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WHEN THE details of his recent medical history are accounted for, strong safety Kenny Phillips's nickname sounds almost cruel. Superman shouldn't fall victim to a degenerative knee condition called patellofemoral arthritis; shouldn't slip off in the middle of autumn to visit noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews for microfracture surgery; shouldn't miss the final 14 games of his sophomore NFL season. So consider it a credit to the 23-year-old Phillips—the player the Giants arguably missed most amid their embarrassing, anticlimactic, injury-marred 2009 campaign—that when his teammates yell, "Superman is back!" on a practice field in Albany one summer day, it doesn't sound like taunting but rather hope.
That was the last emotion the Giants' 2009 season inspired. New York got off to a 5--0 start but collapsed after that as the nicked-up defense—six key contributors missed at least three games; defensive linemen Justin Tuck and Rocky Bernard played the whole season with shoulder injuries—yielded 427 points, second most in team history and the third most in the league. Notably, the Giants also gave up the second-most touchdown passes in the NFL. As if an exclamation point were needed, New York closed the season with a 41--9 blowout loss to the Panthers, who rushed for 247 yards in the Giants' final game at their eponymous stadium, and a 44--7 thrashing by the Vikings, who threw for 358 yards. It left the kind of stink that lingers. "It stays with you pretty good," coach Tom Coughlin said at the start of camp. "It kind of eats away at you."
While it may seem impossible to identify any one turning point, the loss of the übertalented Phillips, who had two interceptions in his only two games, certainly contributed. "The way Kenny started off last year, there were no limitations to how far he could go," Coughlin says. Drafted 31st overall out of Miami two years ago, the 6'2", 210-pound Phillips had already developed a reputation, in the words of cornerback Terrell Thomas, for "moving us corners out of the way to take our fade routes." Phillips's nickname derives from his ability to sprint from sideline to sideline and instinctively fly in to shatter a play from out of nowhere—a trait a recovered Phillips featured during 2010 camp. "If Kenny stays healthy," defensive end Justin Tuck says, "in 10 years you'll be talking about one of the top five safeties in the league. He doesn't even know how good he can be."
But Coughlin, who identified safety as the primary position "that needed to be corrected" this off-season, wasn't simply banking on one man's convalescence. Out went defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan after a year, replaced by the loud, attack-oriented Perry Fewell (the Bills' interim coach last season). General manager Jerry Reese then went shopping for veteran swagger, inking former Cardinals free safety Antrel Rolle to a massive, five-year, $37 million deal, and former Seahawks strong safety Deon Grant, who's already taken to motivating teammates with postpractice phone calls. The outspoken Rolle has declared himself and Phillips the best safety pair in the league. "You feel comfortable knowing there are guys back there that got your back," says Tuck. "We can take a lot of risks up front in terms of stunting, blitzes, things that we couldn't have done last year."
Under Fewell, in fact, that front line—arguably the best eight-man rotation in the league—will be doing quite a bit that's seldom been seen before. Fewell has unveiled a turbo quadruple-end pass rush (dubbed NASCAR) featuring Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and two 6'5" monsters, rookie Jason Pierre-Paul and veteran Mathias Kiwanuka, as well as an anti-run formation (Big Base) that moves 6'7", 304-pound Chris Canty to end and Kiwanuka to linebacker. Tellingly, Tuck himself has practiced at every line spot, while absurd depth has nudged Umenyiora, a two-time Pro Bowl player, to the second team.
The overarching goal is to leverage a wealth of talent while keeping legs fresh and warding off injury across the board. And though the upside of this defense may be unrivaled in the NFL, Superman's backstory is a reminder of how suddenly things can unravel. "We have all the pieces to the puzzle now," Phillips says, grinning. "And it's been a while, but I'm ready to put on that cape."
WITH 2009 STATS
COACH TOM COUGHLIN