New York Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck has already had the kind of career that many NFL players would love as a full-stop proposition. He's got rings from Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, and it could easily be argued that he could have been the MVP of each game. The third-round pick out of the Notre Dame in the 2005 NFL draft has enjoyed three seasons with 10 or more quarterback sacks, which is specifically impressive because he does most of his work as a defensive tackle. He signed a five-year, $30 million contract extension in 2008, and if he has a good-to-great season in 2013, the then-31-year-old could see another big payday -- with the Giants, or possibly elsewhere.
That said, it's not his prior achievements that have burdened Tuck's mind this offseason -- he's far more concerned with his ability to bounce back from two straight down years in which he missed a total of seven games, and amassed just nine sacks combined. He's at the age where some pass-rushers start to decline, but Tuck isn't convinced that Father Time is the problem. He's done everything this offseason from consulting with motivational speaker and performance coach Tony Robbins, to cutting down on his media and endorsement obligations.
There's a lot of emphasis on rebounding from a disappointing 2012, which is interesting in that the Giants went 9-7 in each of the last two years. One season ended with a Lombardi Trophy, and the next campaign concluded with a frustrating time at home for the playoffs. That's how fine the line between greatness and anonymity can be in the NFL, and Tuck is hyper-aware of that fact.
"I don't think I've played as consistently as I've wanted to," Tuck told Shutdown Corner this week, during a short media blitz for Gillette at the concept shop STORY in New York City. "A lot of times, numbers are the first things people look at, which really doesn't tell the story, but I'm my biggest critic. I know the quality of football player I am, and what I can do to help the team out., The Super Bowl year and deep into other years, I was battling injuries on and off, but I'd say that I can be my own worst critic. I haven't played anywhere near where I wanted to play, and I hope this year changes all that."
Though Tuck's sack numbers stayed pretty much the same from 2011 to 2012 (from 5.0 to 4.0) his hurries declined from 15.5 in 2011 to 10.5 in 2012, per Football Outsiders' game charting. There have been some shakeups along that formerly awesome defensive line beyond Tuck's struggles -- Osi Umenyiora signed with the Atlanta Falcons, Jason Pierre-Paul is still recovering from back surgery, and the Giants have moved Mathias Kiwanuka from linebacker back to end, where he played from 2006 through 2010. In addition, the draft selections of Texas A&M end Damontre Moore and Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins speak to the need to get younger along that front. Tuck told me that while he likes how the new kids look, there are always adjustments when you hit the NFL.
"The biggest thing is that you're playing against All-Americans every game," Tuck said. "There are comparable talents in the SEC, and Ohio State with what they're doing with their football program, but in the NFL, every play and every down, you're going up against somebody who really knows what they're doing. So, your technique has to be almost flawless. These guards and tackles are so good, and they're going to do everything in their power to mess up your technique. You don't win just on power in the NFL -- you can't just be a natural. All the guys are naturals, and you have to do it from the neck up."
So, he's happy about the Giants' future, even though there have been some serious changes. "It's going pretty good," Tuck said of his team's offseason. "We lost a key to our previous success when Osi went to Atlanta, but we have some talent at new places, like Kiwanuka, and it's a good opportunity for a lot of the new guys to step up. We still feel very confident in what we can do on that defensive line."
Even for the Giants' defensive players, that confidence in the overall team has to start with quarterback Eli Manning, who has become a relative bastion of consistency at the game's most important position after some iffy early seasons. I asked Tuck about the difference between the younger Manning now, and the kid who just used to be Peyton's little brother.
"He's not the little brother anymore -- he's Eli Manning, and that's a good reason," Tuck said about Manning's current inner calm. "His confidence level is sky-high, and playing in New York, that's one of the biggest things he has is that he doesn't care what people say -- he just goes out there and does it -- plays the game at a very high level. That's one of the things that winning Super Bowls did for him -- he's not concerned with what other people think of him; he's just trying to make the plays that will make us a winning football team."
And what about that meeting with Robbins, where Tuck walked fire and ostensibly learned a bit more about himself? For the nine-year veteran, the key to success has to come from within, and Robbins reminded him of that.
"We have a mutual friend, and that mutual friend basically gave me no choice but to go," Tuck recalled. "The thing I learned from him is that you have to be yourself. Don't get caught up in what other people's expectations are. As long as you're fulfilling your own expectations, and doing the things you want to do, that's the best way."
That's a good start. In a contract year, and with a team that must do better in 2013 to avoid some major shakeups, Justin Tuck can only hope for e better finish.
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