- Sal Paolantonio, SportsCenter correspondent / NFL reporter
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was a strange scene. Eli Manning, taking the snap, pivoting on his right foot, offered the football to a running back not wearing No. 21 at the New York Giants' first mandatory minicamp. Gone was veteran Tiki Barber, Manning's "security blanket," as veteran receiver Amani Toomer put it.
The next morning, across the Hudson River at New York Jets minicamp in Hempstead, the snapshot was just as odd. With veteran running back Curtis Martin out of the picture, quarterback Chad Pennington handed the ball to the steal of the NFL offseason: former Chicago Bears running back Thomas Jones.
The big difference? Pennington was clearly a bit more secure with the change. "He's a special player, and I think he's going to take a lot of pressure off all of us," said Pennington.
This is a simple tale of two football teams in one town, both trying to replace a legend at a critical position -- at a time when they seem to be moving in opposite directions.
For the Giants, who sneaked into the 2006 playoffs based largely on Barber's last-minute heroics, the task for his replacements -- Brandon Jacobs and Reuben Droughns -- is enormous. Barber's absence has created an unprecedented situation for Manning, who more than any other player on the team will be expected to pick up the slack. The void is huge; in 2006, Barber rushed for 1,662 yards. No team in NFL history has had a player run for 1,600 or more yards and then lost that player the following season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
For the Jets, who gave rookie head coach Eric Mangini an improbable playoff berth last year, the gift of getting Jones is just as historic. Jones led the Bears with 1,210 yards rushing last season -- thus making him the first player to gain 1,000-plus yards rushing for a Super Bowl team and then start the following season on another team.
Last week, while Mangini had his staff blast overmodulated music onto the practice field -- everything from classical Baroque to old-school rap -- Jones was flexing his biceps, which look like two softballs bulging under his skin, and a big smile, which tells a story of liberation and opportunity.
Gone from the shadow of Cedric Benson in Chicago, Jones was given a five-year, $20 million contract by the Jets to be the next big thing in the Big Apple.
"This offense was made for me," said Jones. "It's creative, but it will give me a chance to show what I can do if they want to put the load on me." Translation: Jones fits the Mangini mold to a T.
One of seven children from a family deeply rooted in the coal-mining tradition of southwestern Virginia, Jones has led by example, putting in three-a-day workouts at the Jets facility this offseason.
"His leadership is infectious," said Mangini. "You can see that the younger guys are watching what he does and trying to keep up with him."
With Jones and second-year back Leon Washington of Florida State -- who showed flashes of what the coaches call "missability" last season -- the Jets expect to have a nice change-of-pace look to a running attack that lacked punch in 2006, when the team had a strangely unprepared approach to Martin's looming unavailability. As a result, the Jets averaged 3.5 yards a carry last season, finishing 30th in the league.
The Jets traded for Jones knowing that their fragile quarterback has just finished the first full 16-game season of his career. Mangini's hope is that Jones' presence will help keep Pennington whole for an unprecedented second straight year and duplicate the two-back approach that gave last year's final four playoff teams such success.
The Giants' two-back approach to replacing Barber has a bit of a different feel. The mammoth Jacobs, in his third season, has made it clear he wants to be Barber's heir apparent. But in his first two seasons, Jacobs had just 38 and 96 carries respectively, with only 11 receptions last year for 149 yards.
The latter number was a nice day at the office for Barber, who had 50.9 percent of the Giants' touches from scrimmage in 2006. Barber was one of only five backs in the league to have at least half of his teams' touches last year, and all the others are returning to their teams.
To help Jacobs shoulder the load, the Giants acquired the veteran Droughns, who has proved in Denver and Cleveland that he can be a feature back -- but not as a threat in the passing game. Droughns has never had more than 39 receptions in a season. Barber was under 39 catches just once his 10-year career -- in 1997, his rookie year, when he had 34.
Of course, the impact of all this will be felt most by one player: Manning. Losing his outlet, his comfort pass, his crutch, Manning is entering his fourth season with all eyes on him. In reality, it's not Jacobs and Droughns who will pass or fail this can-we-live-without-Tiki test. It's Manning, and he knows it.
"I know I will have to step up -- we all will on offense, there's no question about that," said Manning, who failed to crack the 60 percent completion mark in his first three seasons. Last year, Manning was sixth in the league in pass attempts but finished 21st in completion percentage (57.7).
This offense was made for me. It's creative, but it will give me a chance to show what I can do if they want to put the load on me.
Barber notwithstanding, the Giants' fortunes reflect Manning's performance. Look at last season. The Giants started 6-2. They were entrenched in first place. And Manning was hot: a passer rating of 87.5, completion rate hovering at 61 percent. The second half of the season, the Giants flipped, going 2-6. And in the final eight games, Manning's performance plummeted. His passer rating was just 66.5 with a 54 percent completion rate.
This will be the big question facing the Giants: Will Manning wither in the spotlight?
So far, at least, head coach Tom Coughlin says he is pleased by what he's seen this offseason from Manning -- the attendance in the offseason program, the discipline in the meeting rooms. Of course, Coughlin, who was given a one-year reprieve after last year's collapse, has no choice but to tie his future to Manning, who is being schooled daily by quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.
And on the first day of mandatory minicamp, Coughlin issued an ultimatum to his team: He wants a lot less chatter to the outside world -- a not-so-veiled reference to Barber's often critical, always outspoken availability to the New York press, and a philosophy well-suited for the polite, soft-spoken Manning.
Ironically, if the Giants get a decent year of out Manning and his two new running backs, they could be in good shape in the NFC East, where every team has nagging questions at quarterback. The Redskins and Cowboys still don't know what they have in Jason Campbell and Tony Romo. And the Eagles are holding their breath that Donovan McNabb's surgically repaired knee holds up through training camp.
Given those unknowns in his division, Coughlin won't have many excuses if the Giants don't contend for the division title. He's like Joe Torre with the Yankees this season: Get it done now.
Out on Long Island, Mangini's job status feels a lot like Willie Randolph's with the Mets -- less tenuous but with an added twist. Mangini is trying to catch his old boss in New England. With few in disagreement about Bill Belichick's spectacular offseason, the Patriots will be difficult to dethrone in the AFC East.
The Jets defeated the Pats once last year, but it had the same effect as poking a large beast with a stick. New England woke up and got revenge when it counted, with a 37-16 drubbing in the first round of the playoffs. Lest we forget, the Jets could not run the ball in that game. Washington finished with 50 yards on 11 carries. The team's second-leading rusher that day? Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery: two carries, 19 yards. Mangini learned his lesson.
As for Jones, he doesn't sound like a guy who's focused on facing the Patriots twice a year. Of course, that's Mangini's job. But perhaps Jones knows that it could be worse. He could be on the other side of the Hudson trying to imitate Tiki Barber.
"I love New York," said Jones. "What's not to love?"
Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.
While the addition of Thomas Jones at Jets camp took the pressure off Chad Pennington, the absence of Tiki Barber in Giants camp put all the pressure squarely on Eli Manning.