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ALBANY, N.Y. – Jerry Reese has a pop quiz.
The New York Giants general manager is standing on the sidelines of training camp with two visitors and the conversation has gotten slightly animated. Plaxico Burress(notes) is a fading memory and the issue of a No. 1 wide receiver on the Giants – or lack thereof – has once again been raised. Reese turns away from the field and appears to be (but denies) chafing over the thought.
"New England – its first Super Bowl, who were the receivers?" Reese asks.
The visitors fumble to recall the names, and Reese replies: "I made my point."
"The Giants," Reese says. "Their [first] two Super Bowls, who were their receivers on the two Super Bowl teams?"
He doesn't even wait for an answer.
"I made my point," he says.
Such is Reese's logic when it comes to what appears to be the most obvious hole in the Giants: that it doesn't take a dominant No. 1 wideout to win a championship. And he builds a compelling argument, ticking off the names of the league's "elite" wide receivers. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald(notes), Detroit's Calvin Johnson(notes), Houston's Andre Johnson(notes) and New England's Randy Moss(notes) – all carry obese statistics and reputations but are waifish when it comes to their ring fingers.
"There's a different way to reach the pinnacle of where you want to go as far as receivers go," Reese says. "Do you want to have those [dominant] guys? Heck yeah you want to have them. But all those guys – the true No. 1's in the league right now – the No. 1 thing they have in common, they don't have a Super Bowl ring."
Reese says that, admitting that he did classify Burress as a "true" No. 1 receiver. And he admits that, to date, this edition of the Giants has no idea who that person could be for them, or if they'll even have a traditional No. 1 wideout at all. Instead, soon-to-be-minted $100 million quarterback Eli Manning(notes) will have to forge ahead, like Tom Brady(notes) before him (in Reese's eyes, anyway), with a dominant defense and a cast of yet-to-be defined wideouts.
Not that the Giants haven't invested in the position. The team spent two of its first four picks in the 2009 NFL draft on receivers. A first-round pick was burned for Hakeem Nicks(notes), a soft-handed, 6-foot-1 player who might be the most well-rounded athlete amongst all of the receivers. A third-rounder was used on Ramses Barden(notes), a 6-6 monolith who looks and even moves a lot like Burress on the practice field. Those two rookies might be the most highly anticipated players entering the season.
Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said Nicks has already proven to have "very good hands" and is "maybe quicker than I had expected."
Meanwhile, Barden's size and raw potential have repeatedly drawn parallels to Burress – comparisons from which he's shying away.
"It would be extremely arrogant of me to compare myself to Plaxico," Barden said. "He's an accomplished guy – an outstanding receiver. I can only do what I can do to the best of my ability. It's going to take work."
In truth, there's no telling what Barden or Nicks can provide. The arc of development for wideouts is wildly deceptive and inconsistent, especially when going from the practice field to games. With Burress and Amani Toomer(notes) gone, it might be the remaining veteran cast that makes the difference this year – players such as third- and fourth-year veterans Steve Smith and Domenik Hixon(notes). Indeed, one of those two players (or even one of the rookies) could be the difference between this offense being good or great.
As it stands, it should be at least as good as the product that was on the field late last season. But critics say that is part of the problem, especially considering the team lost four of its last five contests – including the playoff defeat to Philadelphia. And the ineffectiveness of Manning in those games seemed to highlight the void Burress created when he accidentally shot himself and ended 2008 on suspension.
Throwing out the meaningless finale against Minnesota, Manning averaged 166 passing yards in Weeks 14 through 16 and the postseason loss to the Eagles. He also had only two touchdowns against four interceptions in that span. In turn, the running game was nowhere near as dominant in that stretch as it had been earlier in the season.
But Reese dismissed the fashion in which 2008 ended, suggesting the Giants could have split their final four had they played their starters against Minnesota in the season finale. And the playoff loss?
"Everybody tried to blame the loss to Philadelphia on Plaxico Burress," Reese says. "Down the stretch, we beat one of the best teams in the league in Carolina without Plax in the lineup. Plax was in and out of the lineup most of the season. We just didn't play well against Philadelphia."
What Reese sees in the offense now is a tight end in Kevin Boss(notes) who is growing into his role as a receiver. He sees a backup running back in Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) who has the ability to break the explosive plays that Derrick Ward(notes), who signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent in the offseason, couldn't. He sees a quarterback in Manning who is in the midst of his prime and worth every penny of a lucrative contract extension.
As for the wideouts, he expects someone will step forward. Nicks has flashed the ability that made him a first-round pick. Barden is a huge target who the staff believes will factor into the passing game immediately. And Smith and Hixon have already shown the ability to contribute in limited roles.
"Steve Smith led us in catches last year," Reese said. "Hixon led us in yardage. Both those guys were part-time players. People act like they were full-time players. They were part-time players – Toomer and Plax were the starters. [Smith and Hixon] had good production as part-time players. So we expect their production to double if they're going to be starters."
However the receivers contribute, one thing appears clear: Reese isn't backing away from his assertion that this can be a Super Bowl team without the superstar receiver. That may entail tweaking the offense to fit the personnel – much the way New England did when it went to more spread formations. And certainly the group will be divided to suit strengths: one set of receivers for the red zone, one for third-and-long situations, etc.
But history has shown that tinkering with a scheme typically pales as a solution when stacking up against talent level. And while other teams and quarterbacks have scaled their way to a championship without a dominating No. 1 receiver, the question dogging Reese won't go away anytime soon: Can Manning and the Giants make that same climb?
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