If you play in the NFL, and you go about your offseason business—that time in between New Year’s day (for non-playoff teams) and the start of preseason camp in late July—by actually taking significant amounts of time off from the game, chances are you’re not one of the truly elite players in the League. There are exceptions, of course, and plenty of guys spend their free time away from training centers, film rooms and athletic environments, choosing instead to hit up the party scene or lounge by the pool or whatever it is professional athletes do to relax these days. There’s another portion of the NFL populace that, once the final whistle blows on game 16, spends every waking moment of every day tirelessly working to become a better player. Some of these guys are just wired that way, and it’s quite impressive. Most Super Bowl winning teams, at least theoretically, should be composed largely of the latter category, and while it’s near impossible to calculate with any measure of accuracy a percentage of hard working players, I’d bet there are few players on the Giants roster who don’t qualify.
To reiterate: the offseason matters…a lot. With training camp fast approaching, and the regular season beginning to creep into our late summer calendars, we’re reaching a crucial juncture where offseason training—what you do when you’re not at team facilities working with team-affiliated personnel and coaches at team facilities—starts to matter more than any other time. For some players, especially those fighting to get under that contract weight barrier or finishing up rehab on a nagging injury, these last few weeks before minicamp are hugely important; others, not as much. In my mind, one player on Big Blue’s roster really needs to hit it out of the park in workouts and pre-camp preparations over the next few weeks, and it might surprise some of you: Ahmad Bradshaw. The rationale for my decision might not be so obvious, so I’ll try and explain my thinking.
The Giants’ lack of running back depth is, by all accounts, a big problem. While the offense survived last season largely on the back of Eli Manning’s remarkable consistency, there’s little doubt the running game factored largely in Big Blue’s Super Bowl run. Brandon Jacobs and Bradshaw, the Giants’ two primary backs last season, combined for 155 rushing yards in the wild card round win against Atlanta, 85 in the division round win against Green Bay, 87 in the championship round against San Francisco and 109 in the Super Bowl win over New England. While the division and championship round games don’t project quantifiable evidence of a run-heavy game plan, minimizing the run game’s impact in the two hard-fought contests would be to overlook how it facilitated the passing game. Eli is an elite quarterback, run game notwithstanding, but so much of his success is contingent upon deceiving opposing defenses at the line of scrimmage by hinting at the run. The threat a viable running game poses forces defenses to stack the box with extra defenders, which opens up space for Eli and his targets. With Bradshaw and Jacobs, as effective a one-two running back do as you’ll see in today’s league, Big Blue’s running game was not only viable, but formidable, often imposing its will on the opposition in demoralizing and unstoppable ways.
Running the ball remains pertinent to the Giants’ title defense effort, and without Jacobs, who in four postseason games last year rushed four 164 yards on 37 attempts, the ground game—which ranked last among NFL teams last season—longs for a replacement of similar worth. As it stands, the Giants simply cannot replace Jacobs. To quote a favorite movie of mine, (Moneyball): Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt): “Guys, you’re still trying to replace Giambi. I told you we can’t do it. We can’t do it. What we might be able to do is recreate him.” Not that the New York football Giants are a money-strapped, small market baseball team that suddenly needs to exploit market ineffeciences to win football games, but there’s a striking parallel here. Jacobs, like it or not, does not exist on the Giants’ current roster, meaning offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride will need to find ways to replace not Jacobs himself—remember, “We can’t do it”—but his production. One thing’s for sure, it won’t be easy, especially not when, outside of Danny Ware, a career backup himself, Big Blue’s running back core is constituted mostly of unproven young players, none of whom fit Jacobs’ mold or niche.
Which brings me back to Bradshaw, and his pivotal role in the Giants’ offensive attack this season. He’s Big Blue’s only proven back, yet he’s always functioned best in a part-time role. Don’t get me wrong: Bradshaw can tote the rock and has been Big Blue’s bellcow back for the past two seasons. But he’s always been most comfortable with a partner, or even two—does Derrick Ward ring a bell? It’s not that Bradshaw isn’t talented or well-rounded enough as a runner to take on a Peterson/MJD/Foster-like workload, rather that his body simply won’t allow it. He missed four games with a foot injury last season and slashed his workload towards the end of the regular season to stay fresh for the playoffs. He underwent a procedure during the offseason and is expected to be 100% by training camp.
That’s all well and good, but showing up at training camp healthy and remaining healthy for an entire season are two entirely different things. It’s certainly possible that Bradshaw plays all 16 games injury free; it’s also possible he reinjures himself week 1. Injuries, like taxes, death or any other absolute, unavoidable truth inhering the lives of NFL players, are inescapable—they happen, often times when you least expect, even to the most physically fit, well-prepared players. So no, Bradshaw can’t do anything to guarantee his good health throughout a 16-game season. What he can do is rehab, train and work his foot into the best shape possible before and throughout preseason camp. This is something that needs to be done now, and while there’s a fair chance his foot problems will resurface irrespective of what he does in rehabilitation, anything he can accomplish now will help him in the latter stages of the season, when the week-to-week grind is more likely to cause injuries.
Needless to say, an injured Bradshaw, given the lack of experience and depth at running back, all but kills Big Blue’s run game, meaning he, perhaps more than any other player this side of Eli Manning, needs to stay healthy. A productive offseason is unequivocally the most logical path towards that end.