Lockers cleaned out

It's gonna be a long offseason now, you know? I just wanna get back in camp and get going again. That's our job to play football. When you're not playing football, you're kind of lost." - Rich Seubert

They've retreated to such far-off outposts as Ada, Okla., Brundidge, Ala., McKeesport, Pa., Orange, Texas, and Rozellville, Wisc., but these disgusted Giants understand that they cannot hide from the historic, horrific "Debacle By The Bay."

To a man, the ugly images will replay through their minds as often as a "SpongeBob SquarePants" videotape in a house full of children. And one of the few current Giants that survived the embarrassing Minnesota nightmare five years ago knows that the extremely tart aftertaste from their 39-38 playoff defeat to San Francisco won't wash away entirely until the Giants get another chance to win in the postseason, preferably against those same stubborn Niners.

"Those kinds of things carry over until you get a chance to redeem yourself," tailback Tiki Barber said, noting the Giants' pummeling of the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game three years after that first colossal collapse in a Wild Card game. "But you're not guaranteed anything in this league, so you never know when you'll get another chance."

They thought that their invitation to the NFC's parity party could eventually earn them an opportunity to avenge a lopsided loss two years ago to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV. They'll have to wait at least another year to earn that shot, but their 86-year-old owner thinks they might just get that opportunity a little more than a year from now.

"I remember after losing to the Bears (21-0) in (the) 1985 (NFC Divisional Playoffs)," Wellington Mara said, "and I remember (Bill) Parcells talking to the team and he saying, ‘It was a tough loss, and I feel especially bad for Harry Carson and George Martin. And I'm gonna promise them now that we will win the Super Bowl next year.' I'm not saying that (we'll win Super Bowl XXXVIII), but I feel now much the way I did then. I can't wait for the season to start, because I think we have something to start with, and we'll have to be reckoned with."

Mara's optimism is understandable. The Giants will bring back one of the league's most fearsome foursomes on offense in Barber, quarterback Kerry Collins, tight end Jeremy Shockey and receiver Amani Toomer. They'll also bring back a sound defense, presumably with a healthy Keith Hamilton at right defensive tackle.

They'll also have an ample amount of cap space come March, so General Manager Ernie Accorsi can address needy areas without penny-pinching, as he was forced to do last off-season. But none of those positive points can console them in the interim.

An ominous admission by Mike Pereira, the NFL's Director of Officiating, won't help their recovery, either. They know left guard Rich Seubert was an eligible receiver on that chaotic, conclusive play, and that Niners end Chike Okeafor should've been flagged for interference. But they weren't offered a chance to board another airliner for San Francisco, and Matt Bryant cannot attempt a deserved second chance at that 41-yard field goal, so they couldn't care less.

"It does us no good," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "It doesn't do us a damn bit of good. It is water under the bridge. It was pass interference. It was clearly pass interference. How they missed that I do not know."

What will be more difficult to figure out is how the typically stingy Giants defense allowed the Niners to score 25 unanswered points in 19:27 to complete the second biggest comeback in the history of the NFL postseason.

"Some of the stuff is like a blur, because it happened so fast," left cornerback Will Allen said. "I'm still trying to figure out what happened."

Allen and his teammates admitted that they'd spend much of their offseason dissecting the devastating downfall in slow motion. "Probably a month after, it won't get any easier," right cornerback Will Peterson said. "We've still gotta watch TV and see it every day. And we've still gotta hear it every day. And moreso, a lot of players are harder on ourselves than anyone can be on them. I'm one of those players, so I'll think about this for a long time."

Eventually they'll reflect on what happened prior to their nightmarish meltdown, how they overcame consecutive setbacks against Houston and Tennessee to win their final four games and finish 10-6. But this wide wound will heal very slowly.

"It's gonna be a long offseason now, you know?" Seubert said. "I just wanna get back in camp and get going again. That's our job to play football. When you're not playing football, you're kind of lost."

Still, Seubert sees the unfathomable loss as a potential positive.

"We finished up 10-7, had a winning record, improved from last year a little bit and got into the playoffs," he said. "I think (the loss) is really gonna help in the offseason. Everybody's gonna be working a little harder, because this game isn't gonna go away for a while. We're gonna have a little burn in our side."

But the Giants aren't scheduled to report for offseason conditioning until March 28. That means more than two months remain before they can seriously start to place significant separation between this disappointment and next season. Before then they'll have to watch other teams contend for a championship they thought they could capture.

"That's the thing that hurts so much," strong safety Shaun Williams said. "I'm ready to play another game, but there's not another one to play."

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