DE Justin Tuck is about to become a free agent after nine seasons with the Giants.
Through nine seasons with the Giants—a franchise with a brimming history of legendary talent on the defensive edge, from Andy Robustelli to Lawrence Taylor to Michael Strahan—the former third-round selection out of Notre Dame has carved out a niche so uniquely his that Tuck's likeness is not just synonymous with Giants football. He is among the heroes that represent the city of New York's professional athletics.
Whether it's a commercial for a Subway sandwich or a celebrity billiards tournament fundraiser for his R.U.S.H for Literacy charity, Tuck has thrived in the Big Apple's uber-bright limelight. He is in the same class as New York's elite—Manning, the Yankees' Derek Jeter, the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony—making his face one of the most recognizable in the city's highly scrutinized sports market.
That's essentially the sentiment Tuck's ex-partner-in-crime, former Giants pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora, tried to convey, as NJ.com reported:
I've talked to Justin and I told him he should try whatever he can to stay in New York. Because he is New York.
A Star is Born
Tuck once found himself wedged between Umenyiora and Strahan, a recent Hall of Fame inductee. As the Pro Bowlers commanded much of the playing time on the edge, Tuck scrounged for snaps as a rotational defensive lineman, willing to tee off from any position along the defensive trench. From his rookie year in 2005 through the Giants' Super Bowl run of 2007, Tuck earned just three regular-season starts.
Primarily a reserve, Tuck still snagged 10 sacks during the 2007 regular season. Then, in the biggest game of his young career, he out-shined both Umenyiora and Strahan with six tackles, a forced fumble and two of the Giants' five sacks on New England's Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII. Tuck was the single most disruptive force among a Big Blue defense that many believed had little a shot to stop the record-setting Patriots offense.
Two days before the Giants' chilling conference championship matchup with Brett Favre's last Green Bay Packers squad, Tuck and the team agreed upon the terms of a five-year, $30 million contract extension. The signing would prove a valuable one in light of the approaching events.
In one year's time, Strahan's retirement and Umenyiora's knee injury, which sidelined him for a full season, allowed for Tuck's propulsion into stardom.
Starting all 16 games, Tuck set a career-high mark with 12 sacks and earned both Pro Bowl and All-Pro distinctions. He was the unmistakable centerpiece of the league's fifth-ranked defense that year, as the Giants claimed the No. 1 seed in the NFC with a 12-4 record.
Then, the release of Antonio Pierce—a field general of a linebacker for the Giants from 2005-09—opened the door for Tuck to become a team captain in 2010. Tuck's teammates elected him to lead the defense, while Manning and Chase Blackburn captained the offense and special teams, respectively.
As a captain, Tuck paired his considerable on-field ability with an off-field voice that commanded just as much respect. Perhaps the most quoted member of the team, Tuck rarely stepped out of line and did not hesitate to let others know when they over-stepped their boundaries.
A Pro Bowler again in 2010, Tuck recorded his third double-digit sack total in four seasons. He was being paid well to play for the Giants, and the former Golden Domer was producing at an exceptional level.
New York's recent championship, Tuck's prominence in the defense, all in combination with his newfound role as a team captain exponentially increased the defensive end's influence in the community—his name was now tagged to charitable events and various endorsements.
It looked like the beginning of promising partnership.
On a Deep Decline
Tuck's recent promise to test his value on the open market would have never reached print if he were scheduled for free agency last spring.
Manning willed an otherwise hapless Giants team through much of a 9-7 season in 2011. With a win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17, New York reached postseason play by capturing an uncompetitive NFC East division, but Tuck and the defense were hardly responsible for the Giants' improbable qualification—they ranked 27th in total team defense that season.
|2008||16||52||12||Pro Bowl, All-Pro|
A season of personal loss and injury plagued Tuck. He missed four games due to injury in 2011, his highest total since becoming the Giants' full-time starter at left defensive end. It wasn't until the following season's training camp that Tuck admitted to contemplating retirement throughout his miserable 2011 campaign.
It was the postseason, though, that rejuvenated Tuck. Perhaps recalling the taste of victory from four seasons prior, the Giants defense, Tuck included, helped transform the mediocre medley of talent into a downright dominant playoff team.
Again, Tuck tormented Brady on the game's biggest stage, replicating his Super Bowl performance of yesteryear with three tackles, three QB hits and the team's only two sacks of the contest. Only the perfection of Manning's fourth-quarter strike to Mario Manningham could rob Tuck of yet another Super Bowl MVP award.
Should Justin Tuck accept a team-friendly deal to stay in New York?
Tuck's troubles may have appeared temporary with a strong Super Bowl showing, but they actually continued into 2012. Statistically, he slumped to his worst season, recording just four sacks and 27 tackles—both being his lowest totals since becoming a full-time starter. There was no Super Bowl run, however, to save Tuck from a terrible 2012; the Giants finished 9-7 yet again—one win shy of the division lead this time.
The team stuck by Tuck through this tough stretch, never forcing him to relinquish his starting duties nor tinkering with his contract to reflect poor performance. Although his fame and leadership waned little, the general perception of Tuck was no longer that of a dominant defender—it was that of a washed-up superstar.
The Hometown Discount
Tuck's fortunes changed slightly in 2013. Although the team suffered through a 7-9 season, Tuck experienced a second-half surge, finishing the year with an unexpected 11 sacks. The statistical spike could not have come at a more perfect time for Tuck, as he is expected to reach free agency in about a month.
In late December the 30-year-old defensive end shunned the notion of a "hometown discount," according to the New York Post. Then, last month, Tuck promised to test the open market as an unrestricted free agent.
These comments stand in stark contrast to the ones made to The Post back in mid-November, before Tuck went on a late-season sacking rampage:
It’s every part of me trying to make a case for that. If you ask me ‘Do I want to end my career as a Giant?’, that’s an obvious ‘Yes.’ But I also understand the business side of things, I also understand that I haven’t played my best football the last three years. Will it crush me to not be a Giant? I don’t think it’ll crush me, but … I want to be a New York Giant.
While the lure of a bigger contract elsewhere is surely having its effect on Tuck, he should listen to the advice of his former teammate, Umenyiora.
He should also heed the warning of recently retired running back Brandon Jacobs, who left the Giants in free agency in 2012. After spending a season with the San Francisco 49ers, Jacobs gracefully returned to New York with a fresh perspective (via the New York Daily News):
It’s never going to be the same anywhere else. And I tried to tell a lot of these guys that too. This is the time where guys are making decsions of whether or not they want to do this … I tell them ‘You better sit down and you better realize, and take it from somebody who’s been there. If this is the only place you’ve ever been you better stay here because it’s not going to be the same nowhere else.’
Tuck needs the Giants, and the Giants need Tuck.
Tuck should be cooperative with the franchise that allowed him to reach stardom and was so patient throughout his many tribulations. The Giants, on the other hand, should fully understand the value of Tuck's leadership, veteran presence and recent resurgence.
The team has already decided to move forward with Manning at quarterback and Tom Coughlin at head coach—it would only be logical to lock up the defensive lynchpin in Tuck.
The Giants may enter a rebuilding period in 2014, but the championship aspirations will remain intact as long as those ties to past titles are kept in the equation.
Tuck is expected to meet with the team this month about the possibility of a new contract—the legacy of a potentially great Giant hinges upon those discussions.