AS THE Giants
have discovered, there are at least two ways a star player can react when he's
forced by injury to miss his team's championship run. One is to spend his time
off the field compiling a list of grievances about everything from his role in
his unit's scheme to the fact that his team didn't pay for his plane ticket to
the Super Bowl—and to become so embittered that the club is left with little
choice but to trade him for two draft picks just before the start of training
camp. Call it the Shockey way.
Then there's the
Kiwanuka way. Linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka fractured his left fibula last Nov.
18, one month before tight end Jeremy Shockey, who's now a Saint, suffered an
identical injury. Like Shockey, Kiwanuka struggled to come to terms with the
fact that the Giants won Super Bowl XLII without him. "It was a very
emotional experience," Kiwanuka says. "I couldn't have been more proud
of being a part of this team, but it was heartbreaking not being out there for
what would have been the biggest game of my career."
Unlike his former
teammate, however, Kiwanuka, 25, channeled that emotion toward something
constructive. The Giants had converted the 6'5", 265-pound defensive end
into a strongside linebacker before the 2007 season, and both he and general
manager Jerry Reese admit he struggled at first. "When you've played with
your hand on the ground your whole career, then you back up and stand up, it's
a tough adjustment," says Reese. "Early on you could see him way out of
position, overrunning things." Kiwanuka—whom teammates call simply Kiwi—was
just beginning to get the hang of his new position when his leg snapped in a
game against the Lions. Rather than sulking, Kiwanuka exploited his recovery
time to master the intricacies of his new position. "I watched all the film
I could," he says. "I wasn't walking. I wasn't doing anything [else].
There's no doubt I've improved."
That was readily
apparent at Giants camp in Albany, N.Y., particularly in pass coverage.
Sharpened by film-room study, Kiwanuka's awareness of where he should position
himself is now allowing him to use what coach Tom Coughlin jokingly calls his
"27-foot arms" to knock down passes as far as 35 yards downfield.
Coughlin singled Kiwanuka out for praise after several sessions.
skills that made Kiwanuka the final pick of the 2006 first round looked as
formidable as ever in camp—and his contribution on that front will be essential
now, with the retirement of Michael Strahan and the season-ending knee injury
suffered by Osi Umenyiora on Aug. 23; those two defensive ends combined for 22
sacks in 2007. On passing downs Kiwanuka will most likely join defensive end
Justin Tuck on the line in coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's attacking system.
As the line
brings the pressure, the secondary should be waiting to take advantage. There,
Spagnuolo has a new toy to play with in rookie Kenny Phillips, the Miami
product who looks poised to continue the school's tradition of producing
game-changing, Pro Bowl safeties (see: Ed Reed and the late Sean Taylor). The
Giants felt like Ralphie Parker on Christmas morning when Phillips fell to them
at the end of the first round. He looks significantly bigger than his listed
6'2" and 210 pounds, and he drew nothing but raves in camp for his play in
pass coverage and run support. While he might not start Week 1, Reese says,
"he should be a big-timer for us."
The Giants won
one of the most improbable championships in NFL history last season, when a
host of formerly unheralded players became big-timers. They'll need more of the
same in 2008, from the likes of Kiwanuka and Phillips. A schedule that's fairly
soft through the first two months of the season should help propel New York to
a wild-card spot. And as the Giants showed last season, after that anything can
STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH TOM COUGHLIN (103--89 in NFL), fifth
season with Giants