Giants Arrive for Off-Season Workouts Ready and Focused

Players clear the air after war of words subsides.

After a week of juicy headlines and acrimonious exchanges in the media, the Giants began their offseason conditioning program today insisting the controversy was blown out of proportion and will not create a lingering problem on the team, while vowing they are still a united team with a common goal.

"It will not be an issue with the team," coach Jim Fassel said. "If you ask me a point-blank question will it affect our team, I'll say no.

"I don't think they're divided. We've changed the complexion of this team from when I was first here. There were times when problems weren't solvable, because I thought there were some selfish people that had their own agenda. I don't believe that any more. I think the core of this team is different. There's a different level of maturity."

The players, notably those involved in the tempest, as well as other team leaders, agreed with the coach that any hard or harsh feelings created during a week of unusual charges and countercharges will not remain.

"The leadership that we have on this team - myself, Michael Strahan, Kerry Collins, Amani Toomer, Tiki Barber - we have enough leadership that we're going to be headed in the right direction when it comes time to play football," defensive tackle Keith Hamilton said, one of the principals in the fray.

"My only hope is to win a championship," said Barber, who was also in the middle of the uproar. "Everything else is incidental."

And Strahan, who kicked off the controversy said, "It doesn't affect the team."

To review, the calm journey that had been the Giants' offseason was rocked on March 16, when Strahan, who set an NFL record with 22.5 sacks last season, said in a story on CBS that the 2002 season would be his last with the Giants. He cited what he said was the team's refusal to continue contract negotiations after he turned down an offer that was pulled off the table once the Giants got under the salary cap by the March 1 deadline. In the story, Strahan said of the Giants, "I don't think they want to be competitive."

Strahan rejected an offer that included a two-part bonus, the first installment of which would have been paid as a signing bonus this year and the second as a roster bonus in 2003. Strahan said he couldn't agree to the structure of the contract, in part because there was no guarantee the Giants would pay him the second part of the bonus.

Five days later, Barber was sharply critical of Strahan in a story that appeared in the New York Post, saying the record-setting defensive end "definitely is hindering the process" of helping the Giants acquire players by not agreeing to the contract and providing the Giants with some cap relief.

A day later Hamilton joined the fray, charging, "(Barber) hasn't been here long enough or done enough to say anything." Hamilton also opened some old wounds by saying, "The defense has carried the offense, carried the team, since I've been here."

It was an extraordinary exchange, particularly for the Giants, where players seldom engage in public sniping. In columns that have since appeared in metropolitan area newspapers, it's been suggested that the team is fractured beyond repair and headed for a certain losing record in 2002.

The principals in the disagreement say those conclusions are ludicrous.

"This whole thing has taken on a life of its own," Strahan said. "It's not that I don't trust Mr. (Wellington) Mara and Mr. (Robert) Tisch (the team's owners). They have always taken care of me, plain and simple. If that wasn't the case I wouldn't have been here for nine years. But my agent told me a long time ago, there are no side deals and no promises. So it's not that I don't trust them, I just know what the system is. I don't trust the system.

"I've been painted as a greedy player, an unreasonable player, a player who doesn't want to help this team and only wants to help himself. I know that's from people who don't know what the situation is. Everybody is making their opinion on what they're reading and what they're being told by some anonymous source. You can call me whatever you want to call me. I can handle that. I know what kind of person and player I am.

"I'm not upset at the Giants. I never have been upset at the Giants. Business is business."

Strahan said he phoned Barber last week and the two had a discussion that both prefer to keep private.

"I called Tiki and we talked," Strahan said. "We have our understanding. It's over."

Barber, when asked how his relationship with Strahan was said, "It is what it is. I talked to him. He said his thing. I said my thing. He told me how he felt, I told him how I felt. I'm emotional. He's emotional."

Barber said if he had another chance he would not have created a back-page tabloid headline.

"Looking back in retrospect, discretion was probably the way to go," Barber said. "That was my mistake. I can't focus on that. I want to move forward and help this team win."

Hamilton also insisted the incident is behind him. Regarding Barber he said, "He's from Virginia (as Hamilton is). He's a homeboy. It's not going to be a big deal."

The 11-year defensive tackle said he should not have made his comments about the defense carrying the team.

"I think sometimes when you're in the heat of the moment you say things you don't really mean," Hamilton said. "As a veteran I should have been more aware of that."

Whether this is all put aside as easily and cleanly as everyone insists will be determined in the coming weeks and months, as the Giants work their way through the offseason program, mini-camp and training camp. The Giants don't play a regular season game for 5 months, so there is certainly enough time for any lingering smoke to dissipate.

The players and coaches believe there is enough character on the team for everyone to move on without a lingering fracture. But they also agree it would have been better if the issues had not been raised in a public forum.

"You know me, I like comparisons with movies and this is like A Few Good Men," linebacker Mike Barrow said. "There's a code, and I think the code's been violated. I don't need to worry about Strahan's contract. That's not my concern. I wish everything would work out and it always will. One way or another, it's going to work.

"As a team we need to handle our problems inside. It's disappointing that problems like that have been spread through the papers. We have to be together as a team. We're a family. Within families you're going to have arguments, you're going to have disagreements, you're going to have joy, you're going to have laughter. But some things you just don't take to the streets."

Quarterback Kerry Collins is hopeful the storm will soon blow away from the stadium.

"Things happen in negotiations and people get frustrated," Collins said. "I understand things like this do happen. But the sooner we can get past all this and worry about being better than 7-9, the better off we're going to be."

Like Strahan, Collins will see his contract expire at the end of the 2002 season. But he is not concerned about the lack of progress toward a new agreement.

"I'm totally comfortable with it," Collins said. "I want to be here, that's the bottom line. I don't care if it happens this year or if it happens after next year. They reiterated the fact that they want me as their quarterback. I feel comfortable with my situation here. I just got married, I bought a house. This is where I want to be. This is where I want to finish my career. I'm not worried about it. I understand there's not a lot of money to go around right now. I'm not upset about it and I'm not angry about anything."

Except that 7-9 record. That's what Fassel wants the players to focus on - improving the team's record in 2002 and not the side issues that served as a distraction during an otherwise slow week.

Fassel didn't seem even a little annoyed at the entire affair. Now entering his sixth season as the Giants head coach, he has steered this team through its share of controversy and hard times. In a news conference attended by an extraordinarily high number of reporters for the opening of the offseason program, Fassel seemed certain that this too shall pass.

He spoke individually to the principals, as well as several other players. Fassel might address the controversy in a team meeting.

"I'm not a rookie at this thing any more," Fassel said. "I've managed a lot of different problems. The one thing you learn being responsible for something is you can over-react to things and create more of a problem than there is. If you have a rapport built with the people you can put it right back on track. This is a job of problems solving and dealing with - to use your words - crisis situations. The worst thing I can do is over-react to everything. It's a matter of handling things in a mature, straightforward way."

That's just what Fassel has done. By opening day, last week's news should be long forgotten.
March 25, 2002