he started in the home opener against the Packers. After the right defensive end, Osi Umenyiora, was forced out against the Cowboys with a knee injury just five plays into the season, Strahan was forced to stay on the field for more snaps than anyone imagined.

Mixed into the defensive slop that allowed the Cowboys to ring up 45 points, Strahan was no factor. Clearly not ready to compete at such a high level, Strahan managed just two assisted tackles and never once came close to endangering Dallas quarterback Tony Romo.

This was a 35-year-old player who looked as if he missed all of training camp, yet Strahan would not budge when it came to leaning on that explanation.

"It's nothing to do with the conditioning or the running or being in shape or the strength and all that, that stuff is not a problem at all,'' Strahan said. "It's just the contact, hitting each other and getting double-teamed and getting chipped, getting knocked down, getting back up, making tackles, your body has to get used to that contact.''

This was precisely the anticipated result, as all the time Strahan missed cost him the repeated repetitions in full pads, getting hit, giving hits, making tackles, engaging in all the football activity that cannot be simulated working out on any treadmill or running on any beach.

The second game produced similar results. This time, with Umenyiora making a swift recovery and taking his place in the starting lineup, Strahan had his running mate at the other end spot and again did little to inspire anyone. It is never a good sign when Strahan comes away from a game with as many tackles (one) as Eli Manning. The one pass defense he was credited for came when he dropped in coverage and Brett Favre threw the ball right into his hands. Strahan could not hold on for the interception and the Giants could hold on to little else as a second-half collapse paved the way for a 35-13 loss.

"I've seen worse,'' Strahan said of a defense that allowed 80 points in the first two games, both losses. "It just takes one game to build your confidence. The key thing is don't panic. Did we play the way we wanted to play or expected to play? Absolutely not. It's all how you handle after the fact. No hope is lost here. We're professionals, you take your whipping like a man, we took our whipping last week but the one thing you can't do is quit.''

In two games, Strahan did not get a sniff of a sack and the evidence mounted that his holdout had robbed him of his effectiveness.

Nothing that transpired with Strahan came as a surprise, probably not even to himself. As confident as Strahan is in his ability and his physical shape, even he had to acknowledge deep inside that he could not expect to walk on the field after missing so much practice time and immediately become an impact player.

No doubt, Tom Coughlin and the entire Giants front office knew this as well, which is why the seven-week holdout was so frustrating to the team.

"I think you have to be realistic,'' Coughlin said. "As exceptional a football player as he is, he had no work until he got here. To expect that there wouldn't be some time involved in the process I think is a little bit unrealistic. He is in the process; that is all I can say.''

During the entire unseemly holdout process, the Giants largely took the high road, always acknowledging they wanted Strahan back and biting their lips when it came to criticizing his actions. "Remember what we said when he did come in, that was in the past and we are going forward, let's go,'' Coughlin said. "It still doesn't mean that you are going to be unrealistic of what you are going to see for a while. To be honest with you, he has done an outstanding job. His post-game, he doesn't seem to be fatigued, he doesn't seem to be overly sore, and from that standpoint he has done well.''

Strahan said he took a look at tape of himself facing the Redskins last year and decided "I realized I just need to get a little more aggressive. That is one of the hardest things to pick up when you haven't played or practiced, just the aggressive nature of the game. I feel good, I can't lie to you and tell you I don't.''

As Strahan showed in the first two games, feeling good doesn't necessarily translate into playing well.

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