By Ernie Palladino
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Once the Giants reconvene for the offseason conditioning program, somebody else will move into the stall located three-quarters of the way down from the locker room’s front door. Someone, undoubtedly, will wear the blue No. 91 defensive jersey once on-field drills begin.
But that somebody won’t be Justin Tuck. And that’s a shame because for the decade he played in the Meadowlands, its original owner — or as original as one ever gets in the numerically ordered NFL — did the Giants and the league nothing but proud.
It was totally understandable why the franchise’s front office let the soul of its defense flit off Thursday to the Oakland Raiders. Tuck’s body is beginning to break down. Even though he had an 11-sack season in 2013, it still wasn’t enough to convince Jerry Reese and his staff that Tuck’s body would remain intact long enough in an attempt to duplicate the double-digit feat. He had suffered through shoulder and neck injuries the two previous seasons, and who was to say they wouldn’t crop up again in a near-31-year-old, high-mileage chassis.
So the Giants never really made him a serious offer even though Tuck gave them every chance to at least approach the otherwise doable two-year, $11 million deal the Raiders plopped in front of him. Circumstances — namely a $19 million cap cushion — kept the Giants from offering anything that looked like big money. To spend that, one needs a surety against injury, and Tuck just could not afford them that.
The Giants did the smart thing money-wise. Probably football-wise, too. But in terms of leadership, they left themselves with a gigantic hole.
No one on that unit has the following Tuck did. Mathias Kiwanuka, as versatile as he is, is too soft-spoken to handle something like that. Jason Pierre-Paul is too young, Antrel Rolle too deeply imbued in the shock-jock radio culture to garner any true locker room cred. Is anyone really going to follow Prince Amukamara?
Jon Beason, just re-signed for three years, $19 million, is rugged enough to fit that mold in time. But he could use a good start to his first full season here to cement that vaunted position.
At this moment, it would not be a stretch to say the defense is leaderless.
That may or may not be a good thing. Perhaps the Giants had come to rely on Tuck a bit too much. When he couldn’t put up a hard pass rush the first half of last year’s schedule, nobody really jumped up to help him.
Now, they’ll definitely need a bounce-back season from Pierre-Paul, and a step-up contribution from last year’s third-rounder Damontre Moore. The latter played mostly special teams last year.
Kiwanuka will also likely stay on the defensive line, as that is where he was always most comfortable.
It is hard to say the Giants added by subtracting here. They let what had become a physically questionable entity ride into the western sunset, a sort of unburdening of the biggest, but aging, defensive star of the last two Super Bowl championships. But they lost an immense amount in the locker room.
There is no telling what Tuck will do with the Raiders. They know they just signed a warrior. Whether he becomes their knight in shining armor or just another in a line of free agents who sign elsewhere, never to be heard from again, remains to be seen.
The Giants must have known something to not have matched the Raiders’ offer. Maybe it was the years, seasons they realize Tuck doesn’t have in him anymore.
So they sacrificed the locker room and on-field leadership. It happens in the NFL.
It’s just a shame it had to happen to Tuck. The Giants don’t know it now, but they’re going to miss him.
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