- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPNNewYork.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Sometimes, a simple question can elicit a complicated response.
Whenever one of the New York Giants is asked about what went wrong last season, the answer is rarely ever the same. And there never seems to be any easy explanation.
Osi Umenyiora understands this better than most. As a kid, Umenyiora would ask his father a basic question, such as what time he wanted him to wake up.
"He'd say, 'Waking up is very important, and the early bird will always catch the worm,' and I'm like, 'I'm 5 years old, give me a straight answer, please,'" Umenyiora said. "I'll say, 'Dad, I need new shoes,' and he'd say, 'It's obvious you need new shoes, but a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'"
Umenyiora said it was very annoying to hear his father speak in riddles.
That's how puzzling the Giants were last year. After starting off 5-0, the Giants finished 8-8. They were a bigger mess than any dysfunctional family on reality TV.
Players clashed with the defensive coordinator. Injuries decimated a proud defense. And by the end of the season, the Giants were a defenseless group with no direction and, perhaps even worse, no heart.
This season, Tom Coughlin wants his team to return to its roots. In order to return to contention, the Giants must rely on their old calling card. The defense has to be nasty, physical, intimidating and most of all, dominant again.
And in order to do that, the Giants' defense has to come together as a unit and play as one. All individuals must put aside personal aspirations and form a cohesive group.
While speaking at the team's annual kickoff luncheon for fans, Umenyiora took a page from his father to inspire his defensive teammates for the upcoming season.
"In discussing the 2010 New York Giants, the one thing I would say is this: Individually, the team is like stars, but the team is the sun," Umenyiora said last week. "While we might all shine, when the sun comes up, we all disappear. ... That's the mantra this year: team first, team last, team everything. We will be physical, we will be aggressive, we will be a dominant football team."
The fact that Umenyiora is preaching this is important, considering he believes he helped set a negative tone for last year's debacle when he had problems with former defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan in the preseason and walked out of a team meeting.
When he was demoted later in the season, Umenyiora's pride was battered.
Earlier this year, Umenyiora threatened that there would be problems if he didn't regain his starting job. But he is determined to turn things around this season and do whatever the team asks of him.
He is just one of several Giants determined to have a bounce-back season for a variety of reasons.
While Umenyiora wants to show that he is still a Pro Bowl defensive end, his competition for his old job, Mathias Kiwanuka, wants to prove he can be the starter and is worth a new contract.
The other defensive end, Justin Tuck, wants to remind people how good he is when healthy. Last year's big free-agent signings, defensive tackles Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard, want to show that they are worth every penny general manager Jerry Reese spent on them now that they are healthy again.
Kenny Phillips would like people to know that he is back and that the degenerative condition in his knee is not career-threatening.
Corey Webster would like to remind many that he is still a top corner in the league.
Safety Antrel Rolle wants to show he is worth the five-year, $37 million deal the Giants signed him to this offseason.
New defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has to take all of this motivation, mold it together and form one angry and inspired defense.
"I think this defense is very motivated," said linebacker Keith Bulluck, who wants to show his old team, the Tennessee Titans, that he still has plenty left after undergoing ACL surgery last December. "I think a lot of people want to prove a few things individually, and that will make for a great team defense because every individual on this team understands that nothing can be done without the team aspect. I think this defense is really ready to get out there to show what we've got."
It won't take long for Coughlin to find out what his defense has. The Giants open the new Meadowlands stadium on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, a team that humiliated the Giants in their final game at Giants Stadium last year.
The defense has to find a way to shut down Carolina's running game of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Coughlin probably loves the fact that the defense will be tested by one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL right away. Stewart rushed for 206 yards in a 41-9 thrashing of a lifeless Giants team.
Then in Week 2, the Giants travel to Indianapolis to face Peyton Manning.
"We're definitely looking forward to getting to work because from what I understand, they kind of put it on us pretty bad last year," Bulluck said of the Panthers. "I think this team has the makings of being one of the top defenses in the league, and it's one of those things that you have to work hard every day on and off the field."
While there may not be one universal answer as to what went wrong last year, Umenyiora says what the Giants need to do this year to win is real simple. And he's confident the sun will rise and the Giants' defense will rise again too.
"If you ever look at an EKG machine when it's hooked up to a human heart, you see it keeps going up and down and up and down; all that does is indicate that a person is alive," Umenyiora said. "The minute it flatlines, that means they're dead. This team is very much alive, and though last year was a down, this year we will be back up again."
Big Blue is going back to the basics to try and solve the riddle of NFL success.