Umenyiora overcomes injuries, contract dispute

Topics in this article:

He lay on an examination table as a New York Giants trainer manipulated his throbbing ankle, wincing at the sharp pain and grimacing at the harsh implications. He couldn’t see the field, but the raucous commotion above told him the game was getting away from his team. The 2011 season – and his financial leverage – also seemed to have been sucked into a downward spiral.

As Osi Umenyiora pondered all of this from the bowels of the Louisiana Superdome during a 49-24 defeat to the New Orleans Saints last November, the veteran defensive end figured he and the Giants were headed for an unspectacular, unsatisfying divorce.

Things are much better for Osi Umenyiora now than they were for most of the season.
(US Presswire)

“Once the trainer [Byron Hansen] told me it was [a high-ankle sprain] and how long it could be, that was a real bad feeling,” Umenyiora recalled Thursday in a phone interview. “He said, ‘Man, it’s probably gonna be awhile.’ I was under the stadium, so I couldn’t see the game, but you could hear every time they scored. I still had painkillers in me from earlier, and the fact that it still hurt like it did was not good.

“Things were bad. Things were really, really bad. It’s just weird how things happen sometimes.”

Two months later, things are indisputably Super for Umenyiora, something the two-time Pro Bowl selection couldn’t have foreseen during a season of hobbling and squabbling. For the second time in four years, Umenyiora enters the Ultimate Game – in this case, Super Bowl XLVI at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium on Feb. 5 – as one of the key players on a Giants team charged with flummoxing future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots’ prolific offense.

[ Silver: Biggest losers heading into Super Bowl XLVI ]

If Umenyiora and his fellow defensive linemen, including standout pass rushers Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, can’t disrupt Brady’s rhythm by harassing him in the pocket, the outcome will likely be far less satisfactory for the Giants than it was in Super Bowl XLII.

“We have to [get to Brady],” Umenyiora says. “There’s gonna be no other way. I know that’s putting a lot of pressure on us, but at the end of the day, it’s the truth. If we don’t get pressure on that man, he’ll win the game. He’s one of the best in history. We have to get to him.”

Last spring and summer, as he headed into his ninth NFL season, Umenyiora was applying a different type of pressure. Long frustrated by the relative value of the eight-year, $33.925-million contract extension he signed in December of 2005, Umenyiora also joined the labor fight that wiped out the 2011 offseason.

As one of the 15 plaintiffs in the Brady et al antitrust lawsuit against the NFL that followed the NFL Players Association’s decertification, Umenyiora was an outspoken advocate for the cause. At one point he filed an affidavit stating that Giants general manager Jerry Reese had promised him a new deal in April of 2008 and had not followed through.

After the lockout ended in late July, Umenyiora skipped the first day of training camp before reporting to the team. Though he had steeled himself for a potential holdout in the months leading up to the settlement, the team’s ability to fine him $30,000 for each missed day proved to be a strong disincentive.

“Early on I was like, ‘Man, I ain’t never going back here,’ but it’s easy to say that when you don’t have to be at work, and they’re not fining you $30,000 a day,” Umenyiora says. “When the first $30,000 went out the window, I was like, ‘I’m going in today.’ If I’d sat out the whole month, I’d have owed them money to play this year.”

Or, as Umenyiora said after the Giants’ 37-20 thrashing of the Packers in the divisional round, “I went to war and I lost.”

The fight became tougher immediately, as Umenyiora began experiencing knee swelling in the early days of camp. He ultimately underwent arthroscopic surgery that some suspected was a form of acting out (“which Umenyiora denied) and missed the season’s first three games.

[ Related: Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski has high-ankle sprain]

“Once I [made the decision] that OK, I’m going to play – I was like ‘I have to play!’ ” Umenyiora says. “Attention had already been called to the [contract] situation. I knew I wasn’t gonna get what I wanted. To get it [after the season], I had to play, and I had to play well.

Osi Umenyiora pursues Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII.
(US Presswire)

“When I had knee swelling during the preseason, I realized, there’s no way I can play to the level I need to perform to make that happen. So I talked to the doctor, and we decided to have the surgery.”

Even during his injury-plagued season, which included the high-ankle sprain he suffered when a teammate fell onto him during the defeat to the Saints, Umenyiora stayed focused and motivated. He lauds coach Tom Coughlin for remaining supportive (“He wasn’t really upset and let me handle my business, and that made my respect level for him rise up as high as it could possibly be”) and his teammates for “having my back 100 percent. They all know they could go through the same thing.”

If that sounds a tad combative, give Umenyiora credit for not succumbing to the contract-related mental meltdowns experienced by other frustrated standouts around the league, most glaringly Cleveland Browns halfback Peyton Hillis and Philadelphia Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson.

“I understood DeSean Jackson, especially,” Umenyiora says. “I truly understood where he was coming from. I felt his pain on that one. You have a guy who has performed at the level he has played to, and all of a sudden you see the team you play for spending millions on other people. That was bad the way they did him. [For him and Hillis], I don’t think they had the support system around them. They’re younger, and I don’t think they really handled it the right way. But I feel them.”

Umenyiora, who’d led the NFL with 10 forced fumbles in 2010, had plenty of reason to feel vulnerable – while injuries limited him to just nine games in 2011, his replacement at right end was blossoming into stardom before his eyes. Pierre-Paul, a 2010 first-round draft pick, shined while putting together an impressive Pro Bowl campaign.

[ Related: Patriots’ Brady, Belichick, Kraft form Holy Trinity]

When Umenyiora suffered his injury against the Saints, he wasn’t sure he’d be back before season’s end – or that it would even matter. At that point, the Giants were in the midst of a four-game losing streak that would drop them to 6-6, and a playoff run looked unlikely.

Three weeks later, the 8-7 Giants hosted the Dallas Cowboys in a game that would decide the NFC East title, and Umenyiora returned in an emphatic way, sacking Tony Romo twice in a 31-14 victory. He finished his abbreviated season with nine sacks in nine games.

Umenyiora, who has spent time at both end positions in a three-man rotation with Pierre-Paul and Tuck, has remained hot in the playoffs, registering a sack in the Giants’ 24-2 first-round victory over the Atlanta Falcons and taking down Aaron Rodgers twice – and forcing a key third-quarter fumble deep in Giants territory – in the following week’s upset of the top-seeded Packers.

In last Sunday’s NFC championship game, Umenyiora had half a sack, four tackles (one for loss) and a quarterback hurry in a 20-17 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Greg Roman, the Niners’ offensive coordinator, calls Umenyiora “dangerous and opportunistic.”

This is Umenyiora’s first postseason experience since the team’s championship drive four years ago – he missed the entire ’08 campaign with a torn ACL, and New York didn’t make the playoffs in either of the two following seasons – and he plans to cherish the Super Bowl experience. His father, John is among the family members flying in from Umenyiora’s native Nigeria to attend the game in person.

“My dad’s never actually seen me play,” Umenyiora says. “It’s gonna be pretty cool. He’ll know if we win, but that’s pretty much it. He knows soccer – he was a goalkeeper – but he doesn’t know football.”

If Umenyiora and his fellow linemen are as disruptive as they were four years ago, even his father will probably be able to figure out what’s happening. With a skilled group that included Umenyiora, Tuck and future Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan, the Giants continually put hits on Brady and pulled off a shocking, 17-14 upset.

[ Video: Comparing New England’s Super Bowl teams ]

“The very first play, Barry [Cofield] and I hit him,” Umenyiora recalls. “That’s when I knew it was gonna be a long day for him. Walking back to the huddle, I said, ‘Barry, these guys are in trouble.’ ”

It remains to be seen if the Giants can replicate that performance, but Umenyiora believes he and his fellow defensive linemen are capable of pulling it off.

“I think [we’re comparable],” Umenyiora says. “It’s similar, but Strahan’s on a different level than any of us – I can tell you that with 100 percent certainty, because I played with him. But I think I’ve gotten better. Tuck’s gotten better. With Jason, who’s just a monster, I think it can be similar.

“When you have all three of us rolling together, it becomes difficult for an offense to deal with.”

Whatever the outcome, Umenyiora isn’t sure what his post-Super Bowl future holds. Will the Giants trade him or insist that he return without a reworked contract – and, if the team chooses the latter option, will he brace himself for another stare-down?

“This is one of the times in my life where honestly, I couldn’t tell you what’s going to happen,” Umenyiora says. “It’s not like they have nobody at right end. They’ve got an All-Pro player. But I think at the end of the day they know what my value is, and they know what type of player I am, and they’re not going to be eager to let me go.

“This time, I’m not going to say anything. I feel like my performance has spoken for itself. I mean, I don’t know. It really could go either way.”

For now, Umenyiora knows the way to Super Sunday salvation is a beeline for Brady, and that’s all that matters.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Injury replacement Marshawn Lynch will bring Beast Mode to paradise and run away with Pro Bowl MVP honors. … Someone on the Giants – Antrel Rolle, Brandon Jacobs, Victor Cruz – will predict victory during next week’s Super Bowl media sessions, and we’ll have to endure an endless stream of analysis claiming that such brashness will actually impact the Patriots’ motivation level. … The next time Terrell Suggs predicts on the first Sunday of the season that a first-year defensive coordinator will be an NFL head coach the next year, a whole lot of us will take it as gospel.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Indianapolis, for nine days of R&R (rampaging and reporting) and nine early mornings of S&S (Steak ‘n Shake).

LIES, LIES, LIES

1) For a journalist that covers the NFL, there is nothing more magical, unique and compelling than Super Bowl media day.

2) Peyton Manning and Jim Irsay will resolve the quarterback’s future with the Colts “hand in hand” – and the situation will play out “appropriately and professionally.”

[ Wetzel: Blame ‘Sodapop’ for Jim Irsay-Peyton Manning rift]

3) When Brad Childress shows up at the Cleveland airport to accept the Browns’ offensive coordinator job, team president Mike Holmgren will dispatch his old friend Brett Favre to pick up Chilly in a Ford F-150.

LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Robert Hegyes, who died at the age of 60 on Thursday. Those of us who grew up watching Hegyes play Juan Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos Epstein (a.k.a. Juan Epstein) in the ’70s sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter” will mourn his passing. May he rest in peace – with a note signed by “Epstein’s mother” attesting to his acting legitimacy. I’m also doing a birthday shot for Eagles tight end Brent Celek, and giving a huge sigh of relief that he’s OK following a scary car accident.

THIS WEEK’S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

On Tuesday at Lucas Oil Stadium, for the 11th consecutive year, I’ll be able to say “Go Bears” to a member of a Super Bowl team’s active roster on media day. Patriots rookie running back Shane Vereen continues the streak, while teammate Andre Carter – who had a Pro Bowl season at defensive end – went on injured reserve last month. The next day we’ll learn which potential future pros have signed letters of intent to play for the Golden Bears and attend the world’s greatest academic institution.

Both hoops teams have massive rivalry games this weekend, with Lindsay Gottlieb’s second-place women traveling to Stanford on Saturday to face the fourth-ranked, Pac-12-leading Cardinal. Last Sunday at Haas Pavilion, Cal won its sixth straight game, pulling out a 60-55 victory over Washington. The game was notable for the clutch play of junior guard Layshia Clarendon and sophomore forward Gen Brandon,and for Gottlieb making a clean catch of freshman point guard Brittany Boyd’s shoe (which had fallen off and was helpfully hurled downcourt by Cougars coach June Daugherty) during a key possession in the final minutes. On Sunday, Mike Montgomery’s first-place Cal men (16-5, 6-2) battle his former team, Stanford (15-5, 5-3), at Haas Pavilion. My old high school writing partner Steve Kerr will be there to call the game for Comcast Sports Net Bay Area, and he might as well get comfortable in the building: His daughter, Maddy, a standout libero, has committed to play volleyball for Cal in 2012.

There’s one other Bears-Cardinal clash set for this weekend, a rugby match at Stanford. Jack Clark’s defending national champions – they’ve won 19 of the past 21 titles, and 26 overall – had a tougher time than usual with their rivals on The Farm a year ago, escaping with a 74-0 victory. (The year before, it was 99-0.) I just hope the Cardinal don’t decide to forfeit again.

Finally, softball season is once again upon us, and I’ve been anticipating this one for what seems like forever. When we last left the Golden Bears at the 2011 Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, I told you of their luminous future. Well, it’s here. The preseason rankings are out, and Diane Ninemire’s Bears are ranked third in the espn.com/USA Softball poll and fourth in the USA Today/NFCA poll. If they play to their capabilities and don’t get unlucky, I think it’s possible they’ll have ascended two and three spots, respectively, when all is said and done. And when that happens, and studs like Val Arioto, Jolene Henderson, Jamia and Elia Reid, Britt Vonk, Jace Williams, Cheyenne Cordes, Danielle Henderson, Frani Echavarria, Lindsey Ziegenhirt, Victoria Jones, Ashley Decker and so many others are celebrating in OKC, I will be one euphoric spectator.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

gronkowski deportes behold

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

Randy Lerner (left) with Mike Holmgren during training camp.
(US Presswire)

Back when I was a junior in high school, my younger sister became obsessed with the band The Go-Go’s, playing their debut album (Beauty and the Beat) over and over again, at excruciatingly loud volume. On numerous occasions I came close to snatching the record off our parents’ turntable and using it as a Frisbee, but eventually, the catchy pop riffs and Belinda Carlisle’s sassy vocals wore me down, and I was singing the damn songs in my head. The most popular of those tunes, written by guitarist Charlotte Caffey, comes to mind as I ponder the saga of longtime Cleveland Plain Dealer football writer Tony Grossi, who was abruptly removed from the Browns’ beat after accidentally putting what was meant to be a private message on his Twitter page. The tweet characterized Browns owner Randy Lerner as “a pathetic figure, the most irrelevant billionaire in the world,” and he seems to have taken it hard. When Grossi tried to apologize, neither Lerner nor team president Mike Holmgren would take his calls, according to a profootballtalk.com report. Given that I’ve strongly criticized Lerner in many columns over the years, he probably won’t be thrilled with my decision to cast him as Carlisle, Holmgren as Caffey and three other franchise powerbrokers (executive vice president Bryan Wiedmeier, general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur) as the rockin’ rhythm section for this tribute to Grossi – to the tune of “We Got The Beat.”

Seen the dis that you put in your tweet
Decided that you would be dead meat
Don’t you know, you have got to go
Now you’re gone like LeBron

You’re off the beat
You’re off the beat
You’re off the beat
Yeah
You’re off the beat

Remember in journalism school?
Objectivity was the big rule
Now new media has got you crossed
It’s blurrin’ all the lines

You’re off the beat
You’re off the beat
Did you just Tweet?
Yeah
Get off the beat

Aston Villa really makes me dance
Robbie Keane sends tingles through my pants
English soccer brings me relevance
And now vengeance is mine

Cause you’re off the beat
You’re off the beat
You’re off the beat
Yeah
We gotcha

You’re off the beat
You’re off the beat
You’re off the beat

You’ll be coverin’ high school track meets (you’re off the beat)
All because of that stupid tweet (you’re off the beat)
Take that! Cut down (you’re off the beat)
Bow down to the Browns (woo!)

You’re off the beat
You’re off the beat
You’re off the beat
You’re off the beat …

Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
Why is U.S. Senate candidate Craig James most hated man in West Texas?
Maturing Kansas City Royals coulda been contenders but they’re not
Video: Notre Dame, Stanford among teams vying Big Dance invite
Why Hornets might want to see Eric Gordon leave
Y! Real Estate: NFL stars stuck with supersized homes

Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jan 27, 2012