As Camp Opens,can Giants Shake Ghost of Plax?

ALBANY – Nobody needs to remind the Giants of the massive opportunity they missed last season. They went from the best team in football to any old playoff team to – boom! – a one-and-out invitee compliments of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Nope. Nobody need tell the Giants that they could have celebrated a second straight Super Bowl title. Check that – should have celebrated a second straight title.

Coach Tom Coughlin calls it remorse for opportunity lost." The Giants had a lot of remorse. And they've had more than 200 days to bite, chew and spit out the dismal conclusion to the season.

On Sunday morning, Aug. 2, they arrived in their Freedom Hall dorm at SUNY-Albany to officially start the season of redemption. They arrived in all manners of style and fashion, from linebacker Danny Clark, dressed in fatigues, pulling up in a Smart car, to the usual collection of fancy T-shirts and boat-sized SUVs.

"I don't want to talk about that and dwell on that," Brandon Jacobs said when someone mentioned the playoff exit, "because that's a sickening feeling." Sickening is as good a word as any to describe the Giants' untimely departure from the 2008 season. Fans talk all the time about the knot that forms in their bellies during the final moments of a lost season. But losing when you just know your team's the best carries a whole other layer of hurt. Making matters even worse is being able to pin the collapse on two hare-brained decisions by Plaxico Burress: walking into Manhattan's Latin Quarter with an unregistered gun a couple hours past midnight Nov. 29, and managing to accidentally discharge it.

So the Giants are here to get back what they believe should have never left their grasp: the Vince Lombardi trophy.

Yet lurking in the background, still peering as a Giant symbol of the team's downfall, stood Burress. He wasn't at Freedom Hall, of course, released by the Giants in April. He just showed up in the form of ex-teammate Antonio Pierce.

At least Pierce told us he was arriving – via that cutting-edge journalistic tool, Twitter – in the state capital. He didn't show for the 90-minute media chase. And anybody who has ever experienced a few moments with the chatty linebacker knows his absence was as hard on him as it was on us.

Pierce presumably figured to avoid being inundated with questions about two days of testimony before a grand jury investigating a gun charge against Burress. Now Pierce waits to find out whether he will be charged in the case as well.

So Burress has managed to become the rare player who can distract a team no longer employing him. Right now there's only the potential for distraction. Only if Pierce faces an undeserved indictment does everything change: his playing status, the void in productivity and leadership that would accompany his absence. But there's no doubt the case hung over Freedom Hall, far more ominous than the rain clouds clenching their teeth in the morning breeze.

"We can't worry about anything going on with Antonio," Jacobs said. "We don't have any control of that here. We have to get ready for the grind." When another ambitious reporter asked if Burress could continue to haunt the Giants, a frustrated Jacobs slowed his speech for effect, repeating, "We... are... here... getting... ready... for... the... grind."

Defensive end Osi Umenyiora, whose preseason knee injury made for a different kind of lost season in '08, was asked about the shadow of Plax. "If I sit here and say what I really want to say (about the Burress case hanging over the team), I'm going to get in a lot of trouble," Umenyiora said. "So I'm going to keep quiet on that one."

You can bet Umenyiora and teammates are showing a lot less restraint away from media earshot. They publicly supported Plax while he collected Giants paychecks. But even his most loyal friends on the team must be shaking their head these days.

"I like that people are counting us out this year because we don't have Plaxico," Jacobs said.

The truth is that these Giants look a lot like the 2008 team. Both lines are among the best in the sport, Umenyiora's return like an actual Pro Bowler being culled from the draft. The running backs, despite losing Derrick Ward to Tampa Bay via free agency, will be as deep as ever with Ahmad Bradshaw and Danny Ware having increased roles. The secondary is really good and the quarterback – remember that guy, Eli Manning – should, and must, improve through experience.

The biggest question, of course, is who will fill the void at receiver left by Burress. Steve Smith is the logical candidate, as it stands the team's best receiver. Rookie Hakeem Nicks will have to contribute. Domenik Hixon and Mario Manningham will have to give the Giants more production, and it sure would be nice to see Sinorice Moss in the end zone instead of the trainer's room.

General manager Jerry Reese reminds us that teams have won Super Bowls without bona fide No. 1 receivers. And he has a point. Maybe the best example is New England's run of three titles in four seasons minus a star wideout.

Unfortunately, it's not the kind of ironclad argument you'd bring into, say, a courtroom, where Plax and Pierce serve as reminders of last season's pain and this season's promise.

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