Giants turn to a kid to lead them

Amani Toomer was perfectly content to catch his touchdown pass, listen to the cheers, and politely hand the ball to the official. Out of nowhere, there was a complete madman running for him. Louder and louder, Jeremy Shockey screamed. "Spike it, Amani ... Spike it!" Toomer could hear the muffled cheers in the driving rain, but the rookie tight end screamed louder and louder.

"SPIKE IT!" So, Toomer spiked the ball.

"Just for Shockey," he said. "He's rubbing off on everybody."

Whatever Shockey wants, these Giants will do. Spike the ball? Toomer spiked it. Wanted more throws to him? The game plan changed. Wanted his teammates fighting to the end? They were relentless. Shockey has talked too much this season, been called for stupid, selfish penalties, but there is no misunderstanding the truth: The Giants beat the Redskins, 19-17, on Sunday for a single, solitary reason: They had Shockey, Washington didn't.

Above everything else, Shockey made catches Sunday. That's it. He caught the ball. Eleven times for 111 yards. The Giants were desperate for him to deliver. Ike Hilliard is gone. Ron Dixon was down. Herman Moore needs one more week to get himself back into shape. The reason they had drafted Shockey promised to play out: He needed to be the difference. They needed him to rise out of the dysfunction and disarray and snatch back one of those dreary Sundays that the Giants forever dangle for someone to steal.

Shockey is too stubborn, too relentless, and this brings out the best and worst of him. He's made his share of immature mistakes, but this was the Sunday he had never been so grown up for these Giants, never been so there when they needed him. The Eagles' Donovan McNabb is done with a broken ankle, Steve Spurrier's Fun and Gun is DOA, and the NFC East could come down to the one playmaker still standing in this diluted division. This is the telltale time for a rookie, the college's regular season coming to a close and the pros just hitting the stretch drive.

"I won't hit a wall if we play 30 games," Shockey said. "I know I've got a target on my back. Everybody wants to jump all over me."

This has to be true, even on that turf toe that's killing him. He just hit those linebackers over and over, turning short passes into longer gains. "After a while, they were all over him, mugging him," Giants quarterback Kerry Collins said. The Redskins hit him so hard, his helmet popped off twice, revealing those Samson locks and that Jessie Armstead bravado. Shockey is the best player on this offense, the best it's had in a long, long time, and this Giants' season promises to live and die with him.

Shockey isn't just a Hurricane playmaker, but a Hurricane heart to replace the one that left with the release of Armstead. For everyone expecting the old linebacker to march into the Meadowlands and take Sunday to the Giants, it was Shockey catching four passes on the opening drive.And remember: The Giants don't score on Toomer's touchdown late in the second quarter to make it 10-10, unless Shockey had dragged two people for 15 yards on third-and-10, lost his helmet, and leaped to his feet with his helmet rolling and his fingers wagging to the Giants fans.

So, the Redskins crowded Shockey, left Toomer alone, and watched him score on a 35 yard touchdown pass. All Sunday, it was the rookie on third-and-long. All Sunday, Shockey was the star the 'Skins couldn't stop. It's amazing, isn't it? The Giants tight ends caught a total of 17 passes a season ago.

"A lot of teams are going to have to deal with Shockey," Armstead confessed. "You have to put him in the top five [tight ends] in this whole league right now ... . He's a tough character. He's a Miami boy. You know what you're getting out of Miami."

With Shockey, it's a perfectionist. As hard as he can be on everyone else, he's hardest on himself. When it was over Sunday, it wasn't his 111 yards - the most a Giants' tight end has manufactured since Mark Bavaro in 1988 - it was the chances he left on the field. "I still think I can get a lot better," Shockey said.

This is the reason that he's sold his teammates, why he's emerged as an unparalleled offensive leader on these Giants. He's never satisfied. He wants to turn every 6-yard catch into 12, every season of modest expectations into a postseason payoff. The Giants don't need him calling the Eagles' secondary out, the way he foolishly did this season. They need him calling out himself, the way he did last week. He wanted the ball thrown to him. The Giants had no choice. They had to turn to the tight end. Sunday was going to be about Shockey, or it was going to be about a heartbreaking loss.

Yes, he was good Sunday, but he can get better. All of them can, too. The Giants caught a break with McNabb going down and now they've got a good shot to make the playoffs, even steal the NFC East. It won't happen unless Shockey stays on this course for stardom. Hit the wall? This kid has to be the wall, holding this structure up when it feels like crumbling down.

"... There's a fine line," Collins said. "Do you tell [Shockey], 'Don't do this, or don't do this?' ... Or do you just let him go?

"For the most part, we just let him go."

He's a little wild, a little raw, but the man makes plays for the Giants when everyone else just talks about it. It's time to just trust his talent, just let him go.

So Sunday, the rookie screamed, "Spike the ball! Spike the ball!" and Amani Toomer had no choice. This season is about this kid now. Around here, they have to give Jeremy Shockey what he wants.
Nov. 18,02